Tuesday, December 16, 2008

All going swimmingly

After the storm in a paddling pool over the weekend regarding how Birmingham wasn't going to pay for a new Olympic pool, Whitless has learnt the backstroke. He's jumped into the middle of the row and told the developers to go back to the drawing board and not to be so silly as to ask for £60 million.

The Post described this as a 'dramatic intervention' - while less kind souls would say that he's finally read the report on which he had been meaningfully consulted only a few days ago. He may have conned Patrick Burns into making a puff piece for Midlands Today, but reality has dawned in the shallow end of the council leadership. Whitby will renegotiate the deal and get a better one!

Saith Whitless
Any quote received three months ago needs to be torn up and thrown away. We are in a different environment where the power of purchasing gives the public sector an advantage
Right. Except that there is no quote, because there are no plans outside of Whitby's mind. And in any case, I would hope that this would go out to tender, not just to asking for three quotes from local builders Bodgett & Scarper, some bloke down the pub and a mate of a mate who does a bit of DIY. I still think that it is a lot to ask to get two new suburban pools and a 50m competition venue for the £30 million currently available.

Meanwhile, Ray Hassall - possibly a Lib Dem, possibly a Conservative, depending on whether you trust the BBC - added that
there were no plans to save money by closing pools
While a council spokesperson was a little less certain
The planning really hasn’t got to that stage yet,” said Shahid Naqvi. “We’re just looking at the feasibility of several options.”

The operative word here is yet.

The only real plan here is, as the Post pointed out last week, to keep a stream of stories flowing, regardless of whether any of them come to fruition.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Splashback

According to the Birmingham Post, 12 December 2008 (online on the 11 December).
Last night senior Conservative councillor John Alden, chairman of the leisure, sport and culture scrutiny committee, said he knew nothing of the plans, how much the pool would cost or how it would be funded. He told Birmingham Post he would have to attend the cabinet meeting on Monday.
According to the Cabinet documents published on the internet 11 December 2008

3. Compliance Issues:
3.2 Have relevant Ward and other Members / Officers been properly and meaningfully consulted on this report?
The Leader, Cabinet Members for Leisure, Sport and Culture, Regeneration and the Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny Co-ordinating Committee, together with
the
Chairman of Overview and Scrutiny Committee for Leisure Sport and Culture have been consulted.
Given that Cllr Alden is that chairman - how can both these statements be true? As the O&S committee met only on the 10th December, wouldn't that have been an ideal opportunity to mention it?

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Seriously worried about Ray

Another day, another Whitby fantasy about the future of Birmingham.

This time, he's promising more jam tomorrow with a proper 50m Olympic swimming pool and leisure centre - costing some £60 million - on a playground in Ladywood.

Well - we might. Watching the BBC Midlands Today report, with Patrick Burns trumpeting it more effectively than Whitless ever could, you'd be forgiven for thinking that it was all but ready to be opened.


But actually, that wasn't the biggest story and I'm amazed that Patrick missed the news. Apparently, Cllr Ray Hassall - formerly a stalwart of the Liberal Democrats - has defected to the Tories. Well - it must be true, the BBC tell us so on their captions...

It can't be that much of a surprise, as the Lib Dems have proven themselves loyal lap dogs to their Conservative masters. It would certainly make life easier if they just did the decent thing and took out the proper memberships.

Anyway, back to the water. As I noted, the report suggested that the diggers were about to move in and Whitless suggests that it could be ready for 2012. Some aren't quite so convinced. Firstly, this is part of a report that hasn't even got through Cabinet yet and the paperwork can be found here. If you read the reports, then you find that all that is being offered so far is funding for the initial development costs prior to planning permission being submitted. Phase 1 of the grand pool strategy sees a £2.6 million borrowing requirement to fund these development plans and that's the sum of it.

The report reveals that they don't even have a cost for it yet, let alone a full funding plan -
Further feasibility study work will quantify the size of additional resources required and consider how to fund them, but the total indicative capital cost for the three ‘first tranche’ facilities is in the order of £84.5m (of which £60.5m is for the 50m pool).
Three facilities, I hear you ask? But we only hear about one of them. Funny that, isn't it?

Curiously, the loyal Tory voters of Harborne get their reward of a new £10-12 million (estimated) pool for consistently returning Whitless to office - much as the loyal Tory voters of Sutton Coldfield have seen £3.5 million spent on their pool. Moseley Baths continues to go begging, as the Lib Dems conveniently sideline their 2004 promises. But the Lib Dems don't miss out - Stechford Cascades is due for a revamp (not before time), although all this proposal promises is some work to develop a business case for replacement - not even the limited detail on Harborne and the Olympic pool. Just to show the value of that Lib Dem support, buried within the paperwork is the revelation that the swimming space at Harborne will more than double from 207 sq m to 463 sq m, while the prediction for Stechford envisages a cut of 30% in 'swimming space' from 666 sq m down to 463 sq m. This is regarded as a good solution for the second-busiest pool in the City - slashing the size of one of the most popular sites and increasing the size of a pool in the bottom third for visitors.

What else is on the cards? The same report 'models' a strategy for Birmingham swimming, forecasting that the following pools will be retained and refurbished: Wyndley, Cocks Moors Woods, Fox Hollies, Kingstanding, Northfield, Small Heath, Handsworth, Erdington and Stechford - plus the rebuilt Harborne and the replacement for Ladywood. Slated for potential closure are Beeches in Perry Barr, Castle Vale, Linden Road, Newtown, Sparkhill and Tiverton Road (Birmingham's oldest pool). Also missing from the refurbishment list is Moseley, that centrepiece of Liberal Democratic promises for several years. To be fair, the model does propose new pools in and around Selly Oak, Longbridge, Hodge Hill and Sparkhill, but that still puts at least three pools in danger of closure.

So, back to the matter of funding for what has been proposed. They have already spotted some opportunities
Capital resources of £30.5m have been identified to date (including up to £24m prudential borrowing capacity...
So, they've only really found £6.5 million of resources and will have to go and borrow some more. That still leaves a gap of £30 million to fund just the 50m pool or a yawning chasm of £54 million if all three are to be fully funded. We're getting used to this serendipity school of economics - the Library of Birmingham project has kicked off with the plans allowing for a black hole of some £39 million for which funding has yet to be identified. The 'prudential borrowing capacity' will supply another £99 million in loans, while £55 million will come from sale of city centre land. Given that the property market is languishing in the doldrums, there seems little prospect of this being realised any time soon. Rather like this pool plan, the library plans are only funded to proceed to the pre-planning stage.

But surely they've planned for the operational costs of the pool?

There is no provision in the revenue budget or LTFS for additional running costs,

Oh. They haven't. So, what are they going to do?

a number of options are being considered, e.g. rationalising inadequate buildings to provide modern facilities and increase water space.

That's suitably opaque. One of the council officers has let the cat out of the bag

Assets including “unproductive” leisure land may be disposed of in order to fund the project, according to assistant director of sports and events Steve Hollingworth. More than 60 sites are being looked at, which include 19 pools, along with other council assets, Mr Hollingworth said

Right, so we'll get a nice new pool in the City Centre - in a Labour seat too - but the outer edge will predictably suffer to pay for it.

I've forecast that the Library of Birmingham won't be open anytime soon, but I think that it will open its doors well before the first swimmers leap into the 50m pool. However, I'll also bet that the Harborne pool will be open before before either.

Looking at that caption again, I wonder if the BBC haven't got it right after all. Who says that it has to be an abbreviation?

Tuesday, December 09, 2008

Greasy polls - again.

After last week's CommRes poll in the Indie - which I still regard as something of an outlier - slashing the Tory lead to a single point and then an ICM poll in the Guardian (usually my pollster of choice) showing a 15% Tory lead, I'm not sure what to make of the Times' Populous poll, which again slashes the Tory lead to 4 points and puts the Lib Dems on 17%. For the first time since the spring, Populous have the Tories under 40% - on 39%. Another notable point - which seems to be supported by other polls - is that the core Labour vote looks ready to turn out again, after an election or two of staying at home. Additionally, Labour voters are less ready than they have been to consider voting Tory and Gordon and Alistair are seen as the best people to lead us through the recession - hardly a suprise given the appalling performance of the Conservative economic team lately.

Running this through the inestimable Mr Baxter's Prediction Machine (obligatory caveat - this does assume a mythical universal swing across the country), leaves Labour as the largest party, but 22 short of an overall majority. In local terms, that sees the Tories retake Solihull, Birmingham Edgbaston, Stourbridge and Wolverhampton South West. I'd be stunned if they failed to evict the Lib Dem in Solihull, but I have heard good things about the ground campaign in Edgbaston and Gisela is a survivor down there, so I'd predict recounts at the least.

And all the mice on the mouse organ went to sleep...


The death of Oliver Postgate was announced today and a little piece of my childhood died with him.
For people of a certain - rapidly approaching middle - age, Postgate and Firmin's work is an instant time machine, transporting us back to an easier time before the worries of work and family. Whether it is the old saggy cloth cat that is Bagpuss, the small wool and meccano pinkness of the Clangers or the two-dimensional, small town reliability of Dai Jones the Steam and The Locomotive of the Merioneth and Llantisilly Rail Traction Company - which was a long name for a little engine, so his friends just called him Ivor - all have an amazing emotional pull. [EDIT: How could I get that name wrong? It was, of course, Dai Station.]

They are also touchstones for an earlier style of TV that the BBC did so well and that is itself now just a piece of history. Perhaps the only one still making programmes in that amateurish, gloriously British style is Nick Park over at Aardman. Everything else is too smooth, too targetted on a demographic, with too much of an agenda. There is no room - no opportunity for a new Smallfilms to make films in a barn. My children have loved the Postgate and Firmin work - Bagpuss is much loved in our house and the place is dotted with soft toy Clangers.

So, like many other people today, we felt a little sadness - even if we didn't quite understand why.

And one day, I really must write my thesis on the socio-political agenda behind Trumpton, Chigley and Camberwick Green....

Wednesday, December 03, 2008

Greenwash

The Tories are hurriedly puffing up the Damian Green farrago as big as possible - highlighting the use of 'anti-terrorist police' (they weren't) to arrest an MP for receiving leaked material (they haven't - they are working on 'misconduct in a public office') and then searching his office without a warrant (they didn't need one under PACE). The indignation of many Tories over someone who leaked a small pile of documents for political gain compares with how the Tory government treated Sarah Tisdall back in 1983.

Back then, the Guardian received - anonymously - a copied document which disclosed the political tactics to be used by the then Secretary of State for Defence, Michael Heseltine, in the Commons to announce the arrival of the cruise missiles at Greenham Common airbase. It didn't contain any information of a national security nature, nor anything truly classified, but the full force of the law swung into action - far harsher than anything we've seen so far. After a court case, the Guardian editor was forced to hand over the document and the authorities tracked it back to one Sarah Tisdall, a junior official in the MoD. She was prosecuted under the Official Secrets Act, pleaded guilty and got six months, of which she served three - quite possibly a deal to minimise further government embarassment. All of that happened because the view was taken that she might at some unspecified point in the future leak some unspecified, genuinely secret documents of national security importance.

But back to today. Firstly, the Tories are outraged that Green is under suspicion of being less than straight in his dealings. After all - he is one of us, they cry. Ah yes - the claim that he couldn't possibly do anything wrong because he is one of the elite. That sort of thinking led to the fervent in house denial that there could ever be Soviet penetration of the intelligence services, because our chaps didn't do that kind of thing. The unswerving certainty that Green has done nothing wrong contrasts nicely with the absolute assurance of every Tory blog last year that it was only a matter of time before the shackles were strapped round Lord Levy's wrists, if not Tony Blair himself. Back then, the bloggers and the briefers were crowing about the presumed guilt of those two - and others - and revelling in the leaks flowing from somewhere in the police service. Things don't look quite so clear now, do they?

Secondly, they are nervous that this might not be the end of the matter. Some suggest that David Davis might be in for a long chat with the Met after he was seen making off with some policies previously the property of the Government. All of this is an attempt to scare off the police.

That may prove to be the least of their worries, as I think that there is still a far bigger fish to be caught - the Tory mole in the Treasury.

Tuesday, December 02, 2008

How on earth did I miss this story?

Aside from the fact that it is about the Lib Dems...

'Calamity' Clegg has been overheard slagging off his colleagues again. By a Mirror journalist. Again. Only a couple of years ago, Cleggy was heard bitching about the disorganised Ming Campbell while on the phone to another journalist, but this time, he was discussing reshuffles with his sidekick Danny Alexander while a Mirror hack listened from the seat in front. Curious, really - perhaps he wanted to be heard...

On Steve 'WhoHe' Webb - allegedly their spokesman on climate change and marked down as the next unlucky man to be Lib Dem leader when Clegg is inevitably ousted:
Webb must go. He’s a problem. I can’t stand the man. We need a new spokesman. We have to move him. We need someone with good ideas. At the moment, they just don’t add up. Give David [Laws] a day and he’ll come up with more good ideas than Webb has come up with in a year... But we need to keep him in the cabinet. As a backbencher, he’d be a pain in the arse, a voice for the left. And we can’t move him before the spring.

What about sending him to 'shadow' the Foreign Office brief, asks Danny.
He’d be useless. And he wouldn’t do it.

On Julia Goldsworthy:
We have to move her too. She gets patronised. And we can’t give her Foreign. She’s just not equipped to do it.

On David 'Smug Git' Laws
Laws is not enjoying Education. The Tories have left him no space. But he’s got a forensic intelligence – he’s probably the best brain we have.

This isn't saying a massive amount, to be frank.

And poor old Chris Huhne, already facing a fight with the Tories for his parliamentary seat, is damned for lacking 'emotional intelligence.'

I'm sure his meetings with his colleagues will be particularly frosty this week.

An early Christmas present for Gordon!

Did I tell you how much I love ComRes polls?

No? Well I do.

1 point behind? Conservative 37%, Labour 36% and LD 17%.

The only slight fly in the ointment is where the vote comes from. (Full details available from ComRes here). We're particularly strong in the DE segment - leading the Tories by 26 percentage points and it is good to see the traditional working class vote coming home. The problem is that they are less likely to vote - only 46% of DEs would be sure to vote in a putative election today, compared to the 58-60% certainty to vote for the ABC1s. This group - along with the C2s - is showing strongly for the Tories, with a seven point lead.

Don't put too much on this one poll - it could be a rogue outlier, but if it isn't, then don't book a holiday for May....

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Payback time?


Our LibDem friends must be getting a bit nervous. Their former best mate, Michael Brown (still wanted by the authorities) was convicted of fraud worth £36 million.

Legal action for the return of that illegally-obtained money is already in progress and is likely to accelerate now that the trial is over - sentencing will be delayed until Mr Brown is apprehended.

The Lib Dems repeat the mantra that they were cleared by the Electoral Commission and were entitled to regard the donation as permissible - even though it actually came through a non-trading front company as Mr Brown lived abroad and thus could not donate personally. As with many Lib Dem statements, this is true up to a point.

On the charge of accepting an impermissible donation, the Electoral Commission has indeed cleared the party - although training and process changes followed the investigation - so that no punishment for actually banking the cheque will follow. However, it remains that the donation was unquestionably impermissible - the donor was not registered to vote in the UK and 5th Avenue Partners was not 'trading' in the UK in any recognisable way, so neither could donate. Accordingly, the law states that the donation should be forfeit. No ifs, buts or maybes. The Electoral Commission confirmed to me a while ago that this aspect of the case remained under investigation - pending legal action. When this is pointed out to the Lib Dems, they squirm and say that they can't hand it back because they've spent it. Which is a a defence known to be as reliable and effective as a chocolate fireguard.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Green hype

David Cameron has been recycling the hype over Damian Green's arrest
....What do they think about in Britain today, counter-terrorism police are spending their time searching an MP's office, arresting him....
Just to make a minor point of fact that nobody else seems to want to recognise. Using the emotive term 'counter-terrorism police' suggests that a heavily-armed mob of masked and body-armoured paramilitaries smashed their way into Mr Green's presence and slammed him to the floor at gunpoint.

I don't think this happened.

The fact is that a couple of years ago, the Met Police - who conducted the operation - merged Special Branch and the Anti-Terrorist Squad (with the Explosives Office and so on) together into Counter Terrorism Command. So, while the primary tasking of the officers is fighting terrorism, there will be a number of them with specific skills in investigating security matters, as one of their less high-profile jobs is aiding the intelligence services. He wasn't arrested under any anti-terrorism legislation, but the rather mundane Police & Criminal Evidence Act - a Thatcher innovation, as a matter of fact.

I can't pretend I'm not concerned at the arrest of an MP, but on the other hand, I don't want to live in society where a member of parliament is above the law. The police were investigating a complaint - as they are bound to do - and they have made an arrest. Mr Green was interviewed and has been released on police bail until the New Year - a technicality to allow further investigations to be carried out.

Perhaps more will become clear in due course, perhaps no further action will follow, but hyping up the matter doesn't do any good.

Unless Cameron thinks that his mates should be beyond the law.

Looking on the bright side

The fact that Tories remain gloriously out of touch with reality was demonstrated by Andrew Lansley this week

Interestingly on many counts, recession can be good for us. People tend to smoke less, drink less alcohol, eat less rich food and spend time at home with their families

who clearly has never been unemployed in his life. I spent a little while unemployed under the last Tory government - both in the recession of the early 90s and then a short period during the mid 90s and I can tell you that it wasn't good for me or the family. Being unemployed isn't about having quality time with the kids, but rather more about worrying how to keep a roof over your head and that stress destroys family relationships. Ask anyone who works in the poorer areas of Birmingham and they'll tell you that those families suffer far more health problems and generally have a poorer diet.

Recession and poverty shortens lives.

Edward Leigh, a member of the Tombstone Group of the Conservative Party, also has a blog and he believes that the VAT cut is wrong
How will it help the poor to give them a few pence more off consumer items they don’t need?

That's kind of the point, Ed.

Meanwhile, on Question Time, one of Osborne's lines of opposition to the VAT tax cut was that it might inconvenience shop keepers who would have to change their prices. That didn't seem to stop the retailers who have been advertising this week that they were discounting their products early so that we could feel the benefit of the tax change this week rather than wait until the start of the month.

But don't worry, good gentlefolk. Cameron has a secret weapon. He's been taking advice from Geoffrey Howe, Norman Lamont and Nigel Lawson, according to Hopi Sen. Oh. Dear. God. Is the Tory economic cupboard really so bare that he has to rely on those three. I know that Osborne is economically incompetent and unfit to run the proverbial whelk stall, so compared to him, any of those three look like Maynard Keynes, but really? Back to the 80s?

Ah well, another YouTube video - from RecessMonkey and tipped by Bob (along with some of the other stories up there)


Most curious.

Seems very odd to me that Damian Green - apparently the Tory spokesman on immigration (now that Enoch has shuffled off this mortal coil) - has been arrested on suspicion of 'conspiring to commit misconduct in public office.'

Now, while there are some Tories who need to be locked up for the safety of the general public, this looks downright odd.

The BBC cites four incidents included in the investigation of a Home Office junior official.
  • The November 2007 revelation that the home secretary knew the Security Industry Authority had granted licences to 5,000 illegal workers, but decided not to publicise it.
  • The February 2008 news that an illegal immigrant had been employed as a cleaner in the House of Commons.
  • A whips' list of potential Labour rebels in the vote on plans to increase the pre-charge terror detention limit to 42 days.
  • A letter from the home secretary warning that a recession could lead to a rise in crime.
Now, in fairness, the first two seem to be reasonable matters of public interest to me. If this is the sort of information that has led to the arrest of an MP, then this strikes me as a load of cobblers. The Guardian added a few more items to the list, but it hardly seems worth the level of investigation and a dramatic arrest and questioning of a serving MP. This story has some distance to run yet, I suspect.

Of far more concern to me is the mole in the Treasury that seems to be leaking to Osborne's team. The Guardian ran with this speculative story, but I've been wondering for a while. The fact that the Tories seem to regularly announce policies a couple of days before Labour and I've not been convinced that this is simply down to Gordon and Alistair following the Tory agenda - it just seems too coincidental.

Thursday, November 27, 2008

Opening salvoes from Darling

On Monday, Alistair Darling fired off the first rounds in the next general election campaign. Now, our dear Chancellor isn't the world's most inspiring speaker, but the text is striking for the change of course that it sets.


The package announced is all about restoring some confidence in the economy and putting a bit of money back into the pockets of the ordinary man and woman - targetted at the lowest earners in the economy. He's explained how it will all be repaid - so repeating the Tory campaign around 'Labour's Tax Bombshell' will be at least partially neutralised. For the first time in years, we have a real gap between the parties over taxation. The Tories are promising unfunded tax cuts of limited reach and are now committed to reducing government spending, while Labour has put forward detailed plans ready for dissection in an attempt to add some oil to the economic gearbox.


Labour has been open about this - these are short-term measures to cushion the recession and perhaps help a gentle up turn and we will all have to bear the cost of them once the recovery is properly under way. It isn't a massive jolt to the economy - which is probably a good thing, as we don't want to trigger a short term, destructive boom.

The big shift is that those who have benefitted most from the growth of the past decade, the big earners, will pay a bit more. The pips are hardly going to squeak - the bill for those earning over £150,000 a year will amount to £3,000. A balance always has to be struck between raising tax and encouraging these taxpayers to run to their accountants. For the first time in years, the only major party promising to tax those who have the most a little bit more will be Labour, as even the Liberal Democrats abandoned that policy themselves a few months ago. Redistribution is back on the agenda - although it has been going on very quietly for most of the decade. Even the VAT reduction will benefit low earners more, as they spend a large share of their income.


The Tories have again found themselves wrong-footed, having to rely on claims that those earning over £19,000 will be worse off. You can't argue with the fact that they will be - by around £3 a year, which will in many cases outweighed by additional payments. Even with the increases in NI payments from April 2011, the bottom 30% of earners will still be better off across the board. In contrast, the Tory rescue package - which offered NI holidays to firms recruiting new staff would only help those firms actually able to justify the costs of new employees, which might be challenging in the current economic environment. To be honest, since the massive flaw in the Thatcherite free market system was exposed by the near collapse of the global banking system - prompting those dashing, independent, light-touch regulation business people to suddenly run to government begging for help - the Tories have floundered. They don't seem to understand that the rules of the game have changed.

Even as he berates Darling for increasing government borrowing, Osborne has proposed offering even more government money to underwrite loans to businesses, without any indication of the risk to which the taxpayer might be exposed.


The whole package is remarkably brave - nobody knows whether it will work and I'm not sure how success will be measured. Every redundancy or business collapse will be cited as proof of the failure of the policy, but we'll never know how bad it would be otherwise. But the risks of inaction vastly outweigh the risks of action. Do nothing is not an option here - despite the Tories bleating that this is all wrong and that they wouldn't have started from here anyway. My one doubt is over the tax rise on fuel, which will be a permanent one - that may be a mistake.


While this will provide a welcome boost for different areas of the economy, it is also the first blast of the next manifesto. It paints the Tories into the corner of demanding tax cuts for their rich friends. Even the new moderate that is Portillo was fulminating on This Week tonight that a government taking half someone's earnings is immoral, ignoring the simple mathematical fact that HMRC will only collect 45% of what you earn over the £150k point - not good form for a former Treasury minister.

Still, given that their previous flagship policy was their billion-pound tax break for a few thousand rich families (including a number of the Tory front bench), we shouldn't expect them to give a damn about the ordinary people, should we?

Osborne suspended pending investigation.

No, not that one. Sadly.

His brother.

He was training as a psychiatrist when the NHS trust investigated some private prescriptions of tranquilisers, but he resigned prior to the conclusion of the investigation. Nevertheless, the Trust
determined that dismissal would have been appropriate if Dr Osborne had still been in post. In accordance with national guidance the National Clinical Assessment Service and the GMC were informed of the situation

He has now been suspended by the GMC pending a hearing.

Friday, November 21, 2008

And while we're on a YouTube tip

You would have thought that Sarah Palin had had enough of spending time with turkeys, but that didn't stop her being interviewed with entirely the wrong photo opportunity in the background.



Hat tip to Popbitch

Yet another Downfall mashup

But I liked it...



Hat tip to the fine folks over at B3TA.

Wednesday, November 19, 2008

BNPublic

Oh, don't you just love the data security of the BNP?

The highlight of the day was listening to Nasty Nick Griffin being interviewed on the Today programme, when he announced that the BNP was considering action under the Human Rights Act to protect the privacy of their members. The irony that the BNP have consistently opposed the HRA was lost on him.

The Times has plotted membership by postal district and this reveals that areas of higher deprivation have higher BNP membership
only 5 per cent of the party’s members live in areas with high Asian populations and only 2 per cent in areas with larger Afro-Caribbean communities. Eighteen per cent are from white working-class areas... BNP membership is higher in areas that have average or above-average deprivation. As opposed to the 22 per cent of BNP members who live in areas with above-average deprivation, only 16 per cent live in the least-deprived areas

There's the odd member that claims a knighthood - but doesn't appear in any record of knights of the realm - and the handful of members with eastern European names, who don't really seem to have grasped that the BNP isn't noted for being supportive of intra-European migration. One of the local members is listed as a 'private detective.' We all thought he was enough of a dick in public...

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Debtor Crunch

The economy's difficult at the moment, but the fine folk at Birmingham City Council will stop at nothing to recover their outstanding housing debts.

Although the government recommends that debts should be recovered through benefit payments - a low cost and effective method - the council persists in sending in the bailiffs to extract their pound of flesh.

A correspondent informs me what happens when the lead agency, Equita, return the 'Council Tax Liability Order' to the finance department with the words 'No Effects' attached. This means that the person named on the order has nothing worth taking. But the council don't stop there. Rather than make an attachment of benefit payments, a SECOND firm of bailiffs - Jacobs - are being deployed to check that Equita did the job properly in the first place.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

Pro patria mori


Sometimes, a simple fact really brings the scale of the death toll of the First World War back to you. The Commonwealth War Graves Commission is embarking on a project to sharpen up the weathered engravings on the grave stones across France and Belgium. It isn't the fact that across those two countries alone, there are almost a thousand sites, but that the process is scheduled to take 28 years.
And then they'll start on the Second World War graves.

Friday, November 07, 2008

And cancel Christmas!



You know Christmas is close when the first council is accused of banning Christmas.



Amazingly enough, this is not the usual guff about Birmingham's Winterval - now a decade-old, but still the gift that keeps on giving for the right-wing commentators who lovingly rehash it every year - but the dreaming spires of Oxford, where shoddy journalism on behalf of the local paper has generated coverage in the nationals.



Antonia 'Scrooge' Bance has the facts.


I must admit, I feel like banging my head on my desk. When you combine what is, frankly, a lack of nous on the part of Oxford Inspires (how did they not see this coming?) and the determination of the mass media to get at least one “loony left council bans Christmas” story this year, plus the irresponsible spin of the Sun in making it out to be about not offending Muslims, you were always going to get a perfect Christmas storm. Given that there is clearly a dastardly PC plot to deprive the mass of Brits who tick CofE on the census forms of their right to celebrate Christmas, will anyone believe me when I say that the first this councillor heard of it was when the Oxford Mail got hold of it? Of course not. And my protestations, my declarations of passion for turkey and cranberry sauce, the way my heart rises as the organ crashes and the descant soars in the final verse of Hark the Herald Angels Sing, the love I feel for my family, so rarely all in one place these days, opening presents and telling jokes on Christmas morning - that all counts for nothing, as I am a PC Christmas-cancelling Christian-hating leftist loony Labour Scrooge. Obviously.


UPDATED
I am indebted to a reader for the note that the Daily Mail - the idiots' guidebook issued in bitesize daily installments - beat the Oxford Mail with a story way back in the middle of September, complete with rentaquote Tory MP Robert Goodwill opening his brain for the benefit of the masses.

A good week continues

Against all the forecasts, Lindsay Roy has just retained Glenrothes for Labour with an improved vote share and a thumping 6000 majority.

That's a resounding vote for a local candidate who used local issues to win - seeing the Tories lose their deposit and the Lib Dem vote drop from over 4000 to under 1000.

Nice one, Lindsay.

(And two council by-election wins for Labour in Scotland as well)

Thursday, November 06, 2008

A new day has dawned, has it not?

The only comparison I can put to the outpouring of relief and joy from 'real' America yesterday is that of the UK on that morning in 1997. Our steps were lighter and the world seemed clearer, the colours sharper, even through the exhaustion of the night before. Yet, that is nothing compared to the unconfined joy sweeping parts of America - apart from the whinging of the defeated Republicans, bitter that the Democrats had the organisation and the money this time.

I defy all except the hardest-hearted of neocons not to be moved by the story of the white southern family, who still have the receipts for their slaves, whose ancestors rode with the cavalry in the civil war and on Tuesday, the grandmother - a lifelong Republican voter - cast her vote for Obama. Or the 97 year old black man, in his wheelchair, who voted for the first time to put another black man in the White House. Or 106 year old Ann Nixon Cooper

born just a generation past slavery; a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn't vote for two reasons - because she was a woman and because of the colour of her skin. And tonight, I think about all that she's seen throughout her century in America - the heartache and the hope; the struggle and the progress; the times we were told that we can't, and the people who pressed on with that American creed: Yes, we can.

At a time when women's voices were silenced and their hopes dismissed, she lived to see them stand up and speak out and reach for the ballot. Yes, we can.

When there was despair in the dust bowl and depression across the land, she saw a nation conquer fear itself with a New Deal, new jobs and a new sense of common purpose. Yes, we can.

When the bombs fell on our harbour and tyranny threatened the world, she was there to witness a generation rise to greatness and a democracy was saved. Yes, we can.

She was there for the buses in Montgomery, the hoses in Birmingham, a bridge in Selma, and a preacher from Atlanta who told a people that "we shall overcome". Yes, we can.

A man touched down on the Moon, a wall came down in Berlin, a world was connected by our own science and imagination. And this year, in this election, she touched her finger to a screen, and cast her vote, because after 106 years in America, through the best of times and the darkest of hours, she knows how America can change.


Or the pictures of Jesse Jackson - a man who stood with Martin Luther King (and who had tough views on Obama earlier this year) - standing in the crowd in Chicago, watching Obama and unashamed of the tears running down his cheeks.


Even Obama's personal story is straight out of the presidential playbook - son of an immigrant ascends to highest office in the land from relatively poor origins. Remember that when Obama was born, black men and women were disenfranchised across large parts of America, often prevented from registering to vote by force and living as second-class people, a century after slavery was abolished. Within forty years, America can elect a black man as President. Sure, that doesn't mean that racial problems are abolished overnight, but it shows that a new order is taking control of the political arena.

The political atmosphere for change has never been more positive, but the economic outlook is bleak. To quote Mario Cuomo, 'we campaign in poetry, but govern in prose.' Things are about to get mighty tough for President Obama. I wish him all the success in the world, because America deserves to do better and be better.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Is blue the real color of this election?

I can honestly say that I never believed that this day would come in my lifetime. I can hardly believe that Americans seem to be queuing up to vote a black man into the White House. The sight of middle-aged voters - many of them black themselves - taking the hours needed to queue up to vote is enough to make you weep.


Some of the very latest polls suggest that voters in key states - Florida and Ohio - may be slightly trending towards McCain and John Zogby reckons that it Obama will win it with something a little under 300 electoral college votes rather than the 330+ that looked likely earlier in the week. The long queues indicate that a record turnout is on the cards and it doesn't seem likely that these are voting McCain.


Obama has had two extremely strong ideas pressed into service - he's cornered the use of Change and Hope for his campaign. Either of these would be powerful concepts and have plugged into a genuine demand for change that no Republican candidate could hope to match - MSNBC polls tonight suggest that 78% of the public want change and only 26% approve of George Bush's record. However, they set a high bar for the Obama presidency - he has a lot to do once he wins to justify that level of support, more than support really - this is adulation. Only a few days ago, Obama was addressing a crowd estimated at over 100,000 strong, while McCain couldn't fill the last 500 spaces in a 3200 seat auditorium. Obama has had the benefit of huge funding and a magnificent campaign that McCain was unable to match. Money is usually a reliable indicator of the winner - the candidate with the biggest pot has a habit of winning the presidency.

McCain has had problems with his campaign. He looks old - although you have to admire any septuagenarian who can sustain the pace of a presidential race, especially the punishing final sprint across the country's timezones just ahead of midnight. Chris Rock summed it up when he described McCain as old - not cool old like Jack Nicholson, but old like 'git your ball out of my yard old.' He's failed to paint himself as an agent of change, thanks to his unwavering support for Bush and his steady shift to the right from his previously moderation (he used to be pro-choice, but has changed his views). The great strength of his experience was neutered once he'd picked Palin as his running mate - a decision forced upon him as a sop to the religious right. McCain wanted Joe Lieberman, the semi-detached Democrat, but this was one step too far for the Republicans.

A couple of times I've heard the McCain campaign team using Kennedy as a reference point for Obama and I thought that was an enormously dangerous move on their part - it may energize the Republican base and their innate loathing for the Kennedy clan, but I think that it plays better with a large number of voters (particularly those with memories of Kennedy, as older people vote reliably). In the same vein, I've heard a couple of pro-Obama talking heads make reference to Reagan, which I think plays powerfully with the Reagan Democrats who sustained him through the Republican 80s. I thought that the dramatic half-hour broadcast, simulcast on six national networks, echoed the famous Reagan 'Morning in America' advertisement. To end that quasi-presidential address with a live link to an Obama speech in Florida was pure genius.

Remember that this isn't just about the presidency - it also looks likely that Obama could enter the White House with a majority in both houses of Congress and possibly even a majority able to silence any filibuster. He mustn't squander this, because it probably won't last. He has until the midterms to make any big legislative changes, because after that, he can't rely on having a majority and will then have to look to re-election.

It promises to be an interesting night.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

The oik's progress


Smug, self-satisfied, superior. All of those qualities shine out of the picture of the future masters of the universe members of the ultra-exclusive Oxford Bullingdon Club. The behaviour of members of this drinking club would attract a modern day ASBO, but they were insulated from the attentions of the police by their family money and connections. It seems that Gideon was regarded as somewhat beneath other members of the club, as he'd only been to St Paul's and not the preferred Eton or Harrow. All three are top line public schools, St Paul's is just a few hundred quid a year cheaper. Accordingly, Osborne was punished for his parents' poor choice.
One member recalled how at one event Osborne was held upside down by the ankles by his fellow members who would only release if he correctly answered the question: "What are you?" To each incorrect answer Osborne was bumped on the head. Finally he came up with the right answer: "I am despicable."

Marina Hyde adds to that today, with the full quotation.

The young Osborne was held upside down by his fellow members, who banged his head on the floor each time he failed to answer correctly the question: "What are you?" He got it eventually. The unexpurgated answer was: "I am a despicable cunt."

Thanks for the support, Chris

It was nice to see a solid defence of the government in the Guardian yesterday
'nothing merits the sort of intemperate scaremongering that Cameron and
George Osborne have been whipping up' Cameron said on Monday: "We ought now to be cutting people's taxes to put money back into the economy, but we can't because they've got the biggest budget deficit in the modern industrial world." And in his big economic speech last Friday: "[Brown] borrowed and borrowed and borrowed, and racked up the biggest government deficit in the developed
world.


This is just wrong, plain and simple. There is no conceivable way in which the UK budget deficit - whether measured in cash, as a percentage of GDP, or in cowrie shells - is the biggest in the developed world. In cash terms, both the US and Japan outborrow Britain by billions. Sized by each economy, the UK deficit looks entirely unexceptional

In fact, our debt is lower than France, Germany and the USA, which have a national debt of over 60% of GDP. Japan is the market leader at 180% of GDP, leaving us firmly in the minor league. Indeed, thanks to prudent management, at the start of this century, we'd actually reduced it to 30% of GDP. The latest estimates put it - including the temporary risk of the banks - at around 50% of GDP, so there is actually room to manoeuvre in borrowing terms.
But there is also a wider cost if the public begin to believe that the state is impotent to steer us through the tempest ahead. In reality, the government has substantial leeway to help maintain activity. The UK is better positioned to use fiscal policy to stabilise output than at the onset of the 1973 or 79 recessions, albeit a little less so than ahead of the 91 downturn. It is frankly irresponsible of the Tories to pretend otherwise. By international standards, the UK's public finances remain in relatively good order. The Tories should not talk Britain down.

Can't argue with that Chris. Good to see the Lib Dems being truly bipartisan on the matter - I've actually got some respect for that view. He's making the point that Cameron is running with this line to ensure party discipline - arguing that the economy is screwed and that there is no steering room silences his internal opponents arguing for tax cuts, as those tax cuts would have to be generated through unpopular service cuts.

If we let the Tories get away with their particular brand of the truth - as they have tried to push on crime, education and health - then we're failing fundamentally politically.

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Must See TV

Or TITWAS - Today Is Tuesday Wake Up and Seethe.

Yes, the council meetings are to be streamed across this new-fangled internet thingie.

You will be able to see the full glory of our elected councillors live on your computer screen. (Parental caution is advised).

Quote of the week is from Cllr Paul Tilsley
We are always striving to make democracy as open, interactive and as accessible as possible.
The man has a future in stand-up comedy.

The devolution will not be televised.

George gets the begging bowl out

It seems that George Osborne's indiscrete claims of what Mandy dripped into his ear during a cosy dinner have offended his host, so much so that Nat Rothschild - not previously known for being a Labour supporter - has written to the Times to drop George in it up to his neck.

Not once in the acres of coverage did you mention that George Osborne, who also accepted my hospitality, found the opportunity of meeting with Mr Deripaska so good that he invited the Conservatives' fundraiser Andrew Feldman, who was staying nearby, to accompany him on to Mr Deripaska's boat to solicit a donation. Since Mr Deripaska is not a British citizen, it was suggested by Mr Feldman, in a subsequent conversation at which Mr Deripaska was not present, that the donation was "channelled" through one of Mr Deripaska's British companies. Mr Deripaska declined to make any donation.

Obviously, the Tories have denied that they solicited any donation to be channelled through a front company in the UK. Mr Deripaska's 'people' have spoken to Nick Robinson and have claimed that Deripaska did not initiate the subject at all. Despite the Tory denials, Robert Peston claims - with some authority - that there are others who can stand the Rothschild side of the story up and would be prepared to do so in court.

If it had been a matter of a donation being offered and refused, then there would be no story, as this would have been the proper response. The problem for Gideon is that he seems to have invited Andrew Feldman - Cameron's right-hand man, a fundraiser for the party and not a guest of Mr Rothschild - specifically to join a meeting with the Russian billionaire. That makes the whole Tory side of the story distinctly peculiar and must call into question Osborne's position.

This morning, listeners to the Today programme were treated to Nick Clegg giving his response to the matter. The Liberal Democrats, of course, still haven't got around to repaying that illegal donation from Michael Brown (still wanted by the police after he absconded prior to trial), claiming that they've spent it, so Cleggy is ideally placed to comment on dodgy donations.

Oh - and happy birthday Peter!

The consultant won't see you now



Tory councillor Len Clark is apparently puzzled. Not for the first time, I might add.

Don't worry - not all of the experts are on £2k a day. Some of them - the 'technical advisors' - have to scrape by on just £300 a day, which can only be described as a bargain. It is just those lucky few at partnership level who can demand the top whack of some half a million quid a year. Curiously, their money-saving skills never include the line item - 'Reduce dependency on consultants'

Now, I don't have a problem with consultants being used to bring in specific skills that a business or a council might need for a limited period. That makes sound sense, but consultants are too often used to disguise weak leadership and poor management. They are also handy for taking the blame for poor decisions. However, the business transformation project has been running for two years now and has - alone - consumed a whopping £107 million for just 160 agency staff. This works out to an average cost of £334,375 a year for each of them - surely enough to put a few staff through a professional training course or two by itself.

The Conservative councillor James Hutchings has run an inquiry into how consultants are used by BCC, but even he had to admit that the council have no idea how many they employ, nor what the costs are. It even seems likely that the use of consultants is failing to meet the basic standards of 'Best Value.'

It became quite clear early on in the committee’s work that a lot of information was simply not there to enable a thorough analysis of the council’s historic performance in this area... not been able to track total consultancy spend.... no standard procedure in place for defining and coding consultancy expenditure separately... the effect is to weaken accountability and hence efficiency... leaves the council open to innuendo that information is deliberately hidden.... the committee were unable to go further and make a value for money assessment.

Sadly, owing to a ruling by the unelected Mirza Ahmed, he wasn't able to take questions at last week's council meeting, thanks to a technicality.

Presumably the technicality was that the answers might prove embarrassing. All hail to the continuing style of open government in the Council House.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Turncoats of the world unite!

I have always had the utmost respect for Colin Powell and that has only been reinforced by his decision - rumoured for a couple of weeks to be imminent - to publicly support Barack Obama for the presidency. He did it in a dignified way, without slamming John McCain (who I also believe to be a fundamentally decent man).

He also took on an issue that has been bugging me.

I'm also troubled by, not what Senator McCain says, but what members of the [Republican] Party say... such things as 'Well, you know that Mr Obama is a Muslim.' Well the correct answer is, 'He's not a Muslim, he's a Christian, he's always been a Christian'

And then he makes the salient point.

But the really right answer is, "What if he is?' Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? The answer is 'No', that's not America."

The truth is, that much of the McCain campaign rhetoric against Obama - for which he has to take responsibility as figurehead - is vicious and downright un-American. It comes to something, when the candidate himself has had to defend Obama against the nastiest attacks from McCain followers.

Monday, October 13, 2008

Politically bankrupt


Gideon Osborne has managed to achieve a unique trinity.

He has proved to be a cock of the first order, a complete arse and a right tit all within the space of a week.

Last week, he pronounced to the world that he thought that the government should recapitalise the UK banks. Oddly, this came shortly after he'd had a confidential briefing on the developments to date. Yup, George got information on a privy council basis and the first thing he did was to run to the media to try and claim the credit for the implementation of the plan. And he's not missed a chance to remind us that he talked about the idea before anyone else. Cock. Utter cock.

For the past week, the Tories have struggled to portray themselves as relevant to the cure - much as the Democrats in Congress were crucial partners in the US rescue package. Of course, in the UK, the Tories are irrelevant - the government is in charge by virtue of the majority in parliament, so the opposition parties can have no impact on the rescue. Far from appearing statesmanlike, they have just seemed desperate and entirely unknowing of their own role in this whole damn mess. They are just out of the loop and their revolving platform - sometimes they back the plan, sometimes they are lukewarm, sometimes they seem to be opposed to it - reeks of indecision and incompetence. Nobody buys that the Tory mantra of 'light touch' and deregulation would have prevented any of this.

Aside from that, Gideon floundered and blustered on Newsnight last week - Chris Paul spotted that Kirsty Wark appeared to be laughing at the economic genius, although Tom Harris eventually disagrees. All of this attempt to pin the blame on Labour is a thin disguise for the fact that the Tories have no alternative plans - the only proposal put forward has been to scrap stamp duty and to take a few thousand rich families out of inheritance tax.

The recapitalisation plan is rapidly becoming the gold standard for bank rescue, with Europe and the US both looking at the Brown/Darling approach as the way to go. Paul Krugman, the US economist, wrote yesterday that
Mr. Brown and Alistair Darling, the chancellor of the Exchequer (equivalent to our Treasury secretary), have defined the character of the worldwide rescue effort, with other wealthy nations playing catch-up.... the Brown government has shown itself willing to think clearly about the financial crisis, and act quickly on its conclusions. And this combination of clarity and decisiveness hasn’t been matched by any other Western government, least of all our own
He compares the swiftness of the British response to the sluggish answers gradually proposed in the US
the British government went straight to the heart of the problem — and moved to address it with stunning speed. On Wednesday, Mr. Brown’s officials announced a plan for major equity injections into British banks, backed up by guarantees on bank debt that should get lending among banks, a crucial part of the financial mechanism, running again. And the first major commitment of funds will come on Monday — five days after the plan’s announcement.
He highlights a problem for the neocons in the Tory party, as well as their Republican colleagues across the pond
It’s hard to avoid the sense that Mr. Paulson’s initial response was distorted by ideology. Remember, he works for an administration whose philosophy of government can be summed up as “private good, public bad,” which must have made it hard to face up to the need for partial government ownership of the financial sector.
Sensibly, Krugman accepts that we just don't know if the Brown plan will work, but it does seem to be the best game in town.
So, who do you trust? The smug economic incompetent or the novice Nobel laureate?

Sunday, October 12, 2008

Embarrassment of riches


David Cameron hasn't had a great week, really. Gordon Brown has provided a lead for the world in how to give banks a fighting chance - there's even talk of the US government copying the emergency aid package. Gordon's demonstrated real crisis leadership this week, with poor old George Osborne only able to twitter from the sidelines that Gordon and Alistair had copied a policy proposed by the Tories a few hours before the announcement (not that the Tories had any prior knowledge, you understand).
Oliver Letwin, on Any Questions this week, called for the fat cat bankers to be guided by morality, not government regulation, when it comes to their benefits packages - something that has proved an ineffective moderator so far.
And we end the week with a YouGov poll showing the Tory lead halved and Gordon and Alistair trusted more to lead the economy than Dave and George.

But surely, as Dave has tried to distance himself from his old mates in the City, he can't have forecast the help given by William Hague - a high earner himself - who has shown great judgement in joining his wife (who has her own nose in the Barclays' trough as an advisor) on a £500,000 corporate junket on the shores of Lake Como with Barclays Wealth. The Birmingham Tory conference was noted for the 'restrained' air of expectation and self-congratulation - the victory champagne was on ice. The same could not be said of this little shindig and I'm sure William got a glass or three of bubbly in Italy to make up for those missed last week.
Amazing, isn't it? A bank that has seen the share price plummet 44% in a week still thinks this sort of display is a good idea. I'm sure the seminars offered on 'Yacht Ownership' and the tactfully titled 'End of the world or opportunity of a lifetime?' will have been worthwhile.
Still, good to see that the Tories know who their friends are in time of need - the people with the money to look at this downturn as a chance to buy a new yacht.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Routes to Power

Here's a peculiar thing.


In 2003, the then-Labour council in Birmingham proposed an experimental red route along the A34 Stratford Road, running from the border with Solihull into the city centre. Solihull continued the route down to the M42 - and actually had their red routing installed first. This experiment - intended as part of a wider plan of red routes across the West Midlands - was continued by the incoming Conservative/Liberal Democrat coalition and the experimental traffic order came up for review earlier this year.


This has been a controversial plan with huge local opposition from traders, who felt that it would massively affect their trade. I've driven down that road regularly and can remember the plethora of simple 'No to the Red Route' signs in shop windows.


Anyway, the review was led by the Transportation & Street Services Scrutiny Committee - chair, one Cllr Martin Mullaney - and used as evidence a pair of 'before and after' surveys conducted in 2003 and 2007. These concluded that the red route enforcement and development had led to

a. An increase in traffic speeds but little change in traffic flows;
b. Enhanced parking provisions: the number of parking spaces has increased by 202 spaces (onstreet and off-street) along the Red Route, plus 40 loading bays;
c. Improved average bus speeds and bus journey time reliability (a finding supported by TWM) and an increase in bus patronage (against the trend in the rest of the West Midlands);
d. Improved safety record;
e. Improved air quality

Not bad, eh? The report concluded that the experiment should be made permanent - despite those vocal complaints from local traders, which led to some rather rough scenes when the committee visited the Stratford Road itself. There was a slightly dissenting view from Springfield councillor Jerry Evans, who had his eye on re-election in May, so could ill-afford to be associated with such an unpopular policy and semi-detached himself from the majority.


Fast forward a few months and a proposal has been made to red route the A435 Alcester Road down towards the M42 in South Birmingham, which runs through Cllr Mullaney's own ward, Moseley. In many ways, this is similar to the A34, with a mix of commercial buildings, houses and shops along it. At the start of the month, there was a public meeting of the neighbourhood forums in Moseley to discuss this, with the result that the local residents gave it a resounding thumbs down. Martin is of the view that this has killed the project.

This is rather odd - he claims that the Stratford Road red route had to proceed because it was started under the previous administration, but that doesn't explain why it had to be continued, despite the vast local opposition, when an opportunity clearly existed this year to kick it into touch. But those protests are only ignored on the Stratford Road.

Across the city in Kings Heath, one meeting was enough to kill the project stone dead. Why one group of local protestors should be enough to stop a plan that affects many road users across the city, I don't understands. Martin blames it on a lack of support from Len 'Friend of the Motorist' Gregory - but that still doesn't explain why the Stratford Road project got to continue and the Alcester Road version will never start. Even more oddly, the scrutiny committee noted this:

Whilst local objections are particularly pertinent, we do have to recognise the regional and strategic importance of Stratford Road as a main arterial route from and to the city and – as we said in our report on Building Bus Use: “there will continue to be increasingly tough decisions to be made to tackle congestion effectively”.

Another decision has been ducked - and it looks like it has been done for local political reasons.

Saturday, October 04, 2008

Tory Impressions


One of the more disturbing moments of last night's Any Questions - and one that the broadcast audience don't get to hear - was the warmup question to allow the engineers to check sound levels. Last night was about the panel's favourite accent and it revealed Alan Duncan's talent for mimicry. His William Hague is spot on and the John Major isn't bad either.
(And hello to the other bloggers who were there - Laurence Inman of the Stirrer and Praguetory was also kicking around.)

Words unminced.

For those of us suffering from withdrawal symptoms from the Thick of It and the vast quantity of baroque swearing, the Guardian provides a transcript of a press conference with Joe Kinnear, the temporary manager of Newcastle United.

One of the things I like about the Guardian is that it accepts that we are adults and doesn't try to shield us from the language. The Sun will happily fill page three with one or two semi-naked women, but will defend itself as a family paper and delete the expletives with judicious use of asterisks, giving the readers the - limited - challenge of working out which combination of consonant, vowel, consonant, consonant was used. The same applies to their ever-expanding dictionary of salacious euphemisms for various sexual acts.

The Guardian doesn't do that. Rather like Radio 4, it assumes that the readership are grown up enough to accept the odd swear word - or a Profanisaurus-full in Mr Kinnear's case.

Obviously, not suitable for maiden aunts who might be reading this.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Once, twice, three times a minister



The swirl of mist, the whiff of brimstone and the Prince of Darkness rises from the grave - well, Brussels anyway - to taunt the faithful and scare the enemy. Hellfire, indeed.
This will go one of two ways. It will either be a dramatic stroke of genius or a car crash. While Mandy's a divisive figure, I do have a sneaking admiration for the man - he's Labour to the core and he's a fine political operator.
There is one other man that I'd like to see back in government - or someone like him - and that's Alistair Campbell. We urgently need a late 1990s-style Campbell figure, as the media strategy of the party is currently dire and in need of reform. The Tories need to be challenged at every turn and mustn't be allowed to run the news agenda - something that we've let them do far too often lately. We need an iron discipline in communicating our message through the media and we're missing that in tough political times.
Congratulations to Liam Byrne on his promotion - just short of a position in Cabinet.

Tuesday, September 30, 2008

No beef in Birmingham

The Labour conference is surrounded by a ring of steel to keep terrorists out, but security at the Tory conference is more about protecting the good people of Birmingham from views that some may find disturbing.

George Osborne had his moment in the sun today, with a hard hitting, smirk-free speech on the economy. The BIG IDEA this year - following hard on the heels of that 2007 £1 billion tax giveaway for the 3000 richest families in the country - was a two year freeze on council tax bills after a Tory election win. I'm not clear how this will be achieved. There's the now routine promise to make savings by slashing the bill for external consultants - something that Tory-run Birmingham City Council could try - and redeploying the money elsewhere. Of course, this money seems to be a limitless pot, as it goes to supporting the health service, marriage, tax cuts and whatever happens to be the favourite cause of the group hearing from Cameron this week. That money will guarantee an increase of up to 2.5% in council funding from the benificent Tory paymasters. What happens if councils need or want to go beyond that increase isn't specified. Will a putative Cameron government, committed to local people, immediately enforce a cap on local authority spending?

Of course, there are those who think that this might be a devious ploy to encourage councils to push bills even higher over the next couple of years as they fear spending cuts thereafter, with a consequent boost in support for the tax and service-cutting Tories.

Osborne also accused the government of pushing the Bradford & Bingley risk onto the taxpayer - conveniently ignoring the clever scheme whereby the Financial Services Compensation Scheme will carry the ultimate risk of any shortfall. Yes, the government support it in the medium term, but if at the end of the process, not all the money has been recovered, then the industry has to pick up the tab.

And then there was the pointless government spending watchdog, which was condemned as 'ridiculous' by Irwin Stelzer - a leading economist and key advisor to Rupert Murdoch. When the Tories are promising to cut government waste, why do they need an additional department to tell them that they are spending too much? Can't George and Dave add up?

Saturday, September 27, 2008

If it is broken, who broke it?


The playwright David Edgar wrote an excellent piece in the Guardian yesterday, reminding us of the truths behind the Tories sloganising over Britain's broken society and providing a clear warning of the future path that a Conservative government may take in a reversion to a socially conservative agenda.
As will be very clear in Birmingham next week, the Conservatives continue to lay claim to ownership of the "broken society" in the former, positive sense. The party wants us to believe it has both the will and the policies to tackle teenage pregnancy, family breakdown, drug abuse, sink estates and antisocial behaviour, and that Labour doesn't. What they don't want us to think is that any of this is their fault.
He points out the links to John Major's back to basics campaign of the early 90s and an earlier critique of the causes of the 1981 riots, pinning blame on social mores from the 1960s.
Major defined the "core values" he wanted to get back to as a belief in individual responsibility. In his contribution to the 1993 Tory conference, Peter Lilley waved his "little list" of perceived welfare scroungers who were to be targeted. And significantly, home secretary Michael Howard used his speech to counter claims - made, incidentally, by Tony Blair - that crime was the result of government policies.

In his July 7 speech, Cameron echoed the 80s campaign by blaming social breakdown on "a decades-long erosion of responsibility, of social virtue, of self-discipline", insisting that poverty, social exclusion and obesity resulted from "the choices people make". A week later, George Osborne clamped the campaign directly to economics; by placing unwarranted demands on the state, the broken society is delaying the achievement of a "low-tax economy". So, there it is. The poor are ripping off the rich. It's all their fault.

Easy to advance when unemployment is concentrated among an isolated underclass, this argument is harder to sustain in an era when millions are threatened by the irresponsibility of the rich. Britain's poverty, poor health and low life expectancy are concentrated in those parts of the country whose means of economic existence were destroyed by the 1979-97 Conservative governments, demoralising whole regions, destroying social institutions and breaking up families. The growing economic divide that the Tories now complain about is between the victors and victims of 18 years of Thatcherism. Yes, Labour should have done more to reverse it. But if it's broke, it's the Tories what broke it. In the pottery barn sense, it's theirs.
I'm not convinced that harking back to the errors of the 79-97 Conservative government or even just focussing on the divisive force of Thatcherism is an election-winning strategy. Cameron has come a long way down the road of detoxifying the Conservative brand. Certainly, the front men for this revolution talk a good game - they
are genuinely comfortable with multiracial Britain and concerned about the environment; that on issues of gender, sexuality and social mores, they know the tune as well as the words
So, I'm not convinced that the general public would buy into a campaign attacking the Tories in the same way that they attacked Blair with the infamous Demon Eyes campaign. Behind Cameron, of course, is a whole bunch of rather more unsavoury characters - not just the unreconstructed thuggish wing of the Party - but the radical free marketeers, who maintain a belief that even in times of crisis, individual responsibility is the only way to go, rather than recognising that in crisis, we need to band together to sort problems out. Let's not call them out on what they used to spout, but let's challenge them on what they propose now and what their thinkers are considering. Policy Exchange were swiftly frozen out when they proposed a controlled evacuation of the North, relocating grateful northerners down to Oxford, Cambridge and London. That may not have chimed with Cameron's charm offensive on the North, but Policy Exchange represents the direction of travel for the Conservative party at the moment. The neocons may be on the retreat in the US, but they are rising in the UK - be warned.

The 80s were all about the 'me' generation - a habit that has been hard to break. Labour has restored some of that belief in the value of 'we' - some problems are too big for individuals to resolve and that they may need help. Big problems needs big government to help individuals. The Tory line seeks to abandon people to the outcome of their own decisions as they apply a form of social darwinism. Labour recognises that people need help and the fundamental truth that 'by the strength of our common endeavour, we achieve more than we achieve alone' and that is a principle worth repeating and defending.

Faking it - Cameron-lite

If the Tories are busy aping Tony Blair with their wannabe copy, Dave Cameron, then the Lib Dems are copying the copy with Nick Clegg. But their use of actors doesn't stop there - their PPB is staffed entirely by actors.

I tip my hat in the direction of Tom Harris for this video clip - which he sourced from RecessMonkey.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

Don't keep me hanging on the telephone, Nick.

Oh dear.

Nick Clegg's groundbreaking telephone stunt last week - an automated cold call to 250,000 households in 50 constituencies following his speech to see if anyone knew who he was - looks likely to end up with the party being slammed by the Information Commissioner and put on a final warning. If they were to repeat it, they would actually face criminal sanctions.

It seems that unsolicited research calls to people are fine and dandy, but marketing calls require specific opt-in consent.

The Information Commissioner's office said
After carefully considering the script it is our view that these automated calls are for the purpose of promoting the Liberal Democrats. We are seeking formal confirmation about who was contacted and whether their consent was obtained. The regulations forbid the use of automated direct marketing calls to any individual who has not previously given their consent to receive such calls.
In a Guardian interview
the Lib Dems' chief executive, Lord Rennard, admitted that they did not have that consent

Oh dear. I'm sure they'll try and spin it in the same way they've spun the embarrassment over the Michael Brown affair, but their polished image as the party supporting privacy and civil liberty is looking a little more tarnished these days.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Not now, David

A very strong speech, I thought and an unusually good delivery for Gordon. He doesn't like the big stage and isn't a natural performer in the same way that Blair was. I've seen him in much smaller gatherings and he's very impressive - burning with passion over poverty and education, issues that have driven him in politics. The choice of Sarah to introduce him - borrowing the tactic from Michelle Obama - was inspired and made him more human.

He's silenced his critics - at least for the time being - and is taking the fight to the Tories, challenging their oft repeated mantra about Labour wasting money. The past decade has seen massive investment in education, health and in tackling poverty. The Tories left the roof leaking and about to collapse - literally in the case of some of our state schools. It has fallen to Labour to undo that mess and this term, we've opened 180 new schools - the highest number in three decades. More than 30 were opened in a single day earlier this month. Well over £16 billion has been spent on new hospitals for the National Health Service. We've strengthened the house over the past decade and left it better able to survive the downturn.

Now is not the time to hand over to a novice - either Milliband or George Osborne - and it was nice to see a genuine smile on Gordon's face as that dart hit home.

Osborne was described by a well-known Tory blogger as entirely unqualified for the job of Chancellor, of course. These are serious times and we need gravitas and experience, not the Tory PR featherweights, who have signally failed to offer any alternative policies. They opposed 'nationalising' Northern Rock - and we've seen the Republicans repeat the trick in the past week. They've opposed greater regulation of the financial markets, not wanting to offend their mates on the big bonuses in the City. And remember, John Redwood wants to deregulate the mortgage market still further. Would Cameron have had the clout or the nous to bring Lloyds and HBOS together as Brown did, ensuring that the law will be changed to allow a swift merger for the overall good of the sector? The only crumb of comfort offered by the Tories has been a £1 billion tax break for the richest 4000 families in the country, as they review Inheritance Tax. Thanks George. If any other ideas flutter across that vacant lot in your head, please let us know. We're waiting.

Yes, mistakes have been made. Yes, things are tough and will get harder before they get better, but there is nobody better able to guide the ship of state through these difficult waters.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

BBC Politics Show

Last week, the Politics Show invited someone from the Liberal Democrats - Colin Ross - to write a piece about the forthcoming conference.

This week, they've got a Labour person to do it.

Well, Nicholas Watson did ask nicely. I assume that all the decent writers and bloggers had turned him down by the time he got down the list to me. I didn't write the title - so no, I don't think we're Labouring in Vain.

So who's up for the Tories then?

Cutting taxes by increasing them

Earlier in the week, Nick Clegg - also known as the invisible man of British politics - persuaded his party to leap dramatically to the right and change their historic stance on taxing us a bit more and become the party dedicated to slashing your tax bill. Of course, Clegg can promise us anything he likes, given that the chances of him ever being able to put it into practice are roughly zero - even a third of Liberal Democrat supporters believe this to be true. Even so, surely there should be some more meat behind the proposals than the age-old trick of promising to crack down on waste? £20 billion is a lot to find - perhaps they should try looking behind the sofa - and I just don't believe that their tax changes would benefit 90% of the population.

Additionally, it would help their case if they didn't keep making promises about new spending. Is that £2 billion for personal care still on the table? There's a further 10,000 police required, which will set you back something close to £500 million, a plan for a high speed rail network at some undetermined price (the proposal for a new London-Scotland line alone was around £36 billion a few years back) and restoring the pensions/earnings link will cost around £8 billion (and is something Labour will do in 2012 anyway).

But they haven't given up on making those pips squeak. A while back, the Lib Dems promised to put £2000 road tax on those big 4x4s and they've now changed that policy. It should be £2500 now. I'm sure the many workers at Land Rover who live in Yardley and Solihull will be delighted with that news and will be only too delighted to support their Liberal Democrat MPs in this crusade. And there's also 20p extra tax to go on fuel, which will surely help to ease inflation and transport costs.

But then Clegg has problems of his own. At a time when conventional wisdom says that the Lib Dems should be reaping disgruntled Labour votes, polls suggest that support for the party is down to 12%. A third of Lib Dem supporters think he's a weak leader and he's shown himself to be massively out of touch lately. Quite aside from that childish interview with Piers Morgan, when he tried to demonstrate his sexual prowess by claiming thirty or so conquests, this week he guessed that the basic state pension for a single person was around £30 a week (rather than the £90 reality). And he's suffered in today's tough economic climate. God knows how hard he finds life. I mean, he may be married to a successful lawyer and bring in a salary of £61,000, but the mortgage on that £1.3 million London house can't be cheap and his wife has even had to start

gravitating away from Ocado towards Sainsbury's, just on price. I have to say, the difference is pretty big
What has the world come to when the leader of the third party can't afford to shop at Ocado? But at least he can afford to ensure that all his children will be privately educated. He's looking rather out of touch, is Clegg.

Ironically, Clegg's rather lacklustre speech - which was spun as being delivered without the safety net of notes, but actually required the use of three large screens facing the stage to ensure that he didn't lose track - was then followed up with cold calls to 250,000 houses in 50 constituencies across the country with a message from Nick. Ironic because the Lib Dems have been at the forefront of complaints about other parties' use of telephone calls to voters.

One of the fringe groups at the conference produced a booklet forecasting the potential electoral demise of a number of their MPs to a revitalised Tory challenge. In the Midlands, their handful of parliamentarians look to be under severe threat, with only John Hemming forecast to survive the upcoming cull. We'll see about that one.

Monday, September 15, 2008

Denial is not just a river in Egypt.

It also flows through the Birmingham Council Chamber.

Yea, even while Dave flies to visit disappearing glaciers and persuades environmentalists that blue is the new green, a few dinosaurs deny the climate change theories that have the overwhelming support of world science. Such fine environmental brains as Cllr Keith Barton, who has opined
that estimates of huge economic, environmental and social damage from changing weather patterns resembled something that National Lottery clairvoyant Mystic Meg might have written. Coun Barton (Con Longbridge) dismissed a scrutiny committee report by sustainability director Sandy Taylor, which warned that Birmingham has until 2011 to respond more effectively if threats posed by global warming are to be reversed. He said: “Aston Villa could win the championship, but sadly they probably won’t.“Let’s have some facts here, not visions and dreams. We could have got Mystic Meg to have written this.... “We can’t even predict the weather three days ahead. It’s said that we are going to turn into a desert, but there’s not much sign of that happening yet.”
Keith obviously reads different short term forecasts from the rest of us. Mine forecasts sunny intervals for the next couple of days. Sad, really, that he can't tell the difference between individual events and long-term trends.

He isn't alone, though, as fellow Tory councillor Len Clark derided climate change as a politically correct invention of the usual left-wing Liberal-Labour mob and we all know that Cllr Len Gregory, the Tory cabinet member for transportation, is fearlessly pro-car. And Deirdre Alden, whose husband owns a nice Jag with the personalised plate B17 TAX, was also focussed on car drivers, demanding more park and ride to reduce traffic jams.
We have the Hagley Road which gets totally bunged up with people coming off the M5, and they leave their cars in Edgbaston because they won’t pay the parking costs in the city centre.It is a horrendous problem, which park and ride would do something about. So why don’t you just get on and do it?

Well, Dreary, why don't you just ask Len? Remember that all this funding has to come from the council and your family group alone provides three votes that support it.