Thursday, January 31, 2008

Frit - again.

It seems that Guido Fawkes has once again been reaching for the lawyers to protect the shreds of his reputation - Tim Ireland feels his wrath and laughs. What riles me is that Guido has posted wild rumours on his site, relying on foreign incorporation to protect him from libel lawyers, but doesn't allow others the same leeway.

Unity lays into him - with support from Bob, Chris Paul and others.

Guido is more than happy to dish it out, but once anyone looks at him, he runs and hides behind a tax lawyer. Freedom of speech only applies to Guido - he's getting to be worse than the mainstream media he pretends to despise.

Now stop it and play nice boys.

Slugger hits out again

Punching below his weight, our beloved Cabinet Member for Housing shows why he has got his reputation as a Speak-your-Brains machine. John Lines expounds on asylum seekers...

Yet some scallywag, some scumbag can jump on the back of a lorry, come over under the tunnel and never expect to work a day in his [expletive] life. And if he's been here for a time waiting for a decision, we give him automatic British citizenship. The world's gone [expletive] mad.
What a fine representative of the Regressive Partnership, the Tory Party and of Birmingham.

Asylum seekers, of course, aren't allowed to work for their first 12 months and survive on a subsistence handout of just 70% of what we consider essential for the ordinary person. According to the Association of Chief Police Officers, they are no more likely to be offenders than anyone else (unlike a man who might assault a barman) - but why let facts get in the way of prejudice, eh? John, of course, has form when it comes to these sort of attitudes.

Hat tip to the Guardian and

Conman the Barbarian

‘I think it’s good for parents who want the best for their kids. ’
Dave Cameron

No wonder Derek Conway thought that it was OK to get his family’s snouts into the Westminster trough, when his own leader turns a blind eye to people faking religious faith to get their kids into the right school.

Iain Dale didn’t criticise Derek Conway when the storm broke this week, citing his friendship. That’s fair enough – even if that friend has enriched his family by thrusting his snout deep into the public trough. He's wrong to compare it to Hain, Alexander, et al. Those seem to be examples of administrative foul-ups and nobody has defrauded the taxpayer – I’ve not lost a penny as a result of what is alleged to have happened. The same can't be said of Conway - we've all paid to ensure that his son can run those parties or the other one can enjoy his life at university. The other difference is that some of those matters are still under investigation – Conway has been nailed bang to rights.

Standing down now would be a better remedy, not hanging on for another couple of years to see what more cash he can siphon off from you and me. There's no honour in what he's done - announcing that he’s standing down in a year or two implies that he might have had some say in it. Clearly he was told that there was no chance that the whip would be returned to him, so he would not be eligible for reselection. Apparently, his foppish older son, who only managed to milk the Bank of Dad for £10k a year for advice on ‘London matters’ (fashion and parties, I presume) is also a party organiser and ran a recent event called the 'Fuck off I'm Rich' Party. That I find offensive - particularly as I seem to have helped to pay for a lifestyle where a £2000 suit is essential.

Incidentally, I think that we should praise Tory MPs Nicholas Soames and David Curry (not something I'll do very often) for standing up to Tory committee chair George Young and insisting on a tough report and punishment for Conway – apparently, Sir George only wanted to give the old boy a slap on the wrist and ask for a few quid back.

The same can’t be said of Dithering Dave. On Monday, he was standing by his honourable friend. By Tuesday, he’d slept on it (trans: seen the bad press) and decided that the Conman had to go. Apart from the bad press, I don’t see what else had changed overnight. The latest reaction - banning relatives from employment is ludicrous. It makes complete sense to employ family members - as long as they actually do some work. Where do we draw the line? Wives? Children? Mistresses? Any number of MPs of all shades employ their families and expect them to work as hard as any other employee - probably harder as I doubt they will try to claim overtime or whinge about the long hours.
No, let's deal with those who pocket the cash for no work.
Derek? Time to go. Now.

Still fudging the issue

Apparently, the binmen in Birmingham are being offered a special deal to stop them going on strike next week. It seems that someone has reviewed their job evaluations and decided that since the 2004 changes to a district/constituency structure, they actually do a different and more onerous task that demands higher pay.

This has nothing to do with the fact that if and when the workers go out on strike, the uncollected rubbish will be the instantly visible sign of the council’s incompetence. Clearly, this couldn’t be a devious trick to avoid embarrassment by stuffing a few employees’ pockets with money – a bribe, if you will.

Aside from the fact that this may be illegal, as it could prolong inequality – which was the whole point of the Single Status review - a couple of questions remain unanswered about this welcome change of heart.

If the jobs are being reviewed, are there any other roles that might be similarly affected by the 2004 restructure and can they expect a similar group review?

If so, why was this missed when the framework was applied?

Why is the offer to the binmen time limited? Surely if their jobs have changed, that change will be ongoing?

Unsurprisingly, the unions have advised their members to reject the offer in the ballot, as this is a blatant attempt to divide and rule.

The Regressive Partnership is panicking.

And then there were two

With John Edwards withdrawing from the Democratic contest, that leaves just two candidates in the race, which looks likely to drag on well past next week's Super Duper Tuesday. Then, almost half of the delegates to the conventions that will actually decide the candidate are up for grabs, but the electorate are so evenly split that it is quite possible that neither Obama nor Clinton will emerge as the clear leader.

In any other year, Hillary would be a shoo-in for the nomination. She’s spent years alongside her semi-detached husband in the crucible of the Oval Office, she knows her way around the system and has the people and the money behind her to run a winning campaign against a Republican party firmly on the back foot. She’s highly competent and looks and talks a good game. Her problem is that she’s only inspirational to the opposition – the Republicans loathe her as though she were the spawn of Satan. Hillary is a solid, worthy contender – if she were a film, she’d be a guaranteed Oscar nominee and winner.

Obama is a different matter. He’s the high-concept summer blockbuster that everyone wants to see. They both have an instant narrative – no need for a campaign film to explain why this white bloke is different from this other white bloke – you only have to look at them to see the story, but Obama’s trumps Hillary’s. Sure, for the first time we have a woman in with a serious chance of winning, but we’ve also got a black man who looks like a winner. Less than half a century ago, another President had to send troops onto the streets to ensure that black kids got an education and the FBI had to tackle white racists who were preventing black voter registration (constitutionally banned 80 years previously, but still prevalent). To move from there to a point where people can talk about a black man taking the top job is a remarkable journey – long overdue, but stunning nonetheless. If you had asked me twenty years ago when I first properly studied US politics if they would have a serious black candidate for the highest office within my lifetime, I’d have laughed. I’ve rarely been so pleased to be wrong. I think America is ready to vote for a black president (even if
he isn't called Palmer), despite Steve Bell's depressingly grim cartoon in the Guardian.

Part of the Hillary attraction for some Democrats is that it would signal a return of Bill to the White House and this might not be a good thing - he's a powerful personality and his presence can overpower her. In fact, his recent performances on the campaign trail have been rather underwhelming – perhaps his powers are diminishing. Doris Kearns Goodwin, the biographer of presidents, said on the Daily Show this week that Bill has to be at the centre – if he was at a wedding, he’d want to be the bride, at a funeral, he’d have to be the corpse. He can’t help it – like Norman Wisdom, he is biologically tuned to perform. In a campaign where change is the big issue, the temptations of a return to the semi-mythical, pre-Bush golden age of the 90s may prove less of an attraction than going beyond the next frontier.

But Obama seems to reach out beyond the traditional Democratic base. The
Guardian visited a campaign office in California and found former Bush Republicans dialling out for Obama, people like Robin Tarne.
"I was for Bush and I believed in the war but as time went on I became saddened… I believed in the good guy, the cowboy who can go in and sort things out… I like Obama… I understand what he's saying. I don't agree with everything he says, but I understand it.”

Or George Kappas
"I'm a lifelong Republican… I've never donated before, I've never volunteered before. I guess I'm feeling like it's kind of important. I like this guy."
And that sort of attitude matters on a visceral level - he feels right. If Obama can replicate that widely, he will win. How people feel about you matters when it comes to voting – it will help to bring in the independent voters and the soft Republicans. Another striking thing about his performance is that Obama is motivating young people to turn out and vote. Clinton was a fine political campaigner – the best of his generation, but Obama has a star quality. The buzz about him is closer to that around Kennedy – that the voters believe in this man and are excited by his potential in a way that Hillary can’t match. People are inspired and motivated by Obama, but not by Hillary.

And we all know that while the worthy films do OK at the box office, it is the blockbusters that really reel in the public.

Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Brady Bunch

From the Karren Brady column in the Evening Mail
Either way, Democrats might be tearing up a wonderful chance of replacing the Republican administration of George W Bush with a more liberal government but it's too late to change course now: by tomorrow the decision could be all but made. Today, Super Tuesday, a whole swathe of states choose their favourite candidate for nomination and we might well know whether it's to be hard-headed Hillary or the No-Chance Kid who will eventually win the nomination.

Errm. Karren - Super Tuesday is next week.

Just thought I'd point it out.

Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Imagine, if you will

If I were to charge a client £40,000 for work not done, do you think I would
  1. Have to pay back £14,000 of it and be suspended for two weeks.
  2. Be planning on a long holiday at her Majesty's Pleasure

While you ponder the joys of a world where I'm unable to get to a keyboard to annoy you, the answer is, of course (2) - as it is for everyone, unless you are Derek Conway. Last week, we had the sight of the media in full cry after Labour sleaze, but this week, they are more muted. Peter Hain was a fool not to ensure that his campaign was properly put to bed - nobody believes that he has benefitted from the undeclared money, nor that it was anything other than an oversight. He should probably have resigned as a minister when the scope of the failure became apparent, but it was right that he went last week, once his authority was fatally compromised by the police investigation. Alan Johnson is a different kettle of fish - his donations were declared to the register of members' interests and he claims that they were also reported to the Electoral Commission, but were not recorded on their website - he and his team clearly audited their reported donations to ensure transparency, so top marks to him for spotting what appears to be an admininstrative error by the Electoral Commission.

There is nothing wrong with politicians employing members of their family - providing that they are actually doing some real work. I thought that the days of sticking the wife on the payroll as a notional 'secretary' were gone, but it seems I was wrong. Roger Gale (Con, Thanet) popped up on the Today programme this morning for a very aggressive and bad-tempered (on his part) interview with Sarah Montagu, the chief line of which was that Derek was an honorable man and if he said that his son did the work, then his word should be good enough. I fear he did his cause no good, as the available evidence doesn't support that statement. Let's remind ourselves that the investigation showed three things, not just the issue regarding work actually done.

Firstly, Derek Conway paid his 'researcher' more than the approved scale in terms of bonus - something that he admits (we'll gloss over the administrative issue of using the wrong forms). Other staff in his office received bonuses in line with recommended terms. Secondly, that he paid his son more than the approved and appropriate rate for the job, given his skills and experience. This ties in to the main complaint about the work done or not done by Freddie Conway - work for which there is little or no evidence. Given that there Freddie was unavailable during term time - at Newcastle University, which is some distance from the House or from the Kent constituency, it seems unlikely that he was able to carry out the basic clerical work required by his job. The fact is that he was paid 40% more than the recommended entry level minimum for his job.

The conclusion is pretty damning

We note that FC [Freddie Conway] seems to have been all but invisible during the period of his employment. For the majority of that time he was based at Newcastle where he was engaged in a full time degree course at the university. He had little or no contact with his father's office, either in the House or in the constituency. No record exists of the work he is supposed to have carried out, or the hours kept. The only evidence available to us of work carried out was that provided by FC and his family.

Given that these reports are typically couched in cautious language, this next paragraph is damning

This arrangement was, at the least, an improper use of Parliamentary allowances: at worst it was a serious diversion of public funds. Our view is that the reality may well be somewhere between the two.

Derek Conway has made a name for himself as one of the more traditional Tory MPs - deeply Eurosceptic and in favour of tough action against criminals, to the point where he has backed the return of the death penalty. He's now facing a further query about payments made to his other son as a part-time researcher - this isn't over yet.

For a thorough dissection of Mr Conway, try Unity at the Ministry of Truth. It isn't as gentle as the parliamentary report. Hat tip to Bob for that one.

Monday, January 28, 2008

Rock or dipstick?

Via Bob Piper, QuaeQuam sets a test for the potential mayor of London.

Think of your chosen candidate and imagine them handling the horror of 7/7. Whatever you may think of Ken, he dealt with it magnificently. Then think of Boris as the face of the city - this country. Trust me, he's no Giuliani.

Boris Johnson may be a genial buffoon who is good enough for the Tory donkey vote in the harmless pastures of Henley, where they don't care about his membership of the thuggish Bullingdon Club or his agreeing to assist the convicted fraudster Darius Guppy in his aim of giving a journalist a kicking. Perhaps they aren't that bothered by him referring to Africans as piccaninnies. Maybe they aren't concerned by the donations he's securing from developers or his interesting private life. That's fine and dandy for them, but the London mayoralty is bigger than that, with real power over the lives of Londoners and an influence over the country.

Being Mayor of London isn't about cracking jokes - it is about being the leader of a great, global city. By default, you become a major figure - you will have the largest personal mandate of any elected official in the UK, certainly.

And so far, there's been precious little to show that Boris is up to the job.

Everybody out!

And so on February 5th, just in time to coincide with the council meeting, the Birmingham Council union workers will be called out on strike. The vote was as overwhelming as it was unsurprising - with three of the four unions seeing 70-80% of their voting members backing action and the fourth turning in a figure in the high 60s.

This isn't a return to the activism of the 70s, this is about ordinary union members - from different departments and many who have never even considered industrial action before - who have run into something so unfair and so unreasonable that they feel that they have no option. They want to be in work, earning money and serving the community, but they have been mistreated by their management and forgotten by councillors who claim to represent them. Their councillors will belittle them, indeed Cllr Fudge has already pointed out that
just around 10 per cent of staff - 4,462 people - have voted to strike.
Cllr Fudge, of course, misses the irony in his own eye, in that he doesn't question his own democratic legitimacy, with just 20% of the voters in Sutton Vesey thinking that he was the best man for the job. How wrong can you be?

Thursday, January 24, 2008

Laws, Damned Lies and Statistics.

I may have mentioned before that for some inexplicable reason, David Laws infuriates me more than any other Liberal Democrat - and that's a pretty high bar.
He appeared on Question Time tonight and showed his grasp of the facts with the following statements.
'Crime hasn't just gone up in the last few years it went up massively in the 1970s and 1980s... we do have high levels of crime in this country'
He was then pressed by Dimbles
'Do you buy into the new figures showing overall recorded crime falling...'
'No, because if you look at what most politicians when pressed and most independent observers when pressed say are the credible figures, the British Crime Survey figures, actually they are pretty static at the moment and they do indicate violent crime is still going up'
At best, Mr Laws is guilty of being economical with the truth. At worst, he's telling barefaced lies for political advantage - spreading a little bit of unhappiness as he goes by.
I've tackled this little bit of fearmongering before, when I slated the Tories way back in 2004 and found allies in the police during the campaign, but we've seen new figures from the BCS. This is a survey that has been conducted regularly since 1981 and annually since 2001 that doesn't rely on the crime reported to police - while 93% of vehicle thefts are reported, only 32% of vandalism offences get a crime number. The survey asks 40,000 people a year of their personal experiences of being a victim. As I've pointed out before, 1200 is enough to give a pretty accurate result of a general election, so the BCS should give us a reasonable idea of how things really are for a certain spectrum of crimes.
So what IS the truth, based upon these credible figures?

This graph shows BCS total crimes, reported crime and - usefully - a reminder that we've got more than 4 million more adults kicking around and ready to provide their fair share of criminal behaviour.

Now, David, does that show a record of rising crime according to the BCS? Nope. Not in the slightest. In fact, you are less likely to be a victim of crime now than at any time for more than a quarter of a century - since statistics of this accuracy were first compiled. And for completeness, here's the graph including the most recent results.
The shrewd readers will spot a slight upturn in the past couple of years. The professional statisticians who compile the report note that

Overall, the BCS shows no significant change in crime (for the second year running) and police recorded crime shows a two per cent decrease

Hey - why not go back further. Here's a slightly older parliamentary report into statistical reporting, which contains this graph of reported indictable offences over the last century. That has to be taken with a generous pinch of salt, as reporting has increased over the years, but it is instructive, as you will see that crime is slipping back.

Or perhaps we'll just look at the past few years. Here's the change in offences since 1995. Double asterisks indicate statistically significant changes

Crime is down - all the facts point towards it. Hey - have another graph. I'm spoiling you tonight.So do you think that the newspapers will focus on the positive changes in the crime figures or do you think we'll be told that gun crime is rife after an increase from a relatively low base?

Here's the BCS on violent crime
The number of violent crimes experienced by adults showed no statistically significant change between 2005/06 and 2006/07 BCS interviews. Police recorded violence against the person fell by one per cent between 2005/06 and 2006/07, the first fall in eight years.
Just under half (49%) of all violent incidents reported to the BCS did not result in any injury to the victim. A similar proportion (50%) of all police recorded violence against the person in 2006/07 involved no injury.

Recorded sexual offences fell by seven per cent between 2005/06 and 2006/07.
The majority (98%) of recorded violence against the person crimes were other offences against the person, the least serious grouping.

There were 755 homicides recorded by police in 2006/07, the smallest total for eight years. There were one per cent fewer homicides than in 2005/06, although the 2005/06 total was increased by the London bombings in July 2005.

It isn't all rosy, as robbery increased by 3% according to the police reporting. The BCS added that
The number of violent crimes remained stable between 2005/06 and 2006/07 BCS
interviews (the apparent increases from 2005/06 or 2004/05 are not statistically

There was a increase in the police recording of gun crime, with an additional 427 offences reported, to give a total of 10,182, but these were mainly non-injury offences and the number of gun-related deaths actually fell in the year to September 2007, from 55 to 49. Still, we can expect the politicians and the media to lead on their specialised subject tomorrow - fear.

What is certain is that we are not best served by a climate of fear and paranoia developed by cheap headlines and politicians.

Sunday, January 20, 2008

And Whitless shall speak cobblers unto nation

At least I had some forewarning that Whitless was due to be gawking at the nation from my tellybox this lunchtime, so I was able to record it for posterity. For those of you who missed it, it is available here (about 15 minutes in).

Whitless still needs to focus on whatever media training he's had - there's still that annoying habit of looking directly into the camera a little often, rather than only talking to the interviewer, which is the recommended technique. The audience don't like being glared at. He also needs to lose the rabbit in the headlights look, as if it is a surprise that there's a camera in front of him. This, ladies and gentleman, is the man in charge of over £2 billion of public funds, 40,000+ employees and the largest local authority in Western Europe. Impressed yet?

Now, I have to say that I think that Patrick Burns gave Whitless something of an easy ride, as the film before the interview raised a number of issues that weren't followed up later. I would have liked some questioning over the Single Status problem or on transport issues. We're on the brink of strike action by unions over an appallingly-managed process which has left thousands of people losing money - not the high earning exceptions used by Cllr Alan Fudge to batter the majority in autumn 2006, but ordinary folk who face three years of watching their fixed income degrade because of inflation as they will get no annual increments prior to their pay cut in 2011. The unions and their members don't want to strike, but they have been backed into a corner and feel that they have no choice.

Burns' problem was the time allotted. Whitless was allowed to give long and rambling answers - the classic defence to a live interview, as it uses up time prior to the end of what Nationwide used to call the 'regional opt.' The interviewee knows that the interview has to end on time so that they can return to the main programme from London, so blustering is effective. It doesn't work so well when you've got the 8:10 interview on the Today programme, as items could be dropped to extend your torture, but is ideal for reducing your exposure to difficult questions.

When challenged that we are falling behind Manchester, Newcastle and even Bristol, Mickey responded that "it depends who you speak to and how well informed they are." Well, the well-informed seem to have the view that we are trailing and that there is a complete absence of vision at the top. I make no apologies for repeating this allegation as I have over the past four years, because it still applies. The whole elected mayor farrago has arisen precisely because of the lack of leadership at the top - the ship seems rudderless. This wouldn't have arisen with Sir Albert, nor with his predecessors as leaders. The demand is there for better leadership for our city. If Whitless is the best that thirty or forty-odd (and some are VERY odd) Tory councillors can put up, then surely the million voters in Birmingham can do better.

This isn't a view restricted to the Labour benches - there is disquiet amongst the Lib Dems and a handful of Tories have also expressed dissatisfaction at the performance of the leadership. Whether they have the guts to do anything about after May is a different matter.

Frankly, they can't do worse and Whitless' lamentable performance as the face of our city can only serve to heighten dissatisfaction with his alleged leadership.

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

Transplant Games

I've carried a donor card for over twenty years - I think I was fourteen when I first filled one out. I've made it clear that when I finally shuffle off this mortal coil, any bits of my body that I haven't worn out or otherwise put beyond use are fair game. If anyone can make use of bits of me to keep another human alive, then I'm happy to see them reused - the ultimate recycling, I suppose. When I'm dead, whatever made me an individual has gone - all that's left is, to put it bluntly, meat. And I'll be in no real position to care.

Yet, I was still a little uneasy about the proposals for presumed consent over organ transplants. Perhaps my lapsed Catholicism was staging a revival.

The truth is that under the current opt-in system, a thousand people a year die. A thousand husbands, wives, sons, daughters and friends.

To quote La Toynbee in the Guardian this week.
Imagine if the government promised there would be no murders next year (755), plus no pedal cycle deaths (146); or no pedestrian deaths (675); or no motorbike deaths (599); or no deaths from falling down stairs (1,000). Imagine if the NHS could promise no deaths from cervical cancer (1,061) or from bone cancer (1,007).

It isn't as if we're opposed to the general idea - 90% of us back transplantation, but that only 25% of us bother to carry a donor card and not even that many tell their next of kin. It is a difficult question for hospital staff to ask somebody who is just about to lose a loved one, but one of our key problems is supply. If nothing else, this will kick start conversations around dinner and breakfast tables across the country, so more people will be aware of their family's wishes in the event that the worst happens.

I don't buy the argument proposed by the libertarian nutters who argue that this is the state taking ownership of your corpse. The state already dictates what we can do with our body - whether we can inject it with drugs, at what age we can drink or smoke and when we're allowed to have sex. We aren't going to have modern-day grave robbers, but professional transplant teams to handle the whole process. Don't the rights of the living trump those of the dead?

There will still be the opt-out for the real refuseniks who have a visceral objection to the whole transplant business, but for a thousand people a year who don't have the option of life, there's a glimmer of hope.

That's a hell of a good way to celebrate 60 years of the NHS.

Honourable Members?

I do hope that the MPs decide to vote the right way when they cast their final votes to set their own pay rates next week.

John Major made an appeal for restraint when he was PM and his loyal colleagues promptly went out and voted themselves a 26% increase.

So, ladies and gentlemen on the Labour benches - remember our comrades elsewhere in the public services and set the right example.

If the Tories want to put some more brass in their pockets, then let them vote with their bank managers. We should be different.

Thursday, January 10, 2008

Quote of the Year

An early contender for quote of the year 2008 comes from Saeed Aehmed, the defeated Liberal Democrat council candidate in Aston in 2007. Facing a grilling from counsel in the Aston election trial, he declared that
being a councillor is easy
If you're doing it right, it is a tough job and I'll salute all those who do it properly - regardless of what rosette they wear. I'm sure that hearing that statement from a fellow politician will cheer them up no end.

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

What kind of year has it been?

The Chinese have a curse – may you live in interesting times.

Gordon is certainly living in those at the moment.

We kicked off the year with Tony spiralling downwards towards his well-signalled departure and then the relatively swift leadership campaign, with the deputy leadership sideshow playing on one of the smaller stages at this festival of party politics. Despite a run of problems – foot and mouth, terrorist attacks – Gordon sailed serenely on, getting rave reviews for his statesmanlike demeanour and putting the lie to the Tories’ promises that he’d be a disaster as PM. Davey-C was on the ropes throughout the summer, as Labour regained ground in the polls and we went into our conference with a renewed confidence and hope. The troops were marched up to the top of the hill and then…

…. then the wheels came off and we’ve been careering downhill ever since, entirely at the mercy of a series of unfortunate events. Northern Wreck hit the headlines, the victim of a dodgy business plan, but it had to be thrown a life line and towed to safety for fear of damaging the rest of the banking fleet. Whenever someone whinges about the government bailing it out, remember that if it hadn’t, confidence in the entire British banking system could have faltered and there were rumours of another, even bigger, name facing serious problems. We’ve had junior clerks in the Inland Revenue mislaying vital CDs and another scandal-in-a-teacup over party funding – although Dave wasn’t immune himself, as it was revealed that his own constituency party had had to hand over some £25,000 in donations to the Electoral Commission.

Cameron hasn’t had a bad year overall – although the summer was distinctly rocky for him and there were rumblings from within the party about the need for him to shape up swiftly. Despite a professed desire to move away from the Punch and Judy style of politics, he’s shown no wish to step away from the puppets at PMQs and has been by turns smug and offensive. While I always play down the importance of PMQs in electoral terms, they do set a tone and although Cameron has scored some hits, I wonder if he just looks too much like a clever schoolboy who is far too pleased with himself, rather than a serious political contender.

And then the Lib Dems. They enjoyed our leadership contest so much, they decided to hold another one of their own, which is fast turning into an annual event. They just can’t wait to try their new knives out on their new leader, can they? After an exciting contest last year – with more dirty laundry on display than in the Walford laundrette, they hit back with one of the most soporific electoral contests in history – there was more excitement over the Labour leadership non-contest than over the Lib Dem race. It came down to the party choosing which Westminster and Oxford-educated former MEP they wanted. In the end they chose the younger one. You know. Whatshisname. No, not thingummy. The other one. That’s him. Better hair. You know who I mean….

For the year ahead – us political geeks will be gazing westwards at our colonial cousins as they spend months in intensive care with election fever. But more on that later.

I'll be interested to see where Clegg takes the Lib Dems. It was interesting that Gordon made several references to seeking common ground with the party on issues where our policies coincide - perhaps it is time to be nicer to the Liberal Democrats.

The Tories can be derailed. Remind people of the split personalities of their policies. One day, Cameron pops up demanding tougher steps to deal with rapists - perfectly sensible - and then within a matter of weeks, Vulcan Redwood argues that date rape is less serious than rape by a stranger. Cameron promises to oppose every hospital closure, but then Andrew Lansley assures us that they won't oppose closures that make sense or would improve service. Is the Tory agenda to make sure that they say something to please everyone?

Gordon has to be himself. He has to restore the authority and competence of those early days and dump the Mr Bean image gifted to him by Vince 'Low Voltage' Cable. There's nothing more dangerous to a politician than ridicule - they can be loved or hated, but if all they are is an object of fun, then they are finished in the game. It can be done, but it means a focus on avoiding banana skins and dealing with problems in a calm and effective manner. The 60th anniversary of the founding of the NHS should be a cause for great celebration of a Labour initiative that has fundamentally changed this country for the better - and for a reminder of how it was only a decade ago. As I never cease to remind doubters, ten years ago, John Major's Patients' Charter promised us treatment within eighteen months of seeing our GP. After a decade of reform - imperfect, I accept, but effective nonetheless - patients will soon be able to expect treatment within eighteen weeks and referrals for clinically urgent issues like cancer are rather faster.

Now, more than ever, we need to rediscover our narrative and our competence. This will be a difficult year economically, but we should be well-placed to ride out the worst of the international storm. Issues like public sector pay will be difficult, but it is important that the MPs show restraint and leadership by not voting themselves an above-inflation pay rise - Gordon's made all the right noises in this direction and it will be a good issue to drive a wedge between the Tories and Labour, as long as Labour MPs can remain disciplined and vote accordingly.

We need to get used to politics as normal - we've had it relatively easy for most of the past decade as the Tories haven't looked even remotely electable. Partly, they look attractive because people are a little tired of Labour, much as they were tired of the Conservatives at the start of the 90s. Gordon didn't get much of a honeymoon period, so we need to get into the habit of grafting for our political success and reminding the public of where things have gone right.

Winning the fourth term will be the next big challenge for us. It won't be done this year - unless things go exceptionally well, but 2009 is a definite possibility. Unless Gordon and the rest of the Cabinet get back on top of their game quickly, it might be lost irrecoverably this year, but I'm an optimist. It can be done, although it will be a mountain to climb. But then, nobody goes into politics for an easy life. Do they?