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.

Sunday, September 14, 2008

Riding high on the poles

The Conservative Party are renowned as the home of Victorian family values. We saw an example of this only last week in Wolverhampton.

Only a few weeks ago, Theresa May wanted greater licensing control over lap dancing clubs, but as the Tories descend on Birmingham in a couple of weeks, it appears that a special conference discount has been arranged at one of our local venues that will even offer them a VIP room.

Mike Whitless has even lent his official imprimatur to the offer booklet by writing an introduction to the whole thing, but sadly he doesn't reveal if he has ever attended the entertainment offered by the Rocket Club to road test it for his fellow party members.

No news either if the Bournes will be offering discounts on their specialist personal services.

Saturday, September 13, 2008

Please, stop helping

I'm not sure when I voted for Charles Clarke to become the conscience of the Labour Party. I don't think it came up at conference last year and we haven't voted on it since. Similarly, Siobhan McDonagh and now George Howarth. If anyone knows who appointed them as party executioners, could they let me know? I'm just interested.

Over the past week, I've spent a fair bit of time with party activists in private meetings - the people who will be expected to lead the ground war in the next election and deliver victories for our MPs. Whatever noises you are hearing from the barmier reaches of the parliamentary party, goaded on by a media desperate to feed their storylines, there is no desire at all within the West Midlands Labour Party membership to dump Gordon Brown.

Clearly, Charles, Siobhan and George believe that a Conservative government led by the cream of Eton will do a better job than a Labour government. There can be no other logical reason why they would start this stupid fight now. The Channel Four poll during the week showed that about three quarters of the electorate in key battleground seats think we're divided and all the evidence from the 80s, 90s and the first part of this century show that the electorate will not vote for divided parties - the Tories and Labour can both vouch for that. That same C4 poll indicated that the electorate don't believe that changing Gordon will make one iota of difference. There's nobody better qualified to guide this country through the current economic storms.

I wrote something similar on The Stirrer last night and Fergus, a Tory activist, wrote in reply
I know exactly what's happening, I've been there myself. The hard-working activists and ordinary party members on the ground are tearing their hair out as the parliamentary party tries its damndest to press the self-destruct button at every opportunity. Welcome to the Tory Party circa 1995. Put another way - welcome to political hell for the next 10 years. Your MP's can't learn the lessons of history, and things are to far along for it to make any difference now.

And you know what - he could well be right.

So, thanks Charles, Siobhan and George. Really well done.

Perhaps you thought you were going to help the government out of the current mire in which it is stranded. All you have done is push it further in.

Really - please stop helping.

Monday, September 08, 2008

Rough economic waters

However you cut it, this is the toughest period of economic management that this current government have had - the economy is under massive pressure from international conditions and the cost of living is rising. Things have been better.

But, as this article by Larry Elliott points out, the economic indicators have been much worse within very recent memory. We've certainly had it so bad over the past couple of decades. He quotes Nick Parsons from NAB Capital
It's going to be a shocking year, but it doesn't bear comparison with the early 1990s, let alone 1979-81

and Insinger de Beaufort's Stephen Lewis, who reminds us that
Britain has yet to have a single quarter of falling output since the start of the credit crunch, and that after 15 years of uninterrupted growth, today's policymakers appeared to have forgotten how tough life was for their predecessors in the 70s and 80s. "In those days, policymakers did not wring their hands over the distress in the economy; it was at the end of the first quarter of 1981 that Sir Geoffrey Howe presented a budget that slashed public spending, to the consternation of 364 academic economists writing to the Times," Lewis said. "Perhaps it would be wrong to conclude that the framers of UK policy are made of weaker stuff now. More likely, after 15 years of settled economic conditions, they have forgotten how challenging the task of economic management can be."

Larry reminds us that the 70s and early 80s were horrendous - with 24 months of falling output in 1974 and 75 and economic freefall in 1979-81 powering us to over 3 million unemployed, a total almost reached in 1990-91 during five successive quarters of negative growth. Things may well worsen before they get better, but I'm prepared to predict that we'll see things start to recover during 2009.

As always in these matters, I bow to the expertise over at Snowflake - a blogger who has a good grasp of the reality of economics.

Revised US growth figures came out on Thursday. According to the latest estimates, their growth has been as follows:

Q4 2007 -0.05% (annualised equivalent -0.2%)

Q1 2008 0.2% (annualised equivalent 0.9%)

Q2 2008 0.8% (annualised equivalent 3.3%)

So they appear to have come out of their troubles. Our cycle is lagging behind theirs, but their recovery is hopeful given their massive effect on the world economy. In September tax rebates go out to Brits, oil is lower, wheat and corn prices are lower, most householders do not need to borrow further money. There is no reason there shouldn't be a recovery.

So we can keep George Osborne's straitjacket in the cupboard for a while longer, at least.

The Bourne ultimatum - or just a blue movie?

Remember the family-friendly Tories? The same ones who encourage small businesses? Back in the 80s, of course, they encouraged small businesses to be created from large ones, but I digress.
Over in Wolverhampton, two members of the Tory group Cllrs David and Carol Bourne have been running their own family business from home, as the Sunday Mirror revealed.
...behind the velvet curtains of their immaculate two-bedroom end-of-terrace home at the end of a cul-de-sac there's something decidedly dodgy going on. Because for £80 male callers can have sex with Carol, 49. And for £20 more David, 66, assistant chairman of the local Conservatives and governor of a Church of England school, will join in too...

If you want the video to go with it, that'll set you back £150.

Amazingly, only a few short months ago, David was identified by Francis Maude as one of
the team to take us on to the General Election... They demonstrate the vast talent the Conservatives can call upon

Frankly, I can hardly wait to see what happens next.

To show his dedication, even while waiting for the Mirror journalist to choose from the sexual buffet offered, David complained about the economy under Labour - never missing a chance to woo a floating voter.

How it will affect David's position as cabinet member for children and young people, or his role on the standards committee is unclear. The Bournes weren't available for comment - they have now been suspendered. Sorry - suspended.

What is it about the water over in that part of the Midlands? Only last March, a Tory councillor was given a suspended sentence for pimping his girlfriend - by the time the matter came to court, he had ceased to be a member of the Conservative Group on Sandwell Council. Perhaps they should review their allowances. It must be habit forming - doing to the public at home what they normally do in the council chamber...

Hat tip to Cllr Piper.

Sunday, September 07, 2008

Court Report

For the past few years, the Liberal Democrats have assured anyone that would listen that they had no problems with the millions that they 'acquired' from Michael Brown - currently a fugitive from charges of fraud, money-laundering and perverting the course of justice. The money didn't rest in their accounts very long before it had been spent on posters and other election costs.

Despite what you may hear from Liberal Democrats, the Electoral Commission have never closed their investigation into the matter and may yet require the return of the money. That will be decided when the criminal investigation is concluded - which may be a long time, given the disappearance of Mr Brown earlier this summer.

Now, it seems that one of Mr Brown's victims/creditors isn't prepared to wait and will launch legal action this week to recover over £600,000 of what he believes to be his money. Mr Brown's trial starts on the 15th September, nicely timed to coincide with their conference.

Anyone know a good lawyer?

John Hemming need not apply.

Thursday, September 04, 2008

You'd better watch out - Cameron's coming to town

Ever in search of the video soundbite and in an attempt to look concerned about 'communities,' David Cameron will be in Birmingham on Monday as part of a programme being made for Panorama.

While the BBC have managed to assemble a collection of suitably diverse people against which to show Dave, they apparently struggled to find a white man or woman between 20 and 50. I'd have applied myself, but they didn't want anyone with strong political views. Nothing that might challenge Little Lord Toryboy seems to be the order of the day.

Only a couple of weeks ago, Dave was busily engaged in diplomacy, threatening the Russians with the most appalling sanctions - being banned from Selfridges, apparently. If only Chamberlain had thought of that when negotiating with Adolf, how different history might have been.

But then he's not known for the depth of his thinking. Challenged this week in advance of the government's rescue package for housing, his only idea was to recycle the abolition of stamp duty.