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


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.

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.