Saturday, January 24, 2009

Privatisation to the max

But can he be trusted to get a good price? Or will he carry on selling us short?

Wrong, wrong, wrong.

I'm normally a big supporter of the BBC, but Auntie has called this one wrong.

Whatever your opinions of the situation in Gaza - whether you blame Hamas for bringing it on their people or think that Israel has grossly over-reacted - the truth of the matter is that ordinary people are suffering on the ground. The Disasters Emergency Committee isn't going to funnel cash to terrorist groups - the charities are way too savvy for that. They are going to relieve suffering that is happening right now.

The chief executive, Brendan Gormley, adds
We work on the basis of humanitarian need and there is an urgent need in Gaza today. Political solutions are for others to resolve, but what is of major concern to us all is that many innocent people have been affected by the situation – and it is them that we seek to help.

With a touch of irony, the BBC news website covers the controversy and then provides a convenient link to the DEC website to allow donations. Of course, the extra publicity over the non-broadcast of the appeal will only help to heighten public awareness of the real plight of fellow human beings in Gaza. According to the UN, 50,000 people are now homeless across this pocket-sized territory - roughly the same geographical area as Birmingham and Sandwell combined, but with 40% more residents.

With a death toll running somewhere around the 1300 mark - and a quarter of them children - and devastation wrought across swathes of this land, helping these people is a moral duty that transcends simple politics. I find it hard to believe that someone considers it reasonable to deny them basic humanitarian aid.

Yet, if you watched the excellent Unseen Gaza on Channel Four this week, you would have seen the pressure put upon media organisations as part of the attempts from both sides to spin the conflict - although it has to be said that Israel has been far more effective in controlling the agenda with an iron grip on the media on the ground and ensuring that a spokesman is always available to put the Israeli case across (although sometimes, they have an interesting relationship with the truth).

Send 'em a donation.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

It's morning in America. Really.

And now we can breathe again. Dubya is consigned to the dustbin of history. Surely historians will judge him and I can't imagine him turning round his reputation. He left office as the most unpopular president in history and regarded by many - including me - as a strong candidate for the title of worst President (yep, even worse than Nixon). But we'll leave him, lifting off from Washington on what used to be Air Force One and bound for an ill-deserved retirement in Texas.

In his place comes hope and a man whose oratory and presence promises at least as much as Roosevelt and Kennedy. Just as Kennedy did, he challenged America to unite to tackle the big issues of the day. He did not promise peace and prosperity, but gritty struggle and hard graft. Obama faces crisis from day one - domestically and international. As I've noted before, though - he promises so much, but faces so many limits on what he can deliver. In a sense, he is almost doomed to fail - could any man do enough to match the hopes of the people who elected him and the 80% approval rating he currently enjoys?

In his favour, he appears to have a friendly Congress, which always gives a President a flying start - although no President can rely upon his own party to necessarily support his policies. In this case, however, I expect that the Democrats will fall in line and give him a clear run for eighteen months up to the midterms in November 2010. Then, the political geography might shift, but I suspect that the Dems will retain their lead in both houses and take that through to 2012. Reagan had his most effective period during that first eighteen months and this holds true for most Presidents, as after the midterms, re-election starts to loom large ahead and the 2012 campaign starts to kick off.

Whatever else happens, America changed today. It is not suddenly a country free of racial and other divides, but another wall was finally and irrevocably broken down and for that alone, we should raise a cheer.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Not so much revival as career reincarnation

Ken Clarke is back.

Sadly, that means that little Alan Duncan gets sidelined (is there some sort of rule that embarassing directorships are a pre-requisite for shadowing the DBERR post - Duncan had his links to the oil companies and Clarke has famously been a director of BAT?) for some as yet unidentified job. This current economic crisis is bringing any number of politicos back to the front.

This is an indication that Cameron knows that his current cabinet just don't have the power to hit back at the government and for all the spin, Gideon Osborne can't be happy at having a big beast like Ken back in the Tory paddock. It is an indication of the depth of the hole that the Tories feel themselves to be in that Cameron will take the risk of reviving a politician whose very presence on the front bench also revives the barely covered wound of Europe that has the power to divide the party. It appears that Redwood has already come out against Clarke's return and Cameron has agreed to differ with Clarke over European issues. How long that truce can be held, particularly when business and economic issues tend to transcend borders, remains to be seen.

However, Labour would be foolish to write off Clarke's return. The man has a wealth of experience and competence and, perhaps crucially, he generates a respect that eludes Cameron and Osborne. But, the Europe issue could be interesting, particularly in the run up to the European elections in June this year.

Saturday, January 10, 2009

For everything else, there's Master Whitless

It seems that the eyesore of a big TV screen in Victoria Square - entirely out of keeping with the surroundings and a nuisance to those in neighbouring businesses - has racked up a bill exceeding £1 million even before it has been switched on.

Local offices didn't appreciate the siting and pointed out that the council had failed to follow its own planning guidance. Defending the judicial review and the additional costs of the resite pushed the costs into seven figures and Paul Dale reveals that the blasted thing is only in the Square because Whitless wanted the Council House as the backdrop when the TV cameras covered the crowds gathering in the Square to watch national events.

The thing should be switched on over the next few weeks, more than a year late.

The next big question is - who gets the remote control?

Sunday, January 04, 2009

Not waving, just drowning

Ray Hassall has clearly been enjoying his Christmas break rather too much. He's been doodling on the back of envelopes and so Birmingham's new Olympic pool will not just include the 50m competition pond and diving pit. Oh no, that's nowhere near enough for our Ray.

Now, the plan (don't forget that this will come in cheaper than the original £60 million ticket price) will include a rail station (nobody has got Network Rail to agree to this, yet) and a range of fun rides for the paying masses, rides so scary that 'only teenagers would dare to use.'

So this complex will now have at least three pools, as a competitive pool isn't exactly compatible with the demands of the leisured masses. For one thing, there's a distinct lack of a shallow end or a teaching pond in the average FINA specification, which demands a minimum 2m depth, quite aside from the fact that most serious swimmers prefer a water temperature somewhat colder than the average leisure pool user. Plus, the pool will be closed regularly at weekends to allow for swimming galas.

And don't get the idea that this will actually be a moneyspinner to fill in the enormous black hole of the financing of this whole farrago. Sefton Borough Council operates a massive - and pretty spectacular - water leisure park called Splashworld in Southport.

That turned an operating loss of £250k last financial year.

Leave those envelopes out for the recycling collection, Ray. The business plan will never add up.

Fat Cats R Us

Bob Piper quite rightly pointed out the irony at the heart of the Tories' planned crackdown on town hall fat cats. Of the eight authorities listed in the Times, six of them are run by the Conservatives themselves: Suffolk County, Kensington & Chelsea, Bexley, Hertfordshire, Ealing and Surrey. The other two are Labour Newham and Lib Dem Kingston upon Hull. Birmingham's own Stephen Hughes gets something around the £175k mark, just £13k behind the combined parliamentary and ministerial salary entitlements of the Prime Minister. All significantly exceed the parliamentary earnings of David Cameron - around the £130k mark.

There is super-inflation of chief executive pay that bears no correlation to the level of services they provide.

Of course, it isn't just chief executives - Bob also reminds us that the Conservative shadow cabinet have been enthusiastically lining their pockets from interests outside politics - and have successfully resisted Cameron's attempts to get them to focus on the job in hand. The front bench isn't just crammed with Old Etonians, it also accommodates 19 millionaires and 23 company directorships. William Hague, one of the prime movers behind Cameron's change of heart over outside commitments, comfortably earns over a million a year.

But let's not forget other leading Tory appointees. As the Guardian helpfully reminds us, senior members of Boris Johnson's team in London comfortably outearn most ministers with their national responsibilities. The communications director, policy director and deputy mayor for policy and planning all trouser some £124k a year.

Now, they may well be worth every penny and those may be the salaries that you have to pay to get the best in the business - but surely that's an argument you can apply to the top tier of local government. After all, it is fair to say that if you have an executive in charge of an organisation turning over some £2 billion a year, they are going to expect a serious salary. That applies in the private sector - I think most executives at that level would expect rather more than the £175k on offer in Birmingham.

However, Bob is on the money when he says that this is far more to do with getting column inches rather than any serious attempt to slim down those infamous fat cats.

Thursday, January 01, 2009

What kind of year has it been?

And as another year draws to a close, where are we?

It was a pretty rough year up to the autumn, with Gordon's position as leader under very real threat, with each week bringing a new deadline for him to improve or to face the 'men in suits' turning up to urging him to do the decent thing. All this was so far away from last summer, when Brown could do no wrong and the Tories were on the run. We had a year of battering in the opinion polls - with Tory leads of 10-20 points, more than enough to guarantee a solid majority at the next election. They seemed unstoppable...

And then came the crash. The Tories - ever the friends of the free-marketeers and the 'light touch' banking fraternity (something that Labour has also perhaps embraced a little too willingly, enjoying the benefits of a decade of growth) - suddenly saw the rug pulled out from beneath their little feet. Hardly a Comeback Kid, but even as the markets crashed and burned, Gordon was being lauded by Paul Krugman - the Nobel laureate for economics - for grasping the nub of the matter. The Bush presidency - not just lame, but a duck on life-support - was grasping only straws. Gordon - not Flash - just got on with 'saving the world.' We're even starting to see a gentle increase in party membership, after years of decline - just as the Tories are losing members at an increasing rate.

The odd thing is that as the recession deepens, Labour's position in the polls improves - we're only another banking crisis from pulling ahead in the polls. This amazes me, to be honest. I can't believe that after a year with hefty Tory leads, that with the advent of a world-shattering recession, that the Conservatives haven't been able to sustain that lead. They have signally failed to produce a coherent plan to deal with the problems - beyond telling everyone that they wouldn't have started from here in the first place. Comebacks are on the cards for both parties - with the Dark Lord returning from the Euro-wilderness to bring the fight to the Tory menace. On the other side, rumours are abroad that one of the biggest Tory beasts - the genial, jazz-loving Ken Clarke - is also about to make a return to the front bench, perhaps even opposite Mandy. The Tory faithful are also rumoured to be demanding the revival of David Davies' career - which he turned into a single-handed kamikaze mission earlier this year with his short-lived, one-man crusade against a police state. For three quarters of the year, the Conservatives were sitting happily in the box seats and champing at the bit to take over government, but they have seemed strangely rudderless in the past quarter.

Yet, they were not without problems. Derek Conway showed that Tory snouts were ever eager to find the trough, as he helped his family to thousands of taxpayer pounds to fund their lifestyles. Having a son who runs a club night called 'Fuck Off I'm Rich' probably wasn't going to play well with the masses. Then party chairman Caroline Spelman was dumped in the hot water over her multi-talented nanny-cum-constituency secretary - a matter that still has time to run. George Osborne broke the rules of polite society by revealing private conversations to the press and ended up with a beating from a Rothschild over allegations of soliciting unlawful donations from a Russian oligarch - it must have reminded him of his time in the Bullingdon Club, when his friends bounced him repeatedly on his head until he admitted that he was "a despicable cunt".

Meanwhile, our Liberal Democrat friends have decided to forgo their annual leadership contest and have stuck by Calamity Clegg through thick and thicker. One of his first major policy announcements was to set a new bar for Lib Dem MPs, clearing that established by John Hemming and his 26 unfortunate conquests. Nick decided that it was necessary that the British people know that he is a real man who has slept with around 30 women. It is entirely possible that after the next election, Cleggy will have had more partners than he will have MPs. Certainly, the few Lib Dem MPs in the Midlands seem certain to be drowned in a rising blue tide, with Lorely Burt all but certain to be replaced by Maggie Throup over in Solihull. Many believe that the only likely standard-bearer for the yellow peril in the Midlands will be John Hemming - something that can only bring joy in Lib Dem HQ. To relieve their fears, I can assure you that there a number of people who are out to ensure that this nightmare scenario doesn't pan out and that John will also join the ranks of former Lib Dem MPs.

Actually, it hasn't been a bad year for the LDs nationally. They have pulled their polling figures back to around the 18/19 mark, which is pretty solid for a midterm place, largely on the back of some assured performances from Vince Cable, who is pretty much the only front bench opposition spokesman who gets much respect on economics from all the major parties.

But in any case, the biggest story for most of the year wasn't even in this country. With less than three weeks to go to Inauguration Day and the final ignominious departure of Dubya - currently neck and neck with Nixon for the not-very-coveted title of worst US President - we can see the Obama future beckoning. No President in my lifetime has had such hope invested in him - not even Clinton in 92, nor even Reagan in 80 (perhaps the nearest Republican contender). We have to look back to 1960 and Kennedy for the level of adulation that Obama is receiving. The problem, of course, is that it will be virtually impossible for Obama to live up to the standards that people expect. He's inheriting an economy in meltdown and a country scarred by unwanted battles abroad - sorting it will take up his entire presidency, assuming it runs for two terms. He's got a friendly Congress and that will last certainly for the next eighteen months, as the midterms in 2010 will be the first test for the efficacy or otherwise of the Hope Revolution, so he needs to start making an impact fast. Hope is a powerful product to sell, but he now faces the massive challenge of delivery. It did provide my favourite quote of the year
Rosa sat so Martin could walk
Martin walked so Obama could run
Obama ran so we might fly

So, let me uncover the crystal ball again this year, read the tea leaves and make some wild, entirely uninformed guesses.

Firstly, I think we'll have a General Election - depending on the economic outturn of the next few months. If more big employers start hitting the wall, then all bets on this are off, but the omens for a Labour win aren't as bad as they might be. They're certainly a long way off from being good, but there are a number of plus points to going early. Waiting until 2010 means that the election campaign will be long drawn out and will start early in the New Year, whether the election is in the spring, coincides with the May locals or runs until the last possible date in the summer. The Tories should have the funding to batter us over a long, attritional campaign, even if Labour have done rather well out of donations lately and the Conservatives have been pulling their financial horns in somewhat - closing the Coleshill-based Conservative Constituency Services office, with the loss of 40 jobs and slashing 10% of central office staff - including decimating the vital policy unit within months of an election.

A snap election means a lower-cost campaign and should wrong-foot other parties. If the recession looks like being even more drawn-out than many thought, then waiting until we are deep in the doldrums in mid 2010 could be suicidal. The ghosts of Callaghan and the series of elections-that-never-were in 1978 will also loom in the collective memory of the parliamentary party. I think that most historians reckon that Callaghan would have won an election held in that year, but hanging on as long as he did allowed the winter of discontent to destroy his chances of victory and allowed Thatcher in. If the British people continue to trust Brown/Darling more than Cameron/Osborne on handling the recession, then it could be argued that given the depth and the expected length of the downturn, Britain would benefit from a government able to consider more than just the next eighteen months and getting the election out of the way early would allow Labour to get back to work. It is a high-risk strategy, certainly, and Brown hasn't been a risk-taker, but it might yet prove attractive.

Secondly, while 2009 is the fallow year in the Birmingham cycle of local elections, I think we'll see a couple of by-elections, but these aren't going to affect the make-up of the council, so Whitless will blunder on as leader (sic) and the Regressive Partnership will trundle along on the Conservative lines with the Liberal Democrats cheerleading from the sides, even as their few promises to the electorate are ground ever further into the dust.

Finally, England will defeat the inmates of HMP Australia to regain the Ashes.

This blog will turn five in June 2009 and I'm going to try and write a bit more regularly - if work, political activity and family life (not in that order) don't intervene as they have done for the past twelve months or so.

And so, may I wish both my regular readers a Happy New Year.

Even to the Tories and Liberal Democrats.