Thursday, June 18, 2009

Tarnished saints

For some reason, the Daily Telegraph put Caroline Spelman on their list of 'Saints' - clearly forgetting that she was a pioneer in the creative use of expenses, an oversight that set her back almost £10,000 when she had to write a cheque to pay for the nanny that she inadvertently charged to her expenses in 1997.
She has certainly stopped claiming expenses for either of her current UK homes, including the palatial mansion in Dorridge, the Coventry namesake of that national daily has ripped into her for her running costs, which total some £10,000 a year - including a whopping £200 a month on cleaning. So, while she comes in cheaply on the Additional Costs Allowance, she is one of the most expensive MPs when it comes to the costs of Council Tax and utility bills. She did overclaim for one month's council tax, but that can safely be regarded as an oversight.
Will she remain on the list of those marked for canonisation?
The house is classed as her second home - although it did serve as the 'home' address for her other half when he ran as the fifth Tory candidate in the European elections, because it doesn't do to be seen to live outside the constituency, of course.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The art of the populist

Hartlepool may have elected (and re-elected AGAIN) H'Angus the Monkey, but the people of Doncaster loved their own village idiot so much that they've now elected him as mayor. Peter Davies stood for the English Democrats - a right-wing grouping with a similar flavour to UKIP, but not at the extremes of the BNP and certainly without the electoral success of either. Thing is, he won. The scrutiny then started with an interview on BBC Radio Sheffield which served to reveal that the new mayor has an almost complete lack of knowledge about the legal framework of the job.

Socialist Unity provides a handy (if very slightly flawed) transcript and a link to the interview with Toby Foster for BBC Sheffield, who offers a masterclass in dissecting the populist manifesto and providing just enough rope for Mr Davies to hang himself.

There is a lesson here in taking on the fascists of the BNP. Violence isn't the answer and neither the attack on a BNP member in Leigh, Greater Manchester, nor the egging of Nick Griffin on College Green this week actually advance our cause. Quite the reverse, in fact, as they feed the BNP's self-mythology of victimhood and provide more publicity oxygen to them. Given that they have dozens of council seats and two seats in the European parliament, should we perhaps engage with them more, challenge their policies and genuinely try to explain what they would really mean for people of all races in this country?

We mustn't ignore the fact that - despite their attempts at hiding it - they are constitutionally a party that believes in apartheid and racially-based repatriation as well as being chock-full of Nazi-wannabes and holocaust deniers with a statistically-significant quantity of convicted criminals into the bargain. But, they also suffer from a lack of real policies - apart from those related to race, Islam and homosexuality. Like the English Democrats, once you engage at the political level, they tend to fall apart rapidly and descend into bluster and bad-temper. Essentially, the BNP are single-issue fanatics who can't see beyond a person's skin colour or religion and have no depth to their policies.

Above all, however, we must remember that these results were flukes and we mustn't panic. They achieved office under a peculiar voting system because a group of voters stayed at home. If 5000 more people across the North West had voted Green, then Griffin wouldn't be an MEP. If the Labour vote had come out in Yorkshire, then Brons would still be idly dreaming of a fourth Reich rather than strutting in Brussels. The truth is that British people don't really like the BNP - even in their most successful constituency, Stoke, they only polled 17% of the vote, nowhere near enough to win a seat at Westminster. I do believe that one of the best ways to take on the BNP is to ensure that mainstream parties provide effective opposition to each other, to offer a safety-valve vote for those dissatisfied with the incumbent. If we don't offer an alternative voice, there are others all too prepared to take advantage of dissatisfaction to push their own agenda and lies. All politicians - Labour, Conservative and Liberal Democrat alike, should not surrender the ground of opposition to those interested only in promoting hate.

We also need to listen to those who voted BNP. Not the hardcore fascist sympathisers, but the ordinary voters - many of them lifelong Labour supporters - who feel marginalised by the current system. The BNP are happy to take on their worries and provide an easy target for blame - be it Muslims or immigrants. We need to listen to those worries - about jobs, immigration, housing and crime - and offer real explanations and proper, decent alternatives. These people need to be heard and we should be listening and acting, working to deliver a just and fair society for everyone in Britain.

Let's not talk up the success of the BNP - their vote actually dropped in the North East over 2004 - but let's not allow them to use this as a springboard to other things.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Building for the future

A few days ago, Cllr John 'Slugger' Lines announced that Birmingham City Council would be building hundreds of new council houses, using the opportunity to throw a punch at Labour

Since 1997 Labour has built no council homes in Birmingham. Gordon Brown has failed to provide homes for the people of this city.

Salma Yacoub joined the fun, adding that
It is a sad indictment of this Labour Government, which claims to represent those in need, has only built 375 council homes in the UK over the last year and a Conservative in Birmingham will build 500 a year

In my view, this is one policy that we have got wrong over recent years - Labour should be pumping money into building new houses for rent. Birmingham alone has 35,000 people on the council waiting list and there are millions more across the country in need of homes. Not only would we be housing people, we could also provide a desperately-needed boost to the dormant construction industry, putting people back into real jobs and providing something more than disposable consumer goods. The 131 proposed by the Council is only a drop of the ocean required to fill the need.

But hang on a second - where exactly is the money coming from to build these houses?

According to the document submitted to Cabinet, just under half of the first tranche is expected from the Homes & Communities Agency - some £7.2 million, with a further £8 million to come from the seemingly endless pot of 'Prudential Borrowing'. And where does the HCA get its funding?

That would be from the Labour government.

Top marks to Cllr Lines for making a start, but it will only happen because of support from the current government.

Monday, June 08, 2009

Cow 1, Blunkett 0

In an early entry for wacky story of the week, we have David Blunkett being assaulted by a cow.

Everyone's a critic at the moment, aren't they?


At 9am this morning, the total number of signatories to the 'Not in My Name' petition was 5000. 8 hours further on, it stands at over 19,000.

Long night at the NIA

I've just returned from the National Indoor Arena, scene of the Birmingham Euro election count and the centre for the regional declaration. It was hardly a scene of Labour joy and, as predicted, we lost Neena Gill as an MEP. The region returned two Conservatives, one Labour - Mike Cashman - and a Lib Dem. Additionally, we have seen fit to send two UKIPpers to Brussels. God knows what the Belgians have done to offend us, but it must be something really bad, because these two are eye-poppingly awful.

Mike Nattrass used his two minutes of victory speech to berate the BBC for not allowing a proper debate on Europe and he was swiftly followed by their newest MEP, Nikki Sinclaire, who then accused the three main parties of being fascists, an accusation which was roundly jeered by most of those in the hall. These speeches were in contrast to those from the other four candidates

To be honest, this was nothing more than I expected. The only bright spots were the Labour victories in Birmingham, Coventry, Sandwell and Wolverhampton, where we had the largest number of votes cast. We were overwhelmed by the shire vote, though. It does have to be said that this is on a low turnout - around 28%, which is half to a third of what would be expected in a general election - and it is also on a 'free' issue. Many people don't think that the EU is really a matter of great importance, so they use their vote to give one party or another a kicking without worrying about consequences in the national parliament. The most intriguing question is where those UKIP votes will go in a parliamentary election.

Deeply disappointing to many people in the hall - not just Labour activists - was the news that BNP MEPs have been elected in Yorkshire and the North-West. Griffin gets to Brussels because of a difference of 5000 votes across the whole of the North West. Just 5000 could have stopped him.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Challenging times

To say the least, this has been a difficult week for the Labour government and for Gordon Brown in particular.

We've suffered an expected drubbing at the shire council elections and I'm predicting that UKIP will do very well out of the European elections tonight, certainly in the West Midlands region. Prior to that, of course, we had the unforgiveable slap in the face for party workers from Hazel Blears, timing her resignation to cause maximum embarrassment to the leadership and kicking the determined volunteers across the country who work without the benefit of thousands of pounds of allowances for their homes.

While we've got James Purnell calling for Gordon to stand down and rumours of other plots rattling around the Westminster village, this all seems hugely self-centred. Senior members of the Labour Party seem to have forgotten that they should be running the country and not running down their Prime Minister. Just two years ago, nobody in the parliamentary party had the foresight to put up a challenge to him for the leadership, yet now we're supposed to let them decide that his time is up?

The public tolerated us replacing one prime minister without an election, but I would expect that a second would make the current rumbling demands for a general election rise to an unstoppable crescendo. That would seem to suggest that we'd face a late summer/early autumn election with no time for a new leader to stamp their authority on the party or to establish their image in the eyes of the electorate. We're in the middle of a recession and while there may be the first indications of green shoots, they are nothing more than that and it seems unlikely to me that there will be much to shout about even by the time we get to June 2010, the last possible date for the election. I'm not sure that the electorate will look kindly on us for spending the next few weeks and months gazing intensely at our party navel and fighting internal battles rather than focussing on sorting out the economy - having dumped the man who has won global praise for his handling of the problem.

The only argument for Gordon to go is that the party will do less badly at the polls without him than with him at the helm. Frankly, I don't buy this argument. If you are one of the electorate who has decided to vote against Labour, then I'd be amazed if that decision has been reached because of the Prime Minister. Really - that doesn't seem likely.

I can certainly say that in my limited experience of fellow party members, there's no demand for a new leader - we'd like to see everyone get behind Gordon and the Labour Party and stop worrying about their positions for a leadership contest.

The next few days will be interesting. The parliamentary Labour party meet on Monday evening, but we'll see if anything happens during the day. If Gordon can survive to Wednesday, I think he's safe.