Monday, November 30, 2009

'Red' Dawkins on the loose again

Another company, another outing for interventionist, big-state Nigel Dawkins, Conservative candidate for Selly Oak, who appeared on the Politics Show to give us the benefit of his years of experience in industry. If you recall, Nigel proposed earlier this year that the government should have bought Jaguar Land Rover.

He kicked off by accusing the Labour MPs who have signed the Early Day Motion to keep Cadbury in Birmingham of "gesture politics", then criticising the seven Labour MPs who haven't signed (actually six, as the honorable member for Ladywood no longer takes the government whip) for not joining in this gesture. I note that the only serving Tory MP in Birmingham, Andrew Mitchell, hasn't signed either.

When challenged to actually say what he would do, he can't think of an appropriate gesture and so waffles about the lack of support from the government for manufacturing, demonstrating that he doesn't understand the issue. Cadbury isn't in trouble financially - it is doing rather well at the moment and that's the reason other companies want to buy it. Dawkins then tells us that
"in manufacturing there are no good takeovers"

Although Lynne Jones challenges him to say specifically what the government should do, Nigel fails to tell us how the government should apply the brakes to the free market in share ownership so popularised by the last Tory government. Floundering out of his depth, he remembers that the M6 is a disgrace. I'm not entirely sure how the condition of the M6 actually affects the Cadbury's share price, but I'm sure Nigel will enlighten us in due course.

Perhaps the government should buy Cadburys too.

I rather suspect that on this performance, the voters of Selly Oak will make a gesture towards Mr Dawkins.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Live like common people...

Zac and Gideon both got in on this de-toffination scam early.

Zac Goldsmith was born Frank Zacharias Robin Goldsmith and George Gideon Oliver Osborne assumed the name George when he was 13. Annunziata Rees-Mogg has refused to follow suit and change her name down to the more voter-friendly Nancy Mogg. It appears that the Tory candidate for Chippenham has done the reverse and poshed up for Wiltshire, double-barrelling his name and adopting 'Emmanuel-Jones' as a step up from common-as-muck Wilf Jones.

All of that just gives Bob Piper an excuse to revive a clip of Nancy's brother, Jacob - the man who has to take his nanny out canvassing with him. At least they travel in style, as they canvassed Central Fife in 1997 from the comfort of a Bentley.

Only the little people pay taxes

You don't have to be privileged to be a Conservative candidate, but it damn well helps.

It appears that Zac Goldsmith, son of the arch-Eurosceptic Sir James Goldsmith, not only inherited his father's considerable wealth, but also his non-domiciled status, so all that lovely money is safe from the grasp of the taxman. Apparently, Zac feels nothing wrong in helping Call Me Dave write 'green' tax policies - as long as they don't have to apply to him. No reason why the new ruling class should have to pay the same taxes as most of us who didn't have the foresight to be born to rich parents. It isn't that he lives abroad - he's lived in Richmond most of his life - just that the non-dom status is inherited. Wonderfully, this even means that his properties in the UK are owned by tax-efficient companies based abroad, thus saving Zac from contributing even more to funding British society.

Zac will apparently surrender his non-dom status next year - presumably to give his accountants sufficient time to protect the investments in a suitably tax-efficient way. I wonder if he'll surrender that status before or after the election, so that he doesn't compromise his position if the sitting Liberal Democrat MP fails to fall to his well-funded advances. This is known as the 'Ashcroft' approach, after the noble Lord, who was granted his ermine and seat on those red leather benches on the promise that he would become domiciled in the UK back in 2001. Lord Ashcroft - who has probably given more to the Conservative Party than any other donor - has steadfastly refused to comment on his current tax status, although William Hague assures us that
"My conclusion, having asked him is that he fulfilled the obligations that were imposed on him at the time that he became a peer."

William Hague has taken advantage of Lord Ashcroft's kind support for flights on trips abroad and has had Milord Ashcroft with him at various meetings with international figures, in advance of the peer being appointed to a senior role within the Foreign Office should Dave get his hands on the keys for Number 10.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Cross-party agreement.

"My mates are all in the shadow Cabinet, waiting to get those [ministerial] boxes, being terribly excited. I went to university with them, they haven’t run a piss-up in a brewery... They’re going to get a department of state, in one case running the finances of the nation"

Cllr Stephen Greenhalgh, Conservative Leader of the London Borough of Hammersmith and Fulham and head of the Conservative Councils Innovation Unit at a debate on the 26 November. Hat tip to Jim Knight.

'Nuff said, Stephen. We all know that Gideon is particularly economically incompetent, for all his simulated frothing at the mouth over the financial woes of the country. Good to know that his colleagues have the same view. It is usually good form to wait a little while before you start dissing your mates, though.

Friday, November 27, 2009

The gift that keeps on giving

UKIP, the Monster Raving Loony Party de nos jours is about to announce a new leader. The chief swivel-eyed loon, Nigel Farage, stepped down a little while back - not that you noticed or cared - and there is currently a fight going on to replace him. He decided that he wants to devote his energies to unseating the Speaker of the Commons - breaking the convention whereby political opponents do not stand against the holder of that office. Farage will actually be a loss to UKIP, as he has a likeable, common-touch style - much like Jeremy Clarkson in many ways.

A few days after that, the recently elected MEP Marta Andreasen resigned as treasurer, accusing the party managers of being immature and amateur - something that comes as no surprise to some observers. She may also have been influenced by the minor inconvenience of having to repay £363,697 that they haven't got because of an illegal donation and find the thick end of half a million quid to pay off their legal costs as well, which rather supports her argument of the amateurism at the top of the party. Indeed, this may be the real reason that Farage has stood down, because when the magistrates' court originally agreed with the Electoral Commission that the donation was illegal, they only demanded that £18000 or so be repaid. Nigel Farage then wandered around the media, accusing the Electoral Commission of picking on UKIP - although admitting that the letter of the law had indeed been breached by the party. Not surprisingly, the Electoral Commission then went for the throat, appealing the original decision and pushing for full forfeiture, which has now duly been rubberstamped by the Appeal Court and will be returned to the magistrates for them to correct their decision, so expect a sizeable bill to be directed towards UKIP HQ over the coming weeks.

The party also showed indecent haste in accepting the mahogany-coloured Robert Kilroy-Silk as an MEP for a brief period, before he resigned in pique at not being appointed leader and then went to form his own party, from which he resigned within a year and spent more time being the most useless MEP in British history. Along the way, they lost Ashley Mote, who was elected and served a couple of weeks as a UKIP MEP before admitting that he faced criminal prosecution over benefit fraud and being thrown out of the party. Ashley was eventually convicted and sentenced to nine months. Recently, another of their former MEPs, Tom Wise, was sent down for defrauding the EU of £39,000 in expenses. He was replaced as MEP by Stuart Agnew, described by the plain-talking Nigel Farage as

as thick as shit but he has money

Which applies to many of the UKIP MEPs, frankly.

Moving on, however, we have a leadership election in progress and not since John Hemming put his name into the bottle to replace Chuckles Kennedy have we had a comedy leadership candidate from the Midlands, but UKIP have manage to bless us with two - Mike Nattrass and the terrifying Nikki Sinclaire. They were the dynamic duo who actually managed to unite Labour, the Tories and the Liberals at the recent European election counts by accusing us all of being fascists during a pair of rambling, ranting, stream of unconsciousness speeches. At the time, certain members of the Conservative and Labour parties may have made their views clear to the speakers through the ancient art of heckling.

Mike has particular problems of his own - which weren't raised on today's Politics Show West Midlands - as he is currently under investigation as to whether a UKIP political regional organiser was paid out of EU funds and whether it was appropriate to funnel expenses payments through Nattrass' own company in Birmingham. This would hardly be a surprise, as Nigel Farage himself promised that the party would use parliamentary expenses to

to further the objectives of UKIP back in Britain

Aside from that, Mike's background with the nutty right may prove something of a stumbling block, as he was formerly heavily involved with the now defunct New Britain Party. Back in 1994 in Property Week magazine, he was quoted as saying

I’m not interested in sensitivities [on immigration issues], I’m interested in being British

Mind you, Mike has suggested in the past that Britain might have to fight its way out of the EU if other nations stopped it leaving.

Nikki Sinclaire, meanwhile, has been engaged in rewriting history - she told the Radio Five Live listeners that Ashley Mote, mentioned earlier, had never served as a UKIP MEP. Granted, his tenure as an actual UKIP MEP was only a matter of weeks, until they discovered that he was facing prosecution, but he did serve as an MEP and certainly campaigned for and won election to the European parliament on that basis.

The front runner is controversial in his own right. Lord Pearson of Rannoch (pictured in happier days) is the man who invited Geert Wilders to show his unpleasant 'film', Fitna, which is virulently anti-Islamic. On Lord Pearson's website, there is an entertaining recording of an interview on the Today programme which dates back to 2001, where he spends his time petulantly berating the programme for not giving enough airtime to anti-Europeans. His presentational style is patrician and soporific, but with just enough flapping of white coats on the soundtrack to keep it interesting.

Farage commented a little while back that

When I took it over, and for a few years before that, UKIP had been riven with in-fighting. We had a brand that was seen by many to be somewhat toxic. I think that has gone....

I think that his rebranding exercise is about to fall to bits, regardless of which loon actually wins.

Even those elements of the media who may not like what we stand for no longer really think we are the wild men of the hills.
Can you hear banjos?

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Declare your interest, Mr Cameron

I thought that Gordon Brown hit home at last week's debate on the Queen's Speech with his lines about the inheritance tax break promised by the Tories - their inverse Robin Hood, stealing from the poor to give to the rich.

The typical constituency will have only five people who will benefit. The biggest group of beneficiaries will be in one area of the country-Kensington and Chelsea, which of course includes Notting Hill. That must be the only tax change in history where the people proposing it-the Leader of the Opposition and the shadow Chancellor-will know by name almost all of the potential beneficiaries. Is this what the Conservatives mean when they say, "We're all in this together"?

The Mirror builds on that today, reminding us that the shadow-Chancellor doesn't just know some of the beneficiaries, he works with a number of them in the Shadow Cabinet. That one policy will save the members of the shadow cabinet £7.5 million. Will the Telegraph be as scathing about this as they have been about MPs expenses? Don't watch this space. Actually, what the Conservatives REALLY mean is that YOU are all in this, we're off to look after our own.

Ken Clarke, of course, wasn't so sure that it would be brought in, but he was swiftly slapped down.

Cameron is reported to have told friends - doubtless some of those desperate to protect their hard-inherited cash from being used to support those not as fortunate to have had wealthy parents - that 'a promise is a promise' and an aide to Gideon is reported to have said

People should be clear that the promise e made on inheritance tax is a promise we will keep.

At least he hasn't made it a 'cast-iron guarantee' yet, otherwise we'd know he's lying. The value of Conservative promises may go down as well as plummet. Your inheritance may be at risk if Cameron does not keep his word. Serving suggestion. E&OE

Then we have the recycled news that there will be an emergency budget within 50 days of a Cameron government ascending to office. Back in June, they were saying that the Conservative Treasury team were hoping to avoid a full emergency budget immediately after an election, but this had shifted by September. So far, this budget looks likely to doom Britain to a double-dip recession. By June, the signs of growth should be there and there may even be a levelling off of unemployment, but the Tory proposals for immediate slashing cuts to the public sector risk stamping all over those green shoots. As David Blanchflower put it

The simple lesson when you are deep in recession is that a serious policy error is to reverse stimulus too early, which then sends the economy crashing into a depression. This is what happened in the United States in the 30s. Monetary and fiscal policy were tightened before recovery was firmly established, which drove the country back into a deep recession at the end of 1937.

But then Gideon's shaky on the economics at the best of times - not a great suprise as he's never been in charge of anything bigger than a university magazine. When it was revealed that a misreading of figures had caused the Conservative shadow Chancellor to miscalculate his figures by the small amount of £3 billion, the Liberal Democrat peer Lord Oakeshott said
This saga of incompetence shoots to pieces his claims to be a responsible chancellor.

Surely it should be obvious that now is the time for the big state to sustain the country. Yes, the debt is a concern, but not for today - there are more urgent issues at hand. Osborne and Cameron don't get it. Their ideological drive is for a smaller state, one that cannot intervene when the going gets rough for the little people. At the Tory conference, Cameron said
Here is the big argument in British politics today. Labour say that to solve the country's problems we need more government. Don't they see? It is more government that got us into this mess.
Er. No. The reality is that an unrestrained market got us into this mess, with bankers, financiers and businessmen colluding to ensure that the gravy train kept running for as long as possible. Cameron's lack of understanding is demonstrated by his apparent intent to elevate Angela Knight - a former Tory MP and currently in charge of the British Bankers' Association, championing bonuses as a way of attracting the best - and Kirstie Allsopp - a cheerleader for booming house prices that have outstripped people's ability to buy - to the peerage. Nobody wanted further regulation - the government was getting tax money out of the system, the bankers were hoarding away their hefty bonuses and the Conservatives were demanding further deregulation to let the overheating engine of the City rise to new heights. There is a very strong argument to be made that there was room for even bigger government regulating the financial industry, but nobody wanted to believe that the merry-go-round would stop. And then the music did stop and someone was left holding the unwanted offspring of this relationship - all those nasty little packages of bad debt that made Pandora's box look positively welcoming by comparison.

Then everyone turned to the government for help, because there was nobody else to help. And the government pumped money into sustaining the banks - remember that we came within minutes, literally minutes, of major banks shutting down their cash machine networks to prevent withdrawals. Can you imagine the effect that action alone would have had on the economy of the country and the confidence of the man in the street? But it was seriously considered.

This is not the time to have the argument over the size of the state. Back to David Blanchflower
Lesson one in a deep recession is you don't cut public spending until you are into the boom phase. Keynes taught us that. The consequence of cutting too soon is to drive the economy into a depression. That means rapidly rising unemployment, social disorder, rising poverty, falling living standards and even soup kitchens. The Tory economic proposals have the potential to push the British economy into a death spiral of decline that would be almost impossible to reverse for a generation

You would have to be an ideologically-fixated, economic moron to believe that slashing the state now is going to help. Is public debt going to have to be dealt with? Yes, of course. We'll pay it back. The state is not your enemy - it takes a big government to do big things and we need them now more than ever. What we need now is a government that understands those priorities and invests in them and I believe that only Labour can offer this. That doesn't mean that I don't want to see more - let's have a firm commitment to building the High-Speed 2 rail link from London to Birmingham and on to Scotland. Let's promise thousands more council houses, homes for our people. If we're going to have to pump money into the economy, let's at least get some solid infrastructure out of it.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Kirkbride doomed

I'm glad she's thinking about this. I know she's felt really shocked by the way she was treated in the media.... She will have gone through this and decided, is there really something here so serious that I houldn't stand again... I really hope that the Liberal Democrats in Bromsgrove will respect her wishes and not seek to make political gain out of this.
What planet is he on that he believes that any opposition party wouldn't make capital out of it? In particular, he expects restraint from his own colleagues - from a political party that is entirely shameless in attacking opponents for local gain. Lembit has also hardly been backwards in courting the media over his personal life and enthusiastically follows the 'no publicity is bad publicity' line. Expecting his colleagues to show any quarter to Julie Kirkbride is entirely unrealistic on his part. Lembit has cause to be careful about expenses...
(Top marks to Jonathan Walker of the Post for boosting the page hits for the on-line edition by working Britney Spears into the text - give that man a bonus)

Friday, November 20, 2009

Lucky Nick

Very lucky.

It seems that the Electoral Commission has decided that the convicted fraudster Michael Brown did not use his UK company to channel £2.4 million to the Liberal Democrats to get around pesky little things like the law, even though he was the sole director of that company. Brown wasn't able to donate and nor was the parent company, which was based in Switzerland, but the UK arm was legally allowed to donate if it was carrying on business in this country. It appears that it was doing just enough to justify the donation and the Electoral Commission has accepted that the UK company was the proper donor and in control of the disbursement of the funds, even though the emails confirming the transfer from the Swiss parent to the UK indicate that the money transfer was intended as a donation.

I'm sure the defrauded investors feel good about this.

Cops on the ballot box

Sir Hugh Orde, currently in charge of the Association of Chief Police Officers, spoke for his colleagues when he said that he would rather resign than face direct political control from an elected commissioner. He's absolutely right - nobody should be enthused by the pressure brought to bear on Sir Ian Blair by the newly-installed Mayor in London. As Bob Piper mentioned at the time, fans of The Wire will recall how politicised policing became as a result of mayoral influence - but that's something that Chris Grayling won't want you to take from his televisual comparison.

I agree with Sir Hugh Orde that nobody in the main political parties wants to tackle one of the biggest inefficiencies in the police services in the UK - their sheer number and size. We currently have 44 forces across the country and these need to be reduced in number and turned into regional forces. Perhaps the Met - some 30,000 strong - isn't the ideal size, but forces of around 6-7000 would make more organisational sense. The problem is that local people don't want to see the surrender of their local police force and there is a nostalgic attachment to the traditional county structure, not recognising that this is unsuitable for dealing with the major crime threats of today. The neighbourhood policing model offers a solution in that it provides local resources at street level to tackle day-to-day crime and anti-social behaviour, so your local police are no longer even a county force, but the team you see every day out and about in your area. Above that, there is then room for regional policing to tackle major crime and this also allows for a national approach to the most serious of threats.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

An afternoon to remember

I don't think that many people are unaware of the events of last Saturday, when what should have been a cracking pop concert went sour within minutes as the crowd outside the open air venue surged against barriers, which were swiftly pulled away by the alert security staff to allow the crowd pressure to be released. The event had to be cancelled and 60 people were reported as injured, with 4 taken to hospital and 1 held with a broken pelvis.
There are things that concern me about this.
Firstly, whether appropriate risk assessments were carried out when parts of the original perimeter fence were blown down overnight and then replaced. Initially, a double skin fence seems to have been installed, which should consist of an inner ring of steel fencing covered in fabric and then an outer ring which is just steel fencing. The concentric rings are sited to provide sufficient space for stewards to walk between them, but not so far apart that intruders who breach the first fence get a run up at the second. This is the standard of perimeter fencing recommended by the Health & Safety Executive in their informative guide on managing large events, but some of the pictures suggest that it was more rigid and the pictures indicate to me that the bracing feet were insufficient for the task - concrete bases are more usual for HERAS fencing in this environment and there have been problems with wind blowing things over in the past in this area - so a forseeable event.

When part of this fell over in high winds, somebody decided that the best answer was to replace the fencing with a waist height crowd barrier, which was more stable in the wind conditions, but had the unfortunate side effect of allowing the fans outside the venue to see that there was space ahead of them which would allow them to get closer to the site. Fortunately, this space had been allowed as an escape route for crowd pressure, which proved to be a lifesaver and the swift action of the stewards deserves praise.

The size of the crowd was only to be expected, given the line up, which inspired Cllr Martin Mullaney to shout about it on the Stirrer
This line-up is incredible. JLS are number one in the Charts and they are the opening act!!!!! Calvin Harris, probably the coolest DJ at the moment. Alexander Burke - the winner of X-factor last and the Christmas number one. Surely this must the best free concert *ever* in Britain!!!!!!!!!
Although, to be fair, BRMB arranged the acts, Birmingham City Council provided the venue - be interesting to see where the liability ends up.
Only a few days previously, five teenage girls were injured at a JLS concert in Croydon, when a free concert attracted a third more than the venue could hold and when they switched on the Christmas lights in Manchester, the shopping centre was packed, so it was only to be expected that a free concert featuring JLS and a lot more in the centre of a major city would attract even more people. It seems to have been entirely forseeable that a crowd of this size would turn up to watch JLS, let alone see any of the other artists on the bill.

All of this will doubtless come out in the wash, but it seems a little unclear who is in charge of the investigation. Something of this magnitude should be supervised by the HSE under their major incident investigation protocol.

topical concerns or issues where there has already been widespread public interest may warrant consideration of a Level 1 investigation where there was real potential for multiple fatalities, but none actually occurred
And just a reminder that s3(1) of the Health & Safety at Work etc Act 1974 reads:
It shall be the duty of every employer to conduct his undertaking in such a way as to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, that persons not in his employment who may be affected thereby are not thereby exposed to risks to their health or safety.
However, there is another matter - the media handling of the aftermath by the council. To his credit, Cllr Mullaney popped up, but then rather missed the point
I am quite happy to face the public all 'red faced' explaining why we closed an event down, rather than having to explain serious injuries and deaths
That doesn't actually cover it, as the issue isn't that the event was closed down, but that it went so badly wrong and visitors to our city were left terrified and some injured. Unsurprisingly, although the PR team at the City Council place Mike Whitby at the centre of the 'Birmingham Brand', the senior partners in the council left the Liberal Democrat cabinet member swinging gently in the wind.
In a time honoured tradition, Cllr Mullaney laid into the local press for claiming that he had admitted that the council had got it wrong - got to be careful about the liability issues - and then launched a diversion in proposing that we use Digbeth for these events in future. While he may have been abandoned by his Conservative coalition-mates, John Hemming spectacularly missed the point
The story should have been council saves lives by cancelling event when thousands break fence and invade concert
when the story was clearly that something had gone massively wrong. Cllr Mullaney carried on stating that the council hadn't got it wrong - as if spreading fear and injury was an intended outcome of the event - pre-empting the outcome of the investigation. However you cut this, something did go hideously wrong and we were very lucky that the headlines weren't speaking of deaths. Blame was then placed on the crowd for surging forward - much as it was at Hillsborough - denying the experience of public order specialists who understand the behaviour of crowds. The responsibility was with the organisers and the police to ensure that visitors to our city could attend a major event in safety and in this, somebody clearly failed.
The attempt to spin this positively after the event is disconcerting - we've seen distraction and diversion, attacks on minor errors of detail and attempts to shift the blame in advance of an independent report. The performance in the past week has demonstrated that the public image and the brand image of Birmingham is far more important than the reality. News management is no subsitute for proper events management and a professional attitude towards the management and mitigation of risk. To add to the concern, we learn of the worries of residents about safety around the building site that will - should the planning committee agree - house the new Library of Birmingham.
Overall, this event again calls the competence of the council into question and I suspect that the enquiry will bear it out.

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Public relations

Debra Davis, the PR supremo for Birmingham City Council - who recently admitted that after three years in charge, her department still wasn't fit for purpose - materialised on the Stirrer yesterday to promote the continuation of Forward, the council newspaper that quietly disappeared from clogging up Birmingham letterboxes over the course of the summer. As I've not had a copy delivered to me in two years and only pick it up from the library, I merely thought that the Tory/Liberal Regressive Partnership had dumped it as another of their cost-cutting measures to transform the business that is Birmingham (some of us still think that the council is there to provide services, but I suspect we're just old-fashioned).

It appears that those who thought that it had been dumped were wrong, a fact which has come as a surprise to a number of axe-loving Tory councillors, according to the Stirrer. If you can remember back to pre-2004, you may recall that the previous council newspaper was entitled Birmingham Voice and was regularly targetted by the Conservatives for immediate closure as they considered that the Labour administration used it for propaganda purposes. Unsurprisingly, as soon as the Tories took office, then Cllr John Hemming (Lib Dem) swiftly signed a new contract to replace the Labour propaganda rag with an entirely new and improved propaganda rag for the Regressive Partnership, doing a Windscale and renaming it Forward.. If you recall, an analysis of photographs published showed that 96% of photos used featured politicians from the Partnership, with just 4% from the opposition - and then usually only in the budget reply. Whitless himself managed the front page on 26 occasions.

Anyway, Forward isn't dead, apparently, merely resting.

While Forward has been sleeping, the PR team haven't. They've splashed out £3000 of our money to a private sector firm to carry out a consultation exercise on the future of the freesheet. Debra appears to have prejudged the answer, as she listed ten reasons to retain Forward on The Stirrer messageboards.
1. Birmingham City Council has a legislative duty to inform, consult and engage with residents
2. The council provides more than 800 services, which need to be promoted
3. At 7p per unit, per issue (£1.68 per household, per year) Forward provided good value for money
4. Local papers don't provide unlimited space and deliver to an estimated 420k households
5. Good communications always looks at research, analysis, feedback and evaluation - hence consultation
6. Consultation with councillors and focus groups will help us shape frequency, look, feel, tone of publications
7. Forward advertised jobs - especially useful in the current economic climate
8. Many citizens using our services don't access information published electronically - the alternative to a printed Forward
9. It increases our recycling target!
10. We have a platform that doesn't use such inflammatory language as online bloggers!
The consultation one is exceptionally interesting, but we'll come back to that at a later date.

Item 9 is my favourite, as it seems to suggest that thrusting twenty or so pages of paper through 420,000 doors (and onto countless city council front desks as well) is actually good for the environment as it increases the amount of paper recycled. It might be suggested that not cutting down the trees in the first place might actually be less damaging, but that's just me being picky. If we were to make Forward a daily publication and double the size, just think how much better those recycling figures would look! That's joined up local government, that is.

The jobs issue is an interesting one. It has been argued in the past that advertising posts through the council newspaper is cost-effective compared to advertising, but I'm not sure that this holds true any more. The job advertising market has now moved on-line and access to this is available through libraries, for example. Indeed, I was in South Yardley Library today and they were pushing a drop-in session to provide advice on job hunting and cv writing - an excellent service and proof positive of the importance of libraries as community centres. If you are looking for work, then perhaps waiting for the council to shove an opportunity through your door might not be showing sufficient dedication to the pursuit of employment to satisfy the requirement to be actively seeking work. Let's set aside the fact that the current plans for the council envisage the loss of thousands of posts rather than wholesale recruitment, which has been on hold for some while for posts that fall vacant. If Debra got the memo from Stephen Hughes which promised 30% budget cuts, she should probably read it.

The question then arises - if this is such a good idea, why has it been suspended for the past few months? The answer, revealed in a posting on the council's Birmingham Newsroom communications website, is that it was put on hold to review the service and also
importantly, to save money
There is another question. Why splash out £3000 on a consultation process when
According to a recent, free readership survey, those who did read it liked the information and wanted it continued. Those who missed delivery for various reasons often called the office to get one. Focus groups conducted in 2007 suggested ways to improve Forward — and the groups reinforced the claim that if you read Forward, it was well received

In addition, there was a session on Council newspapers at the LG Comms conference in May this year, which showed that most councils operate a newspaper of some sort, with varying frequencies and designs.

There are a couple of disturbing paragraphs in that posting, though.
I was incensed, provoked and saddened by The Stirrer’s editor’s vicious reference to the Forward publication...

Top marks for defending your people and their hard work, but in recent years, the freesheet has descended into blatant publicity for the political leadership of the council, not the achievements of Birmingham.

Part of me is delighted to see Debra posting on the Stirrer - it is good to engage with people - but I'm also concerned that she may be stepping into a political arena, which is not somewhere that politically-restricted council officers should tread. It is her place to advise the politicians, but that advice is traditionally dispensed outside of the public forum. As she notes about the future or otherwise of Forward,
It is not my decision, though it will be a recommendation from officers who look at the finances, what people tell us and what will resonate with audiences. There will be options.

She's put herself and the councillors in a difficult position. If the decision is taken to scrap the paper, then she'll have to try and justify that decision to the local press, with her own public opinion thrown back in her face at every turn and ammunition provided to the opposition to assault the ruling coalition (which I'm sure we'll exploit in full). Cllr Gareth Compton posted on The Stirrer with some advice for Ms Davis. posted an article entering into the political debate about whether to scrap Forward or not, rather than defending its quality and content.Since you're now in the realm of offering public advice to members, here's some public advice for you: least said, soonest mended.

She also added
My comments in The Stirrer were designed to stimulate online reaction from the wide community of bloggers. Some of the comments are helpful and have been taken on board. At the same time, though, if bloggers would like to direct their thoughts and questions to me or my communications team we would be delighted to address them personally and privately.
Er. No. My thoughts and questions were posed on the messageboard and here. If anyone feels the need to engage with them, then those are the appropriate fora. The blogging community is one that respects openness and public debate and if you join in, them's the rules. We don't do 'private' as that reeks of an attempt to silence unsupportive thoughts or views.
But I have never lived in a city that seems to revel in the art of putting itself down quite like Birmingham. We need swaggering instead of sniggering

I've no problem selling the Birmingham brand - and I don't claim £15,000 in expenses to do it either. I'm intensely proud of my adopted city and the people who live and work here. We've got a great history and a better future because of people who come here. That's all fine and dandy. I don't do my city down, but I do have the right to comment on how local politicians behave and to have an opinion - and so does Adrian and anybody else on the Stirrer.

Finally - and most seriously for me - I think that Debra may have overstepped a very important mark.
Forward is not the story. The story is about the great work done by the Chief Executive, Stephen Hughes, who is leading an ambitious business transformation programme that will help to protect council services — in the midst of a recession that will impact greatly on public spending. The story is two major awards for the Housing Directorate led by Cllr John Lines and Elaine Elkington, Strategic Director. The story is about Deputy Leader Paul Tilsley’s extremely successful agenda and the series of events, such as ‘Hello Digital‘, that puts Birmingham in the lead on the digital agenda. And the story is the Leader of the Council Mike Whitby who is an incredible champion for Birmingham business in the Midlands, the UK and internationally. Selling the “Birmingham brand” is an essential part of what we all do.

My concern here is that three political leaders - Lines, Tilsley and Whitby - are all tied together as part of the "Birmingham brand." Some of us don't think that 'Slugger' Lines is a great advert for our city, but that's a debate for another day. I was concerned that there is now a council press officer sitting at the press desk in the council chamber during meetings - is that to keep an eye on what Paul Dale writes (or says)? Tying three elected members into the brand suggests that the council press office has a role to play in promoting politicians and that is dangerous ground to be on - it is only a few years ago that councillors simply weren't allowed to appear in the Birmingham Voice, unlike the situation in Forward, where you can hardly turn a page without seeing a Regressive Partnership councillor grinning out at you.

I'm not going to be painted as anti-Birmingham because I consider the current administration incompetent - that was a stick used by the Republicans in the USA to attack the 'liberal media' and cow them into submission.

Is the communications team working for Birmingham or for the Regressive Partnership?

The story is not what you tell us it is. It may well be about the £14 million siphoned off by Paul Tilsley to refill the empty coffers of the Social Services department. It might be about the £1 million wasted on a blank Big Screen in Victoria Square. It might be the closure of the council-run Meals on Wheels service - another service that received massive support from users during a 'consultation' process, but still faces the axe. It might be about the rock-bottom morale of council staff. It might be about the mystery that is Business Transformation, which promises massive returns, but the exact value of those savings varies depending upon whom you ask and it also seems to be failing to deliver. It might still be about the disastrous website, which is still chock-full of poor links and turned up hugely over budget and years late. The story is whatever it turns out to be and communications gets to spin it.

And sadly, given the ending of Debra's blog post, which was published in advance of the problems at Millennium Point, there is a stellar line up of celebrities at the Christmas Lights Switch On at Millennium Point. In spite of the recession, there are still many things to celebrate in the coming season of goodwill!
it might be about management of large events as 60 people were injured.

Friday, November 13, 2009

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

Sinking below the horizon

It certainly seems that the Sun has massively misjudged the national mood - even their own online comment thread is critical of their attack line. Mandy bared his teeth on the Today programme this morning
If you look at the e-mails received overwhelmingly by the BBC, Sky News and the Sun itself from the public, they have clearly made up their minds about the Sun's mixture of bad taste and crude politicking. They have seen through it and they don't like it and they have said so.

Simon Weston gives his view to the Mirror and the paper also turned to Mrs Janes' brother, himself a veteran of Northern Ireland and with a son serving in the armed forces for a comment
I totally disagree with what my sister has said, as does most of her family. It is an absolute tragedy Jamie is dead. We cannot bring him back. But I do feel that my family owes the PM an apology after he has been so viciously attacked.

Actually, I disagree. I don't think that Ms Janes owes Gordon an apology - the country owes her son an unrepayable debt for his sacrifice. I think she and the Prime Minister are both owed an apology by the Sun.

It may even be that the Sun realises that this attack has failed - and may even have the opposite effect to that which was intended. This morning's edition described the letter as
well-meaning but badly hand-written

and seems to want to close the story down. Yesterday's press conference may even work for the PM, as it showed his humanity, something that is often concealed by his natural shyness and something that the TV cameras just don't pick up. Ironically, the PM may just come out of this with his reputation enhanced and his sincerity confirmed, although I'm certain that he would rather that the whole affair had never happened.

Peter Mandelson has hit the nail on the head
Let's understand what's going on here. The Sun's owner, News International, has made a decision to support the Conservative Party. They've effectively formed a contract, over the head, incidentally, of the newspaper's editor and their readers, in which they are sort of bound to one another. What the Sun can do for the Conservatives during the election is one part of the contract and, presumably, what the Conservatives can do for News International if they are elected is the other side of the bargain.

Anyone fancy Sky News freed of the rules on fair treatment of political parties? Anyone reckon that the BBC will be sliced and diced by a Tory culture secretary who has already promised a freeze on the licence fee? Will News International benefit from the proposed abolition of OfCom? You betcha.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009

The Sun's still at it

And this time, it is a private telephone call from the PM to Ms Janes which she recorded (funny how she happened to have a tape recorder to hand - I don't even know where I could find one in my house, let alone switch it on within a few seconds of getting a call from the PM) and then passed to the Sun to aid in their battering of Gordon.

The Sun have shown so much respect for her and this call that they plonked it on their website, topped and tailed by a trailer for the release of 'Bruno' (out now on DVD and Blu Ray from

I find this relentless pursuit of the PM absolutely disgraceful - he's actually done nothing wrong over this, apart from possibly misspelling her surname. A poster on the Stirrer noticeboards pointed out this article from the Independent which fairly neatly summarises it the matter. Remember, of course, that Gordon Brown knows the pain of losing a child, although in different circumstances to Ms Janes.
I've no doubt Mr Brown was upset by the death of Jamie James, and all other soldiers extinguished on his watch. But as he's discovered, sincere expressions of personal feeling will have holes picked in them as surely as they would if Mr Brown's defenceless body appeared through the letter-box. There is now, I'm afraid, no circumstance in which the old-fashioned letter, with its stops and starts, its crossings-out and doodles, its combination of heartfelt emotion and slightly inept expression, could survive the modern world of communication – where in future, letters of condolence from PMs to soldiers' wives will be written by committee, standardised, emotionally appropriate and utterly unexceptionable, all trace of human interconnection gone. What will arrive in the homes of soldiers' weeping mothers will be briskly informative and – since this is the really important thing – spell-checked and burnished to a perfect sheen, and won't upset anyone by spelling "securiity" with two 'I's.

His feelings were genuine and heartfelt, the letter personal and respectful, but all that matters is the spelling and the handwriting. As a representative of the War Widows' Association has just pointed out on Radio 4, this is a relatively new innovation and she said that it was far more personal than the usual typewritten letter from military sources.

Monday, November 09, 2009

The Sun sinks ever lower.

We know that the Sun doesn't like us any more. We've got that message. You don't like us so much that you are even prepared to gag Trevor Kavanagh over Europe. Fine.

But to see them fashion the tragic death of a soldier into a vicious attack on the Prime Minister is disgraceful.

As is well known, Gordon Brown lost the use of one eye following an incident playing rugby when he was in his teens - he's lucky to have any sight at all, but the remaining eye isn't brilliant, functioning only at around 30% vision, so he writes with a thick black pen to give a clear contrast to ensure the letters are legible. If you see him at the despatch box, you can sometimes see that his notes are written with an even thicker pen for ease of speed reading. I respect him immensely for taking the time to write to the families who have lost someone in service of the country - it can be no small task and it is taken seriously. Iain Dale - no friend of Gordon - confirms that not only does he hand-write the letters, but he seals them himself so they are posted without his office checking them. It is a small measure of tribute that he does this personally, rather than producing a standard letter and just signing it.

I do hope that the Sun editorial team feel good about this - abusing a mother's grief to fuel a nasty, personal campaign.

Saturday, November 07, 2009

Clive who? It was all me. Me, I tell you!

How long before the grand statues are erected of the Dear Leader?

Clearly, Mike has been stung by some of the criticisms over the delay in replacing the upper tier of the regeneration directorate and he wants to clear up the details. It was him wot dun it all. Everything that has happened has been because of his clear vision and brilliant ideas.
"Our regeneration momentum has not ceased since Clive left. I am still getting direct approaches from investors who want to come to Birmingham... There has been no cessation, no contraction in interest in the city of Birmingham, in fact it is increasing. I enjoyed working with Clive, he was my friend. He made a significant contribution to Birmingham, but he did have privileged access to me in a way that many other council officers did not.”

Surely, the next step would be to fire all of the directors, because with Mike's abilities, he can do all of their jobs before breakfast.

Actually, if Newham want to put in a bid for Cllr Whitby, we're up for a transfer offer.

Friday, November 06, 2009

Kirkbride of Frankenstein - reanimated

U-turns are flavour of the week with the Tories. After publicly declaring that she wasn't going to be kicked around any more back in May, the Tory MP for Bromsgrove has reversed course.

It appears that the fragrant Julie has informed her constituency executive that she wants to stand again as their candidate in the General Election, as enough time has passed for people to forget that she had her snout deep in the Westminster trough get a better perspective on the facts. The facts being that she doesn't want her gravytrain to hit the buffers quite yet wants to continue serving the people of Bromsgrove.

If you recall, her husband (Andrew Mackay, soon to be ex MP for Bracknell) and her both claimed the full allowance for their two properties, each citing a different 'second home.' This netted them £170k. She also put her sister on the books as an office worker on £12k - despite being resident in Dorset - and then got the taxpayer to cough up towards building an extension on her Bromsgrove home to give her brother somewhere to live. And she thought nothing of putting £1000 of publicity photographs onto her expenses as well. When they were caught out, she pleaded ignorance, he stood down and tried to do a deal to save what's left of her career, but the public pressure was so strong that she eventually announced her intention not to stand again. Until things quietened down.

Partly, you admire her chutzpah and her seeming apparent belief that the electors of Bromsgrove will be so desperate to evict Labour from government that they will vote for anything in a blue rosette. She may well be right, but I suspect that if she does run again, it will prove damaging to the Conservative party well beyond the borders of her constituency. I wonder if both the Liberal Democrats and Labour will withdraw from the campaign and let a single-issue candidate run their place - the anti-Julie?

Remember this bloke? The campaign in Tatton defined the 1997 election. Will Bromsgrove prove similarly damaging? I think the expenses campaign has a new poster girl and one that might prove extremely expensive to the Conservatives.

No respect, these modern journalists

Vinny? I know that the Catholic Church may want to shed some of the image of yesteryear, but VINNY? Bet that gets changed.

Wednesday, November 04, 2009

To lose one senior officer at regeneration is an accident, to lose two is Conservatism in action

After living in Birmingham for 19 years and working at the city council for six, I have taken the opportunity to work at the London Borough of Newham where the pace and scale of regeneration is very significant and where transport is the key to regeneration.
As opposed to Birmingham, where the pace of regeneration is slightly below that of a glacier. Clive Dutton has headhunted his former deputy, the respected Philip Singleton, to join him at Newham - an "incredibly ambitious borough," which contrasts with Birmingham's big words, but total lack of action.

Whitless has taken personal command of the hunt to replace Clive Dutton and predictably, this has meant that nothing has happened. Now he's got to replace the director and his deputy, while Steven Hughes runs around trying to manage a department and the rest of the city.

Right now, more than ever, we need the best people to head up departments like regeneration, laying down how and where Birmingham will develop over the next decade or two when the upturn comes. Currently, it looks as though the Tories and their Liberal sidekicks are fresh out of ideas and they are haemorrhaging the people paid to think big. We've got a bunch of small town bunglers flailing around, totally out of their depth at this level. Yesterday's council meeting was an example of their self-satisfaction and general smugness, as senior Labour councillors were dismissed and told to stop complaining until they understood what was really going on, rather than having the cheek to actually expect proper answers to impudent questions to their betters.

And don't think that these thoughts are confined to the Labour team in Birmingham. According to Paul Dale, senior Conservatives are dissatisfied with the performance of what purports to be the second city
Ken Taylor, the leader of Coventry City Council, hit out at “small town politics” endemic in local authorities which he said was knocking the confidence of the business sector in the ability of local government to create wealth and tackle systemic unemployment and deprivation. Speaking as the chairman of the leaders’ board, representing all 33 West Midlands councils, Coun Taylor said: “One of the problems we have is that Birmingham is not leading the way as a locator city for the West Midlands. It needs to be doing more. “The West Midlands leaders’ board is developing as a political force but it cannot succeed without the drive of Birmingham, which needs to step up its game.”
And that's one of Whitless' party colleagues.

Propaganda in the council chamber?

When councillors took their seats for yesterday's meeting, many of them found a copy of this four page colour leaflet awaiting them. It is published by a 'cross-party' pressure group - one that is heavy on the Tories and includes the wannabe Republican Daniel Hannan, but somehow also finds room for Labour's Austin Mitchell. This group, the Campaign for an Independent Britain has a simple aim:

to secure the repeal of the European Communities Act 1972
Good luck with that one, then. The leaflet was planted, it was dramatically revealed, by the venerable Cllr Peter Hollingsworth, the resident Sir Bufton Tufton of the Conservative group.

The leaflet asks a timely question on page 2
what will David Cameron do if and when he enters 10 Downing Street? Will he do the right thing? That, of course, is to give us a referendum on Lisbon even if it has already been fully ratified.
The answer, as we now know, is No.

Back in the autumn of 2007, when the Sun was running a heavy pro-referendum campaign, Dave Cameron saw the chance to make a little hay, so he signed a letter to the paper and included the following promise:

Today, I will give this cast-iron guarantee: If I become PM a Conservative government will hold a referendum on any EU treaty that emerges from these negotiations
In the nature of these fly-by-night dodgy PR geezers, Cameron's guarantee appears to have expired. As he wrote

there's nothing "new" about breaking your promises to the British public.... Small wonder that so many people don't believe a word politicians ever say if they break their promises so casually

Today, Cameron re-engineered his party's policy, running away from a referendum and promising a vague 'sovereignty bill' and to recover powers over employment law, fundamental rights and criminal justice. Dave thinks this is achievable, but he hasn't a hope. The member nations have just completed years of negotiations over the Constitution and then the severely watered-down Lisbon treaty and there is absolutely no stomach to reopen the discussion and prepare yet another treaty - which is what it will take, because it will require agreement of all the 27 members. It is nothing more than a gimmick designed to try to appease his Eurosceptic membership, but there is no prospect of it working and actually considerable danger if Cameron were to try to apply it. Cameron offers the prospect of a Britain isolating itself from Europe, of being a hanger-on unable to affect the direction of travel, rather than being there on the bridge, having a say in the steering. As the French minister for Europe said today

It's pathetic. It's just very sad to see Britain, so important in Europe, just cutting itself out from the rest and disappearing from the radar map.... They have essentially castrated your UK influence in the European parliament

And this could have an effect on our relationship with our cousins across the pond as well.

Louis Susman, the US Ambassador to London, is also understood to have expressed alarm about the “direction of travel” of a party widely expected to take power after the next election... Mr Susman has already used an interview with the Financial Times to express the hope that the UK’s role in Europe “isn’t diminished” after the election. He said it was in the interests of British political parties “to work with their neighbours... Mrs Clinton is said to be worried by Mr Cameron’s promise to hold a referendum on the Lisbon treaty if it is not ratified by the time of the next election or seek to repatriate powers given to Brussels in previous agreements.

As for the Sovereignty Bill, that was explored by Ken Clarke in a 2003 report, when he wrote that

Ideas such as a ‘supremacy act’ asserting the superiority of British law or giving the British courts the power to overrule judgements of the European Court of Justice undermine one of the fundamentals of the European Union... Without a universally applicable and enforceable body of European law, the European single market simply could not function as it does.

Hat tip to Left Foot Forward on that one. Ken later described the idea of a Sovereignty Act as 'baloney.'

The reality is that Europe isn't a big issue for most people in this country. Ask them to prioritise the things that matter and that will help to guide their votes and Europe barely registers. The September IPSOS Mori tracker - useful because it regularly asks about issues key to voting decisions - had it at the bottom of the list of 13 issues, with just 3% of those polled citing it as important. Unsurprisingly, the economy scored the most, with 39%. It isn't a hot button issue with the voting public, but it matters a lot to the Conservatives, as a matter that destroyed the last Tory government and left lasting wounds. For years, they've been trying to skim over their divisions over Europe, which has chiefly been achieved by the retirement of most of the Tory Europhile big beasts - Ken Clarke notwithstanding - and an influx of anti-Europeans to the point where the party at large is estimated to be 80% anti-European.

Cameron's fear isn't that a vast horde of anti-EU voters will desert him and decide that the swivel-eyed loon Farage and the UKIP troupe of clowns deserve support, but that his party will appear divided over the coming months. Because if there is one thing we know - and those in the Labour Party know it VERY well indeed - it is that the electorate don't like divided parties who are focussed on their own internal battles and not on running the country. This is a powerful issue for the Conservatives and it still retains the capacity to cause significant damage to the prospect of them forming the next government.

Tuesday, November 03, 2009


It's the yellow peril, Cllr Paul Tilsley.


Paul "Not Iain" Dale of the Birmingham Post.

Not for the first time, you have to pity poor Peter Douglas Osborne. There he was, giving an involved answer to a question at today's council meeting and nobody heard, much less cared, what he was saying. PDO could have been declaring the creation of Birmingham as an independent city state and nobody would have noticed.

For all the interest was on the spat between Pauls Dale and Tilsley.

The root of it is the Post's ongoing story over the Working Neighbourhood's Fund, but today's little floor show arose out of this article in today's paper, which also revealed that John Denham, the Secretary of State, is highly critical of the pace at which the WNF money is being splashed around the City.
Almost a week has passed since this newspaper asked Be Birmingham some straightforward questions. Name the projects to benefit from the £2.5 million you have actually managed to spend on tackling worklessness; identify the projects benefitting from the remaining £27.5 million you have spent; name all of the projects allocated funding from the £85 million yet to be spent. We are still waiting for the answers.

The Deputy Leader was clearly up for a fight and it fell to Cllr Ray Hassall to open proceedings when he chucked a gentle underarm question towards Tilsley, who immediately batted it straight back in the direction of Dale's head. Tilsley spent some time detailing the spend on each constituency and went into detail about the spending on worklessness projects in Hodge Hill, which is all very fine. Cllr Tilsley claimed that these projects had all been agreed in an August meeting of the Be Birmingham board and that details were available on the website to anyone with a 'modicum of knowhow.' I think I've got a modicum of know how and I can't find details of these documents that covers the same ground as Cllr Tilsley in today's meeting. That said, the Be Birmingham website seems to be unnecessarily ineffective when it comes to open corporate governance. The documents are almost certainly there, but they aren't easily accessible through the document library - which has nothing at all for August.

If anyone has more luck in finding the documents, let me know. The point being, that if they were so easily accessible, then this could have been at least partially resolved by sending a hyperlink to the Post or just a copy of the relevant documents.

So, after Paul T had waxed lyrical about all that that the WNF is doing for the city - although some of his statements appeared to suggest that the targets required of some of the projects in Hodge Hill had already been achieved, but that may have been a verbal slip on his part - he concluded that these documents were there for anyone who knows what they are doing.

Ray Hassall commented that the Post clearly didn't know what they were doing and the question time moved on.

Paul Tilsley didn't. Clearly in a bad mood, he was stomping the aisles of the chamber and could be clearly heard from the public gallery alleging to other Liberal Democrat members that Paul Dale - seated at the front at the press table - had told him to 'eff off.' I can't comment on what Mr Dale did or did not say, as it wasn't audible to me, but at this point, Mr Dale decided to quietly gather up his notes and took his leave through the door on the right hand side of the chamber. Tilsley, denied his chance to raise the matter with the chair of the meeting, then scuttled out through the door on the left hand side, so that the two must have met in the ante-room or corridor behind the council chamber.

Paul Dale didn't return.

Then the police turned up.

Fortunately, it was the Chief Constable and one of his ACCs to attend the annual report of the lead member of the police authority, rather than the local constabulary arriving to cart one or other of the Pauls off in chains.

Sparkling good fun, but not adding much to the debate over the destination of the WNF millions.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Democrats now Liberal again

Quietly, the Facebook group mentioned below has now metamorphosed into one that is rather more sensible. It seems that the PC brigade must have turned up and had a quiet word with the relevant people.
No to the building of Halfway Houses opposite East Park School edited their
Description and News.


Life is all about priorities.

I mean - when you have a begging letter from the local cricket club asking for £20 million to part finance their ground reconstruction or a £14 million shortfall in social services funding for this year, what are you supposed to do?

Monday's Cabinet meeting sees both these items on the agenda and the answer will be - shaft the unemployed by taking £14 million out of government funding designed to tackle that problem AND pump £20 million into the Edgbaston redevelopment.

And don't worry about the pending judicial review...

This is from a fan of the Bears, who wants to see international cricket continue at Edgbaston (although the prices are VERY steep), but just thinks that this year, Birmingham City Council should probably spend our money on a more deserving cause.

(Yes, I know that the money comes from a different pot, but the point holds.)