Friday, April 30, 2010

Let down

Very disappointed that the Guardian has declared for the Liberals - I thought we could rely on that lot for support in our darkest hour. Perhaps they prefer a Tory government.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Sample poles

Update on the Solihull Burt v Throup race. 23 garden stakes for Liberal Lorely, 5 for Tory Throup.

Bottler Osborne

George Osborne has pulled out of Question Time tonight. Why wouldn't he take the chance to drive home the point about Tory financial planning?

Aside from the fact that he's an incompetent idiot who makes Norman Lamont look like Paul Krugman.

Perhaps he's just chicken.

Cluck off, there's a good chap.

Quote of the day

Peter Mandelson, quoted by Alan Johnson, "Times like these, you need a workhorse, not a show pony."

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Unreliable evidence

It is an imperfect polling measure, but if the number of garden stake election posters down the Warwick Road into Solihull are any guide, then the Liberal Democrat Lorely Burt should be beating her Tory opponent by about two to one.

I have been told that the past year has seen some £70,000 spent by the Tories to regain Solihull, so failing would be a massive blow to them and proof that perhaps votes cannot be bought just with money.

Hardy perennial

I've just heard the first 'dumb council' story of the campaign. A parent has just been on the radio describing her surprise at receiving a polling card for her toddler. This happens with predictably monotonous regularity during election periods, but it isn't a question of daft bureaucrats.

Put simply, the parents have at some time completed a registration form and they have added their toddler to the form in error.

So the next time this story surfaces, you'll know that, for once, the council aren't to blame. Often, the truth isn't as good as the myth, so is it any wonder that the media run with the myth?

All mics are live

Rule one - treat all microphones and cameras as live.

If there is a single political campaigner who has never walked away from a voter thinking or muttering unbroadcastable thoughts, then I'd like to meet them. A day away from the final, stage-setting debate and a week away from polling, the stress he is under is massive and he will be close to exhaustion, with his premiership at risk. He was being followed by Sky and was understandably concerned about how they would cover the encounter - ironically, I don't think that it would have played badly before his comments were broadcast.

I've read differing stories as to what the lady involved actually said, but the important thing is how he's reacted since - he's apologised publicly and in person to the lady concerned.

The snap polls seem to suggest that his apology will suffice - 58% think so and another snap poll says that 74% wouldn't change their vote as a result of the kerfuffle. He's human and he's made a mistake for which he has now apologised. Interestingly, most other politicians are holding back on comments on the issue - they understand.

Clearly, this will provide food for the next 24 hours of the news cycle and fuel the pro-Tory media's attacks on Labour, but then we have the final debate, focussing on the biggest issue for us all - the economy and that will set the headlines for the weekend and he run in to the finishing post.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

On the BBC Midlands election debate, John Hemming said that a vote for the Liberals was a vote for their policies.

Not necessarily in Yardley or Hall Green, apparently.

Liberal Democrat manifesto 2010 on the Euro
We believe that it is in Britain’s long-term interest to be part of the euro

John Hemming, Liberal Democrat leader in the Midlands
Personally I would keep the pound and not go for phase 2 of the Euro

Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010 on an amnesty
We will allow people who have been in Britain without the correct papers for ten years, but speak English, have a clean record and want to live here long-term to earn their citizenship

John Hemming, Liberal Democrat leader in the Midlands
I would oppose an amnesty. What is in the manifesto is not an amnesty.

Liberal Democrat Manifesto 2010 on Afghanistan
Be critical supporters of the Afghanistan mission. The military surge must be accompanied by a strategy to ensure a more legitimate government, tackle corruption and win over moderate elements in the insurgency. We will continue to demand a strategy that involves other players in the region. We believe that a successful strategy will stabilise Afghanistan enough to allow British troops to come home during the next Parliament

John Hemming, Liberal Democrat leader in the Midlands

It is the individual candidate that matters. It is the individual candidate who has a vote in parliament as long as they have sufficient independence of mind to vote their own views. (which Jerry and I do)..... Jerry Evans also supports the withdrawal of troops

Vote Liberal - you never know what you'll get.

UKIP if you want to

UKIP have threatened to launch legal action against the BBC unless Lord 'Fruitcake' Pearson is allowed onto Thursday's debate. Having seen his magnificent performance with Jon Sopel on the Campaign Show last week - repeated in part during The Politics Show, where it became clear that the patrician Lord Pearson had little grasp of the details of the manifesto, he would add tremendous comedy value to the debate. We could do with a laugh.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Round Two

I've not had the chance to write about Thursday's debate until now. The most striking thing about it was the change in presentational style between ITV and Sky, who played the whole event less like an exercise in national democracy and more like a low-rent entertainment awards ceremony, complete with searchlights and a red carpet, although the attending leaders would have been hard pushed to spot the difference between a carpet and Kay Burley's tongue. Her presentation was exceptionally poor, dropping over into sycophancy when Dave and SamCam rolled up to the front door. Camera shots were also heavy on channel branding.

However, the debate was much more combative than the opening offer, with all three of them opening up and Clegg not being given the easy ride that he got last week. The standard of debate was significantly higher with genuine arguments being traded.

Overall, I thought that Clegg wasn't as strong as last week, although he did falter on some issues - Trident is a real weakness for them as their policy is rather confused and unlikely to offer any cost savings over the other two parties and their policy over the Euro would have been hugely damaging if they had enacted it in government and does not chime with a majority of the electorate. On these and other issues, he found himself challenged rather more than previously by both sides. He still benefits from the novelty factor when compared to the familiarity of the other two, but is starting to suffer from the scrutiny on the LD policies. The Tories should steer clear of personal attacks on Clegg, unless they have some real punch and evidence behind them - the smears of earlier this week were weak and beneath a party with pretentions to government. Personal attacks are almost certain to backfire on the originator and there is plenty to go at on Liberal policy.

Cameron had also improved - although if he could stare a little less into the camera, that might avoid frightening the viewers. He was still nowhere near the standard expected of him, but probably did just about enough to avoid further criticism. The love-in from the Tory press that followed on Friday simply wasn't justified on the basis of Cameron's performance, but they were well aware that with the debate limited to the Sky News channel (granted, it is on the lower reaches of the Freeview box) the viewing figures would be considerably less than last week and with around 4 million watching, indeed it was. This meant that the media response on the Friday was crucial in shaping the course of the argument, so it was vital that Cameron was seen to be on top form and as a winner, whatever the reality might be. And so it came pass that the front pages trumpeted his success.

In contrast, Gordon had an appalling debate and was battered against the ropes, although, naturally, this didn't match with the reality any more than did the received opinion of Cameron's performance. I know that I am biased, but if you were looking for substance and argument, I think that Gordon won hands down. He made some very strong points on Labour's performance, highlighting what was being put at risk by a Tory or Liberal government and only looked discomfited when Cameron went off on his spiel about not scaremongering - something that Gordon should have decried as gross hypocrisy on Cameron's part, given that much of the Tory campaign is built on making us scared of something. Gordon's problem is that people have made their minds up about him and are constantly being told negative things by a viciously aggressive media - elements of which seem to be actively anti-democratic in their aim of influencing voting intention.

I'm indebted to Tom Watson for pointing out a rather fine, personal and very honest blog from Labour's candidate for Pendle, the long-serving MP Gordon Prentice. He points out that the fall out from the campaign is a presidential focus on the leadership to the exclusion of any interest in the qualities of the people that we are actually electing to represent us and the reviews he posts about his Liberal Democrat opponent suggest that the good people of Pendle would be making a huge mistake if they voted Liberal rather than for Gordon. Being presidential is fine for that office - after all, the American people are electing one person to the job, so they should scrutinise them in detail. We are electing individuals to represent us and I fear that these debates are one more nail in the coffin of the constituency connection.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

Elvis has left the building

Not for the first time, I'm feeling all Malcolm Tucker and feel a desire to batter some sense into our campaign team and also to check that they are actually working for the party.

One of Gordon's strengths is his depth, his passion and the fact that he is a serious man made for serious times like these. I have to ask precisely how these selling points are highlighted by putting him next to an Elvis impersonator. How does this enhance the status of our Prime Minister? He looked uncomfortable and if he is supposed to relaunch the campaign by having more events involving real people, then starting off with one featuring a dead rock star isn't setting the right tone.

I know that the Tories have at least one clown on the front bench, but they have the good sense to keep Osborne under wraps during the campaign, in the same secure bunker housing Grayling and Letwin.

All we've done is given the Tories and their tame media a whole raft of headlines based on Elvis songs. They don't need our help to make more ammunition.

This must have been dreamed up by the same person who thought that the Ashes to Ashes poster was a good idea. I assume that Mandy was on a lunchbreak when it was imagined. I hope that the originator is now off for a long spell delivering leaflets somewhere remote.

We're supposed to be the government - so let's look like we're in control and not running the entertainment at Butlins circa 1988.

Gimmicks are all very well and this should at least guarantee Gordon some press coverage, but they have to be used sparingly. An impromptu walkabout, a real celebrity endorsement, Geoff Hoon's head on a pole and a supply of rotten fruit - all good. Dodgy impersonators are not.

Leave that to the other parties with their third rate Blair lookalikes for leaders.

I don't see anyone else laughing

Parental advisory on some of the lyrics, but don't forget.

Friday, April 23, 2010

Hypocrisy, thy name is Dave.

People are really depressed with politics at the moment and they need to be inspired.

David Cameron, 22 April 2010
We've been insistent this week that we wanted to redouble the positive
Michael Gove, 23 April 2010

It has been an interesting week - Murdoch's minions turned up unannounced at the Independent's offices to berate the editor for daring to be critical of another paper's owner, resulting in a stand up full and frank exchange of views. We had the Sun choosing to ignore the findings of a YouGov poll that showed latent support for the Liberal Democrats because it failed to fit conveniently with the chosen narrative. Helpfully, the right-wing media have been assuring us that Cameron won last night's debate hands down - despite the evidence of those that watched it.

Indeed, the Daily Mail decided that it didn't like the results of the first online poll, so it decided to scrap it and replace it with one that it DID like, as highlighted by refpls. These online live polls are unreliable rubbish at the best of times, so fixing one just shows you how desperate the Mail has become. The first poll showed Clegg ahead on 72% with Cameron down on 20%, clearly a result unacceptable to the Daily Heil, so it was rerun with a poll which then showed the far more acceptable result of Clegg on 41% and Cameron on 48%.

For the past couple of years, the story has been about the rise of the Cameroon Conservatives and the imminent demise of Labour and you can't help feeling that the Tory-supporting side of the press really can't face being proved wrong.

To start with, the Independent ran a front page with the headline “Rupert Murdoch will not decide the outcome of the election. You will,” challenging the overt interference from the News International stable. The story continues,

Later in the afternoon, in a coming-apart-at-the-seams scenario, Rebekah Wade/Brooks and Murdoch’s son, James—who will both face the wrath of Murdoch senior if they don’t produce a winner—stormed over to the Independent, breached its security systems, barged into the offices of the Independent’s editor-in-chief and top executive, Simon Kelner, and commenced, in Brit-speak, a
giant row. Their point was that newspaper publishers don’t slag off other newspaper publishers in polite Britain, but also the point was to remind Kelner that he wasn’t just slagging off another publisher, he was slagging off the Murdochs, damn it. Indeed, the high point of the screaming match was Wade/Brooks, in a fit of apoplexy and high drama, neck muscles straining, saying to Kelner: “And I invited you to Blenheim in the first place!” Blenheim being the Murdoch family retreat and the highest social destination for all Murdoch loyalists and ambitious Brits in the media

As everyone is aware, Thursday's front pages were dominated by various non-stories smearing Nick Clegg with everything from anti-British, pro-Nazi sentiments to some supposed dodgy dealing with donor money going straight into his personal bank account. This was a personal favourite of mine, as the paperwork later provided by the Liberal Democrats demonstrated that Clegg had in fact lost £750 on the deal. The Daily Mail accused Clegg of being anti-British (well, he does have a lot of foreign blood, you know) on the basis of a couple of highly selective quotes from a 2002 article in the Guardian. This does bring to mind the old adage about people in glass houses, because if we are to go back in time, the Mail is renowned for being a supporter of Mosley's Fascists, with the infamous headline Hurrah for the Blackshirts. The Mail even wheeled out Nicholas Soames to provide a suitable quote attacking Clegg. Soames is qualified to speak on these matters because his grandfather was Winston Churchill.

The Conservatives initially denied any knowledge at all of these ham-fisted attempts to personally smear Clegg and the BBC's Nick Robinson initially criticised Lord Mandelson for attempting to blame the Conservatives for it, only to admit in a later update to his blog, produced during the run up to the debate, that

political reporters from the Tory-backing papers were called in one by one to discuss how Team Cameron would deal with "Cleggmania" and to be offered Tory HQ's favourite titbits about the Lib Dems - much of which appears in today's papers

The Guardian provides some confirmation, claiming that a meeting took place on Monday at Conservative headquarters on Millbank, setting the media running on trying to dig up dirt on Clegg. The Liberal Democrats are pointing the finger squarely at the Conservative General Election co-ordinator, one George Osborne (who was allowed out of his padded cell for a brief public appearance this week before being returned to a place of safety - ours, not his).

Amidst all of this came the debate and a bad tempered accusation by Dave that Labour were telling lies about his poor old policies in leaflets up and down the country, lies that Gordon bore personal responsibility for. Set aside the minor fact that most leaflets are produced under the imprint of local candidates and agents and not under that of the party, let alone the PM, but Cameron can spare us the manufactured anger.

His party has produced a leaflet depicting a blood-soaked machete and Chris Grayling abusing the crime figures to terrify people about crime. His party told us that 54% of young women in the most deprived areas are pregnant. Wednesday saw Ken Clarke - who really should know better - cast aside his credibility to claim that a hung parliament would make the IMF likely to intervene. He was later backed up by Osborne, who claimed it as a fact. That lie was demonstrated today when Moody's - one of the key credit agencies - said that it would make no difference and that in fact, if a policy could be agreed by more than one party, then that suggests a solid framework for agreed progress, so it could actually be a good thing.

The City research consultants Capital Economics yesterday said in a briefing note to investment houses that markets were "becoming rather less fearful of the prospect of a hung parliament". It said it had warned in February "some of the worst fears over a hung parliament might be overdone and there are signs that the markets are starting to come round to that view". Jonathan Loynes, its chief Europe economist, said: "We are not suggesting that all worries about a hung
parliament are completely misguided. We are at a precarious position and the finances are in a mess. Action must be taken to sort them out very quickly. But
there is growing recognition among the parties that further action to address the fiscal problem is needed. The markets have taken heart from that in the past week

Dave is trying his best to ride to power on a wave of sewage and lies, hoping against hope that none of the mud and lies being spread around by his lieutenants sticks to him. All this just demonstrates just how desperate they are becoming as their chances of obtaining a majority disappear into the distance and the threat that the Tories may never again get a majority with a revised electoral system becomes a real possibility.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Crime down 7% again

The British Crime Survey, the best assessment of people's actual experience of crime, has seen yet another fall. Crime fell last year by 7%. Broken Britain? Not a bit of it.

Malevolent outdoes itself

Somebody has decided to dump a truckload of carefully stored manure onto Nick Clegg's reputation this morning. Odd hints of financial impropriety and a dose of anti-patriotism fill the Tory front pages, as the smears begin in earnest. It will make uncomfortable reading for the Liberals, but should also make the Tories concerned. If this is what their campaign has come down to, then they really are bereft of ideas.

This is clearly the new style of politics that Cameron wanted.

I've never shied away from covering the less than angelic side of the Liberals, which contrasts with their positive, media-friendly image, but this stuff this morning is just nasty.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Tories on the "Big Society"

The 'big society' is bollocks. It is boiled vegetables that have been cooked for three minutes too long. It tastes of nothing. What is it?

And that's a Conservative view.

The wheels appear to be coming off yet another policy that is heavy on spin, but light on substance. Campaigners are finding it hard to sell this nebulous idea, an Oliver Letwin special, on the doorsteps and the campaign is being reworked at a high level.

I doubt that what is effectively a campaign relaunch will be of any use at this late stage in the game. Cameron will have to perform out of his socks on Thursday and hope that Clegg and Brown prove to be entirely ineffectual if he is to have any hope of salvaging the campaign and delivering a Tory majority - an outcome that is looking increasingly unlikely. In fact, it seems most likely that Cameron's favoured first-past-the-post system will actually allow the party in third place to form a government by dint of having most seats. Following that, expect the Labour and Liberal leaderships to sort out a referendum on replacing the voting system and the Tory leadership to sort out their own problems in a typically brutal way

"By then we would have murdered our leader and his head would be on a stake. The last week shows how thin our support was. There is no great enthusiasm for Cameron."

Guardian Podcast

To Birmingham University this evening, to watch the recording of the Guardian's weekly politics podcast, with a panel comprising John Harris, Jackie Ashley and one of my favourite journalists, Nick Cohen. Much was made of Cleggmania, with discussion over the issue of Trident and whether the shift in the polls is a permanent one or not. The discussion ranged over the Big Society proposals from the Conservatives, which were not well-received, but that's hardly a surprise from a left-of-centre Guardianista audience and panel. There was even time to bemoan the current state of the Labour campaign and wonder why Labour hasn't been tougher on the banks, complete with contributions from the audience. About the only firm conclusion reached was that the result of this election seems to be unknowable at the moment and the panel were really struggling to forecast the outcome.

It was good to see so many students there (clearly a quiet night at Birmingham Uni), but one of them deserves a talking to, because he said that perhaps the Big Society proposals might - and only might - inspire more young people to get involved in politics. Much as this is a laudable aim, I can remember when Tory leaders inspired us, but it inspired us to protest and to get involved in opposing their policies, not in joining in! But then sometimes I do feel very old.

Thanks, by the way, to Alex at the Guardian for the invitation and I can recommend that you do catch up with the podcast on the website.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Money, money, money

Hot off the Electoral Commission press are the donation figures for April 6 to the 12. The Tories accumulated an impressive £1.4 million - to keep the canap├ęs flowing on ConAir when
Cameron's plane gets airborne again. Labour brought in a respectable fighting fund of £785k and the Liberal Democrats, the new force in politics, brought in a whopping £20,000. No, that isn't a misprint, but it does predate little St Nick's performance in the debate. Next week's figures could prove interesting.

Monday, April 19, 2010

For everything else, there's Boris

I've been wondering where Boris has got to in this campaign. Despite being one of the most recognisable faces of Toryism in the country and one of the few able to defuse his poshness by turning it up to 11 and making it a lovable, comedy feature, Boris has been noticeably absent from the Dave media circus and I wondered why.

It has to be because Dave is nervous about being upstaged by this larger than life character who resembles a larger than life labrador puppy and that Boris might distract from the focus on Cameron. If you see footage of them together, it is interesting to observe that Cameron seems to defer to Boris and let him take the lead - there is more than just a friendly rivalry there and I doubt that the mayoralty will be the last we hear of Boris. I even wondered if Boris was intentionally keeping his powder dry in case the campaign went sour, ready to leap in and try to save the day in a way that would ensure he would come out of it free of any blame for the car crash that the Tory campaign has become.

So, up until last week, Boris wasn't a high-profile part of the campaign, but then Nick Clegg arrived on the scene and the Conservative game plan seems to have been thrown out of the window completely. Tonight's election broadcast, a carefully honed attack on Labour, was replaced with a begging video from Dave, trying to remind the voters of why we once liked him and why only he has the answers, not nasty Nick.

Yesterday, the Spectator lit the bat signal and Boris appeared with a piece in the Telegraph today and a raft of other media work as well as he was thrown into the fray as desperation stalks the ranks of the Tory party.

Boris to the rescue - but there will be a price to pay down the line for Dave.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

Ageism from Clegg?

Apparently, the golden boy is on a tour of London seats tomorrow and if Liberal Democrat candidates want a picture taken with the new conquering hero, then they will have to be under 25 or they don't get a look in.

This is perhaps to do two things. Firstly, it is to show that the Liberal Democrats are young and vibrant (clearly, they haven't seen some of the Liberal councillors in Birmingham, who may be able to tell stories of the last Liberal goverment). Secondly, it is to demonstrate that Nick Clegg is now allowed out on his own without Obi Wan Cable tutoring him in the ways of the Third Force and that Nick Skywalker is now able to look like a leader.

Although doubts may be raised by anyone who saw him squirm when C4 News collared him on a visit to a hospital unit which the local Liberals falsely claim is about to be closed - if they can't find a bandwagon, then spreading unfounded fears is a time-honoured way of starting one.

Quote of the week

It’s been another great week for our campaign
George Osborne, 17 April 2010, as the Tories end the week second to the Liberal Democrats in the polls and the Tories have their worst polling figures since 2007. Somebody slap him.

A reminder from the last campaign of the Tory plan.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Where's Dave next?

Who will Dave meet next to provide a handy soundbite for the next debate? The meme is running.... (Hat tip to Hopi Sen)

Take That

You'd expect something out of the hat from the Tories after Cameron's poor show last night. Something exciting in policy terms - legalising hunting poor people, perhaps, or just something aimed at immigrants. Really, anything to shift the focus from Cameron's failure.

So the brains at CCHQ must have been grinding overtime into the small hours to come up with the strikingly original concept of a national singing competition for schools, rather like the X Factor.

Trust me, I am just about resisting a full-on Malcolm Tuckerish explosion.

Yes, Dave, this is exactly what the country needs right now. The economy is starting to toddle again now, but still needs lots of care and attention, but stuff that, we need yet another bloody singing competition to fill up Saturday nights on one or other of the channels.

It would be laughable if it wasn't so serious. This lightweight could be Prime Minister in a matter of weeks. Excuse me, I need to nip off and bang my head against the nearest wall.

Meanwhile, even as Gary Barlow outed himself as a Tory, I will remind those of you who like your politics with a dash of stardust that we can roll out the top names as well. We had Sean Pertwee and David Tennant earlier in the week, but now I give you a particularly fine election broadcast courtesy of the equally fine Mr Edward Izzard.

I like this PEB for a few reasons. It is simple, unfussy, is well-delivered, funny and it takes on one of the most insulting Tory campaigns. For some reason, the Conservatives, who miss no opportunity to wrap themselves in the Union Flag, love to do this country down. Cameron and Osborne talked down the recession, they talked down the recovery and Cameron and others have continued to spout on about a broken country. Well, we're not broken. Things are very far from perfect - we all know that - but to say that we're broken is genuinely insulting and I wish they'd either stop doing it or stop claiming to be patriotic, because you can't do both.

Camewrong... again

A feature of Dave's performance last night was a stream of references to people he has met.

Some claims can be put down to a simple slip of the tongue

"I was in Plymouth recently and, er, a 40-year-old black man actually made the point to me. He said: 'I came here when I was six, I've served in the Navy for 30 years, I'm incredibly proud of my country, but I'm so ashamed that we've had this out-of-control system with people abusing it so badly."

A 40 year old bloke who has served 30 years in the Navy? Probably not.

But then we come to Dave's ongoing campaign to alienate the police service. Not content with a policy for elected sheriffs that has Chief Constables threatening resignation over plans to bring their operational activities under political control, he's now laying into front line policing and training.

I went to a Hull police station the other day. They had five different police cars and they were just about to buy a £73,000 Lexus. There is money that could be saved to get the police on the frontline.

Except he didn't visit the other day, it was eight months ago. And Humberside police bought the Lexus back in July after twelve months of testing of a range of suitable vehicles. The estimates suggest that they bought the car for around £40k and then spent £30k kitting it out with communications and computer equipment. The price tag that Cameron quotes is for a specialist vehicle 'on the road' and fighting crime across the region on the frontline, not just a panda car tootling around Hull. Humberside Police even use ultra-cheap Protons as general patrol vehicles, but it is accepted that particular units will have a need for specialist vehicles that will cost significantly more. The police up there aren't happy.

Then Dave turned his attention to the Met, one of the largest police services in the world. He revealed that there are 400 uniformed officers who are driving desks in Human Resources rather than fighting crime on the streets. Over 300 of those officers occupy training roles, with 208 of them busy training new recruits, PCSOs and special constables. This last group are a subset that you would have thought Dave would have been only too happy to encourage for their sterling voluntary service to the community, but no, he feels that they don't deserve training.

There are more than 30,000 police officers in the Metropolitan Police and it has a total establishment of around 50,000 men and women. Not only has Dave now decided that they should scrap training and perhaps restrict their pursuits to public transport, but he won't commit to maintaining their numbers (numbers that have been increased by this Labour government).

Friday, April 16, 2010

The morning after the night before - I agree with Nick

Nick Clegg can afford to feel very pleased with himself this morning - he stormed the debate yesterday. Frank Luntz, the US pollster, was on the Today programme explaining why he thought Clegg did well, based on a live 'worm' tracking poll he was carrying out with a focus group of selected voters. His view was that Clegg's relative obscurity was a key advantage - people didn't have a pre-conceived view of him, so when he took on the mantle of the outsider and honest broker, comparing himself positively to the faults of the other two parties, that was the story that the public were willing to buy. Whether his success translates into real votes that will be cast in his party's favour on May 6th is a different matter. He was always the one with the most to gain - the event placed him on an equal footing to the other two parties as he was allowed into the leadership sandbox to play with the big boys. He wasn't perfect - he seemed to be referring to Trident at every occasion, giving the strong impression that the Liberals were about to scrap the nuclear deterrent. This isn't the case as they actually want to consider replacing it with another, locally-sourced nuclear system. Equally, he keeps touting it as part of their debt reduction plans, when the significant drawdown for the Trident replacement funding won't kick off for a few years yet - although the massive costs of developing a replacement would start climbing very rapidly.

Luntz's view of Brown ties in neatly with the official party line that while Clegg had the style, Brown had the substance. I always thought that he'd do well in this forum and he did - he looked at ease, comfortable and in command. He looked like a Prime Minister on top of his game, so for my money, Gordon significantly outperformed the somewhat poor expectations that had been forecast. Much as I hate to use the comparison, it is a little like the Osborne effect in the Chancellor's debate a couple of weeks ago - many (including me) had very low expectations of George Osborne's performance, so if he managed to avoid hunching down in a corner and rocking back and forth with his hands over his ears, then he was doing better than expected. Osborne didn't drop any clangers and even managed the trick of looking almost human, so he did well. I never rated Gordon's chances that low by any means - he is more at home in this environment and his undoubted mastery of facts and figures should give him the tools to do well - but there were those talking down his likely performance, but he did rather better than that level of expectation. He even made the first joke at the expense of the Tory posters, saying that he liked the photo of him that they are using.

In stark contrast, we have Cameron's performance. For my money, he underperformed compared to his expectations. I doubt that he will have lost any solid Tory voters as he didn't make any major gaffes - apart from bracketing China with Iran over the nuclear debate, which may cause some minor diplomatic ructions - but some of the policies were exposed to heavy criticism. His constant referral to the rainbow of supportive voters that he'd met over recent days became tiresome as he rolled them all out to support each and every carefully-scriped point, but he was floundering in the face of a pincer attack from both sides. Cameron was unsure about whether to attack the Liberals and Brown wasn't minded to take them on, so fire was concentrated on Cameron and he flunked it. Post-debate, the Tories were spinning like mad in Manchester that their man had won it, but not even the Mail's sketchwriter, Quentin Letts, was buying that line, according to observers in the spin room. Interestingly, on a live Question Time afterwards, Michael Gove seemed anxious to move on to the next debate, which is indicative that the Tories don't feel that Cameron did well. I think Alan Johnson nailed it
What we saw last night is Cameron is not good under pressure, and, faced with that, it was a different kind of Cameron we saw last night to the one we usually see where his sleeves are rolled up, where everything is prearranged and it is a kind of PR stunt.
This raises serious concerns about Cameron's ability to do a job that is without parallel in terms of pressure. As predicted, when he gets pushed away from his script and his soundbites, he starts to flounder.

The debate itself worked - we had 90 minutes of uninterrupted, solid political debate. It certainly wasn't the stilted, sluggish event that many - including me - feared, suffocated by over-regulation and excessive rules. I don't think that the ITV presentation was very strong with a number of technical issues clouding the matter and I'll hope for better from Sky and Adam Boulton and a further upping of the game by the BBC, who should be able to do this live broadcast stuff in their sleep. Overnight viewing figures suggest an average of around 9.4 million - a respectable figure and higher than the figures for the Question Time BNP edition last year with a peak of 9.9 million. We've got two more of these to come and if they are this good each time, they promise to be cracking political broadcasting.

So, what does this all mean? Is it a "game-changer?" I don't think that any tribally-devoted voters will have been swayed by last night, from whichever party. Labour will be happy that they and Clegg outshone Cameron by a decent margin, but the positive spin for Clegg may prove counter-productive. As Nick (Robinson) pointed out on the Today programme, a little boost to the Liberals helps Labour by preventing the Tories from taking back some of those south-east seats - like Chris Huhne's in Eastleigh - that they need to get a majority. Too much of a boost and Labour will suffer in two ways - firstly because the Liberals will start to threaten Labour-held seats further north and secondly because the tactical Liberal votes that have kept the Tories out in some seats may switch back. While Cameron didn't do well and didn't look prime ministerial, I would expect the Conservatives to come back against the Liberals strongly as they move rapidly away from 'love-bombing' their yellow colleagues and start holding the Liberal policies up to the light a bit more. Even for Clegg, there may be a downside, as the media will start taking a long hard look at their policies and there are some that will come up wanting. Sarah Teather stood in for Charlie Kennedy on This Week last night and look stunned when Andrew Neil started challenging her hard over their debt reduction plans, where for all the Liberals' much-touted honesty, there appears to be a black hole of some £5 billion opening up as a gap between planned savings and reality.

That's the thing about playing on the same pitch as the big boys - the game gets much harder. Is Clegg ready for that scrutiny? Will this provide a sustained bounce to the Liberal Democrat cause or just an overnight wonder? Time will tell.

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

The drugs policy don't work

I was going to write a long piece on the misguided, populist Tory policy on the NHS supply of drugs to treat cancer, but Unity has done it for me and done it with his usual aplomb. What the Tories currently propose is a massively retrograde step in health public policy and surrender to the financial power of the pharmaceutical companies over the science. They kicked off last week with Andrew Lansley being criticised - the latest in a long line of criticisms directed at the Tories by apolitical figures - after he alleged that since ministers had pledged to make a wider range of cancer drugs available, none of the fifteen drugs assessed had been fully approved.

Sir Andrew Dillon, the Chief Executive of NICE responded
It's wrong to recommend the use of treatments where the additional benefit is uncertain. This is misleading for patients and wastes scarce NHS resources. Not all patients with a particular condition benefit from a drug and some drugs only work well for some patients or at a particular stage in a disease. That's why we target the use of some new drugs, or make a partial recommendation.... patients who can really benefit can get access to treatment and the NHS can spread its resources to provide other treatments and services
Despite what the tabloids would have you believe, NICE is not there to restrict access to effective remedies - it actually carries out a task surprisingly rare in healthcare suppliers across the globe by comparing the efficacy of a new treatment against that of those currently used. We have been conditioned to think that the drug companies are out there, beavering away to produce new and exciting treatments for new diseases. In fact, as Ben Goldacre has written in his excellent expose of the standard of scientific knowledge in the media and beyond, Bad Science, and confirmed by a comment on the Unity posting from 'a&e charge nurse,' the golden age of drug development is largely done and to get past the time limits on patented medication, the drug companies rely on slight improvements to create new medicines and maintain profits. To ensure that these drugs get licensed, they encourage and assist patients with lobbying to get funding for a new drug from the health authority.

Unity explains that Dronedarone (Multaq) was touted around as the new wonder drug for treating atrial fibrillation as it was initially claimed that it could prevent 10,000 strokes a year if given to the 300,000 sufferers, although when the story resurfaced some 16 months later, it was considered to be suitable for some 40,000. The media stories slamming NICE for their delays didn't report that
even before it was licensed, the trial results for Dronedarone had failed to live up to early expectations. In fact what the manufacturers own data showed was that, for the vast majority of patients with atrial fibrillation, Dronedarone was only half as effective as existing drug treatments for this condition, all of which are considerably cheaper because their patents expired several years ago, allowing them to be produced as generics.
Indeed, for patients who suffer from a couple of particular heart conditions, the drug is absolutely contra-indicated because it has been show to actually double the mortality rate. It is a worthwhile treatment for a small percentage of patients who have one or more conditions that are additional risk factors and has been licenced for that

Sometimes, the manufacturers find out that a drug licensed for a particular treatment is actually effective in treating something else, so they pull a clever trick - tweaking the formula, renaming it and getting it relicensed. Richard Blogger explains the Avastin/Lucentis switcheroo thus
In short Avastin is a bowel cancer drug but was found to halt “wet” age-related macular degeneration. So the manufacturer altered the drug to remove the cancer active part and called it Lucentis. The two drugs have the same effect on “wet” age-related macular degeneration, but Avastin was only put forward for licensing for treating bowel cancer in the UK and Lucentis was put forward for licensing for treating “wet” age-related macular degeneration. The company decided to cost Lucentis according to how much the patient would pay to retain their sight. That is, £1000 per treatment, and (a local eye surgeon told me) about ten treatments are needed. Although Avastin is expensive as a bowel cancer drug (that’s another story) the volumes needed are so small that the cost for treating “wet” age-related macular degeneration is £1 per treatment. NICE can only approve licensed drugs, so for “wet” age-related macular degeneration it can only approve Lucentis. They came to a deal with the manufacturers that the NHS would pay for the first 14 treatments and after that the manufacturer would provide the drug for free. But as I mentioned above, most people need just 10 treatments. The eye surgeon I spoke to said that in his clinic he offers patients the choice of having the licensed Lucentis or the unlicensed Avastin, pointing out that they are the same, but the former is a thousand times more expensive than the latter. Half of patients choose Avastin. The Tories use the case of Lucentis (but not the details I have provided) as an example of the way that they want NICE to work.
What has been proposed is breaking the idea that science should be at the heart of decisions over drug spending. We can expect more pressure from the drug companies, more heart-rending stories and more occasions when political direction overrules the scientists and their pesky search for evidence, the best scientific model yet devised and one that the Tories can't wait to throw out for the sake of cheap votes. What is even worse is that this will give people false hope - NICE won't approve drugs unless they can be shown to have benefits additional to existing treatments and a good PR campaign combined with questionable data from a manufacturer is no substitute for a drug that does what it is supposed to.

Rather than trying to accuse Labour of spreading fear by talking about the real risks that a Tory government poses for healthcare in this country, Lansley and his colleagues should first remove the planks from their own eyes about what their policy really means for healthcare.

BNP under investigation

The Electoral Commission confirmed this afternoon that they are formally investigating the 2008 accounts from the BNP. They caution that this does not indicate any wrongdoing, but it is a step up from concerns that they raised in January.

Joanne from Edinburgh has never voted Tory before

And she isn't this time either. Neither should you.

This hard-hitting article, written from the point of view of a single parent, demands to be read. These are just brief extracts, but I would urge you to read the whole article and forward it to your friends.

I had become a single mother when my first marriage split up in 1993. In one devastating stroke, I became a hate figure to a certain section of the press, and a bogeyman to the Tory Government. Peter Lilley, then Secretary of State at the DSS, had recently entertained the Conservative Party conference with a spoof Gilbert and Sullivan number, in which he decried “young ladies who get pregnant just to jump the housing list”. The Secretary of State for Wales, John Redwood, castigated single-parent families from St Mellons, Cardiff, as “one of the biggest social problems of our day”. (John Redwood has since divorced the mother of his children.) Women like me (for it is a curious fact that lone male parents are generally portrayed as heroes, whereas women left holding the baby are vilified) were, according to popular myth, a prime cause of social breakdown, and in it for all we could get: free money, state-funded accommodation, an easy life.

An easy life. Between 1993 and 1997 I did the job of two parents, qualified and then worked as a secondary school teacher, wrote one and a half novels and did the planning for a further five. For a while, I was clinically depressed. To be told, over and over again, that I was feckless, lazy — even immoral — did not help.

Yesterday’s Conservative manifesto makes it clear that the Tories aim for less governmental support for the needy, and more input from the “third sector”: charity. It also reiterates the flagship policy so proudly defended by David Cameron last weekend, that of “sticking up for marriage”. To this end, they promise a half-a-billion pound tax break for lower-income married couples, working out at £150 per annum.

I accept that my friends and I might be atypical. Maybe you know people who would legally bind themselves to another human being, for life, for an extra £150 a year? Perhaps you were contemplating leaving a loveless or abusive marriage, but underwent a change of heart on hearing about a possible £150 tax break? Anything is possible; but somehow, I doubt it. Even Mr Cameron seems to admit that he is offering nothing more than a token gesture when he tells us “it’s not the money, it’s the message”.

Nobody who has ever experienced the reality of poverty could say “it’s not the money, it’s the message”. When your flat has been broken into, and you cannot afford a locksmith, it is the money. When you are two pence short of a tin of baked beans, and your child is hungry, it is the money. When you find yourself contemplating shoplifting to get nappies, it is the money. If Mr Cameron’s only practical advice to women living in poverty, the sole carers of their children, is “get married, and we’ll give you £150”, he reveals himself to be completely ignorant of their true situation.

She's since remarried and had some success in life.

Now, I never, ever, expected to find myself in a position where I could understand, from personal experience, the choices and temptations open to a man as rich as Lord Ashcroft. The fact remains that the first time I ever met my recently retired accountant, he put it to me point-blank: would I organise my money around my life, or my life around my money? If the latter, it was time to relocate to Ireland, Monaco, or possibly Belize.

I chose to remain a domiciled taxpayer for a couple of reasons. The main one was that I wanted my children to grow up where I grew up, to have proper roots in a culture as old and magnificent as Britain’s; to be citizens, with everything that implies, of a real country, not free-floating ex-pats, living in the limbo of some tax haven and associating only with the children of similarly greedy tax exiles.

A second reason, however, was that I am indebted to the British welfare state; the very one that Mr Cameron would like to replace with charity handouts. When my life hit rock bottom, that safety net, threadbare though it had become under John Major’s Government, was there to break the fall. I cannot help feeling, therefore, that it would have been contemptible to scarper for the West Indies at the first sniff of a seven-figure royalty cheque. This, if you like, is my notion of patriotism. On the available evidence, I suspect that it is Lord Ashcroft’s idea of being a mug.

J K Rowling, you have risen in my estimation beyond measure. You may have become rich beyond the dreams of most, but your soul is intact. You understand the true notions of society, patriotism, loyalty and duty.

Hannan misses the point

Everyone's favourite neocon fruitloop and John Redwood wannabe, Daniel Hannan, thinks that The Wire is a reality TV best-practice guide to running a police service that is responsive to the electorate. He hasn't understood the series at all, has he? Magnificent though the series is, at the heart sits a grossly dysfunctional and failing city where the police commissioner is at the mercy of the elected mayor and becomes embroiled in labyrinthine internal politics focussed on keeping his job rather than on delivering effective policing to the people. The political needs of the mayor are not necessarily the needs of the electorate, who still suffer crime and violence. The one occasion where a local police commander actually uses initiative and cuts crime - by creating a zone of tolerance for drug dealing away from inhabited residential areas - ends with that officer being forced out and the scheme shut down because it is politically untenable.

If Mr Hannan wants to find out more about the reality, I can recommend the thumping tome 'Homicide', also by David Simon, which is the result of a year spent with the Baltimore PD Homicide Division. Bleak doesn't even begin to cover it. Whatever else The Wire is, it isn't a celebration of the democratic influence over policing, any more than it is a paean to the quality of the dock facilities in Baltimore, the public schools or the media. Chris Grayling had a better handle on the series than Dan Hannan, even if he was wrong in comparing parts of the UK to the meanest streets in Baltimore.

Watching American TV series and films might explain Hannan's political outlook. I mean, who wouldn't want to be treated by doctors like those in Grey's Anatomy or ER?

If the Wire is his vision for policing in the UK, then the future is clear.

So, which is it to be - Robocop or Bladerunner?

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Starting as you mean to go on

The Tories launched their campaign today amidst the crumbling glory of Battersea power station. This marks a first for them - their policies usually end in ruins and decay, not start from that point.

Tactical error

Magnificent as the venue for yesterday's campaign launch was, I think that holding the press conference in the same room as the party activists was a mistake. Nick Robinson was booed for asking a question that seemed to go on longer than the campaign itself, but the activist's ire was reserved for a hack from The Sun, who was roundly booed and hissed - sounds not properly heard on the BBC feed. Gordon joked that if we didn't have a fair press, at least we had a fair audience, but the Sun hack was not impressed.

Unsurprisingly, he took his revenge by describing the event as a fiasco. Clearly, he was at a different event.

The tribalist part of me enjoys seeing a partial part of the media like The Sun given a taste of the derision it has heaped on us over recent months, but the realist in me knows that while the paper may have chosen its side for the battle currently raging, there is no point in poking a stick into that particular nest of vipers and winding the press up more than we have to. It may be fun, bur it isn't wise.

Parent power

I thought that parents and members of the community already ran schools - we call them governors. The reality is that school governors are in many places hard to recruit and hard to retain. Running a school is fiendishly complex and I can't comprehend the challenge of establishing a new one. This is a manifesto for two things, for the private sector to swoop in and turn our state schools into profit centres - Michael Gove confirmed that on C4 News tonight, when he spoke of opening the school system up to philanthropists and entrepreneurs. Secondly, it will entrench the privileged position of the sharp-elbowed middle classes who can afford to move close to the better schools or can afford the extra tuition to help their children into better, selective state schools. Those on lower wages with limited time will find it hard to get these new schools going.

This policy is just wrong and it is just surrendering responsibility for the provision of educatio, which is well established in the state school. Most schools are in good nick - they've been funded better for the past decade than in the preceding two. Our standards are improving, our children better educated than they have ever been. Treating the state system as a convenient whipping-boy for Tory political aims undermines the hard work done every day by teachers and support staff across this country.

The evidence that it is any better is dubious at best, but it seems that the Tories can't wait to abrogate their duty to educate the next generation.

Losing out in Llandudno

Julie from Llandudno, who features in the current Tory election broadcast misses out on the generous £3 a week marriage tax break. She works 3 days a week in a store and on minimum wage, that would probably take her over the value of her personal allowance, so she could not transfer it to her husband. Never mind.

Wrong again, Dave.

Dave 'Man of the People' Cameron has been spouting off that it is an outrage that three former MPs charged with fraud offences have been given legal aid. Michael 'Rentaquote' Gove is of the opinion that this is a slap in the face for every decent taxpayer in the country - ignoring the fact that if the men are convicted, they may well be ordered to pay back some of the costs of their defence.

I can understand why people are upset and I'm not going to make any attempt to justify their alleged offences - if convicted, they should face the full force of the law. But it is incumbent on someone who might be Prime Minister in a few weeks' time to understand the importance of what he is saying.

Is Cameron actually suggesting that apart from the means testing and the 'interests of justice' test applied to legal aid, there should now be a new test of popular outrage at the alleged offence? That's a very slippery path to start down. On the whole, I'd prefer to leave it to the proper authorities rather than a YouGov poll on how unpopular an alleged offence might be.

The court will decide their guilt or innocence - that's how we've built a legal system that works. It isn't up to politicians - of whatever political hue - to interfere with that process for the purposes of cheap political mileage. Cameron should know better, particularly following on from Chris Grayling's encouragement last week for those who want to break the law on equality.

Bloggers to the Future

Ellie Gellard opened yesterday's manifesto launch. She's a young, bright Labour blogger (damn, but I hate her already) and actually the kind of person we should be encouraging. Thing is, a couple of years ago, she wrote on her blog that she thought Gordon should go. Since then, she's worked out that she was wrong and is as dedicated to re-electing him as Prime Minister as anyone else, but the media are on the attack, with the Daily Mail putting the boot in to this young lady (she doesn't fit their ideal of what a woman should be - too feminist, too political, too left wing).

We're all entitled to make mistakes and to change our minds. The media seek absolute consistency from politicians, regardless of how facts may change. She's only 20 and I don't recall being consistent in my thinking when I was that age -hell, I'm not necessarily consistent 19 years further on. We have thousands of members and it may come as a surprise, but not all of them absolutely believe in every single line of Labour policy. However, what we do believe is that a Labour government offers the best possible future for Britain and we'll work together to achieve that, setting aside our differences.

Because together we are stronger.

History repeating itself?

The Tories have launched things at Battersea Power Station before. Antony Painter reminds us that the Blessed Margaret fired the starting pistol on a project to turn the derelict site into a theme park in 1988. The money ran out, the jobs never materialised and the building fell into rack and ruin.

There's a warning from history for you.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Party Election Broadcast

The Road Ahead - a rather good party political broadcast. When you've sated on that, try the manifesto itself, but make time to watch the smart little animations from Ridley Scott Associates and Saatchi and Saatchi.

Date for your diary

This is coming to Birmingham next week, with Jackie Ashley, Nick Cohen and John Harris lining up to record the podcast in front of a live studio audience. 6:30pm for a 7pm start, wrapping up around 8pm in the Muirhead Lecture Theatre at Birmingham University. The podcast is required listening for those interested in politics from a broad progressive point of view, so why not take the chance and see the star columnists in action?

Conservatives whinging here

Apparently, the Conservatives are complaining about Gordon launching the manifesto at a hospital this morning. I bet they are - nothing speaks to the power of progressive government than this magnificent, £500 million building that completely dominates the skyline as you drive up the Bristol Road into Birmingham. It shows up the failure of the previous Conservative administration, who had a legendary lack of interest in the NHS. They don't want the people to remember that Labour has delivered on promises over the past thirteen years. I keep reminding people that the Tories best promise was to get treatment within eighteen
months. Labour have delivered treatment within eighteen weeks. And the promises continue - a guarantee that cancer diagnostic tests will have results provided to the patient within a week at the outside. Labour promises that you will be able to see a GP every day, including weekends, up until 8pm.

In detail, the Cabinet Office instructed that NHS facilities were not to be used for political events and the Tories think that this has breached the code. It hasn't, simply because this is still a building site surrounded with HERAS fencing and with bits still to be finished. It isn't handed over to the NHS for a good few weeks yet - June is the planned date, I believe.

Just remember, linking Labour and the NHS scares the Tories.



  • Commitment to get cancer test results within 7 days, if not same day.
  • GP available 8-8 7 days a week
  • DIY ASBOs if local authorities don't play ball
  • Referendum on voting system and elected Upper House in October 2011

Manifest destiny

We've certainly got the first division of journalism here today. And they are in the magnificent new University Hospital, a great new service for Birmingham and delivered by a Labour government - just like we have delivered 110 other new hospitals around the country. We didn't just fix the roof, we built the whole hospital. Solid, aspirational stuff from the PM - look to the future not the past.

Ready to launch

En route now to an undisclosed location in Birmingham. More soon.

Polls all over the shop

By all accounts, the Tories should have had a good week - they've had the headlines with business leaders coming out against the hike in National Insurance and the media flow seems to have been with them. Osborne's been largely kept locked in the bunker and only allowed out under cover of darkness, so there's been little to stop the flow.

Yet, YouGov for the Sun is this morning reporting that the Conservative lead has dropped by four points on the week and an ICM poll of the 97 key marginals that the Tories must win to have any hope of forming a government saw Labour ahead - I'll say that again - Labour AHEAD by one percentage point. I'm surprised by that, but I'm also dubious of the fieldwork involved in narrowing down the selection to just the marginals. My gut feeling is that the Tories will do better in the marginals than on the uniform national swing, but that it will be by around 1.5%, not as dramatic a shift as Ashcroft's money should expect.

Yet in a poll of pollsters, seven out of eight thought that the Tories would squeak in and the eighth thought about it for a while and then clarified his stance by agreeing with the rest of them.

Does anyone have any idea where this is going?

Vince is on the money

Vince Cable finds the sight of over 100 businessmen signing up against the increase in National Insurance "nauseating." Particularly offensive is seeing Sir Stuart Rose, the boss of M&S leading the charge. You see, as the Observer points out, M&S are paying Mark Bolland, their new CEO up to £15 million this year. The increase in NI will cost M&S £10 million, so if Mr Bolland could afford to live on just £5 million this year, there would be no effect on the staff or the £625 million annual profit.

You see, while the Tories are good at coming up with negative terms to describe taxes - the 'death tax' to describe a universal levy to cover the cost of social care or a 'jobs tax' to describe a small sharing of the economic pain with Britain's businesses.

Incidentally, if the Conservatives were to apply their multiplier limit proposed for the public sector, whereby a public sector leader would not be allowed to earn more than 20 times the salary of their lowest-paid employee, that £5 million pay packet would demand that the shop cleaners in M&S be paid £250k per annum.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

Playing in the sandpit

Are Liam Byrne and Yvette Cooper really embarrassed after their exchange of notes was picked up on camera?

Facing a press conference comprising the second strings of the journalistic election caravan,
Miss Cooper wrote: "It's clearly second division today – presumably that's why we're allowed to do this?" Mr Byrne then scrawled "Sort of like being allowed to play in the sand pit" before handing the paper back.

Apparently this is symptomatic of ministers cut out of the loop and not just a cheerful exchange stating the reality - this was an early-morning press conference on a Saturday after a very busy first week, with a second week ahead likely to be dominated by manifesto launches and then the first ever leaders' debate, so the journalists sent their understudies. Needless to say, these understudies seem to be rather piqued at being referred to as second division, so have taken appropriate umbrage.

Are they out of the loop? Quite possibly. Campaigns are best fought with a small team actually running the day-to-day operations - decisions need to be taken quickly and committees aren't best placed to do that. Ministers need to be out and about, fighting their own seats, being seen by the electorate, delivering on the grid schedule and feeding the media hunger, not arguing the toss over the details of campaigning.

Incidentally, if you want campaign advice, try Malcolm Tucker. You won't find anything better.
Oh yeah, and here's a little tip to every Brain Ballsack MP in the Her Majesty's Government. Leave Joanna Lumley a-fucking-lone. You don't tweak the nipples of a national treasure. You do not imply she is anything other than perfect. You might as well suggest dotting the Diana Memorial Fountain with yellow piss cakes and turning it into the People's Urinal. If Jo-Lum wants to march the contents of the entire Ukrainian paedo register into an area of outstanding national beauty the response is: "Certainly, Ma'am, and could we get a photo with you?"

About time too

If Cameron comes to power, at least the dancing bear guarding my collection of forged stamps will be safe from an officer of the state invading my home without a warrant. I can't tell you how big an issue that has been on the doorsteps.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Tax break for marriage (terms and conditions apply)

The Tories have railed against social engineering threatening the individual's scope for choice, but their tax cut is designed to help particular family structures - it is engineering on a small scale, but engineering nonetheless.

The IFS reveals that the cut will only help 32% of married couples - the vast majority won't see a penny, so this cannot possibly be justified as a recognition of marriage, only a recognition of a particular kind of Conservative-approved marriage. If you have one partner earning up to £42,455 a year and the other on less than around £6,000, then you'll gain a whopping £3 a week. If you have two people both in part-time, minimum wage work, then they get nothing. Zip. Nada. Nor does it help the really poor - if you both earn less than your personal allowance, then there is no benefit to you at all. To gain

Against all Tory promises, it makes the tax system even more complex and there seems to have been no consideration of the administration costs of a system that actually offers little benefit to those who DO gain from it.

This is, yet again, spin and froth in place of genuine economic policy.

Why would you expect anything more from the Conservative Party.?

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Taking the axe to a child's future

Focus College is a small, very specialist pupil referral unit in Kings Norton. To be honest, you've probably never heard of it and I hope that you never need to have need of the unique service that it offers, because it takes on some of the toughest cases of emotionally damaged children in the City. These kids have been through things that would destroy many adults and have ended up as poor attenders at school, if not actually school phobic. Unsurprisingly, to cut costs, it is to be closed at the end of the summer term 2010. It is an easy target, as there are only a small number of children at the unit, who come from a widespread area across the City, so there will not be an outcry sufficient to cause any local electoral upset, but there should be.

It offers a safe haven for Year 11 children who have been viciously bullied. In recent years, it has dealt with a child who had been set alight on the estate where they lived, a boy who had been raped, two other children who had been assaulted, children who have already lost their childhoods as carers for terminally-ill parents, who have suffered parental bereavement or have just taken over parenting duties because their 'real' parents have given up. These young people turn up at Focus as damaged human beings - some self harm, some have attempted suicide - and many have no concept of a future.

The team at Focus usually have less than a year to help these young people before returning them to education or getting them into the world of work. These are tough cases and we owe it to these young men and women to help them turn their lives around. Remember, by and large, they are not disruptive pupils who have been excluded from schools or indulged in anti-social behaviour, they have self-excluded following the destruction of their confidence. Yet still, after a year or so at Focus, these students say
"You have really helped me to grow, not just in education, but in myself" or "The past year has been the best year of my life."
Indeed, despite the shattered stories of many of these pupils, the last full OFSTED inspection noted that the students enjoy their education to an exceptionally high level - a stunning success given their histories. To quote the OFSTED inspection
The major strengths of the college are the positive and supportive relationships that are established with students, who are treated with respect as young adults. Students respond very well to this approach and they start to experience success and develop their self-confidence.... Parents are overwhelmingly positive in their views of the support and help their children receive.

The OFSTED report did highlight deficiencies in certain areas of the curriculum, but a monitoring visit last year showed continued improvement. Somewhere between half and two thirds of the pupils go on to further education - without the college, it is doubtful that any of them would.

So, rather than provide a future for or even expand this unique provision, one that has genuinely saved young lives and put them back on the road, the City Council has decided to scrap the unit and dump these young people into other, inappropriate centres.

I thought much better of Les Lawrence than this. Shame on you, Cllr Lawrence. Shame. You have chosen to deny these children a future. Your department is looking increasingly unfit for purpose.

The closure order should be rescinded immediately.

More posters

A bit wordy, but I like it. Nice job by Freemania, reminding us all that Brand Cameron has been very carefully constructed, but has no depth whatsoever.

Elsewhere, Beau Beau D'Or provides visual detail of the Tory recovery plan. Day one.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The game's afoot.

A shrewd campaign start from Cameron - pre-empting the formal launch, getting in before the PM and focussing solely on Cameron, who is their main weapon. John Major's soapbox seems to have made a return in what was a public meeting-style format on the banks of the Thames with the Palace of Westminster forming a backdrop across the river. Involved, yet simultaneously distant from the entanglements of mere politics. After the Gay Times interview car crash and Chris Grayling's equality gaffe, you would think that when Cameron went through his litany of the great ignored, he would remember the lines in the original briefing on the script that included 'gay or straight.' Was it a lapse of memory on his part or was that line dropped from the speech for some other reason?

Incidentally, the Grayling gaffe only seems to have failed to gain traction because of the hiatus over Easter. He weaselled out of it and backtracked on his initial statement that religious belief should trump equalities legislation - despite having voted for that legislation - and now supports the law, although he still thinks that we should be sensitive to religious beliefs.

A contrasting kick-off from Labour, with Gordon showing that a vote for Labour is a vote for a one of a team, not a team of one, but also making an early bid for the 'I'm just like you' vote to try and establish clear water between him and Cameron. He knows that he will be a main target for the Conservatives, so he's diluting that attack by showing that there is strength in depth. I have to say, Brown looks confident, fit and up for a fight - very far from the battered and bowed leader that the Tories want to portray. One of the Channel 4 News' vox pops picked up an interesting comment - that Brown's flaws show his humanity, that he is not like the manufactured product that is Brand Cameron. In contrast to the team, the Tories now have two senior shallow cabinet members that are now damaged goods - Osborne remains a risky property and Grayling is flawed as well and may prove to be a further liability. If any punches are landed on Cameron, they are really in trouble.

Clegg also said something, but nobody listened. He has a problem in that he is largely unknown, his campaign launch speech was less than exciting and everyone prefers St Vincent Cable, but the upcoming debates won't allow Vince his head. And the slogan is just awful.

Right now, the polls seem to have largely coalesced around an 8-10 point lead for the Tories over Labour, although ICM's poll for the Guardian was much closer, down to just 4 points. Given that other pollsters are significantly higher, I'm going to class this as an outlier pending further data, although I tend to opt for ICM as my pollster of choice.

This will be a very tough election campaign and while Labour are clearly fighting as the underdog, don't rule us down and out quite yet.

Game. On.

Make your mind up Nick.

Either it is. Or it isn't.

Apparently, it isn't a two horse race.
Even at the start of the campaign, the Liberal Democrats are out of step.

And so we're off to the races.

The starting tape is up and we're off and running.

Just remember.

Tax does need to be taxing.

As Hopi points out, David Cameron didn't always believe in simple answers to complex tax matters.

We all know that the easiest thing in the world is for an opposition party to stand up at an event like this and blithely talk about all the efficiency savings we will make in government: how we will streamline public spending, how we can close tax loopholes, how we can move towards a bright future of less spending and less tax with a few well-chosen cuts that miraculously deliver substantial savings without harming public service delivery at all...

To make a long list of efficiency savings in advance of an election; to add them up to produce a great big total; to turn that total into debt reduction, spending increases elsewhere and a tax cut? People didn’t believe it, for the very good reason that controlling public spending is not about a one-off efficiency drive, it’s about a whole new culture of government. There is a simple fact which political historians amongst you will know very well. The government “efficiency drive” is one of the oldest tricks in the book. The trouble is, it’s nearly always just that – a trick.

But he's changed his mind now. Who knows what he'll be thinking of next?

Remember also that all those businessmen loudly supporting the scrapping of the NI increase have their bottom line at heart. When George said that 'we're all in this together,' he may not have mentioned the clauses excluding certain groups. Businesses have benefitted from the support that the government has provided over the past year or so, so they need to understand that they have a role to play in paying the bill.

Monday, April 05, 2010

The BNP really are different from the major parties.

I mean, when was the last time you had a senior member of any of the three real political parties arrested, questioned by the police and summarily expelled for allegedly threatening the life of the leader?

Seems that the rumours that have been flying around for a few days are true that Mark Collett, the junior Nazi who ran the BNP's PR operation is no longer part of the bunker team. So - will he head off to join a new party, go quietly or go public? As he is placed well enough to know where the bodies are buried, interventions from young Mr Collett could prove very interesting over the coming weeks.

See what I mean?

Hat tip to Bob. This is what the internet does when left alone. Granted, it is lifted from the 1968 American Presidential campaign, when the TV image was simply that of Nixon's Vice-Presidential candidate, Spiro Agnew (who later had to resign), but it still works.

And to follow on from the Guardian's April Fool, the Eton Rifles ride again....

Ashes to ashes, funk to funky

No. No. No. No.

Political parties shouldn't try and do a self-consciously cool poster like the latest Labour "Ashes to Ashes" stunt. They just end up looking distinctly uncool - rather like a parent trying to dance at the school disco. Unless you ARE actually Patrick Swayze or John Travolta, don't try it, because you will end up looking a fool.

I can see why the competition was run - the mydavidcameron website produced some magnificent, inspired pastiches of the Tory posters (and continues to act as a nexus for ongoing work), but this is outside the party structure. The genius that is Beau Beau D'Or produces memes that tend towards the anti-Conservative end of the spectrum, but he'll have a swing at Labour too. It is very difficult to create a genuinely self-sustaining internet meme when you actually try - they seem to evolve of their own accord. Why the party thought that it could better the efforts of those people contributing to that site, I don't know, but it was a mistake and has simply provided grist to the anti-Labour side of the interwebs.

Then there is the subject itself. Yeah, I get it - voting Tory is turning the clock back to the 80s. The problem is that the person chosen to personify Cameron is Gene Hunt, who is something of a hero in the show and very popular for his straight-talking, non-PC PC work. The show is, bluntly, cool and you don't want to associate the opposition with something that is popular. Viewed through the eyes of the TV show, the 80s don't seem to be a bad decade to live in - Iain Dale reminds us of some of the 'triumphs' of the decade. Chief amongst them is that the Tories then had the ability to win elections and Labour was virtually unelectable for a large chunk of that decade, not something to which I am anxious to return, you understand.

Also, for a large section of the population, the 80s are ancient history. I'm 39, so I was a teenager during the decade, with a growing awareness of the political events, but anybody much younger than me simply isn't going to recall much of those years. Relying on the old fears about the Tories rolling back to 1979 may not be as effective as it has been in previous elections - Cameron has proved highly effective in washing off the grime accumulated during the 1979-97 parliaments. There are plenty of current policy differences over which we can attack the Tories and the press release launching the poster provides a few:
  • The National Minimum Wage, opposed by the Conservatives, has lifted a generation of young people out of poverty and it is Labour’s Child Tax Credits, Child Trust Funds and Sure Start centres that are helping give young families the best start in life

  • Everyone aged 18 to 24 will, with Labour, be guaranteed a job, training or work experience place if they are unemployed for more than six months.

  • There will be a guaranteed place in education or training for all 16 and 17 year olds
We've got a message to get out to the voters and this is what we should be saying. If contradictions appear between the Cameron veneer and some of the throwbacks still inhabiting the darker recesses of the Conservative party, then let's leap on them - like Chris Grayling's babbling about how religious freedom should excuse bigotry and discrimination (although he voted for legislation that provides for equal treatment in business)

But stop trying to create memes. There are plenty of people out there doing it without any help or influence from us. Some of their stuff works, some of it doesn't. The good stuff will out, but I suggest that it is actually more powerful if it doesn't come from a political party with the imprint attached. Let the crowd do the work for us - the web community is renowned for an independence of thought and a rejection of outside management, so let the champions of the Labour cause, the opponents of the Tories and the fellow-travellers do their work without party interference.
Memes create themselves. When they appear and when they suit us, repeat them and push them out through the network, but the party should feed them by pushing on policy and the dividing lines between us and the Conservatives. Supply the seed and the grassroots will flourish.