Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Loose Cable?

So the Sage of Twickenham is as mortal as other men - a couple of young ladies simpered their way into recording Vince talking up his latent power and his ability to bring down a government with a single stroke of his resignation.

We can argue about whether stalking LibDems to get their real opinions of the coalition is really worth such subterfuge - it hardly qualifies as serious crime, regrettable as their alliance with the Dark Side may be. I know that I have had private conversations with political opponents which would make uncomfortable reading for them and their parties, but I wouldn't dream of revealing them, still less of recording them, without their permission. It may inform my writing, but I prefer to work with public statements of policy - I do actually grasp the concept of collective responsibility. Vince should certainly have checked that these two were constituents of his - the electoral roll is available to confirm that fact - rather than just showing off his political virility. On the other hand, Labour can be grateful to Vince for letting slip Tory plots to cut back on the winter fuel allowance - any cut to that will cost lives amongst the fuel poor, a category that includes a lot of elderly people. But that is for another day...

I'd question whether Cable still has the capacity to bring the government down by resigning. Certainly, he provides a measure of gravitas and credibility to Clegg and Co - his performance during the banking crisis gained him widespread respect and his knowledge is certainly excellent, but that is a dwindling credit. As Clegg, Alexander and the rest of the Liberal Democrat ministerial team become more confident in their own abilities, the need for a credible elder statesman decreases. Indeed, one may question how much credibility actually remains, given that Cable has reversed course on the scale and timing of the cuts, has supported a VAT rise that he had previously campaigned against and has, most shamefully, led the imposition of higher tuition fees against a very specific pledge that he signed. Does he have any principles left that would justify resignation after that?

Surely, if he had refused to implement the increase and resigned, he would have emerged far more powerfully as a force on the backbenches, sitting beside Charlie Kennedy and Ming Campbell, glaring disapprovingly at the young whippersnappers playing at being in government. But he didn't and today's events have left him a dead man walking as well as raising serious questions about his judgement.

The Telegraph knew that the revelations about Murdoch and Sky were dynamite and that is almost certainly why that part of the story was spiked. In common with other elected offices, there are times when a secretary of state has to act in a quasi-judicial role, where a matter has to be decided on the facts as presented and not on the basis of prejudices and preconceptions. In
Local government, planning or licencing matters are typically regarded in this manner. Failure to adhere to those principles will lay any decision open to judicial review and this is precisely what has happened to Cable, who has been comprehensively outplayed by the journalists and whoever passed the full tape to Robert Peston - shrewdly giving it to the BBC and not to Sky News.

The clear winner, of course, is Rupert Murdoch, who can now rely on the suitably pliable (and anti-BBC) Jeremy Hunt to nod through the Newscorp takeover of Sky.

The losers are manifold. Clegg looks weaker for feeling that he has to hang onto a wounded beast like Cable. Cameron doesn't come out of it well - he hasn't shown the steel needed to demand Cable's head on a plate, prederig to vacillate and delay rather than take a firn decision - dithering being an accusation levelled against Brown by the Tories. Cameron will also have longer term problems ahead - his treatment of Cable has not gone unnoticed by his own party and the view there is clearly that if this had been a Tory minister, then the decision would have been different. That is the kind if discontent that builds and broods - insignificant now, but continued fuelling of that discontent will eventually cause serious party problems for the Tories. There have been rumours of further entrapments of other Lib Dems and certainly any more revelations from Cable would force his immediate resignation. The only bright side for Clegg and Cameron is that Cable has effectively neutralised himself as a future focus for opposition.

And what of Vince? I think that this reprieve is merely temporary and once David Laws completes his spell in exile - assuming the investigation into his expenses is squared away - he can expect a return to ministerial office, which will necessitate a reshuffling of the Lib Dem ministerial pack and I would expect Cable to be dumped before Spring as part of a general - although not seismic - reshuffle, thus ensuring that he is denied the opportunity to find a point of principle which is worth his symbolic martyrdom by resignation. He has served his purpose as a lightning rod and has exhausted his credibility with the nation over the tuition fees debacle. His egotistical dream of going down in a blaze of glory looks like vain posturing in the cold light of day and seems destined never to become reality.

Strange really - the only person who has gained anything today is someone who didn't even figure
In the original story - Rupert Murdoch. Even the Telegraph have lost out, because while the original story fed their anti-coalition agenda, the upshot has been to damage their commercial interests in taming Newscorp.

Funny old world, isn't it?

Monday, December 20, 2010

The NIMBY's Charter for Chaos

Perhaps Eric Pickles genuinely believes that empowering small communities to decide on their local development plans will lead to a blooming of housing proposals from the grassroots to help resolve the national housing crisis. But that would make him a very stupid man indeed - and I don't think he is.

Jeremy Cahill, a specialist planning lawyer from Birmingham's No 5 chambers, explodes this little gem of hope

In my twenty-five years experience in handling planning matters, I have only experienced one occasion when a proposal for new housing either promoted at appeal or through the development plan process has been welcomed by local people
Grant Shapps even has the nerve to support these proposals, when he is tasked with resolving the housing crisis - even though the development proposals within the Bill are likely to prove a significant obstacle to the building of new homes on the scale required, particularly social housing. Paul Smith in the Guardian writes
...there is one group of people largely overlooked by the new bill, those desperate to get their first foot on the property ladder or hoping to rent from a social landlord. Localism cannot wish away the need for more homes in this country. According to the National Housing Federation, the average English house price is 10.3 times the average income and over 4 million people are registered on council waiting lists. Government figures are now showing homelessness on the rise. These people are also angry and frustrated but they are not organised, don't march through the streets or lobby council meetings as the anti-development groups do. Their voice is not heard in the government and the localism bill will not provide them with the homes they desperately need.

You have to question whether a neighbourhood forum or a parish council has the necessary skillset to assemble a credible and legally defensible development plan - especially as a forum could consist of as a few as three people. As Left Foot Forward's Eleanor Besley points out, the legislation does not provide for any funding for these groups and it leaves their constitution wide open

Those communities higher in social capital will undoubtedly be first in line to set up a neighbourhood plan. Additionally the Bill welcomes commercial participation on forums; indeed it could be argued that a forum entirely made-up of commercial interests would be considered legitimate. As such, communities lower in social capital would become increasingly vulnerable to the impact and will of commercial interests in their area. Add to this the fact that local authorities are due to receive £20,000 for every plan which they adopt (after a lengthy process including a referendum). The cynics among us may be able to see how big business could influence the process as much as they could the actual planning arrangements.
It does not take a great leap of imagination to realise that those communities with the inbuilt wherewithal to organise will create development plans that may allow a limited amount of new build housing, but only that which is designed to attract the right sort of people. Affordable or social housing is unlikely to be top of their agenda - much as we might hope that they will take a broader view of housing needs. Whether the temptations of incentivised council tax will be sufficient for the Big Society to prove genuinely inclusive remains to be seen, but the evidence to date isn't encouraging. Indeed, these incentives will actually encourage the building of homes liable to larger council tax. Top down targets may prove unpopular at a local level, but they do recognise the need for housing at a level broader than just a neighbourhood. I'm all for greater local involvement in planning and for community agreement, but there will be a need for compromise on all sides for the good of society as a whole, not just one or two streets.

By the way, before the Tory and Lib Dem trolls start whinging about what Labour did over thirteen years, I'm the first to state that I don't think we did enough, that our failure to build sufficient social housing was a huge mistake on our part.

These development plans are even likely to impact on the development of renewable energy, as we can expect a raft of rural communities bringing in plans to exclude wind farms, such is the general anger when one of these is proposed in most localities.

Everything about this huge confection of a bill points towards a continuation of the 'creative destruction' theory espoused by former Tory candidate Danny Kruger - a proposal that saw him unceremoniously dumped as candidate from the unwinnable seat of Sedgefield in 2005, a local difficulty that hasn't stopped him from being a close advisor to Cameron. We've seen the start of this period of destruction in health and education and the localism bill sees it come to how your community is organised, as Nick Boles revealed in a flash of honesty
Do you believe planning works? That clever people sitting in a room can plan how people's communities should develop, or do you believe it can't work? I believe it can't work, David Cameron believes it can't, Nick Clegg believes it can't. Chaotic therefore in our vocabulary is a good thing.... Chaotic is what our cities are when we see how people live, where restaurants spring up, where they close, where people move to. Would you like to live in a world where you could predict any of that? I certainly wouldn't. So I want there to be chaotic in the sense I want lots of organisations doing different things, in different areas.
Be afraid - they mean this, no matter how much positive language they deploy to hide the truth.

Pickles and Shapps are doing the work of two men - Laurel & Hardy

They continually put forward the idea that all the savings at this massively high level can be made by increased efficiency, cuts in a small number of salaries, raiding reserves that are not needed. In fact almost every day we get from them a new gimmick. Their behaviour is a disgrace. Either they really do not know how serious the situation is that they have created... or they are deliberately trying to distract attention from the problems that they have created... We have made 3% real savings, verified by the Treasury, every year for the last eight years. We can make more, we should make more, we will make more. But are being led like lambs to the slaughter by Mr Pickles - local government are facing the biggest cuts in our budget of any part of the public sector and we are doing it up front. And while we are doing that, we have two ministers in particular - Mr Pickles and Mr Shapps - giving a very clear impression with a series of soundbites, which don't stand up to reality, which give the impression this is all easy.

On his blog, Richard wrote:

Old Eric was so keen to curry favour with Cameron that he was the first to settle. Treasury politicians and officials were, I understand, amazed at the way he rushed to settle and then realised what bad settlement he had made. Local Government which is, according to Cameron, the most efficient part of government took a bigger hit and more quickly than any other part of Government. As Laurel contemplated what he had done he did what he is best at – he went onto the attack to try and cover up for his gross incompetence....

...I am angry about the nonsense they are talking – behind the scenes leading Tory councillors are incensed but are afraid to speak out. The facts are simple. Either Pickles and Shapps do not understand what they are talking about which would mean they are a shambolic pair; or they are deliberately saying things which are incorrect in which case they are a disgrace to their office; or they don’t know what is being said in their name by a couple of boy scouts they employ as SPADs who have no experience of running anything anywhere at any time.

The Blame Game

Today is due to be the start of industrial action by Birmingham
City Council's binmen, a strike solely the responsibility of the Conservative/ Liberal Democrat administration that set a local trend in 2004 for what we see on a national scale today.

You will doubtless be aware of the pay and regrading and the Single Status processes carried out by the City Council over the past fee years. One of the outcomes of that was a regrading of the binmen's jobs that would have seen many of them lose thousands of pounds in wages - figures of £4000 have been regularly mentioned - and when this was proposed, the binmen objected and threatened to strike. The council decided at a very high level that while they could stomach strikes by some less visible council staff, electoral prospects would be damaged by rubbish piling up in the streets. Accordingly, a dodgy deal was worked out which effectively stuffed the dustmens' pockets with cash to stop the strike. Unfortunately, this then meant that thousands of other workers - predominantly women - in similarly-skilled jobs were being paid less, a situation that could not go unnoticed for long and was rapidly the subject of legal action. Despite advice from counsel that the agreement was unlawful and obviously discriminatory, the City Council pushed on until the action was duly lost - a waste of taxpayers' money if ever there was one - delaying the inevitable defeat and ensuing pay cuts.

That has now come to pass and the strike is the result. The council did offer negotiations, delaying strike action for a few weeks, but it appears that this offer was simply a tactic to delay matters, allowing casual staff to be recruited through local agencies to temporarily replace the binmen, at a cost - the health and safety personal protective kit and clothing has apparently cost £20,000 alone.

Money well spent?

Friday, December 17, 2010

Mything the point

Sharper than the ice-cold wind, the council cuts landed on chief executive desks this week, amidst a predictable blast of spin from Chairman Eric, trying to encourage his minions to welcome his benevolence. Notably, of course, the figures were framed in a new term - Total Spending Power - invented to conceal a sleight of hand that obscures the depth of the cuts, keeping them in single figures, suggesting that the pain need not be as bad as originally predicted. As we know from the ever diligent Allister Hayman at the Local Government Chronicle, a few weeks back, Eric suddenly realised that the proposed formula cuts were so serious that they would be intolerable even to someone with his taste for blood, but as he had agreed his settlement with the Treasury some weeks previously - securing his place on the Star Chamber - he was in a bind. A mission with the begging bowl to the Treasury proved fruitless, so Eric delved down the back of the DCLG sofas and turned out a further £85 million, which miraculously became a Transition Fund to ease some of the pain for the worst affected councils. However, this is exactly what it says - a temporary sticking plaster that may staunch a little bit of bleeding until the protection is removed.

The figures have been crunched by the LGC and the results are interesting. For example, Birmingham appears to face cuts of 8.32% in direct government funding for the fiscal year 2011-12 and a further cut of 4.28% the following year and these are the headline figures - repeated in the Birmingham Post yesterday. However, they conceal the truth behind this Total Spending Power line. This includes formula grant and council tax - not unreasonably - but also a new NHS grant, which is ringfenced for projects on social care with the primary care trusts. This cannot reasonably be counted as adding to council spend, as it will essentially be dedicated to new areas of co-operation. If that is discounted from Birmingham's spending, then the first year cut is 12.95%, followed by a second year cut of 6.06%. Remember that neither of these figures account for inflationary pressure, which will only heighten the effects of the cuts.

That's bad enough for Birmingham, but spare a thought for one of our neighbours, Wyre Forest, which will face some of the worst cuts in the country over two years - 15.6% for the coming year and a further 12.7%. The worst hit council in the country is Aylesbury Vale District Council, which loses a massive 17.3% of its money in 2011/12 and then 12.3% the year after - cuts so deep that they may threaten the viability of the authority without heavyweight axe swinging, which will doubtless cheer the local MP, John Bercow - Mr Speaker, no less.

It is also clear that, despite promises to the contrary, these cuts fall disproportionately on the most deprived and on the north. Barbara Keeley MP has written on Left Foot Forward about this attack on local authorities - ironically delivered by Pickles at the same time as the localism bill was supposed to empower communities. She notes that ministers have used new language to disparage councils for deprived areas

Councils serving the most deprived areas of the country were described as “dependent” and those serving affluent areas were “self-sufficient”. Councils were said to be dependent on “handouts” from central government. The Conservative/ Liberal Democrat government has presented councils in our most deprived areas with the deepest cuts ever to their budgets and then used language which stigmatises their situation.

And don't think that this is an area where the Liberal Democrats escape being smeared in blood - Clegg promised that the north would not be disproportionately affected and that pledge was honoured in the traditional way by being entirely ignored. Clegg also sat on the Cabinet committee that signed off on the final settlement. Paul Burstow was wheeled out to defend these cuts - yet another lightning rod, conducting the blame away from the Conservatives. Following the lead of his master, Burstow claimed that

there is no justification for local authorities to slash and burn or to tighten eligibility (for adult social care)
As Barbara Keeley points out

These exhortations do not work in practice. Conservative-run North Yorkshire County Council plans to close more than two-thirds of its residential care homes. Birmingham City Council, run by Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, has announced proposals to restrict social care funding to those assessed as ‘critical’ – the highest possible level at which to set eligibility.

There is a simple and cynical intent behind this - to localise the blame away from the government. Pickles tells us - with no evidence - that only lazy councils will have to cut front line services and that the pay of chief executives will bear the brunt of the axe. If he genuinely believes this, then he needs to seek assistance for delusional behaviour, as nobody else finds this remotely credible. The reorganisation of back office functions to share them across authorities has been suggested by Pickles, but tectonic shifts like that are simply impossible in the timescale allowed - front line services will be hit because there is no other way to achieve these cuts.

The cuts planned over the next four years are being front loaded - quite intentionally for political reasons. The coalition knows that survival in 2015 depends on the public forgetting the worst of the public sector cuts and displaying gratitude for the tax cuts to come in the pre-election budget (for Osborne will have a war chest by that point, providing forecasts are realised), so their baser political needs subjugate the demands of the greater good.

These cuts are brutal, destructive and based upon lies - hardly an unusual foundation for government policy today. For a government that trumpeted a commitment to localism, they are an insult to best champions of genuine localism, the democratically-accountable local authorities.

Court Report

The ongoing saga of John Hemming's very public love life rumbles on and will reach the big stage of Birmingham Crown Court next February, when his current wife, Christine, will face trial for burglary and theft of a kitten, Beauty, now believed deceased.

Ironically, this was the week that John declared his constituency office to be 'cruelty free.'

But hey, any publicity is good publicity, isn't it?

Monday, December 13, 2010

The things they say

“Ed Balls keeps saying we're committed to scrapping EMA. I have never said this. We won't.”
Michael Gove, 2/3/10

“We’ve looked at EMAs ... no, we don’t have any plans to get rid of them."

David Cameron, 6/1/10
As it is panto season, the only response is 'Oh yes you will.'
The IFS is likely to publish an updated assessment tomorrow which will show that EMA costs in and actually pays for itself - something that will blow large holes in the Tory/Lib Dem policy.

Altered priorities ahead

I've always been a supporter of the police - they do a tough job dealing with some of the most difficult elements of society - which is why last Thursday's performance in handling a major public order event disappointed me massively. That isn't to excuse the unacceptable, violent behaviour from a small number of the protestors, but the police are the professional keepers of public order and they crossed a line last week.

We had one wheelchair-using protestor dragged twice from the chair and hit, 49 demonstrators injured and one young man fighting for his life after being rushed to hospital - a hospital where the police attempted to deny him treatment, claiming that it had been reserved for police casualties only, until the medical staff overruled them. That isn't acceptable behaviour.

The demonstrators have damaged their own case - the press has focussed on the attack on the royal party, diverting interest away from the policy reversal.

Now, rather than looking at the vital issues of the tactics of public order policing or even the reasons behind the protest, the Home Secretary is responding by offering police the use of water cannon - something never before seen on the British mainland. Indeed, she has said that their use is an "operational issue," rather than the political one it certainly should be - these weapons can cause serious injury. She has also supported police tactics by insisting that future demonstrations, of which we can certainly expect more, should be policed 'robustly.'

In the UK, we have a fine tradition of policing by consent and public order tactics that are seen to indiscriminately target legitimate protestors and thugs alike will erode that. I don't believe that the use of water cannon is justified on British streets, given the threat currently posed - it would be a sticking plaster to cover failures in tactics rather than a response to a specific threat.

At the start of this year, did anyone seriously believe that we would end it with a government that has already burnt up any popularity that it might once have had and which would be contemplating deploying these weapons on our streets? I also note the lack of comment from allegedly pro-civil liberty coalition partners on this disturbing development, which looks an awful lot like an attempt to suppress dissent.

Long term coalition?

Following an article by the well-connected Ben Brogan and reinforced by John Major's hints on the Andrew Marr show yesterday that the Coalition may continue beyond this parliament, Hopi Sen writes a post on the potential impact on Labour.

Unsurprisingly, the Birmingham experience is raised in the comments and I added my own thoughts. Both the LibDems and the Tories deny any electoral pact in Birmingham, although it is interesting that in almost all council seats, the only serious activity comes from the side best placed to beat Labour. Labour is the only party with a significant vote in almost all of the 40 seats in Birmingham.

An electoral pact of the nature that Hopi describes is exactly what I expect and what I fear most - it is devastatingly effective in focussing the attack on Labour and hoovering up the anti-Labour votes for what is effectively a single party. However, there are a couple of other considerations.
What may save us is the fact that the electorate may not appreciate being corralled on a parliamentary basis. Media coverage of national politics is very different to coverage of local politics, where virtually all of what most people hear about their council is filtered through their local representatives - there is little coverage on the local TV stations and the press doesn't have the coverage it once did. I suspect that it will be much harder to deliver a national message that encourages Lib Dems to vote Tory and vice versa.

If it can be made to work, then Labour is in serious trouble and will struggle to transform a national poll lead into a winning position, but remember that the informal non-aggression pact in Birmingham is the only way that the Tories and the Liberals could run the council - they each hold seats that the other side has little chance of ever taking. That isn't the case on a parliamentary scale - it will be virtually impossible to stop some of the marginal Lib Dem/Tory seats turning blue without virtually withdrawing candidates, which would raise more questions that it would solve. The Tories could potentially win a majority almost by default.

However, if the polls remain in a similar state, with the Liberal Democrats facing major reverses in the local elections between 2011 and 2015 and the Tory vote largely holding up, then the temptation for the Tories to cast aside the deadweight of their Liberal Democrat friends and push for an outright win could be irresistible. Would the backbenchers already uneasy with concessions to the Liberal Democrats be willing to let Cameron stick with the Coalition? I suspect not, especially if winning is a serious option. Cameron may feel duty-bound to stand by Clegg and his friends in the Liberal Democrats, but that might ultimately extend only to an offer of a sinecure job in Europe or crossing the floor to formally join the party with which they appear to have so much in common.

If things improve for the Coalition, then the Tories will want to push for their own majority, but if the situation remains challenging over the next five years, then the lifebelt of assuring continued government through coalition will prove a strong pull.

The other key message that Labour need to remember is that while battering the Liberal Democrats is great fun and like shooting fish in a barrel at the moment, we can only hope to win back government by taking seats from the Tories and that we will start the next campaign a few dozen seats further adrift, thanks to the gerrymandering boundary changes and the potential enforced changes through population movements. It is instructive that the national polls haven't yet shown any major shift in Tory vote - it bounces around the 39-42% level.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

John Hemming believes he's honoured the pledge - by voting for tuition fees

It really is quite sad to watch an MP floundering trying to justify the impossible, but John Hemming is maintaining - against all the evidence - that his vote on Thursday to allow tuition fees to triple is actually keeping his word. He's wrong, but won't admit it, so the prosecution calls a number of fellow Lib Dem MPs for their views:

Burnley's Gordon Entwhistle is quoted in his local paper
“Ideologically, I would want free education and so I’m not comfortable with this but it’s the best we can get in the circumstances.”
and doesn't seem to object when the paper writes
The Liberal Democrat MP broke his party’s pre-election pledge to cap higher education tuition fees, but defended his decision by saying it was the best deal for Burnley and the country
More directly, Lynne Featherstone (Hornsey & Wood Green) wrote on her blog
"...on breaking the NUS pledge – I can only apologise..."
Ceredigion's Mark Williams kept his word
"I will be voting against the increase in tuition fees - I can’t justify £9,000 fees to students in Ceredigion, and I do believe a pledge is a pledge"

Transport Minister Norman Baker spoke to Five Live
"We made a pledge we could not deliver which I believe is deeply regrettable and rather embarrassing"

Tom Brake certainly accepts that he did not keep to the pledge he signed earlier in the year.

Even Nick Clegg himself said that he
"massively regrets that he can't do what we promised before the election"

I have already commented that it was wrong for MPs to abstain on this issue - it amounts to cowardice. It is intellectual cowardice now not to face up to the fact that a clearly stated pledge was broken. Argue about why it was broken, by all means, but to flap around dodging the issue by claiming something that is demonstrably wrong just looks, well, silly.

On Thursday, everybody accepts that the governing parties voted to increase the cap tuition fees - that is indisputable. This was a very specific part of the pledge that all Liberal Democrat MPs and candidates signed in the run up to the May election. No ifs or buts, it was front and centre - a unique policy promise in that it was supported by personal guarantees to the electorate.

No matter how much John may complain, the fact is that in common with a chunk of the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party, he voted to increase the cap on tuition fees. In doing so, he clearly broke a promise. In continuing to argue otherwise, he is looking desperate and ridiculous.

His position is only slightly more ridiculous than that of Dr Evan Harris, a former Liberal Democrat MP, who argues that to get rid of tuition fees, we should elect more Lib Dem MPs. Now, I respect Dr Harris' views on many things - he is an eminently sensible man - but I think he's wildly out of touch with the electorate if he thinks that there is any appetite to put more Liberal Democrats into parliament. Current polls show them with a whopping 9% of the vote, which is likely to give them just nine seats in parliament on a uniform national swing. Other polling suggests that over half of their electorate will be looking to take their support elsewhere at the next elections. The co-chair of Warwick University Liberal Democrats cut up his membership card, angry that his association had provided so much support to local candidates - Lorely Burt in particular - only to have that thrown back in their faces by ungrateful members of parliament.

Thursday, December 09, 2010

A close shave

As you will know, the Liberal Democrat payroll vote carried the government through in this evening's vote to increase tuition fees - potentially tripling them to £9,000.

John Hemming, MP for Yardley, who only yesterday told the House that he wasn't going to u-turn, executed a u-turn on his pre-election pledge to vote against any increase in fees and voted alongside the cabinet and the Tories - a place where he feels very comfortable. I'm sure the reward will not be far away - either thirty pieces of silver or a place as a PPS.

On the other hand, at least John made a decision - the wrong one, but he made it. Across the city border, Lorely Burt chose cowardice and abstained. Interviewed by BBC Midlands Today, she said
"It has been very difficult for myself and all my Liberal Democrat colleagues, but what we are seeking to do is find a way that is fair and progressive, given the hand that we’ve got."
So difficult, Lorely, that you couldn't do your job and cast your vote. Members of parliament are paid to make decisions and to hide behind an abstention is an abdication of your duty. Clearly, you haven't found a way that you feel is fair and progressive, otherwise you would have voted openly for it, but neither could you vote against it. Instead, you chose to abstain - a covert way of letting the bill pass while you pretend to keep your hands clean. As part of trying to rub that stain from her hands, she has edited her website.

Previously, it showed this and the quote
"It's simply wrong to penalise people who want to make the best of themselves by saddling them with enormous mortgage-style debts from the day they graduate"

Now, it shows this.

A policy and a position airbrushed from history.
(Hat tip to Jon Walker at the Birmingham Post)

Promises and Lies XII

"I believe tuition fees are wrong"
Nick Clegg, Sept 2009

Promises and Lies XI

That's why we have always opposed tuition fees, which push up the cost and make it harder for people other than the very wealthiest to afford to get a degree.

Nick Clegg, 6 Jan 2010, Mumsnet

Promises and Lies X

It just isn't right that people are saddled with mortgage-style debts for the simple aspiration of trying to better themselves and get a degree

Nick Clegg, 6 Jan 2010, Mumsnet

Nope, he still doesn't get it.

"Given that most of these students won't be paying fees, I think that they don't really understand what's going on"

John Hemming MP, BBC Midlands Today 8 Dec 2010

Maybe, just maybe, students have woken up to a world beyond themselves, that there will be others coming after who will face these massive fees - fees that have only been introduced to cover up the government's abdication of responsibility for funding graduate education. Just as students in the 80s and 90s pushed back against the Tories, so the current generation have picked up that torch and are showing us that they aren't apathetic about politics.

This is the Big Society in action.

Promises and Lies IX

There is a real fear that these (Labour) cuts are preparing the ground for tuition fees to be raised. It would be totally unfair for young people, the innocent victims of the financial crisis, to be punished in this way

Stephen Williams MP, Lib Dem spokesman on innovation, universities and skills, 18 Mar 2010

Promises and Lies VIII

"Bright young people are potentially being put off going to university by the thought of being saddled with £10k in tuition fee debt."

Stephen Williams MP, Lib Dem spokesman on innovation, universities and skills, 7 Mar 2009

Promises and Lies VII

"The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good"

Nick Clegg, 1 May 2010

Promises and Lies VI

"Labour and the Conservatives have been trying to keep tuition fees out of this election campaign. It's because they don't want to come clean with you about what they're planning. Despite the huge financial strain fees already place on Britain's young people, it is clear both Labour and the Conservatives want to lift the cap on fees. If fees rise to £7,000 a year, as many rumours suggest they would, within five years some students will be leaving university up to £44,000 in debt. That would be a disaster. If we have learnt one thing from the economic crisis, it is that you can't build a future on debt. The Liberal Democrats are different. Not only will we oppose any raising of the cap, we will scrap tuition fees for good, including for part-time students. We can't do it overnight, but we can start straight away with students in their final year - that means anyone at university this autumn will have their debt cut by at least £3,000. Students can make the difference in countless seats in this election. Use your vote to block unfair tuition fees and get them scrapped once and for all."

Nick Clegg, 1 May 2010

Promises and Lies V

The Liberal Democrats believe that a student's potential should not be limited by their ability to pay. Taking maintenance loans and fee loans together, many students will be starting their working lives with a debt of over £20,000. This is unacceptable and unsustainable, particularly given the current level of graduate unemployment... Labour and the Conservatives are content to hide behind Lord Browne's Higher Education Funding Review, because they know that their policies will not be popular.

Heather Kidd, LD PPC, Ludlow, 4th Mar 2010

Promises and Lies IV

"I know from my work as a lecturer that students are finding times very tough. There is clear evidence that Labour's fees are putting people off from applying to university... It's great that Nick Clegg came to Oxford to outline our plans to abolish fees. With both Oxford and Brookes in the area, students can play a crucial role in determining the next MP here and Government in Westminster"

Steve Goddard, LD PPC, Oxford East, 28 Apr 2010

Promises and Lies III

I have voted against tuition fees at every opportunity in the House of Commons and will continue to do so.

Steve Webb MP, 2003

Promises and Lies II

"Tens of thousands of students find themselves saddled with crippling debt, at a time when the vast burden of individual debt in Britain is becoming a social problem in itself... Some students have been put off applying for university and others have felt forced to apply for courses on the basis of the income they will generate rather than their intrinsic value"

David Howarth, 2009

Promises and Lies

Let me be clear. We are the only party which will scrap tuition fees. They are wrong. It’s just plain wrong that young people who are studying hard are having to leave university with this dead weight of debt around their necks before their adult life has even started. We will scrap tuition fees.
Nick Clegg, Youth Parliament Web Chat, 20 Jan 2010

Another good day to bury bad news

Of course, the focus today will be on the machinations of the Liberal Democrat party as Clegg tries to herd cats through the division lobbies. It is a mark of his leadership that he has to rely on the payroll vote to avoid a total embarrassment - marshalling the Lib Dem ministerial team through the Ayes lobby and watching some of the others head off to the other side, while others may even manage to sprint through both to register an abstention (and to conveniently be able to say in leaflets and campaigns that they voted against the tuition fees rise - although I'm sure they won't dare do that) as suggested by our very own John Hemming and mentioned in PMQs yesterday.

The whole affair has been a shambles over the past week or so - Vince has been about to abstain on his own policy without resigning his post, junior ministers are about to resign to vote against, the whole parliamentary party will abstain, now all ministers will vote for and everybody else will do whatever. Even yesterday evening, there was talk that Chris Huhne would be forced to fly back from Cancun to cast his vote in favour - nobody spotting the irony of the Climate Change Secretary burning tonnes of carbon unnecessarily solely to satisfy a political need. At 6pm, he was on his way back, but within the hour, that had been reversed and he was staying in Cancun.

Certainly, this is a defining moment for the Liberal Democrats - the point where they realise that sometimes, promises you make in opposition come back to bite you when political reality dawns. For them, I think this is their poll tax or vote on Iraq - it will cause them pain far into the future as it disappoints a vast swathe of their natural supporters, bitter that a party that ran a heavy campaign on this issue and a party election broadcast promising to keep their promises - unlike everybody else - is abandoning a totemic policy for short term political gain. This will reverberate for some time to come and will cost them seats on councils and ultimately, will cost MPs. Wednesday's YouGov poll saw them on just 8% vote share - essentially a wipeout of the party if that was replicated on a national scale today.

But there are other things afoot today.

It has been suggested that today will be the day that local authorities find out their funding settlements for the next financial year - it has been promised during December and the 9th was set as launch day. With the panic at Eric Pickles' Department of Local Government over recent weeks as civil servants tried to ameliorate the damage of the revised calculations and the agreed cut in the overall budget, the much-trumpeted Localism Bill yesterday fell by the wayside again - no legislative time, apparently. With cuts of up to 38% forecast for some of the worst-hit councils - coincidentally, also the poorest - it might not just be the students suffering from today's decisions.

As the focus will be on the demonstrations and the shameful, deceitful vote in support of trebling fees, expect other little gems to be buried today and tomorrow.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

Double standards?

John Hemming refuses to meet postmen's representatives because they aren't constituents:
I find it odd that on one hand the Communication Workers Union are setting out publicly to defeat me personally at the next General Election and then in the next minute they want to meet me.There is always a question of priorities. I am happy to meet constituents at my advice bureau (which does not have appointments). However, I find it a bit odd that my political opponents would expect me to find time to meet them. It is all a question of priorities.It is not possible to do everything that people ask you to do. Hence you need to prioritise. My priority is serving my constituents.

John Hemming meets students' representatives even though they aren't constituents:
I did have a conversation with the President of Birmingham University Students Union and one of the Vice Presidents a couple of three weeks ago. They asked to come and see me and I agreed to mee (sic) them and and we had a meeting.


Students of today - they just can't spell. Ask Jim Naughtie... (Pictures - @stopcutsbrum)
The forces of occupation turned up in Yardley today to take the fight to the only backbench Liberal Democrat MP to profess support for the pledge-breaking tuition fees policy. He's already turned up in the pages of the Guardian's Comment is Free with a ludicrous denial of the reality of the policy - and one that got short shrift from the legion of commenters for his claim of being about to scrap tuition fees whilst simultaneously doubling or trebling them.

Hell, not even Clegg buys that - he has expressed sorrow about not being able to keep his word
I regret of course that I can't keep the promise that I made because - just as in life - sometimes you are not fully in control of all the things you need to deliver those pledges

This from a man who fronted a party election broadcast promising an end to broken promises and then decided to break a big one. And other Liberal Democrats seem quite prepared to vote against - Charles Kennedy and Ming Campbell have made their positions clear, as has the new President of the party, Tim Farron. Even John's neighbour, Lorely Burt, has been wavering from abstention in recent weeks - perhaps mindful of the significant help from Warwick University students back in May that saved her campaign from what looked like certain defeat.

On a Politics Show West Midlands debate, John snapped back at one young questioner that when he left university, he faced much higher tax rates than she would, implying that she should be grateful for small mercies.

He was interviewed on Radio 4's PM programme by Eddie Mair, who wears a light touch of wit to conceal a very incisive mind. Here's a transcript of an intriguing passage:

John Hemming: "At the moment, I'm very likely to vote for the increase, simply because we cannot reward the bad behaviour from today..."

Eddie Mair: "...part of your motivation might be to punish protestors?"

JH: "Well, if they're going to behave this bad... you see the problem you've got is this - if you reward this form of behaviour, if it has any effect which is a positive effect, you're encouraging this behaviour in the future."

EM: "So part of the reason you're going to reach your decision is based on the protests?"

JH: "Part of the reason has to be based on the protests, because I cannot allow that to influence me in any favourable manner whatsoever."
So, he is saying that he will vote in favour of a hike in tuition fees because of the protests. If he truly believed his Herculean spin, he would surely want to vote against, because his argument is that these proposals abolish fees and amount to a graduate tax - something that he apparently supports. The other point is that he will willingly punish future generations of students for the behaviour of a tiny minority who will be unaffected by the changes.

Neither are good reasons to vote in a particular way - indeed, it seems immature and petulant to base decisions affecting the many on the behaviour of a few and certainly is not becoming of an elected representative. `

Nevertheless, I'm sure that there will be a reward for this slavish loyalty to dismantling what was - despite all the weaselling by various Liberal Democrats - a key manifesto commitment and which was also, uniquely, a pledge made by all Liberal Democrat MPs. No other policy had the same level of personal commitment as was shown to the promise to vote against tuition fee increases. It is intellectually impossible to portray this as anything other than a major u-turn. For the Liberal Democrats, I suspect this may be as serious a political mistake as the poll tax or - in purely political terms - the Iraq war for Labour. I hope all those ministerial chairs are worth it, because the feedback on the ground is that many are very unhappy - there are Liberal Democrat councillors in Birmingham worrying seriously about their seats over the next couple of years. Judging from the venom being directed at all things Liberal Democrat, they have good cause.

Cowardice from the Liberal Democrats

Paul Smith files a dispatch from the Wild West Country which reveals that Stephen Williams, the Lib Dem MP, did not turn up to a pre-arranged public debate about the Big Society.
... once again Stephen Williams didn’t turn up. he has alleged that the Police advised him not to go. Lets me clear the meeting was not about tuition fees and there were no demonstrators at the meeting or outside the Malcolm X centre in St Pauls where it was held. Local Lib Dem councillor and council cabinet member Jon Rogers was there and was asked to text Williams to let him know that it was safe and he could come out of hiding. He never came.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

Rewiring Cable

And as fast as he considered his abstention, Vince has now realised that failing to back his own policy is incompatible with his status as a Cabinet minister and rather than doing the decent thing and quitting to abide by his pledge, he's going to support his government though the division lobby.

I suspect that this actually indicates that the Liberal Democrat parliamentary party have failed to reach agreement to abstain.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Increasingly desperate and unconVincing

Vince Cable appears to be on a mission to destroy any remaining credibility he once had as the slow motion car crash that is Lib Dem policy on tuition fees grinds inexorably onwards, a trail of bodies left behind in its wake.

He is currently proposing that he, as a Cabinet Minister, will not only abstain on a vote on government policy, but will abstain on a policy proposed by his own department. This is entirely ludicrous - there is no way that he can continue as a member of the government while evidently not supporting government policy. It sets a very dangerous precedent for the government that may even be used against them by Conservative ministers who object to a particular item of policy in the future. I know that this particular abstention was specifically allowed in the coalition agreement, but it doesn't take huge leap to imagine well-placed Tories trying to exercise the same loophole.

It doesn't help that, in typical Liberal Democrat form, he is saying different things to different audiences. In a leaflet circulating in Scotland, he criticises tuition fees
"[Vince Cable] likened tuition fees to the infamous poll tax, as the fees are seen as an unfair weight around students' necks"

But then, this is the same man who didn't understand why the students are protesting, as the changes won't affect them - that's the Big Society in action, Vince. I remember anti-loans protests being well-supported in the 1980s and 90s by students who would also be unaffected by them.

He has also said that he regretted signing the pledge - presumably on the grounds that

This Liberal Democrat councillor is keeping a close eye on the game as it develops and has a good handle on how fourteen MPs are still committed to voting against and will have to be strongarmed even into abstention.

Activists are up in arms, with 104 sending a letter to Clegg warning

that the party faced "many more years back in the political wilderness" unless the fee rises were thrown out. They wrote: "During the general election campaign many of our MPs (and now government ministers) signed a pledge with the National Union of Students that they would vote against any tuition fee rises during the course of the next Parliament. The wording of this pledge clearly
indicated that this would be unconditional, regardless of whether the party was in government or in opposition. The party has been very clear for many years about its view on tuition fees and that we feel they should be abolished."
Mind you, Clegg is equally deluded, as he believes that the demonstrations are more likely to put people off going to university than the thumping hikes in fees matched by government disinvestment.