Thursday, July 29, 2010

Gove - evangelical in a hurry

Further to my post about the danger that is Michael Gove, he told a meeting of a handful of secondary head teachers that he was 'evangelical' about bringing the market to education. 'The days of local authorities are numbered.... I've only got two or three years to deliver on this and I will not be diverted from my path.'

Be afraid. Be very afraid.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Hail to the Chief

You know, I'm almost tempted to put my name forward to be a candidate in the first election of a commissioner of police for the West Midlands. Except that it just seems to be a pointless elected post at a time when additional costs make no sense.

In the US, of course, elections for district attorney or sheriff are quite commonplace, but that isn't what we're supposedly going to get over here, where the elected chief officer won't actually have operational control, so there's rightly no room for the force to be politicised. Or so they claim.

It would seem that this should prevent your elected official using the police to harry opponents, but what happens when it comes to broader strategic issues? If the commissioner tells the chief constable that the most important priority is tackling motor vehicle crime in Sutton Coldfield or burglary in Moseley - because as a politician, they will have an eye on their electorate - rather than a difficult project to deal with gang violence in Aston (or vice versa, for that matter), will the operational chief constable be able to do much about it? Similarly, much research shows that putting uniformed officers onto the beat is very ineffective when it comes to putting criminals away, but very popular with the voting public, so what happens when the elected and operational officers disagree?

I fail to see how you can actually separate off the operational from the strategic tasking elements. Both feed into each other.

The anonymous police authorities - actually committees of local councillors and lay members - will also go, to be replaced by committees of local councillors who will hold the police commissioner to account. I'm not sure I can see a huge change there, to be honest, other than the addition of an extra layer of elected bureaucracy and cost. I don't see how one person in charge of a force like West Midlands can hope to be more in touch with the needs of Wolverhampton or Coventry or Birmingham than a local councillor who also serves on the police authority. Then we have the question of the public appetite for another election campaign in 2012, probably running alongside metropolitan council elections, which typically attract low turnouts - under 30% is common.

These proposals seem designed to politicise the police in a most insidious way, to create a local head of blame, who will have to impose his mandate upon a resistant police service in order to retain his post. This risks the fatal corrosion of the principle of policing by consent that has been the basis of British policing since it's inception.

Friday, July 23, 2010

Right to build?

Just been listening to Grant Shapps put forward his policy to allow small communities to decide on planning matters without recourse to local authorities.

Firstly, I can't let the inconsistency pass - most of the time, we hear that the Tories like local, democratically elected authority, but when it matters, we are told that the councils either don't care or aren't competent - schools are looking to opt out of local, democratically accountable control and take on direct funding from central government. Planning authorities 'don't care about developments if five houses' according to Shapps, so we'll pass that down to the local community instead. My experience is that they do care very much about small developments. Yet local authorities are apparently great at banding together to create smaller (less well-funded) regional development agencies - despite fears in the Midlands that this will lead to total domination by Birmingham. Eric Pickles scraps RDAs even as Ian Duncan Smith over at DWP announces regionalisation of employment support. You could be forgiven for confusion over Tory policy.

Rather like the proposals for free schools that make the council's job of planning educational infrastructure impossible, this threatens any concept of a local spatial strategy - backed by local democratic accountability. What it does is hand planning over to small local cliques and potentially into the control of dedicated NIMBYs or those more easily influenced by local builders. Given that Caroline Spelman won votes as a result of opposing construction work near Meriden by a group of gypsies who had bought their own land and given that the Tories up and down the land have opposed back garden developments and anything that might impinge on the sacred green belt, this seems an odd decision and one potentially fraught with unfairness and inconsistency across the country. That isn't to say I'm opposed to localised decision-making, just concerned about the pitfalls that I know lie ahead. As with much curent policy, devils lurk within the detail.

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Philip Davies is a pompous ass

The Tory MP for Shipley decided last night that the best possible use of public funds was for him to try to talk out a proposal for the Youth Parliament to occasionally use the Commons chamber when the House is in recess. This seems fairly uncontroversial and indeed, the Youth Parliament sat there last year without leaving chewing gum under the seats or tagging the woodwork, so you might imagine that this would be a no-brainer. Cue Phil D, for whom 'no-brainer' effectively describes his capacity. He seems to think that letting the Youth Parliament sit upon the green benches somehow compromises the name of the mother of parliaments, in a way that any number of MPs with their snouts in the collective trough clearly do not. He complained about the cost, drawing a figure of £30-40k from a rumour that he had heard. Davies filibustered for quite some time, drawing snide comments from both sides of the House, before he was silenced by a closure motion that deferred a substantive vote until 11:30 this morning. It is to be hoped that wiser heads will silence Mr Davies and let the vote pass without obstruction, as this is a worthy cause that is helping to inspire young people to think of political discussion as positive and to take an interest in the future.

Misleading statements.

You will recall that the government chose to scrap an £80 million loan to Sheffield Forgemasters, a company that wanted to purchase equipment to allow it to enter a niche market for mouldings for nuclear reactors, a market currently only served by two suppliers in South Korea and Japan. When challenged on it at DPM questions, Clegg answered thus
...the new owners have been quite open about why they sought a Government loan-because, as they have publicly stated, they felt the terms they were receiving from banks were not good enough and because they did not want to dilute their own shareholdings in the company. Do I think it is the role of Government to help out owners of companies who do not want to dilute their own shareholdings? No, I do not...
Since then, it has become apparent that the owners were happy to dilute their shareholding, but not to the degree required to obtain the loan - they would have had to become minority shareholders. Accordingly, they have announced today that they will not be seeking to obtain private finance any further, so that puts an end to the plans to create more jobs, to double the firm's revenue within four years and to help contribute to Britain's export deficit by manufacturing a quality product for a niche market - exactly the kind of thing government should be enabling for the future.

What is worse is that Clegg knew that the owners were content to offer equity in return for cash investment
Graham Honeyman, Forgemasters’ chief executive, has told the deputy prime minister he was willing to dilute his share, something Mr Clegg has since admitted in a private letter to the businessman. Mr Clegg wrote: “[You] made clear to me your own willingness to dilute your equity share.”

Should he have to apologise to the House for misleading them?

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Dancing on the edge

We've been told repeatedly that the current economic strictures are actually all Labour's fault and that these cutbacks are essential to keep us from facing the Greek nightmare.

But what if Osborne has got it all wrong? How much will the Tories be blamed for dragging us back into recession?

Sunny Hundal over at Liberal Conspiracy reveals that the fiscally-tough budget appears to have caused industry confidence to drop - by the largest amount in the fourteen years that it has been conducted. Bear in mind that that means that it is a larger fall in confidence than that following the 9/11 attacks or the collapse of Lehman Brothers.

CIPS CEO David Noble said:

June’s data painted a worrying picture for the UK services sector as confidence suffered a serious blow following the government’s emergency spending cuts. Purchasing managers voiced grave concerns that budget cuts and VAT rises will tip the scales and amplify the likelihood of the UK slipping back into recession.

And here’s Paul Smith, senior economist at Markit,

While we continue to look for a 0.4 to 0.5 per cent rise in GDP for Q2, this may well already represent a peaking in the recovery cycle. Confidence declined to the greatest extent in 14 years of data collection in reaction to the government’s austere emergency Budget, with concern expressed that the fiscal tightening could push the country back into recession. Indeed, the less positive outlook appears to be already affecting decision-making, with some clients reportedly reluctant to commit to new business at the present time.


We also know that bank lending to businesses is £100 million down on the same time last year, investment is down and we have a widening trade deficit, which prevents the Canadian solution of exporting our way out of recession. The pound has dropped 25% over the past couple of years, but even that isn't sparking the export market. To further sweeten the pill, the housing market is also struggling, with Deloittes promising falls of 30% by the end of the year and PWC reckoning that the market is screwed for the next decade.

And the credit agencies have just downgraded Ireland from the valuable - and cost-saving - AAA rating, although it has to be pointed out that Ireland has significant problems with recapitalising the AIB bank and was also very badly hit in the construction and financial services sectors, rather disproportionately. Direct comparison between economies is always dangerous, but if we have people continuing comparing us to Greece, then pointing out that vicious retrenchment may not prevent a ratings downgrade.

The more I see of this, the more I fear that Osborne has got it massively wrong. I just cannot see that the circumstances exist whereby these cuts will stimulate the growth that he expects. As Larry Elliott points out, there is no plan B. Things look bleak.

Monday, July 19, 2010

The most dangerous man in the Cabinet?

No, not George Osborne, although he certainly has huge destructive potential, but the Education Secretary, Michael Gove. He is dangerous because he seems to have an unshakeable belief in his cause and identifies himself with that cause so much that anyone who dares question him or challenge the thinking isn't querying the policy, but actually attacking him personally. His bad-tempered performance on the Today programme, where he was very aggressive with Sarah Montagu in particular and the BBC in general. He talked over her and when pushed to actually answer questions that he tried to ignore, he consistently conflated the BBC and the Labour Party. Partly, this is reversion to type, because the Tories are convinced that the BBC is packed to the rafters with lefty agitators and is out to destroy the advance of government (although Labour spin doctors often found it less helpful than that simplistic picture would suggest).

All of this arose because Gove proposes to ram the complexity of the Academy Bill through parliament in just over a week to get it into law before the summer recess. This is such a far-reaching change that you would expect a proper parliamentary process to scrutinise the bill, but Gove seems to sincerely believe that the Tory manifesto commitment was sufficient opportunity to review the detail of the changes. This isn't the first time that we've seen Gove become bull-headed, as he is known to have ignored the advice of the Partnership for Schools agency experts to delay announcing a list of Building Schools for the Future cancellations until all the details could be confirmed. On that occasion, that merely caused confusion and distress - this legislation has the power to do immense damage to our schools and to impose huge costs if it goes wrong. Doesn't that deserve proper review and scrutiny?

He seems unprepared to listen to those around him and this does not bode well for the future, as it is likely to lead to an advisory team packed with yes men and to ensure that Gove only seeks advice from those who are most likely to agree with him. To a degree, of course, this is the fate of many ministers in many governments, but for such a newly-minted secretary of state with such an immediate record of fallibility behind him, it is deeply disturbing. Dogmatism may provide for consistency in opposition and status comes from being an ideological true believer, but it is very dangerous in government, where you can turn words into actions and cant into consequence.

Dropped

There I was, up and ready to speak to the people of the West Midlands on BBC WM, literally hanging on the line, when they decide to drop me to take a live interview on the same subject with some bloke called David Miliband.

As if anyone would be interested in what he had to say....

Actually, he was his usual sensible, collected self, stressing that we need to take the best from the past thirteen years - although I was disappointed that he didn't include investment in schools and the NHS in his list - and add in action on housing and fair rules on immigration.


Sunday, July 18, 2010

Hustings Report

I went to today's hustings event in Birmingham genuinely undecided as to how my two votes will be allocated, beyond a reasonable certainty that it will be to a Miliband.

Hang on a sec, I hear you cry, TWO votes?

OK, a quick lesson in how the Labour Party votes for leaders. We use an electoral college system to balance out three groups in the party. One third of the votes in the college belong to the parliamentary party in Westminster and Europe, one third belongs to the membership and the remainder is for union members. Each group votes on a one member, one vote basis and the votes for each candidate are added up to create a percentage within each group. Then the AV kicks in and the bottom candidates are removed round by round, with second preferences being assigned until one candidate achieves 50% of the vote. As an ordinary member and a union member, I therefore get two votes. You will also note that not all votes are equal - some are worth more than others.

So, having explained that, let's move on to the meat of the morning.

All five certainly had their strengths and there was considerable agreement on the economic way forward for the Midlands - all spoke of retaining Advantage West Midlands (although only Ed Balls could name the RDA) and supporting the manufacturing sector (Diane mentioned supporting the public sector, which is a major employer in the region). While there was agreement over voting reform, there are differences over how to achieve it. David wants a general referendum on Commons and Lords reform, Ed Balls is concerned about having the referendum on the same day as the local elections and also about the proposed boundary changes, Ed Miliband wants the locals to be a referendum on the government, not reform and Andy Burnham knows that this is important, but wants it kept in perspective - people won't thank us for fiddling with the system while the economy burns.

While four of them have risen through the modern route of Oxbridge, special advisor and thence to a safe seat and the Cabinet, Andy Burnham is selling himself as somebody outside the Westminster system, despite having spent his career inside that system. He isn't without sound ideas though and I was delighted to hear him mention the need for more council housing, as our failure to tackle the desperate need for genuinely affordable housing was the biggest domestic error of the last government. He was also willing to stand up for comprehensive schools and has also benefitted from the agenda set by the Tory proposals on the NHS, so has been at the front of our defence of the system. Locally, he has some support, but that seems to be focussed on our North Staffordshire MPs, even though the constituency parties up there aren't necessarily following suit. Burnham does trade rather too much on his credentials as a northerner and his campaign is noticeably run from Manchester, not London. Sadly, I think he is doomed to the fourth or fifth spot in the vote, but he has done himself no harm by standing, as I've been impressed by much that he has to say - not least his promises to reform how the party works and mentioning that the deficit should be repaid by utilising a higher proportion of tax-raising measures.

Diane Abbott is the traditional leftist candidate, also trading on her outsider status and making a virtue of the fact that she has never held ministerial office. She is unashamedly appealing to the left, promising to scrap Trident and making great play of her record of voting against illegal wars - something that she will repeat slightly more often than Andy Burnham tells you he's from the North. I thought she spoke well with regard to tackling the far right, stressing that the rise of the far right does reflect a genuine dissatisfaction over jobs and housing. On that, Ed Miliband was also sound, noting that the right flourishes where Labour withdraws, something that chimes closely with my own experience. While Diane's populist, I think that her lack of top-level experience counts against her and her independence of mind would make it hard to enforce party discipline over tight issues.

Ed Balls was very strong, as you would expect, on the economy, rightly drawing parallels with the 1930s and Ramsay Macdonald's deficit cuts. He's had an even better couple of weeks than Burnham, exploiting the ongoing car crash that has been Michael Gove's cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future and playing to his strengths. I think he fell down on dealing with the far right, where he seems to believe that we need to contrast our values with those of the fascists - I don't think that this is enough, we actually need to clean up the environment that sustains them by tackling issues. He is, however, very impressive and is certainly a combative opposition politician and we certainly need that sort of streetfighting skill for the years ahead. He's not been badly received by the membership and has grown in stature over the weeks of the campaign. I don't see him winning, but should be a strong player. It will be interesting to see where the unions formally place their support and it is worth noting that he does have a significant level of support amongst Midlands MPs - Ian Austin, Jim Cunningham, Khalid Mahmood, Steve McCabe, Geoffrey Robinson, John Spellar, Tom Watson and David Wright are all supporters. I do think that he let himself down by using his closing speech to launch an attack on Frank Field - he wasted a chance to tell us more about himself, but used it to batter a Labour MP who can't answer back at the moment (however wrong Field may have been).

Then we come to the two front runners in the Milibands. I've been increasingly impressed by David over the past few weeks, but still need to be convinced that he can connect with the wider public outside the Westminster political village. He's certainly a highly competent and thoughtful man and he grasps that we don't just need to appeal to our traditional core vote, but must also attract those lapsed Labour voters in the south east and the Midlands - middle England. He's found it tougher over the past couple of weeks - the foreign affairs portfolio hasn't been quite so front and centre as the domestic ones - although he did stress that the Building Schools for the Future programme started on his watch. While all the candidates backed the idea of a graduate tax - Diane mentioned that she'd voted against the tuition fees - David was the one who wanted to see fairer admissions as well. It was Ed Miliband who raised the spectre of fees discouraging students from poorer households. Both supported Trident, but Ed was open to the possibility of a full review of the nuclear capability on the basis of need and cost. I also felt that Ed's closing speech was stronger and more passionate than David's and I think that's what we need for the next five years. Neither is quite the finished article yet, but either would make a good choice. Ed seems to attract a younger, more enthusiastic generation, but David offers instant competence and ability. I suspect David will get the most first preference votes, but I would be entirely unsurprised if Ed didn't win on second preferences.

I said when interviewed that I believed that the activists know what we're fighting against, we need to know what we're fighting for. We need a narrative, a vision that will carry us over the next five years. One of these candidates needs to come forward with some coherence and demonstrate that they can sell their ideas, because if the party won't buy it, then the rest of the electorate certainly won't. They all offer something, but we only get to choose one of them. I'm still not sure who gets my first preference and I know I'm not alone in that. Both have significant support across the Midlands and are collecting supporting nominations by the handful.

The good news here is that we don't have a huge ideological battle going on. There will be no long-drawn out fight for the soul of the party as there was in the 80s, with the unrealistic and outdated demands of the left preventing us from returning to power. We have an activist base that is switching back on to opposition very quickly and we're already making significant gains in local by-elections and watching the Liberal Democrat poll share dwindle as ours holds and increases over the general election. We're in a far better place than we were in the early 80s or the Tories were between 1997 and 2005 and we need the right leader to take us forward.

This isn't just about choosing a leader - this is about choosing the one who will be our next Prime Minister. We've got to get this right.

Hi there

Lots to write - you can find my live tweets on @politicalhackuk if you want a peek at thoughts so far. In summary, I went in favouring one of the Milibands, but have come out in much the same place.



Take your seats...

I note that only the Milibands came front of house to greet the assembled masses for additional brownie points. These little things are worth a lot to members, you know and pressing the flesh with activists who will then go back to spread the word in their CLPs is worth it.

Hustings

Here at Birmingham University for the hustings. All signed in and should be on air around 1205. Under strict orders to be outside the balcony at that time unless I want Susana Mendonca to be standing there like a lemon.



Friday, July 16, 2010

Hack at the BBC

At the risk of scaring away precious viewers and listeners, I'm currently booked to appear on the Politics Show Midlands regional opt, which will be coming live from the Labour leadership hustings on Sunday. BBC 1 Midlands from about 11:30am, going live after midday.

Additionally, I'm also booked on to the Radio WM Phil Upton Breakfast Show at 7am on Monday, so that's a second chance to make a bigger fool of myself.

All I need now is something original to say about the leadership.

Thursday, July 15, 2010

Quote of the week

Mark Garnier, Conservative MP for Wyre Forest, interviewed on BBC Politics Show West Midlands
'We were not standing for election because we wanted to bring cuts'

Have you read the Tory manifesto Mark? That's EXACTLY what you were standing for.

Educating Michael

Tom Watson may have been unparliamentary in his language, but you could understand the passion and anger when he rose and rounded on the "pipsqueak" Michael Gove, who does look rather like a third-former placed in charge of the tuck shop.


That pipsqueak claimed to have scrapped the BSF project because of the poor management associated with the scheme, but then demonstrated his own sheer incompetence by supplying a series of inaccurate lists of schools affected by his cuts. Even the list provided at the time of his first apology contained errors and there have been subsequent lists all containing mistakes. While he rightly took the blame in public, his friends have been busily briefing privately that it was actually the fault of faceless civil servants.


Graham Stuart, the Tory MP who chairs the Commons education select committee, told Radio 4's Today programme that the "quango" established by
Labour to oversee its school building programme, Partnerships for Schools (PfS)
had been responsible for the list. The body had been "incompetent", he added. Mr
Stuart said: "I thought it was refreshing to have a secretary of state who actually accepted responsibility for the errors that took place in this process
"But of course the irony is, which isn't lost on the rest of us, is that it was Labour's quango, Partnerships for Schools – whose chief executive actually earns more than the prime minister – who came up with the error-filled list in the first place."
Stuart laying into a Labour quango there. I hope he'll be equally scathing about the New Schools Network, which is run by a former aide to Michael Gove, has another former aide assisting and has just had half a million of our money pumped into it.

However, it appears that the confusion started with Gove. When he told officials that the BSF model was too slow and complicated and that he wanted to scrap the whole programme, they responded that that about half of the 1500 projects in progress were far too advanced to be stopped as the legal costs involved would be astronomical. So rather than putting the thing out to consultation, the minister decided that a wholesale axe would be brought down and civil servants then had to deal with a moving set of criteria to tie down which category schools would fall - it is no wonder that mistakes were made, but the ultimate responsibility does not lie with civil servants, but with the minister who rushed them, ignored advice and gave them dud instructions.

MPs of all shades are coming out of the woodwork to defend school modernisation in their area - Tories, Liberal Democrats and Labour alike. This is the first cut where the effects are widespread and locally identifiable. Closing the QCA affects a relatively small number of people in Coventry, but threatening schools - much like closing hospitals - is a very personal matter to local people, so it is no surprise that many MPs have come under such huge pressure. Sandwell can feel very hard done by about this in particular, as they had predicated a complete realignment of their school places on the basis that so many would be rebuilt. Stopping the programme at this stage has caused immense problems.

Aside from the disappointment and sheer inconvenience, this has cost local authorities over £160 million and construction firms have stumped up a further £100 million to advance plans to the point where Gove feels able to scrap them. Some authorities and - I would suspect - most construction firms will be looking for compensation, although Birmingham has apparently decided to take losses on the chin. Whether the council is legally able just to write off these costs for political reasons without seeking to recover them on behalf of the hard-pressed council taxpayers of the city is perhaps an interesting question.

Gove has also been critical of Ed Balls in private, alleging that staff from the Partnership for Schools agency have been briefing the former Secretary of State. Gove didn't seem to object to the supply of information from the Home Office or the Treasury under the last government - indeed he defended it - so quite why he should be surprised now the boot is on the other foot isn't clear.

Tellingly, Gove dodged answering this question from Ed Balls
"Did you at any point receive written or oral advice from departmental officials or Partnerships for Schools urging you not to publish a list of schools until after you had consulted local authorities, to make sure your criteria were sound and your facts were right?"
In keeping with the great political tradition of never asking a question unless you know the answer, I suspect Ed knows full well that Gove did receive such advice. Gove preferred to attack Ed rather than deal with the substance of the question, although a spin doctor later denied the suggestion. You will note that this denial was not issued from the despatch box, thus ensuring that Gove cannot possibly be accused of lying to parliament should, say, a ministerial direction appear at some point in the future.

All in all, this has not been a good fortnight for Michael Gove. He has been shown to be lacking in the basic competence required of a senior minister and confirmed as an ideologue of the first order. No wonder that many had him as the first minister to be removed from government. I wonder if he'll survive the first reshuffle?

Tuesday, July 13, 2010

National Health Disservice

On Newsnight tonight, Andrew Lansley called the PCTs bloated for spending £261 million on management consultants. Now, I'm no fan of management consultants, but that is approximately 0.35% of the budget of the PCTs. In comparison, the Conservative / Liberal Democrat administration ruining Birmingham splashed £60 million on consultants, which equates to 1.7% of their total budget or almost FIVE times (4.82 for the pedants) as great a proportion as all the PCTs. So Lansley must think that Birmingham is even more badly managed than the PCTs.

Make no mistake about any of this - just as the promises about parents running schools are used as cover to allow gradual private sector takeover, so this is opening the hospital doors to the private management companies.

This was not a manifesto commitment, indeed the Tories railed against top down reorganisation of the NHS, so you have to ask - was this policy invented in the past few weeks or was it kept hidden from the public? If the former, shouldn't a revolution on this scale have some form of trial? If the latter, why did they keep it away from scrutiny? It will lead to two to three years of institutional chaos as structures need to be rebuilt and contractual issues dealt with.

I'm not convinced that these proposals will reduce management costs, when you consider that you will end up with 500 or more individual GP commissioning groups across the country all negotiating contracts with hospitals and you will also find huge departments dedicated to resolving contractual differences and handling billing.

I'll place a small bet - that if these policies are implemented on this scale suggested, then independent research, will show an increase in the overall proportion of the NHS budget spent on management.

Monday, July 12, 2010

What price food?

If you ask the government and the business-friendly Andrew Lansley, it seems to be just a few quid from the food suppliers and retailers, as he plans to scrap the Food Standards Agency and transfer the hygiene responsibilities across to DEFRA. (http://disq.us/grx77)

The FSA was created following the execrable performance by an earlier incarnation of DEFRA in failing to get across to farmers and feed suppliers that feeding ground up brains and spinal cords to animals used to grass and hay might have unwanted consequences. It took a commercially and medically devastating outbreak of BSE for someone to work out that this might not be a great leap forward and MAFF did not cover itself in glory - it emerged smeared with other products usually found in farmyards. Handing the hygiene role back to a department charged with supporting agriculture may prove to be a conflict of interest too far - and we really don't want any pictures of senior ministers force-feeding burgers to their children again, thank you. (Incidentally, the effectiveness of DEFRA in supporting farmers is a whole different story)

You will also recall an ingrained Conservative scepticism towards claims of the cost-effectiveness of government advertising, so it seems odd that they consider that a few industry-financed campaigns will adequately discharge the need to provide healthy eating advice. Perhaps they have in mind the campaign by the drinks industry, encouraging us to 'drink responsibly,' which has done so much to guide people away from binge drinking. That is the future of food health campaigning under the new politics of the coalition. And before people start whinging about the nanny state, remember that we all pay the price in tax for the health outcomes of poor diets. Investing in education and possibly even in legislation now will prove far more cost-effective than waiting to treat people as they get older and sicker. It is also progressive, as we know that the poorest in society are also those most reliant on the unhealthiest of foods and have difficulty accessing quality, affordable food. Asking suppliers to support a campaign that will affect their bottom line will ensure that the message is appropriately lukewarm and ineffectively banal. Impartiality is an important attribute for government advice and if it is beholden to the suppliers, it is instantly compromised.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

Mark Legless

It appears that Mark Reckless - crazy name, crazy guy - has now apologised for being found drunk in charge of a mandate during the long run up to the vote on the Budget earlier this week. I can't blame him - who hasn't had a few drinks and done something embarrassing? Let's face it, Charlie Kennedy has only just realised that he was running the Liberal Democrats during his years of alcohol excess.

And to be fair to Mr Legless, I'd need to be paralytic to vote in favour of Osborne's budget - I'm not sure that beer goggles come in that level of strength, to be honest. How must it feel to wake up next morning and realised that you screwed an entire country while under the influence? Perhaps we should be more concerned about those who went in to vote sober.

Reckless claims that he knew he'd had too much, so he decided against voting, whereas slightly more sober observers suggest that the alcohol had rendered him unconscious and asleep, until he was eventually poured into a cab by his party comrades for a £150 ride home. And an embarrassing dressing-down by the whips the following day for missing a three line vote.

He wasn't the only one - one doorkeeper at the Palace of Westminster received an apology the following day after receiving a mouthful of abuse from a female Tory MP who was similarly over-refreshed. There are also reports that Labour's Steven Pound, always good value at the best of times, was being fuelled through the night on more than just strong cocoa.

Alcohol and politics have always gone together. Labour's George Brown is the originator of the tried and tested euphemism from Private Eye, 'tired and emotional', which was coined to explain behaviour that might otherwise have been ascribed to drink. Some observers actually report that Brown wasn't really a great drinker, it was just that he couldn't handle it and a little went a tremendously long way. More recently, Alan Clark was famously accused by Clare Short of presenting a bill while drunk, a statement that caused uproar at the time, but which was also entirely accurate. His diaries reveal that Clark had come fresh - if that is the right word - from a wine tasting and was certainly struggling with sobriety.

Closer to home, our own John Hemming started strutting the national political stage by getting 'hog-whimperingly drunk' at a Private Eye luncheon and revealing to those present - in strictest confidence -that he had recently impregnated his assistant and fellow local councillor, a fact that came as a surprise to his wife.

My favourite drunk politician story comes from John Simpson, who recalls that at the time of the revolution against Gorbachev in 1990, he ran into the Russian foreign minister leaving the Moscow White House, the office of Boris Yeltsin. Simpson asked after Yeltsin and was assured that the hero of the resistance was hard at work organising. Some years later, Simpson ran into the minister again and discovered the truth - rather than having just come from a high-level meeting, the foreign minister had left Yeltsin where he found him - unconscious on his office floor with a bottle of vodka beside him.

Friday, July 09, 2010

AV Club

For all the dire predictions being made about the referendum being the straw that will break the coalition, I don't believe that it will. While I'm sure that the passage of legislation will be a little fraught by backbench Tories and the Labour party hurling well-aimed spanners, I doubt that any really terminal wrecking amendments will be forthcoming.

So, come May next year, I'm sure we'll be trooping into polling stations to let about 25% of the electorate decide the future democratic path of this country. While I'm generally an adherent of the principle that decisions are taken by those who turn up, I can't help but be attracted to the Tory backbench idea of requiring 40% support from the electorate as a whole.

However, I'm concerned about conflating local elections and national electoral process. Essentially, I suspect that this is a shrewd political move by the Liberal Democrats to take advantage of local election turnout to try to push this through and also to use it as a lever to protect their vote share, which is likely to be under massive pressure as the cuts agenda starts to bite in a very visible way. After all, electoral reform has been a totemic policy for the party since the foundation of the SDP and there is no other issue so guaranteed to persuade wavering lefty Liberal Democrats to come out and vote one more time.

Will it pass? I'm not sure that it will inspire enougj passion amongst the electorate. It must be remembered that AV isn't proportional representation and essentially ensures that a winning candidate can rely on over 50% of the electorate to lend them some element of support. Such a subtle process change excites few people outside the community of political geekdom.

Clegg is also in the peculiar position of now having to propose and marshal support for a policy he has slammed in the past. Some are talking of it as baby steps towards full proportional representation, but I doubt that. If the measure falls at the referendum, then reform is probably off the agenda for a generation - the Tories have no stomach for it and will lead the charge even against AV, although Cameron is expected to take a backseat to avoid apparent dissent amongst the Cabinet. Even if it does pass, I suspect that this will also put further reform into the middle distance, as there is unlikely to be a huge groundswell of support, thus allowing the Tories to justify kicking it into the long grass for the foreseeable future.

Clegg has trumpeted this as evidence of the power of the Liberal Democrats within the coalition, but this victory could, as I have outlined, prove to be a Pyhrric one for large-scale reform, if it allows the Tories to shelve any further changes on the grounds of lack of support. Win or lose, it also marks the high water mark of Liberal Democrat achievement and the question will then be asked as to where the coalition goes from there. I doubt that it will be a break point, as I'm increasingly of the view that the Liberal Democrats will be in this until the next election. Whether that election will be in 2015 or a snap election following the Olympics and Jubilee is a different matter.

Just as the drive to reform the electoral process is driven by the unsubtle political agenda of obtaining an advantage for the Liberal Democrats at least as much as it is about an altruistic approach to electoral justice, so the other parties also have their own agendas. Neither Labour nor the Tories particularly want to face the prospect of an eternal coalition dependent upon the variable political direction of a third party. Modelling preference votes is massively difficult and will lead to more tactical voting. In Birmingham, for example, we have seen Conservative and Liberal Democrats allying in an informal non-aggression electoral pact, where they essentially do not campaign against each other in order to maximise the anti-Labour vote. Before the Tories get over-excited about this as a good thing, remember that voters can be fickle, no matter how on-message that nice Mr Clegg is at the moment. An informal alliance against an unpopular Tory government is just as credible.

Still, you have to wonder if this is just a distraction to keep the Lib Dems from thinking about the destruction that they are aiding and abetting as part of the demolition coalition. You hope that when Liberal Democrat minister Michael Moore looks at his performance on Question Time last night, he thinks that the audience abuse and jeers are worth it to get to AV.

Wednesday, July 07, 2010

Housing Threats

Cuts of £21 million are threatened for new affordable housing in the Midlands. The Homes and Communities Agency has confirmed that projects to build almost 500 homes will probably not receive funding.

Under review are 172 homes at Longbridge and Lodge Road in Birmingham, the 100 home North Priory scheme in Dudley, 59 homes in Stoke and 158 houses planned for the Worcester Porcelain site.

230 homes being built by Birmingham City Council get the go ahead as £12 million is assured for their progress, but Rugby, Dudley and Stoke are likely to see £5.7 million cut from their plans to build 106 houses.


Tuesday, July 06, 2010

Elected mayors to be imposed

I'm hearing that Birmingham will be required to have an elected mayor without a referendum on the matter. Instead, there will be a confirmatory ballot AFTER the event.

So much for local democracy.



Choices

A loan to Sheffield Forgemasters to create jobs and help niche manufacturing would cost £80 million - fully repayable with interest.

The upcoming referendum on the alternative vote system planned to firm up Liberal Democrat support in the local elections will also cost a non-recoverable £80 million.

Greater love hath no man than he lay down his constituents for his career.

Thursday, July 01, 2010

We're all in this together. When I say 'we', I mean 'you.'

The Office of Budget Responsibility and the Treasury combine to predict that somewhere around 600,000 public sector posts will be efficiently saved over the next five years or so. Don't worry, the private sector is forecast to suffer the same level of efficiency.


But the best news is that the private sector will apparently create 1.3 million jobs along the way.


Obviously, Brendan Barber of the TUC attacked that forecast of a bonanza in job creation

This is not so much wishful thinking as a complete refusal to engage with reality... Much more likely are dole queues comparable to the 1980s, a new deep north-south divide and widespread poverty as the Budget's benefit cuts start to bite.
But he gets support from an unexpected sector, the chief economist from that well-known Labour front organisation, the Chartered Institute for Personnel Development.

The government thinks that just by ...tackling the deficit, there will be a vent for growth because the prospects for investments and exports will be greater. If you look at both demand in the UK economy and more globally, there is a question mark over that and if that doesn't pay off then we're going to have a much weaker employment outlook.

That figure explains the lower growth forecasts from the OBR and that also has an impact on the calculation of the structural deficit. The Tories are cutting before the situation is right for the private sector to pick up the slack -they seem to believe that the level of employment in the public sector is holding back the private sector.


I'm not sure what to call this other than idiocy, because it certainly isn't a sound economic policy.