Monday, January 31, 2011

Speaking from his padded cell...

They will have to win. Anything less and their reputation would be in tatters. It is the equivalent of Lewis Hamilton entering a go-kart race - he will be the strong favourite but there is also the possibility he could lose. So why risk it?

So speaks the former manager of the former boyband Blue, when hearing the news that they are set to represent Royaume Uni at the 2011 Eurovision Song Contest - the annual safety valve that allows national and international prejudices to be paraded upon a European stage and has probably done more to keep the EU nations from declaring war on each other than any other institution. He clearly suffers from delusions about the musical significance and reputation of Blue, who reformed in 2009 due to lack of public demand. (Incidentally, Lewis Hamilton was a very fine karter - a friend of mine's son used to race against him back in the day).

More terrifying than that is the news that Ireland have chosen the musical talents of Jedward to showcase what the Emerald Isle has to offer. Clearly, RTE have decided that given the costs of staging the show, the risk of putting up a serious candidate is too high, so have gone with the My Lovely Horse approach. Expect douze points from the UK jury.

Thursday, January 27, 2011

Beaker speaks

The Scottish Government's plans to lease 25% of Scotland's forests to private investors would put jobs at risk. The time has long past when people regarded our national forests simply as sources of cash. The Forestry Commission now does vital work creating paths and mountain bike tracks and supporting environmental improvements. The paths and bike tracks are popular with local people and tourists alike. I am campaigning against this...

That's what Danny Alexander said back in 2009.

Now, of course, he's encouraging the sell-off of our forests in a short-sighted dash for a quick profit rather than long-term investment and management. For all the promises about guaranteeing access, this will be the thin end of the wedge. They don't need to be sold and the level of grants available to the new owners mean that the cost of selling them may actually be nearly outstripped by future costs.

Hat tip to @HuwOgmoreMP.

Sign here to send a message to the government.

Friday, January 21, 2011

Balls Up!

Get used to those jokes - I just hope that the tabloids run through their repertoire of testicular-related humour rapidly, so we can get down to the real business at hand.

I like Alan Johnson and he had a reputation as a decent bloke, so I'm sorry to see him go - his backstory was an excellent counterpoint to the privileged lives of his counterparts on the government benches and he has given long service to his party and country. The sad fact of the matter is that he was unsuited for the job of Shadow Chancellor by his lack of knowledge or Treasury experience. You can see why Ed Miliband appointed him - a clean pair of hands and rather hard to paint as responsible for the economic travails affecting us.

On the other hand, Balls is a serious economist for serious economic times and the opponent that any Tory cabinet minister least wants to face across the dispatch box. You only have to look back at the way he mercilessly battered Gove over the Building Schools for the Future debacle. Balls is not just proper economist, he is a combative opponent prepared to use that knowledge and experience to dismantle any poorly assembled economic policy.

And boy has he got an opportunity with Osborne, a Chancellor with no formal economic training or relevant experience, just a surfeit of superiority and an irredeemable smugness.

The Shadow Chancellor is the key power house of opposition with the task of undermining and exposing the untruths and deceptions that make up what passes for an economic policy. In particular, he must have the weight and credibility to put a case to counter the mantra that there is no alternative to the path down which we have been taken by this Conservative-led government. Balls certainly has that - I can't imagine that Osborne has rested easily with the knowledge that he will - just like Michael Gove and Teresa May - be held to account by the Balls.

Once the foundations are damaged, the reality of Tory policy will lie bare without the bodyguard of economic lies that currently accompanies it. The fact that they - aided by their Liberal friends - are taking a wrecking-ball to our public services to meet an ideological agenda can then be tackled. We cannot hope to raise an effective defence of health, education or local government unless we expose Tory policy and then propose credible alternatives.

Appointing Balls does not come without risks to Ed Miliband - he is well aware that the Shadow Chancellor will be a power and public profile almost to match the leader himself and it seems unlikely that Balls has entirely abandoned his ambitions of advancement. Learning the lessons of history, Miliband has apparently insisted that the Eds will work together and share a communications team - worried that a machine loyal to Balls would provide an internal opposition to the leadership, recalling the Brown/Blair turf wars fought out by their respective media people.

I hope that these two will commit to a different future - our party and country needs it. Their futures are bound together and I hope they are not condemned to repeat the errors of the recent past.

Olton crumble

Yesterday there was a by-election in the Olton ward in Solihull, causes by the sad death of Cllr Honor Cox last year. This has been a Liberal Democrat stronghold in recent years and their candidate, although resident in Walsall, works for Lorely Burt, whose office is actually in the ward.

This should be an easy win for the Lib Dems - the majority is typically 1100-1200 votes over the Tory candidate on a 40% turnout. Last night, on a very respectable 30% by-election turnout, the Liberal Democrats held onto the seat by a majority of 9 - after a recount. Now, that's still a win, but what is clear is that the normally reliable Liberal Democrat support did not materialise - it stayed away and allowed a Tory swing of 8%.

Although this was an ultra-narrow win, it will offer no comfort to Lorely Burt. Her majority is a thin 175, only a sixth of the votes lost yesterday.

May will be intriguing.

UPDATE: Dom draws my attention to an interesting last minute leaflet from the Liberal Democrats, mimicking a Tory 'apology.' How desperate are they that they have to run this little stunt? By the way, if any Solihull LibDems can identify the alleged Tory 'smears', I'd be interested to know, as Praguetory denies that there were any.

Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Reform or Reduction?

Andrew Lansley made his first appearance on Radio 4's PM programme yesterday afternoon, attempting to justify the radical restructuring that he is inflicting on the National Health Service - the jewel in the crown of the post-war welfare state and something that the Conservatives appear determined to rip from its setting and flog to the highest bidder.

Lansley said that he has learnt that 'he doesn't know best' - which raises the question of why he is introducing changes not mentioned in the Tory manifesto and not detailed in the coalition agreement. A restructuring so massive that it can 'be seen from space' according to one senior NHS manager and on a scale that has never been tried before. It is a shift that worries managers, medical staff and unions and one that is not demanded by patients - who are happier with the NHS now than they have ever been. Despite promising no more top-down restructuring, the Tories are going to waste £2-£3 billion on a process that will stifle progress for two or three years.

Of all the 'reforms' proposed by the Tories and abetted by their Liberal friends, this uncreative destruction has the potential to do the most damage to the future health of this country, for it heralds the end of the National Health Service as an entity, to be replaced by private consortia focussed on profit and ripe for a personal insurance system. I hope that people realise what is being done without a mandate - there is a reason that this wasn't exposed to any scrutiny prior to the election, as the Tories knew that talking about the NHS was dancing along beside the third rail.

Where's Claire Rayner when you need her?

We really aren't going to understand what we have here until the Tories have dismantled it. And don't think that it can be put back together again - it can't. Once this is gone, it is gone for good.

Sunday, January 16, 2011

One more step along the road

The Oldham East and Saddleworth result is, by any reasonable measure, a good one for Labour. Certainly, they would expect to retain the seat won - just - at the last general election, in the teeth of the anti-Labour gale, given the strength of public opprobrium for the coalition, but a 3500 majority on a 48% turnout is very good, especially as the majority last time round was barely into three figures. It is also a universal truth that by-elections are singular beasts with their own rules and I doubt their relevance to a broader national picture in any worthwhile terms - local issues come to the fore and electors take the chance to apply their boots to the governing party of whichever colour. In terms of a verdict on this government, this is a relative sideshow - the major electoral test this year comes in the broad swathe of local elections in May and I suspect that the outcome will be different then.

We have become used to the hyper-efficient Liberal Democrat squeeze machine rolling into town, focussing all available foot soldiers on a short campaign and stealing votes from one party to defeat the other, but this was the first test of the machine in government and it simply didn't gain enough traction. This is perhaps a little surprising, given that the Phil Woolas was evicted from parliament over his campaigning and Elwyn Watkins would have hoped to reap the harvest of that action, even if the public do seem to punish those who force them to vote repeatedly - the re-run Winchester election being instructive on this point, where Mark Oaten was unseated by an election petition, only to romp home with a massively-increased majority in the second poll, as the electorate turned against the Tory challenger, who was marked down as a bad loser and punished accordingly. It should also be remembered that the timing of this poll was a Liberal Democrat decision as, contrary to the usual protocol that allows the 'sitting tenant' party to pick the date, they moved the writ just before Christmas, counting on a short campaign wrongfooting Labour enough to give them a fair chance. With a distinctly lacklustre Tory campaign on the ground, as much as possible was tilted in favour of the Liberal Democrats, which makes their defeat even more galling.

The Liberal Democrats are very good at using their limited resources to hammer their targetted vote and they rely on the typically low turnouts at by-elections to carry them into a win, but this campaign exposed the limitations of the opposition squeeze when a party of government - however transitory - tries to apply it. Clegg was forlornly trying to spin a 10% margin and 3500 majority as a reasonably close fight this morning, but the reality is that this is self-delusion of the highest order - the Liberals weren't even in the ball park on this one. He also needs to note that while Watkins ended up with a reasonable showing with 11,000 votes, some estimates suggests that 5-6000 of those were votes loaned by Tories trying to support the coalition, rather than convinced Liberal Democrats supporting their party. It seems likely that a decent percentage of the leftish Lib Dems voters have gone Labour. The Liberal Democrats are left celebrating a slight increase in vote share on the general election of just 0.3% - hardly a triumph.

The relatively poor Tory performance (their vote share more than halved from May) has been used to batter Cameron over the head, but it has served to shore up the creaking Coalition a little while longer. The Liberals may be firmly strapped to the mast and prepared to last out the next five years, but the same cannot be said of the right wing of the Tory party. While a hundred Tory MPs and David Cameron himself all popped in to the constituency over the course of the campaign, this was undoubtedly just a matter of show - ensuring that the party can claim to have put up a fight, rather than just loaning voters to the Liberal Democrats. On the one hand, Cameron will feel happy that he has at least saved his colleague further embarrassment - as a decent Tory campaign could credibly have consigned the Liberal Democrats to third place, judging by the General Election result - but on the other hand, he is storing up problems for himself with members of his own party.

Curiously, Thursday's Liberal Democrat win may actually strengthen Cameron's hand with the Liberal Democrats, if he chooses to use it. If they are forced to look to his largesse to secure some of their seats or to even maintain their credibility in the upcoming spate of by-elections (Barnsley Central and a rumour of Leicester South as well), their ministerial discussions today about how they can make the Liberal Democrats more equal partners within the coalition are wild dreams and nothing more. Increasingly, it looks like the Liberal Democrats will become a wholly owned subsidiary of the Conservative Party - and David Cameron in particular.

So, while Labour has capitalised on the travails of the coalition to balance out the embarrassment of the Woolas affair, the result is still a strong one for us. We actually increased our numerical vote over last May, as well as vote share, while the Tories mislaid 7000 voters and the Liberals couldn't locate 3000 of theirs. That sort of disproportionate loss either indicates voters switching their allegiance or an unusually strong Labour turnout for a by-election. It would not do to be complacent, however, as there is still a long way to travel to 2015 and we need to be a genuine alternative to the coalition and not just rely on hoovering up the votes of those opposed to the government.

It is a start, but only a start and there is much more to do.

Saturday, January 15, 2011

Pickles' Delight

I am delighted to tell the hon. Gentleman that Birmingham faces a cut in its spending of 8.3%, and 4.3% for next year

Eric Pickles, 13 Dec 2010. Hat tip to the Birmingham Post.

Do remember those words when council services are slashed. Whatever it costs, it keeps Eric happy.

Tuesday, January 11, 2011

2011 Forecasts

In between my delayed review of the year, I've been gazing into my crystal ball and have some predictions.

Labour to win Oldham East and Saddleworth.

The AV referendum will fail to gain a majority in May.

Vince Cable to be reshuffled out to return to the backbenches.

And - obviously enough - no general election this year.

Right where your employer wants you

There are many reputable employers out there who treat their staff well and have good managers who know what they are doing. Sadly, there are also many employers who treat their people like chattels and abuse their position of power. For this, we have had a remedy - protection through employment tribunals and by the law, but - predictably - the Tories want to roll back those protections with a new 'employers' charter,' which will not be unveiled until after the by-election this week, unsurprisingly. Where's the employee's charter?

These changes will make little or no difference to numbers employed - I've spent almost two decades mostly in the private sector and I've been involved in recruitment for virtually all that time. The decision to recruit is made on business grounds - do we need additional resources and will they help to drive the business forward? Not once have I ever had a recruitment request refused because of the depth of 'red tape'. This was in place during the last decade and we saw thousands of people gainfully employed apparently despite this restrictive legislation. The change will only apply to unfair dismissal, which only forms a minority of claims. Discrimination claims - which can be brought even as part of the recruitment process - will rightly remain without a qualifying period. The proposal to require a payment of up to £250 to bring an employment tribunal is also likely to restrict genuine claims from people who have been dismissed unfairly.

A friend of mine did take a former employer to court for unfair dismissal. The process was long and very arduous and he risked an awful lot to bring it - he was living off credit cards until he finally won his case and was able to clear his debts with his compensation. Don't think that it is an easy path to riches, because it isn't.

Working within the law really requires a proper recruitment and disciplinary structure - something that actually helps both sides, because people know where they stand, how they can expect to be treated and the rules of engagement. It is about natural justice.

The TUC commissioned a study into this and demonstrated that there is no simple answer, nor is there a single magic solution.
Relatively highly regulated Scandinavian countries have achieved success and countries with low regulation show, over comparable time periods, vastly different outcomes. Strong employment rates are the concequence of a country’s overall economic strength, not its level of employment protection.
There are far more important elements in achieving economic growth

strong export markets, strengthened consumer demand, smart public sector investment, improved business access to capital and ongoing improvements in workplace innovation and productivity
And there seems little in the government's economic 'plans' to support or deliver any of those essential elements.

In addition, the proposals to limit the payment of Statutory Sick Pay - which is hardly generous, at just £10 more than job seekers allowance - may well prove to be an own goal, as it will shift responsibility and cost onto the taxpayer sooner and will make it less likely that sick employees will return to work.

These proposals unbalance further the relationship with the employee, tilting it firmly in favour of the employer. The further proposal to exempt small firms from some aspects of legislation is also rather odd, as - if you accept the government's arguments - it would discourage growth, as a small company might consider all this employment law too restrictive and prefer to stay small. Those big employers who sat round the Cabinet table to talk to the Prime Minister yesterday and rewarded him with some soundbites suggesting that these existing plans were new and somehow the result of hard negotiation with Cameron will be delighted as his policies will create a new army of the unemployed desperate to grab even the minimum wage jobs on offer and terrified of putting a foot wrong. But then, of course, Dave has never needed to worry about finding another job - not when Buckingham Palace are prepared to put in a good word for you in advance of your job interview. Unfortunately, not everyone leads the effortlessly charmed life of Dave and his mates.

At best, these proposals are window-dressing, tinkering round the edges in lieu of a real policy for growth and tilting at windmills rather than getting on with the business of Britain. At worst, these are changes that are demonstrably unfair and morally indefensible. Not for the first time, members of this government should be ashamed of themselves and I hope that Labour commits to protecting the rights of workers as part of our next manifesto, with rolling back these changes a key part.

Tuesday, January 04, 2011

Happy New Year from Birmingham City Council

Day 21 dawns and still the binmen cometh not.

I'm beginning to think that Godot may have been hired as casual staff.

From the spin across the local press, you would think that there isn't a problem - the casual staff hired to supplement the full-time employees who are working to rule have apparently been out and about across the weekend clearing the backlog. The ones who can drive have been, certainly.

Well, I've been driving around Acocks Green, Stechford, Hodge Hill, Hall Green, Billesley and Kings Norton and I can tell you that there are plenty of roads with the black bags piling up and the stench now rising with the thaw. The council tell us that some of the roads were inaccessible because of ice, but I can point to major routes that were heavily used throughout the snow and ice (which vanished over a week ago in any case) where bags still lie heavy on the ground.

Monday, January 03, 2011

So what kind of year has it been? Part 1.

Certainly a varied one.

While the Tories would clearly have preferred an outright majority in May's elections, Cameron can feel reasonably happy with the result. By accident, they have acquired human shields that are used to conduct away the worst of the opprobrium - whenever a controversial policy needs to be defended, then a Lib Dem is wheeled onto the Today programme to take a battering from Humphrys & Co. Meanwhile, the Conservatives are in absolute control of the key ministries and are implementing their chosen policies, laying the groundworks for a future that should worry all genuine progressives out there.

Pickles is wielding a ham-fisted axe at local government, shrewdly shuffling the blame for thumping cuts off to councils. Vague promises of localism will not be supported with much - if any - actual money, but you can be sure that councillors will take the electoral heat for the cuts that they are forced to make because of central government funding changes. Essentially, this is the government passing the buck for cuts to elected representatives further down the line, so when key Labour programmes like Sure Start get the axe, it will be local authorities that decide it and you can be sure that they will devolve responsibility down to the local community, offering the chance to run the nursery or the local library to a community group and when that group feels unable to take on the responsibility, cite lack of local interest as a justification for closing it. In its own way, this is brilliant spin, but appallingly irresponsible governance.

At education, Gove is doing a passable impression of a bull in a china shop - a man in a tremendous hurry to do as much as possible and who feels no need to experiment or pilot some far-reaching changes in the way our children are educated, injecting the market regardless of the inefficiencies and risks. His little spate of public u-turns are adding to a general image of incompetence, but it is instructive that neither of the recent reversals over school sports or the Book Trust seem to have been quite as comprehensive as the spin would suggest. Vince Cable is happily cutting university courses - intriguingly, those pesky liberal arts courses will be early victims, thus cutting the long term supply of leftward leaning individuals who value the many over the few.

Over at health, Lansley is, largely unremarked by the public, applying a wrecking ball to the NHS - shoehorning financial and commissioning into a part of the organisation patently unprepared for it and opening the system up to the onrush of privatisation. Remember that Labour was able to promise treatment within 18 weeks of seeing your GP? I'm aware of one PCT that is now saying that all treatment will be at least 12 weeks away. The targets and their monitoring systems are being swept away so that we won't see how fast the performance declines - we've already seen delays increase and it will only get worse. Lansley is actually even scarier than Gove - these plans will cost over £2 billion to implement and he's not trying a pilot programme either.

The reason for the pace is simple - Cameron understands from both Thatcher and Blair, as well as the experience of several US presidents, that he only has a limited time to push through the most unpopular reform policies before normal politics bogs him down. This government has had the shortest honeymoon period that I can remember - Blair managed to get into the second term before running into political sand - but it has taken only six months for violent demonstrations to hit our streets and those of us lucky enough to live in Birmingham are already coping with piles of rubbish on the street thanks to strike action brought about by incompetent council decisions.

While the economic crash has proved a major asset to the Conservatives as it has provided a justification for anything that they want to do - although that argument seems to be wearing a little thin with people, so much has it been overused - it also poses a medium-term threat. Their electoral future effectively hangs on the next two years - three at the outside. The calculation is that any anger over cuts and job losses will be diluted by the recovery, with the effects being felt by around 2013, with Osborne's slush fund kicking in to allow tax cuts presumably in April 2015 in advance of the election. All this presumes that the economy doesn't fall off a cliff in the meantime. I still think that there is a small, if significant, risk that we could slide back into recession. In the immediate term, the pre-Christmas poor weather will have hit retail, the housing market remains depressed by poor mortgage availability and is forecast to slide back five or ten percentage points this year and fuel duty has just gone up and VAT will rise on the 4th January to compound that impact, as well as hurting the economy more generally. There is pressure on the Bank of England to raise interest rates, a move bound to seriously impact on those who are currently just able to sustain their mortgages and one which risks increasing repossessions. I suspect that the most likely outcome is very low growth, in spite of government policies being tailor made to neuter it. It is highly improbable that this growth in the private sector will able to absorb the job losses from the public sector over the medium term, so higher unemployment will be a fact of life for years to come. Cameron has to hang on and pray that he can ride the crest of the economic cycle into a victory in 2015.

The other issue for Cameron is his own party, as there are rumblings even now within the parliamentary party about how much ground he has surrendered to the Liberal Democrats and I would suspect that this may have more potential to threaten the coalition than any form of dissent from the Liberal Democrat benches. He has already had to reverse course on a number of issues - with the hunting ban vote being kicked into touch for the course of the parliament (largely because the parliamentary maths would suggest that a free vote would not guarantee a repeal), sentences for knife crime, a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and prison expansion. The promising morsel of tax cuts in 2014/15 should be enough to keep the vast majority loyal, but European issues lurk just beneath the surface with the potential to cause immense damage. Here, Cameron has the added strength of the Liberal Democrats who insulate him from damaging public opinion, but also shield him from the nuttier end of the Tory spectrum, allowing him to survive quite a hefty parliamentary rebellion and still retain control. The perennial spectre at the feast will remain Europe, as the key policy area likely to galvanise sufficient Tory opposition to force a parliamentary defeat if a sceptic-friendly compromise cannot be hammered out or the whips fail in their arm twisting.

In political terms, Cameron can feel happy enough at the end of the year, with poll ratings of 39/40% despite a negative approval rating now declining to 19% and showing no signs of recovery, but he will know that there are many shoals still to navigate if he is to reach the calm waters in advance of the next election and that the weather may ensure that he never does.