Friday, September 30, 2011

Emptying your bins at 80 mph - the ongoing failure of evidence-based policy-making

Commissar Eric has been all across the media this morning, pushing the policy announcement about his plans to restore and protect our human right to have the remains of our curry collected from our bins once a week. I'm not sure that it quite qualifies as a human right alongside the right to life, but that's hardly relevant. Indeed, it isn't relevant that there is no evidence to support the Pieman's ludicrous claims that it will prevent rat infestations or increase recycling. The fact that all the studies demonstrate quite clearly that fortnightly collections actually push people to recycle more and that there is no demonstrable link between rats and fortnightly collections isn't important. Perhaps the most amazing thing is that Pickles has managed to find some £250 million - from departmental savings, or so he claims - to support waste collection authorities who want to restore this service. It isn't clear if this is a one-off payment, ongoing support or even what percentage of the cost that this will cover for cash-strapped local authorities.

Equally, Philip Hammond will be delighting the Clarksons of this world by promising an 80 mph speed limit on motorways (although that's out to consultation, so not actually a definite change yet). Apparently, this is going to have an economic benefit by allowing people to get to business meetings faster. The evidence for this is equally poor - in fact, we'd be better off encouraging teleconferencing and we know that the faster you go, the more fuel you consume. Indeed, we'd probably be better off with more variable speed limited stretches of motorway - getting there at a constant, if slower speed, is often faster than travelling at high speed for short bursts before running into a traffic jam. Even the AA - hardly a bunch of leftie treehuggers - reckon that travelling at 80, rather than 70, will use 25% more fuel than the lower speed, increasing CO2 emissions, cost and dependency on fuel imports. If you struggle to see the economic benefit, you'd be right, but you would also miss the point.

The point is that the Tory conference is next week and Pickles and Hammond are throwing some morsels of red meat to the membership. Yes, we know that higher speeds will mean more accidents and more environmental damage, we know that the £250 million found for bins is 70% of the Arts Council budget or a quarter of the scrapped Future Jobs Fund, but at least the Tory members can feel that they've got something.

Evidence is for wimps.

Poop Poop!

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Birmingham syndrome - or denial is not just a river in Egypt for the Liberal Democrats

If you happened to see the debate on Newsnight on Monday when Paxman faced an audience of conference-going Liberal Democrats and tried to get them to confess their sins, you would have been struck by their unity of purpose and self-belief that they had no choice but to go into coalition with the Tories, that they were doing the right thing and that the electorate would come to understand this in due course and might reward them at the next election. Of course, some of this is hardly surprising - most of those who choose to go to any party's conference are true believers in their party and any doubts are generally kept for the more private meetings. However, their denial of the obvious, that the party is teetering on the edge of an electoral precipice, is remarkable - Kevin Maguire was the only voice of sanity in that discussion. Perhaps this is a form of Jerusalem syndrome.

The Liberal Democrats aren't accustomed to government and the compromises that this brings - they are attuned to being the party of eternal opposition, the safe place to put your vote knowing that it won't do much damage, the centrist party that disaffected Labourites and Tories can swing towards to keep their eternal foes out of office. For years, that has been a very successful election ploy - hence the 'two horse race' graphics that are a feature of every Liberal Democrat campaign, promising that one party cannot win here, so making it safe for supporters of that party to vote Lib Dem to keep the other side out. Make no mistake, having your party in government is very seductive - power is the only way to get things done and most Labour supporters would agree that Labour over 14 years did achieve many things in line with Labour ideals and principles, as well as making mistakes along the way. The same would be said by Tories about Thatcher and Major. Governmental records are always imperfect in the eyes of their party activists - it is the art of the possible, not necessarily the home of the idealist. As an aside, that's why I've always believed that Labour supporters struggle when we are in government - we attract idealists by the coachload who believe in an imperative to improve life for the many and get disappointed when we fail to build a new Jerusalem by the end of the first term.

If we look ahead to the next election, then one of two narratives seem likely and both revolve around the economy, which is likely to remain the most pressing issue for most of the decade.

In the first - the government ideal view, perhaps - two years of pain and grief in cuts are resolved by 2013/4, there is growth in the economy, people start to feel more secure as private sector jobs replace the ones lost in the public sector and perhaps Osborne is able to offer some pre-election tax cuts in the 2015 budget, just as the government goes to the country. The public are relieved that they can see the sunlit uplands ahead, accept that the service cuts were necessary and have adjusted to the new reality, so are prepared to give the government another chance. Given that the Tories will be able to paint the economic revival as their doing - after all, the Liberal Democrats opposed swingeing cuts in 2010, as did Labour -  Cameron and Osborne will come out fighting, expecting their just rewards as the economic saviours of the nation.

The Liberal Democrats will be left to trumpet their supporting role, hoping against hope that their two horse strategy attracts Tory voters desperate to keep Labour out of office in Labour/LD marginals, but they will quite likely be deserted by many of their soft-Labour supporters, risking the LD/Con marginals falling to the Conservatives. In reality, Labour will remind the electorate at every opportunity that the Liberal Democrats voted with the Tories on controversial legislation and by the nature of things, some of that legislation will have caused problems in services that people hold dear. Even if you think that the government has it right on education, health, defence or crime, something is bound to go wrong with implementation and the Liberal Democrats will be held jointly responsible. The likely outcome here is a Tory majority, with a rump of Lib Dem MPs, some of them new and untested, but probably no more than half of the number that they currently have.

In the alternative view, which is likely to gain ground as the juggernaut of depression looms large on the carriageway ahead, the economy stagnates, unemployment rises and inequality grows further. Any tax cuts from Osborne are perceived as desperate bribes or the plans are postponed. Perhaps the Tories throw their friends to the wolves and say that if they had been allowed a free hand, rather than being restricted by the Liberal Democrats, then they could have resolved things better - there are bound to be a few green shoots by that point. The plaintive cries from the Liberal Democrats about what they achieved in government, that they have 75% of their manifesto enacted, will be drowned out by Labour reminding them that the Lib Dems voted with the Tories and pushed through the failed economic plans that cost jobs and didn't encourage growth. Perhaps some of the Tory/LD marginals will be saved, as Labour voters hold their noses and decide that an impotent Lib Dem is better than a Tory, but the Labour/LD marginals will fall apace and return a Labour majority, with again, a rump of Lib Dem MPs numbering no more than 25.

However you look at this, the Liberal Democrats appear to be stuffed. If the economy recovers, the credit will go to Cameron and Osborne. If it tanks, the Liberal Democrats will be seen by the electorate as equally to blame - the voters are cruel masters and will brook no whimpering from Clegg or his successor. In the meantime between now and 2015, the Liberals have a number of big local election days to come and the historic experience is that being in government is toxic to your local chances. 700 councillors disappeared this May and we can surely expect similar results on upcoming election days. For all some Liberals were excited about a handful of council by-election wins, those are irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. This will erode their activist and councillor base and that will take time to rebuild - look at the experience of Labour or the Conservatives. It took each of those parties a decade to recover from their beatings in 1979 and 1997 to the point where they regained campaigning credibility and realistic momentum.

The suggestion being touted is that the Liberal Democrats will engineer a divorce at some point late in the coalition and probably replace their toxic leader - although none of the other potential candidates appear particularly attractive and Chris Huhne's speech was positively soporific, given that he has piloted the Green Deal through parliament (a Labour policy, I will note). Whether this will allow them to put some clear water between them and the Tories sufficient to allow the public to tell them apart is questionable. Even if the split were to be engineered over a 'point of principle' - the 50% tax rate currently looks like a prime candidate for the cause - will the public forgive the Lib Dems? I'm very far from convinced.

None of this is helped by the boundary changes, which - if they come to pass for 2015 - are likely to cost the Liberal Democrats about a third of their current English MPs before a vote is cast. Nick Clegg sacrificed their electoral chances for a badly-timed referendum on electoral reform, one that they were always doomed to lose and thereby put electoral reform off the public agenda for a generation - indeed, I'd be surprised if I see it return within my lifetime. He and his colleagues threw away the one totemic policy that has survived since the days of the SDP and in return, they are colluding in a shameful attempt to fix the electoral system to deny any other party a sniff of government.

Putting my party hat back on, the real lesson for Labour is that we need to train our fire on the Tories. They will be the only other party in the game come 2015.

Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Hemming - he feels your pain

"It's obviously very sad when people lose their jobs, but they need to understand why it's in everyone's interest"
John Hemming MP, BBC News 21 Sept 2011

Can anyone think of somebody else who should lose their job and it would be in everyone's interest?

Monday, September 19, 2011

Welcome to Birmingham

This poster is almost directly opposite the Liberal Democrat conference venue - a reminder of another broken promise as they celebrate their success in government.

Friday, September 16, 2011

George Osborne's admission of failure

"George Osborne has warned that the Bank of England’s strategy of quantitative easing is a “leap in the dark”. The Shadow Chancellor described the decision to effectively print more money as a “last resort”, necessary because of the “complete failure” of Labour’s other measures to tackle the recession. He told BBC News, "I don't think anyone should be pleased that we have reached this point. It is an admission of failure and carries considerable risk.” He stressed, "Let us hope that this approach taken by the Bank of England does lead to an easing of credit conditions.” And he warned, "This is a leap in the dark and we will see whether it works."
"George Osborne has opened the door to new forms of quantitative easing by the Bank of England as concerns mount in the Treasury over the state of the economy. Speaking to journalists in Marseilles, the chancellor made it clear he saw no barriers to a second round of quantitative easing – creating money to pump into the economy – if a request came from the Bank, and raised no objections to the possibility of the Bank extending its purchases to assets other than gilts"

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Pushing the boundaries

Proposals to change the parliamentary constituency boundaries leaked within a couple of hours of them being released to the denizens of the parliamentary estate. Based upon the leaks, here's some thoughts on what it means for Birmingham.

Aside from the big news that commas have been abolished from parliamentary constituency names, it has some interesting effects on the Birmingham parliamentary landscape, given that the commission has a new mandate to cross borough boundaries in an attempt to equalise the size of constituencies within 5% of a national average.

The headline is that Liam Byrne's Birmingham Hodge Hill is rudely dismembered and disappears. While Selly Oak also vanishes, there is still a constituency that is a recognisable replacement as Birmingham retains seven constituencies entirely within the metropolitan boundary and two that reach out into other boroughs. We also have several wards that belong to Birmingham only at local level.

Here's a quick guide with some very quick and dirty views on the notional winners of last year's election on the new boundaries. I tweeted some other figures last night, but I've refined them to take into account conversion of council votes to parliamentary votes and the willingness of voters to vote for two different parties at parliamentary and local level. I have genuinely tried to be objective in my views on the likely outcome for each new seat, but the discussion is open. Of course, these notional majorities are based on the figures for the last general election and we know that the political landscape has changed massively in 18 months, so this is, as Peter Snow used to say, just a bit of fun. Don't bet your house or your career on these figures.

Birmingham Northfield - Lab HOLD
This retains the current Northfield wards of Kings Norton, Longbridge and Northfield, but brings in Bournville from Selly Oak. Notionally, Labour has a majority of just around 1800 votes in this seat, but the Lib Dem vote would be decisive here. My first pass over this constituency actually gave it an 1100 vote Tory majority, but I've revised my calculations.

Birmingham Perry Barr - Lab HOLD
Handsworth Wood, Lozells & East Handsworth and Perry Barr, but now with added Aston from Ladywood. Sure to be a rock-solid Labour seat, with a majority even on last year's figures in excess of 11,600 - over double the runner-up Lib Dem vote.

Birmingham Yardley - Lib Dem HOLD
This keeps Acocks Green, South Yardley, Stechford & Yardley North, but exports Sheldon - a solid Lib Dem seat, even this year - to boost Lorely Burt's chances of hanging on in Solihull. To maintain the size, it acquires Bordesley Green from the defunct Hodge Hill constituency. Notionally, this is now a 1200 vote majority for the Lib Dems, but I would posit that this is incredibly vulnerable given local shifts in the vote and - even trying to hold back my partiality - would expect this to go Labour under the new boundaries. Losing Sheldon will hurt.

Sutton Coldfield - Con HOLD
Shock horror here. Sutton Four Oaks, Sutton Vesey and Sutton Trinity stay at home, while Sutton New Hall plays away in Erdington. Joining the party is Kingstanding, but this still leaves it as a safe Tory seat with a 12,300 majority.

Birmingham Erdington - Con GAIN
A previously solidly safe Labour seat now crosses the floor, as the safe Tory wards of Sutton New Hall and Solihull's Castle Bromwich join Erdington, Stockland Green and Tyburn to create a notional Tory majority of around 3000 votes. Yet again, though, you would have to question what happens if the Lib Dem vote collapses. Gareth Compton, the former Tory councillor and chair of the local party seems happy with the outcome, as well he might. This could be the first seat to send an Alden to parliament. And not the one you'd expect.

Birmingham Edgbaston - Lab HOLD
Whilst Deirdre Alden is crowing about Gisela's apparent imminent downfall, I'd question that logic.  Only Edgbaston ward survives in the new seat, which is really the new Selly Oak as it has the peculiar combination of Moseley & Kings Heath and Sparkbrook rolling in from Hall Green as Selly Oak loses its eponymous constituency and jumps into the mix as well. I'm predicting a 4400 Labour majority here - possibly more as the Respect vote collapses in Sparkbrook and comes home, as well as the problems for the Lib Dems in Moseley.

Birmingham Harborne - Lab HOLD
Colour me surprised - and Deirdre needn't get excited either. She gives this a notional Tory majority, but I think that's wrong. My initial figures also gave this a 2000 Tory majority, but refining them reverses that to a 2100 Labour lead. This new seat is made up of Bartley Green, Harborne and Quinton from Edgbaston with the addition of Weoley from Northfield and Old Warley from Sandwell, which imports a net 400 or so Labour votes. I've classed this as a hold, as this really replaces the current Birmingham Edgbaston, but I think that this one could absolutely go either way and is a classic marginal. As with many, the Liberal Democrat vote will be crucial and if Gisela were not to stand, then the loss of the incumbent personal vote could wipe that majority out at a stroke. Realistically, this one is in play.

Birmingham Ladywood - Lab HOLD
Holding on to Ladywood and Nechells and bringing in Hodge Hill and Washwood Heath, this should have a virtually indestructable Labour majority of over 8000 - assuming that the Lib Dem vote is maintained. Which it won't be.

Birmingham Hall Green - Lab HOLD
This keeps Hall Green and Springfield, but brings in Brandwood and Billesley from the disappearing Selly Oak. I'm giving this a 5500 Labour majority, but there's a notional 10,000 Lib Dem votes up for grabs here, so again, if they transfer to another party, they could be decisive.

So, Liam Byrne will be looking for a new seat, whilst all the other Birmingham MPs should be able to shuffle round a bit without too much of a fist fight. Of course, Liam has an option - he just needs to follow Bordesley Green and look to Yardley, raising the possibility of an entertaining bout between him and Hemming. I know where I'd put my money. Additionally, the loss of Erdington to the Tories leaves Jack Dromey in trouble.

And of the wards that drift off into other orbits? Sheldon goes to Solihull, which might help Lorely Burt, but I rather doubt it, given the general mood of the country. Some of the southern Solihull wards now slope off into an elongated Kenilworth & Dorridge seat, bringing it up to the borders of Birmingham in Shirley. Shard End drifts off into a peculiarly revised Meriden seat, which I suspect could be rather closer for the Tories in future than it is now. Soho moves over to a Smethwick seat and Oscott goes to Walsall South.

This whole proposal is dependent on the single round of consultation and a final vote through parliament. Given the axe that will fall on a number of seats - Chris Huhne, Nick Clegg, Tim Farron and John Leech all look very vulnerable to these changes and even Vince Cable could find himself fighting Zac Goldsmith - there is no guarantee that it will be put into place in time for the next election, so this might yet prove to be a colossal waste of time. Rumour has it that some government supporters are already looking for something to sweeten their parliamentary retirement in return for a vote for Christmas.

UPDATED: Adjusted position on Harborne slightly and corrected an oversight on Erdington - I forgot that the safe Tory seat of Castle Bromwich crossed the border.

UPDATED AGAIN: I may have misread Cllr Alden's post on her not-a-blog site.... She's added another one now *waves*. I haven't checked the rules on boundary moves for sitting Labour MPs, but I don't think she's far wrong. She does make the assumption that all MPs currently sitting will be seeking re-election - it is quite possible that Roger Godsiff may decide to call it a day and Steve McCabe would actually seem to have a reasonable claim on Hall Green, as it will contain two of his wards, rather than the one that falls into Edgbaston. Oddly, Roger would have a reasonable claim  Edgbaston only contains one of his. Don't let the names confuse you. She has a point about why Edgbaston continues to be called that, when it only contains the Edgbaston ward and bears no real relation to the makeup of the current constituency although I don't think University is an awful lot better. You could say the same about a number of constituency names, in fairness.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Send in the clowns....

Don't bother, they're here....

Musicians and clowns pictured here in advance of ArtsFest.

Cllr Martin Mullaney has been fulminating lately and claiming that the local press are biased against him and his Regressive Partnership ilk. I can remember similar arguments being posed in private by Labour figures before we lost power in 2004 and the truth is the same now as it was then.

The Birmingham Post and Mail aren't biased against the Tory/Lib Dem coalition because they are operating under instructions from a left-wing cabal running Mirror Group. They are simply going where the stories lead them and that usually means in the direction of money and power, which points them squarely towards the local authority and its political leadership. With the current problems at the heart of the authority, there is plenty of fuel for these stories. Martin would be better focussing on his job, rather than on imagined media bias.

For more than six months, the higher echelons of the City Council have been of the opinion that the current coalition will lose control in May 2012 and I fully expect that by the end of 2012, the Birmingham Post and Mail will be infuriating the new Labour majority leadership as Paul Dale and the others hold them up to the light.

Tax principles?

With Vince Cable apparently threatening the nuclear option of resigning if the banking changes aren't carried through, perhaps more interesting is the apparent fight over the future of the 50p tax rate. 

Chris Huhne is quoted as saying
If the cut in the top rate of tax is just a way of helping the Conservatives' friends in the City to put their feet up, then forget it. They are simply not going to get the votes in the House of Commons.
And Danny Alexander added that
Our priority is to reduce the tax burden for people on low and middle incomes. I think the last thing we need at a time when everyone in the country is feeling the pinch, where we are asking people across all parts of the economy to help contribute to those efforts to deal with the economic problems, to have a focus on the tax burden for the wealthiest. 

All this follows on from Vince Cable's comments last month, which proved the opening salvoes of this little battle 
I and my Liberal Democrat colleagues have always made it clear that if there is scope for cutting taxes and, there isn’t a great deal for scope at the moment, the priority is cutting taxes for people on low and middle incomes
Clearly, they are quite right. Cutting the top rate of tax at the moment would send all the wrong signals, despite some of the wilder claims from the right, who appear to think that we should incentivise the rich by cutting taxes, but challenge the poor by cutting their income. On the one hand, this is a restatement of Liberal Democrat principles, but on the other, it is ideally placed to deflect some of the discontent that is to be expected at this week's party conference right here in Birmingham. More broadly, it also puts some clear water between the Tories and the LibDems, thinking ahead to the general election campaign of 2015, when that gap may be the difference between electoral annihilation and the survival of a rump of MPs. It might even provide an opportunity to engineer a political separation prior to the election as the sense self-preservation becomes overwhelming. 

Whether anyone actually buys this political posturing as an example of principle is a different matter and on the current attitudes of the electorate towards the Liberal Democrats, few will. 

Monday, September 05, 2011

An open letter to my MP

Dear John,
While there are many things on which we disagree politically, I'm writing to you as a constituent, using a service provided by 38 Degrees, to ask you to stand up for a service that has been vitally important to my family and to the lives of your constituents, as well as being perhaps the greatest innovation in British healthcare - the NHS itself. Without it, I would not have a daughter, a mother or both of my parents-in-law.

I know that Lib Dems are planning to meet in Parliament tonight to talk about the NHS reforms.

These changes weren't in anyone's manifesto and certainly not detailed even in the Coalition Agreement that you and your party agreed to.

As you may be aware, 38 Degrees has sought legal opinion that indicates that competition law will apply to the NHS, risking long drawn-out and expensive legal arguments over contracting of services. The cost of the restructuring will directly impact on front line services to patients - we're already seeing waiting times rise and this will get worse over the coming years.

The bill will remove accountability for the NHS from the Secretary of State and transfer it to local, unaccountable commissioners and will create a massive, confusing postcode lottery.

We even found out over the weekend that the government is already discussing opportunities for foreign healthcare providers to take over NHS services on a for-profit basis. The government is intent on selling off one of the most cost-effective healthcare systems in the world, despite opposition from every level within the medical and care professions.

Don't be a part of destroying the National Health Service. Make our voice heard in tonight's meeting and stand up for the NHS and your constituents. Make the right decision, John. You won't be alone.