Friday, March 30, 2012

Bradford West is Bradford West

One maxim to which I try to adhere is that an unusual result in a single poll is an outlier until something else reinforces it. For all the focus that the media - and politicians - put on by-elections, they need to be seen in the same context - they are singular beasts that often deviate from national trends. Peculiar results do not necessarily indicate a sea change.

The Tories failed to defend a by election on 15 occasions between 1989 and 1997 and didn't make a gain between then and 2008. You will notice, of course, that between 1989 and 1997, they still managed to win a general election. The Liberal Democrats have an enviable record as by-election winners, thanks to a dedicated campaign team that is spread too thinly nationally, but has historically come together to challenge even the safest seats, but have yet to form a government. Notably, the Lib Dems failed in Bradford - losing their deposit, although they didn't do too well in 2010, despite winning Bradford East in 2010. The Tories also suffered - losing 22 percentage points on their 2010 performance.

Then there is the Galloway factor. He is one of the few politicians who qualify as special cases in the UK - people who transcend traditional political rules - Boris Johnson and Ken Livingstone are similar, in that respect. I struggle to think of anyone else who could descend upon a constituency and repeat the Galloway effect - this vote isn't a general endorsement of Respect's carefully targetted populism, but a recognition of the star power of Galloway, fuelled by an ego capable of powering Wales. He also has the ability to energise traditional non-voters - the Guardian reports a number of visits to a local college to fire up the student vote. Whatever your views on his politics, he is a very powerful candidate when in the right seat - although it remains to be seen if he can improve on his appalling attendance record when MP for Tower Hamlets. By that nature, i don't think that a putative Hodge Hill by-election this autumn would yield the same result - there's only one George Galloway and the evidence in Birmingham is that once their star player leaves, Respect falls to bits. Since May 2011, they have contrived to lose all three councillors in Sparkbrook - one in the normal electoral cycle in May, one as a result of Cllr Yacoub's resignation and a Labour gain in the November 2011 by-election and finally, one who crossed the floor earlier this year.

So, this is a special case - a by election with an exceptional candidate challenging the status quo, with apparent local discontent at the domination of village politics. Those claiming that this indicates a national failure on the part of the Labour Party are wrong - these are not circumstances replicated across the country - but it does demonstrate that we cannot afford complacency about our traditional vote nor believe that all those who oppose the coalition will come to Labour naturally. We need to offer a real alternative and not just rely on the natural turn of the political wheel or the happenstance of government incompetence.

This was a singular event, but we ignore the complexity and the lessons within at our peril.

Don't panic, but don't relax either.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Behind the pasties and petrol cans....

When we've finished worrying about the pasty tax or whether the Cabinet Office Minister can authorise us to store industrial quantities of petrol or diesel in our understairs cupboards, the economy is still looking in pretty poor shape. Not that this will come as any surprise to those of us at the very sharp end.

With today's announcement that Q1 and Q3 performance were both slightly worse than expected, the reality of an economy bouncing along around the edge of a double dip recession has been confirmed. The graph at left is from the FT Alphaville blog and shows the recovery rates from recessions - you can see that the current downturn, if measured from Q1 in 2008 is already deeper in terms of lost GDP and slower in terms of recovery than the typical recession from the last period of Tory government. It is also now convincingly worse than that of the 1930s and the trend isn't looking good.

If you look closely, you will see that after the precipitous fall during 2008 and early 2009, the economy started to recover, a recovery that ceased around Q3 of 2010, the point where this government's policies started to properly bite. Since then, we've stagnated, with quarters of slight growth alternating with quarters of slight decline. If the trend running when Labour left office had continued, we'd have returned to parity with 2008 about now. The most optimistic view, if steady growth returned, would see parity restored sometime in 2014, but you would need to show evidence that growth is returning.

It may be a warm spring, but it looks like it won't be a great summer.

Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Birmingham Lib Dems back West Midlands Police privatisation

At the meeting on the 22 January 2012 where the police authority agreed to push ahead with the worrying proposals to privatise parts of the police service - in partnership with Surrey. The Labour Group on the authority rightly has big concerns about what this means for policing in the West Midlands and nationally, as this is clearly a government-backed pilot. Currently, a broad range of services are up for consideration, although the Chief Constable has claimed that what is likely to be outsourced will be much less - but no business case has been presented to the authority prior to the request for expressions of interests. That lack of clarity is a considerable risk for policing and also, in fairness, to the businesses that might wish to bid for involvement, but won't have a clear idea how far their remit might stretch. Essentially, this looks to be tilted in favour of one of the massive players like G4S, who are now running Winson Green Prison - they took it over and promptly lost the keys and then seem to have handed it over to the local gangs.

Put simply, there is still no evidence that these proposals will increase efficiency or the quality of service or assurances about the impact on other partnerships with local forces. It is certainly true that with costs contractually fixed for whatever is privatised, then any further funding cuts could only impact on the front line officers on our streets - there would be no option. It is also odd that such a plan would be launched only months ahead of the election of the Police and Crime Commissioner. The Labour group, plus the independent chair of audit, did not agree that the proposal was fit to progress, but were outvoted by the rest of the authority, including Cllr Ernie Hendricks, (Lib Dem, Moseley & Kings Heath). Another vote to delay the whole matter until after the election of the Police and Crime Commissioner also fell - again Cllr Hendricks voted with the majority.

The best hope is that because of the timing of the process, the final decision will be taken by the incoming Police and Crime Commissioner, making that election in November one about the whole future of policing in the West Midlands.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Mayoral Referendum Booklet Launched

With a hat tip to Neil Elkes, here's a link to the booklet shortly to be landing on doorsteps across Birmingham.

Birmingham Yardley - microcosm

Last Thursday, those of us who attended the Constituency Committee in Yardley were treated to lectures from two councillors, both up for election, on the dire financial situation of the country, the council and the constituency and how we needed not to bury our heads in the sand and how tough decisions need to be made. One councillor - failing the Economics 101 course - even returned to the hoary old myth that our financial situation in 2010 was leading us down the same route as Greece. That story is utter drivel - Greece had structural debt problems prior to the 2007 crash, with government borrowing north of 115% of GDP, so when the collapse in tax revenues came, they were unable to finance themselves. Prior to 2007, Britain actually had one of the lowest debt/GDP ratios - ironically greater than Ireland's, but less than the US, France or Germany. (HT to Flipchart Fairytales for the graph).

Indeed, in 2007, the UK national debt was lower than it was when Labour took office in 1997. And for most of the preceding 18 years, the Tories ran a higher annual deficit than Labour did from 1997-2007, with the Major years seeing deficits comparable to what happened after 2007.

It may be received wisdom that Labour wrecked government spending, but that doesn't make it objectively true. But when it comes to seeing what the Liberal Democrats have done in Yardley, they have used their wrecking ball quite thoroughly.

Yardley faces cuts of £999,000 (let's call it a million amongst friends) in 2012/13, with an additional amount to be cut to cover in year overspends in 2010/11 and 2011/12. The overspend for 2011/12 is currently £454,000, but those figures are from the end of Q3 in December - the committee can't even have the basic business functionality of up to date budgeting upon which it can take action - so we don't know where things will be at year end.

Despite the tough language from these councillors, they did not indicate a single area where 'savings' or 'efficiencies' or cuts would be made. Instead, they fell back on the Rapid Service Reviews that have been grinding on at a glacial speed for months. We even had a councillor trying to claim that the council as a whole will come in on budget, so some other department will have an underspend that will absorb any overspend in Yardley - an irresponsible view to even suggest.

The electorate in May will be expected to buy a pig in a poke - we will go to the polls without any clear plans to deal with the massive financial problems or any idea where the axe is likely to fall. This is indicative of behaviour across the council, where the politics of desperation has become the order of the day. In Yardley, however, the Liberal Democrats will be the ones who have to make the decisions, as even if Labour win all four seats this year, that will result in an equally divided committee. The council as a whole is a different kettle of fish.

This council knows that it is in deep electoral trouble, that on the 3rd May they are likely to hand over a broken authority, laden with debt, having taken full advantage of the ability to borrow granted to them by a Labour government and having had the benefit of several years of Labour government above-inflation grants. So when the Tories and the Liberal Democrats trumpet their successes over the past eight years, remember that it was thanks to powers and funding provided by a Labour government. Remember also that the current Liberal Democrat and Tory government has ripped £164 of council services away from each resident in Birmingham, but the leafy, Tory-friendly voters of Wokingham have suffered just £19 worth of cuts apiece. The big northern and Midlands cities - centres of highest need - have been hurt the most.

Despite this clear injustice - matched by cuts to the West Midlands Police service and West Midlands Fire Service - Sir Mike Whitby has remained silent about the damage being done to the city that he claims to lead. Give him something to open or a chance to grandstand at a conference and he'll be there, but ask him to justify the tough decisions promised by his cabinet member in Yardley and there is nothing except tumbleweed blowing down the leadership corridor in the Council House. Mike may well consider running for mayor, should the people will a change in May, but his performance as leader has shown a reluctance to stand up to power and challenge for a better deal for Birmingham - hardly qualification for power or leadership.

In desperation, the council has been pushing decisions further back, delaying those hard choices and burying its head in the sand with the clear aim of shoving the blame onto an incoming Labour administration. We know that there is a £40-50 million black hole at the heart of this budget, with cuts staved off for a year by a variety of one-off measures - the council tax freeze supported from central government, debt repayment delayed, funding from the NHS and spending from reserves. We know that the billions of council debt built up over the past eight years will have to be repaid. We don't know the full details of what awaits a Labour administration, but it will not be pleasant.

One thing we don't need is a lecture from the councillors who are letting the train crash happen.

The good old days - sleaze is back (did it ever go away?)

So the former Treasurer of the Conservative Party was 'inexperienced' and 'saying silly things' when he suggested that a cool quarter of a million donation would get you a private dinner with SamCam and Dave, was he?

Here's an interesting quote
"When you see the Prime Minister - you're seeing David Cameron, you're not seeing the Prime Minister, you're seeing David Cameron..."
That's quite an important distinction - the Ministerial Code was reissued in 2010 with some changes after the election. Here's the original version on recording hospitality:
7.24: If a Minister accepts hospitality, then the Minister should notify the Permanent Secretary and it should be declared in the Register of Members' or Peers' Interests.... 
And here's the revised version, with key changes imposed by this government highlighted.

7.24 If a Minister accepts hospitality in a Ministerial capacity, the Minister should notify their Permanent Secretary. Departments will publish, at least quarterly, details of hospitality received by Ministers in a Ministerial capacity. Hospitality accepted as an MP or Peer should be declared in the Register of Members' or Lords’ Interests respectively.
Something similar seems to apply in the case of ministerial meetings. Eric Pickles has refused to give details of a dinner at the Savoy, which was paid for by the lobbyist Bell Pottinger, citing it as a personal event, not one that he attended as a minister.

This fine distinction seems to be key to whether meetings are registrable or not - a distinction of which Peter Cruddas seemed to be fully aware, raising doubts over exactly how inexperienced the joint treasurer of one of our major political parties actually is. The key question has to be - who else has had a 'private' dinner with Sam and Dave in the No10 flat?

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Breaking News - Demonstration in Yardley

A sunny day in Birmingham Yardley brought a group of 20-30 demonstrators out onto the pavement outside John Hemming's constituency office on the Coventry Road. They were criticising his support for the dangerously destructive NHS Bill and the government's plan to tax pensioners to pay for a tax cut benefitting millionaires.

By the time my correspondent got to the scene, the demonstration had dispersed and the police had turned up to ensure public order. Because those pensioners can cut up rough, you know.

Thursday, March 22, 2012

Welcome to cloud cuckoo land

"We're going to lift the income tax threshold to £10,000 - that was a major Liberal Democrat commitment at the election, that's our first income tax priority, that's what we have to stick to. The idea that we're going to shift our focus to the wealthiest in the country at a time when everyone's under pressure is just in cloud cuckoo land"
Danny Alexander, 31 July 2011, Andrew Marr Show

Another day, another Lib Dem Let Down.

This budget has fast turned into a political disaster for the Tories and the Liberal Democrats, as the rampant leaking and very public negotiations over the policy direction have meant that virtually all the major headline policies were trailed for weeks in advance - except one. That would be the Granny Tax, slipped out by Osborne as part of a claim that he was simplifying the tax system to help those in retirement and was helping by freezing their tax allowances, but one that will hit millions of pensioners hard. Some have suggested that this was a media management issue - it would have been easier to handle if the traditional budget purdah had held, but I think it would still have made for appallingly negative headlines, but perhaps a day or so later..

Osborne is normally portrayed as a surefooted politician with good instincts, but this policy shift is a major misjudgement, both practically and politically. Practically, taking money away from pensioners to add to the well-heeled high earners is morally wrong, but this is politically suicidal as well. Thursday's press coverage is not what Osborne would have wanted to see. The FT and Times are neutral on the subject, but all the other major titles - particularly the Sun, Daily Mail and Telegraph - have come out with headlines giving the Chancellor a thorough kicking.

That won't be the end of the impact, however. Pensioners have learnt the habit of turning out to vote and I suspect that the Liberal Democrats in particular will feel their wrath, fulfilling their role as lightning conductors for the Conservatives on May 3rd.

This was definitely a budget for the millionaires not the millions.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Hemming - out of touch. Possibly out of his mind.

As he skips through the division lobbies, his party self-interest trumping his duty to his constituents, not worrying that one in ten young people in Birmingham are unemployed, oblivious to the effect his vote has in ending the concept of a National Health Service and unconcerned by cuts to the police and fire service, it is good to know that John Hemming has his eye on the ball.

He's composed a jokily sycophantic Early Day Motion 2893
That this House notes the reports in the BBC and other media outlets of the intention of the Chancellor of the Exchequer to come down like a tonne of bricks on wealthy people who sell properties through offshore companies to avoid stamp duty; recognises that this is part of a trend of metrication of traditional British phrases; believes that, given that a ton is greater in weight than a tonne, this understates the Chancellor's commitment to action; accepts that there is merit in using some metric units for measurement, but regrets the unnecessary metrication of traditional British phrases; and calls on the BBC and other media to cease the metrication of traditional phrases forthwith before people end up being exhorted not to give another 24.5 millimetres rather than not giving another inch. 
Sometimes, you are just lost for words.

Those that do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it

I warn you. I warn you that you will have pain – when healing and relief depend upon payment. I warn you that you will have ignorance – when talents are untended and wits are wasted, when learning is a privilege and not a right. I warn you that you will have poverty – when pensions slip and benefits are whittled away by a government that won’t pay in an economy that can't pay. I warn you that you will be cold – when fuel charges are used as a tax system that the rich don't notice and the poor can't afford.

I warn you that you must not expect work – when many cannot spend, more will not be able to earn. When they don't earn, they don't spend. When they don't spend, work dies. I warn you not to go into the streets alone after dark or into the streets in large crowds of protest in the light. I warn you that you will be quiet – when the curfew of fear and the gibbet of unemployment make you obedient. I warn you that you will have defence of a sort – with a risk and at a price that passes all understanding. I warn you that you will be home-bound – when fares and transport bills kill leisure and lock you up. I warn you that you will borrow less – when credit, loans, mortgages and easy payments are refused to people on your melting income.

I warn you not to be ordinary. I warn you not to be young. I warn you not to fall ill. I warn you not to get old.
Neil was right in 1983. Sadly, he seems to be right now.

Thursday, March 08, 2012

Shameless hypocrisy from desperate Lib Dems - London-style

This leaflet (acquired from PoliticalScrapBook) comes from a council candidate in the constituency of Liberal Democrat minister, Sarah Teather.

This is the same Sarah Teather who has defended and voted for cuts as a government minister.

But then she did rail against academies and the 'shambles' of Tory schools policy prior to the election and then accept a cushy little job doing Gove's dirty woratrk in implementing that shambles, so she has form.

Sometimes, you think that people have sunk to such a low that they can't possibly better it - and then you are disappointed to find out that they can sink further.

Dorries is right. And no, I have not taken leave of my senses.

"The problem is that policy is being run by two public school boys who don’t know what it’s like to go to the supermarket and have to put things back on the shelves because they can’t afford it for their children’s lunchboxes. What’s worse, they don’t care either."
Not often that I agree with Tory MP Nadine Dorries, but on this, she's spot on.

James Delingpole - a Conservative commentator, writing in the Telegraph adds
under Cameron, Osborne (and with able assistance from yet another millionaire ex-public schoolboy Nick Clegg) the Conservatives really have become the party of the spoiled, remote, arrogant rich. So much so that it makes you wonder why anyone on an income of less than £200,000 a year would even consider voting for them... what I do seriously object to is the effect this cushion of comfort has on their policy-making... Cameron and Osborne (and, though she didn't mention him, Clegg) simply have no idea how badly this recession is treating those struggling middle class families who constitute their core vote.
That's a pretty damning comment. Cameron, Clegg and Co may be able to get away with this scam for a while, but from their point of view, the aspirational middle-income Tory vote is crucial, something that Margaret Thatcher grasped perfectly.

Is it a lack of vision, of coherent political thought and ideology at the heart of government - or is it far worse? They know that there is such a thing as society and that it can be sold off to their mates. The vision is the roll-back of the post-1945 state - the long-term destruction of the National Health Service, the race to the bottom of an American-style system of welfare, rolling back health and safety and work place protection in pursuit of the myth that this will create jobs. Ayn Rand would have been proud of this bunch of wreckers.

The eventual outcome will be grinding poverty for some, a struggle for many and wealth for a privileged few. These policies will not promote social mobility, they will enshrine status and make movement all but impossible, although the dream will be dangled before you to encourage you to keep voting for measures that sustain those few. However, if Cameron cannot sustain the core vote, then that land will be but a dream for him and his cronies.

Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Top Lib Dem councillor puts foot in it

The Telegraph has been given the minutes of a meeting between the Liberal Democrat's favourite minister, Eric Pickles and senior members of the Local Government Association, at which it has been reported that the leader of Liberal Democrat councillors and leader of Portsmouth City Council, Gerald Vernon-Jackson asked:
 “Local authorities should have greater discretion over Council Tax exemptions and discounts, such as the student exemption”.
Students on a full-time college or university course are currently exempt from this. 

Unsurprisingly, the Liberal Democrats have panicked and gone into full-on damage limitation mode, with a complaint winging its way to the Press Complaints Commission and a statement that these minutes are not an accurate representation of a wider policy discussion. 

Meanwhile, Cllr Vernon-Jackson has written - along with his local LibDem MP, the fragrant Mike Hancock, to Nick Clegg, asking that the NHS Bill be dropped. 

Quite reasonable, you might think. Except that Hancock seems to be coming a bit late to this party, as he has never found the NHS Bill sufficiently important to bother voting on it (either for or against), although he did find time in his busy schedule to vote on the Hairdressers Regulation Bill. (He did manage to vote in favour of the release of the NHS Risk Register, unlike John Hemming, the great defender of open government, so that's one strike in his favour).  Mike should also have been aware of the details of the bill, as he was part of the committee that carried out the line by line scrutiny of it - or perhaps he was pre-occupied during that as well. 

It would be tremendously cynical of me to suggest that this new-found passion for dropping the bill is anything to do with a forecast of another beating for the Liberal Democrats in the forthcoming council elections across the country.