Thursday, April 26, 2012

You have a choice

Remember this from 2010? It proved sadly prescient. 

In the last 13 weeks of the Labour government, we added £15 billion to the economy, driving it to recovery. Since then, the recovery has flatlined. 

In the last 637 days of the Tory government, they have struggled to add £5 billion. 

In the seven quarters since Osborne took the helm of the economy, aided by the useful idiot Danny Alexander, the economy has gone backwards in four. The fantasy of an export-led recovery, as seen in Canada in the 1990s has been exposed as the pipe-dream it always was.

However, the problem isn't the technical recession - I can assure you that out there in the real world, it has felt like a recession for a long time. Perhaps even recession isn't the right word - we're just bouncing along the bottom. I'd expect a pickup over the summer, but not by much and ongoing sluggish growth and contraction.

As I noted here, the recovery - such as it is - has taken longer than in any recession on record, including that in the 1930s. A far better qualified economist than me, the Nobel laureate Paul Krugman, makes exactly this point - that this was a choice not enforced upon us by the bond markets or the European Central Bank and adds a warning:
The defense I hear from Cameron apologists is that the austerity mostly hasn’t even hit yet. But that’s really not much of a defense. Remember, the austerity was supposed to work by inspiring confidence; where’s the confidence? Basically, the expansionary aspect should already have kicked in; it’s all contraction from here. 
The private sector has not stepped up to the plate to replace the contracted state - and there are lots more cuts to come. 

The fact is, this is a depression manufactured in Downing Street by an utterly incompetent government. They try to shift the blame onto the Eurozone, ignoring the fact that up to 2010, the Eurozone and UK recoveries were tracking nicely together. After the May election, they diverged as the UK recovery stalled. 

The figures hide the fact that it is ordinary people and families that are suffering in this depression. I'm certainly not celebrating this awful news. 

However, we need to remember that in 2010, people had a choice about which road we would follow. 

They have a choice again on May 3. 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Out of ideas - or not in power?

Douglas Carswell, the Tory MP, is spot on when he claims that the civil servants are too heavily influencing policy.

The Pasty Tax has been floating around government for years - the Treasury have wanted to close this little apparent anomaly for years, but it has been batted back by ministers who were well aware of the consequences.

Is this evidence of an ideas vacuum at the top of government or political laziness on the part of the PM's office?

At first glance, equalising the VAT regime between your local chip shop and the large chain stores seems to be a sensible idea, until you look at how it will be enforced and managed. If I pick up a hot chicken in Asda and it has cooled to ambient temperature by the time I get to the checkout, is that due VAT? How will HMRC know how many pasties are sold hot by Greggs and how many have cooled by the time the customer hands over their cash? These aren't minor problems - they are the stuff of extended VAT litigation (and if you don't believe me, remember that McVities went to court to prove that a Jaffa Cake is, in tax terms, a cake and not a biscuit).

Before the budget, some commentators were worrying that Osborne was almost too politically savvy - but the record since has been an unmitigated disaster, a roll call of misjudgements, miscommunications and extraordinarily poor decisions taken without concern for the consequences.

I don't think that this is laziness - I think we're seeing the evidence that this government lacks a political direction or a basic set of principles that can be used to guide it. Perhaps this is a problem of coalition, but it does not bode well for the next three years to the election. A political compass provides a sense of direction in even the roughest political weather and Cameron's is shown to be distinctly faulty.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Runners and Riders

And so they saddle up officially, get under starter's orders and are out of the stalls as the 210 riders in competition for 40 seats in the grand council chamber in Birmingham's Council House set off across the fences towards the finish at 10pm on Thursday 3 May (although stewards' enquiries are unlikely to produce results until 2am on Friday, according to council staff).

From my reading, three parties offer a full slate across the city - Labour, the Conservatives and the Green Party. For some reason, there's no Liberal Democrat candidate in Shard End, but whether this is lack of a willing volunteer to surrender themselves before the Labour onslaught or some mistake in the paperwork isn't clear (the Tories failed to field a candidate in an unwinnable ward a few years ago, largely as a result of an error in nominations, I believe). UKIP are visible in 19 wards, the BNP will bring their jackboots into 17 contests (with their counterparts the National Front making cameo appearances in 4). Returning to the 80s, we get the retro-chic of 4 Social Democratic Party candidates on the ballot paper. 2 Communities against the Cuts campaigners appear, along with one Trade Union and Socialists Against Cuts candidate and 2 Socialist Labour candidates - who may be more closely related than the party names suggest. Oscott gets the pleasure of our sole English Democrat candidate and Aston gets the unique privilege of an independent candidate.

Acocks Green (where I declare an interest) appears to have the widest choice of any ward in the City, with eight candidates on the ballot paper - including my next-door neighbour as the Green Party candidate.

Some farewells are on the cards this year - former Lord Mayor Cllr Michael Wilkes (LD) chucks in the towel in Hall Green, being replaced by the losing Liberal Democrat from last year, which should make that seat one to watch. Geoff Sutton (Con) has decided to hand over the Tory baton in Kings Norton to Barbara Wood, who will face the full onslaught of two Labour councillors driving to put a third into the ward. The much respected Don Brown has finally stood down in Lozells and E Handsworth and is likely to be replaced by Mahmood Hussain. A couple of Sutton Coldfield seats are going to see new councillors in place - Peter Howard and Dennis Birbeck in Four Oaks and New Hall are off and Meirion Jenkins and Guy Roberts are stepping up to try to stem the inevitable rise of Labour. Incidentally, Meirion was the Tory parliamentary candidate in Yardley in 2010 and made a decent fist of a tough gig, with a better Conservative campaign than we've seen for a while.

I think most dispassionate observers expect Labour to win a solid majority this year - certainly the media expect it, following last year's gains. We're only defending 9 seats (including Sparkbrook which is Labour by defection) and the remaining 31 are Lib Dem or Conservative. In a number of seats - Kings Norton, for example - we already have two councillors, which should give Labour the advantage on the ground. In others, the Liberal Democrats can expect to see continued pressure - Martin Mullaney is under real threat in Moseley and Kings Heath this year and it would only take a 2.2% swing (based on 2008 figures) for that one to come to Labour. Some Tories appear to have thrown in the towel - Graham Green in Oscott has been giving excellent value in council lately, having thrown off all hope of winning and decided to go all out for entertainment value.

I'm shying away from predicting specific seats - not from any fear of being wrong, but I'm not going to have anyone accuse me of dismissing the campaigns of my colleagues across the city. I've fought unwinnable seats before and they deserve better from me than just writing them off publicly, so I will wish all Labour candidates the best of luck from me for May 3. I'm certainly not going to predict the outcome in Acocks Green, other than to say that it is going to go down to the wire - it will be very close. It is interesting that the Liberal Democrat candidate in Acocks Green - the deputy leader of the Liberal Democrat group, no less (and receiving a small allowance for holding that exalted office) - has largely debranded his campaign. The last round of Lib Dem leaflets did not include the yellow bird and hardly mentioned the party. In fact, his latest letters going out to voters only include the words 'Lib Dem' as part of the 'printed and published' small print at the bottom of the reverse page.

Monday, April 02, 2012

Eric's scheme flops

Back in February, I wrote about Eric Pickles' attempts to return to the days when every Englishman could have the remnants of his chicken curry collected on a weekly basis. I predicted then that few if any councils would consider restarting weekly collections, as the funding would only last for three of the five years for which they are required to sign up and that the money was insufficient in any case.

And lo, so it has come to pass. The Telegraph have been delving and so far, they report

  • 96 councils are not applying for funds. Most of them have already abandoned weekly collections, and 58 of the 96 are Conservative authorities
  • 34 will apply for money but only to introduce weekly food waste collections, or increase the number of homes covered, rather than bring in a full service
  • 31 wanted money for plans which will do nothing to bring back weekly collections, including sat nav systems for rubbish lorries, more giant communal bins and even “nappy recycling” schemes
  • two councils were in the process of ditching weekly collections — but were still applying to the scheme for funding for weekly food collections
  • just 17 authorities which currently have full weekly collections said they would apply for money to guarantee their future.
Only Gloucester City Council will use the money to restore weekly waste collections. That will cover just 50,000 homes.