Monday, October 29, 2012

A government committed to outsourcing

We have a government that is utterly committed to outsourcing in a way that we have never seen before, but it is a shameless attempt to outsource the blame.

If crime rises in your area, that's nothing to do with government funding or legislation - that will be down to your Police and Crime Commissioner. You chose them, change them at the next election.

If you don't like the NHS services around you - talk to your GP, in charge of commissioning services. It isn't the government forcing through an unwanted and untested reform of the service or cutting 6000 nurses (so far).

Not happy with your council services? Change them at the next election. It isn't the fault of the government, cutting grants and capping council's ability to raise money.

Whatever goes wrong, this government hope that they can pin the blame on somebody else.

Wednesday, October 24, 2012

The end of local government as we know it. And I don't feel fine.

"I'm the first to say we should have lower taxes and smaller government. And I'm the Chancellor who is cutting the size of Government faster than anyone in modern times. We're reducing the size of government, from almost 50% of our national income to 40%, in just five years"
Sir Albert Bore dominated the local and regional news headlines yesterday with a blunt and sobering message - thanks to decisions taken by the current national government and inaction by the previous council administration, the Labour council in Birmingham will be forced to cut back on services. Not slicing off bits and pieces here and there, but making fundamental decisions about which services we do - or do not - provide to our citizens. This is the reality of Osborne's ideological plans to cut the size of the state - it comes at a cost of services that we provide to you. 
Cllr Tim Cheetham (Lab, Barnsley MBC) wrote about this situation in an excellent article here, where he reminded us of the Barnet 'Graph of Doom' - a chastening piece of work which was done for that London borough, but seems to apply to virtually every council across the country. What it effectively means is that, given the path that this government has set, by around 2020/23, local government will be funded to cover the costs only of adult and child social care. Nothing else will be affordable. As Tim writes,
The plain fact is that we have no fewer roads to mend, no fewer bins to empty, no fewer vulnerable adults to care for and no fewer children to safeguard. We have no less responsibility for any of the things the public have come to rely on the council to provide. In most cases we have more of these things
This massive shift will also mean that local authorities will be providing services for a minority of their residents and their voters. While just under half of the country uses a library and over a quarter use leisure services,only just over 10% of us use adult or children's services. This can't help but marginalise further these service users and reduce the value that others attach to the provision of that service. The government is, intentionally, trying to make local government less relevant to those that we represent. 
It has become apparent that this government will be imposing further cuts on Birmingham - more even than were known about by the last admininstration and some that are still to be confirmed, but are at the whim of Eric Pickles, the secretary of state at the Department of Communities and Local Government. There may be a further £50m of cuts to come - we don't know. We won't even be clear on the final settlement for 2013/14 until December or January. 

Even the plan set out by the last administration, which assumed a 1.9% council tax rise in 2013, has been blown out of the water by their own Coalition government. Eric has effectively capped council tax rises at 1.66% next year, requiring a referendum for any increase greater than that. That move alone leaves a shortfall of £600,000 in next year's budget. The government are likely to fund an amount equivalent to 1% in council tax next year - as they did this year - but unlike 2011/12, the government 1% will be a one-off payment, with no lasting increase in the grant. 

Mike Whitby popped up on BBC Midlands Today to make his point that Albert was scaremongering and that this 'displays political cowardice and weak leadership.' Albert and the Cabinet, along with other Labour colleagues will be at the public consultations, unlike the previous administration, who shoved council officers out to defend their political decisions. 
Whatever people say about Sir Albert - and people say plenty of things - he knows how local government works more than perhaps anyone else I have ever met. He's been a councillor in Birmingham for 30 years, through the hard years when the chill winds of Thatcherism blew through council corridors. So, when he says that this is the worst he has ever known, you sit up and you listen. 
We have choices to make over the coming weeks and months and many of them will be unpleasant. I can promise you that Labour in Birmingham will work to protect the most vulnerable - we will throw our increasingly dented shield over them, as one of my colleagues put it. 

Sunday, October 21, 2012

Vale Mitchell

So farewell then, Andrew Mitchell, former chief whip, as the inevitable ending to the over-extended saga of his resignation. The boil may finally have been lanced, but the delay has been immensely damaging to David Cameron's status as Prime Minister - he looks less like a leader by the day. His post-speech conference boost has certainly been damaged - he's failed to retain anything like the same level of approval as Ed Miliband.

As I wrote at the time, this did not have to be fatal for Mitchell or overly damaging for Cameron. Take yourself back to that self-justifying apology on the steps of the Cabinet Office, which was trailed in advanced, but actually proved as insubstantial as one of Osborne's economic policies. Camera crews turned up, radio stations were ready to take the apology live, just after 8am - a prime spot to catch the nation's attention for the day. Imagine if Mitchell had apologised, fully and unreservedly, explained that he had had a hectic day, was tired and had since spoken to the officers involved, apologised to them personally and had offered a donation to a police charity, as a mark of the pride he felt in the competence of our police service. To my mind, that would have largely killed the story - Tory MPs could have rallied around him and the matter would not have dragged on through the conference period. The apology that wasn't just worsened the situation, as he effectively accused the police of lying and failed to offer any alternative statement.

That would have been the preferred option - embarrassing, but an overnight wonder, as I would have suggested that the apology be made on Saturday morning to grab the Sundays and shut the story down for that news cycle. Alternatively, if he felt that the behaviour was sufficiently offensive, Cameron also had a window where he could have sacked Mitchell, a window that probably extended a couple of days into the following week, but with the right apology, I think this could have been avoided.

What Downing Street failed to recognise was the level of damage that this story would do and precisely how far it plays into supporting an existing image of a privileged elite that looks down upon the governed, as well as being an appalling way to treat somebody whose job it is to stand between you and terrorists. Regardless of the truth behind the exchange (and, for the record, I believe the police version of events, as they had too much to lose if they invented the details), the public were prepared to buy into the perception.. This should perhaps be the greatest worry for the Tories - that nobody recognised the way that this story would cut through to the voters and it is indicative just how out of touch they are politically that this wasn't identified early on and resolved.

The story has polluted what should have been a clean narrative about the Conservative government - they've not been able to get their message through because of the noise. Now, from a Labour point of view, I'm delighted at this incompetence, but from the point of view of a citizen of this country, it genuinely worries me. Mitchell has been spoilt goods for weeks now, his credibility destroyed with the public and with the people he needs to shepherd - his own backbenchers. He had no hope of being able to discipline them or bend them to his will and Cameron should have spotted this earlier.

I don't believe for a second that Mitchell was resigned to try to deflect from Osborne's little class difficulty on the Virgin train to Euston - that would be extraordinarily stupid, especially as Virgin, with one eye on the retendering process, rapidly supported the Chancellor's version of events. What seems to have been the case is that a number of Cabinet Ministers have expressed their concern - there were rumblings of this at the conference, with ministers openly talking of Mitchell's demise - and the deputy chief whip is rumoured to have talked of his own resignation.

Also important was this week's Prime Minister's Questions, where Mitchell denied that he had sworn at the police, when Ed Miliband challenged Cameron over the matter. Now, I don't think that a heckle can be regarded as a statement to the House, but, given Mr Mitchell's statement in his resignation that he had said to the officer, "I thought you guys were supposed to fucking help us," that doesn't seem to be entirely true. (We can split hairs about whether he swore AT the officer or merely in his/her presence).

The outcome has been that the image of the Tory party has been further tarnished with the electorate and the relationship with the rank and file police has broken down, probably irretrievably for this government. Cameron looks like he is not in control of his government, but more focussed on looking after his friends than looking after the country. He's wasted a prime opportunity to get his message across to the nation because of this distraction and he has nobody but himself to blame. He's undoing the work of his speech in reinvigorating his membership and reinforcing his leadership. Virtually every interview has been diverted onto this subject and it couldn't have come at a worse time for the Tories, with elections for Police and Crime Commissioners just a few weeks away and Tories across the country hopeful of winning some of those posts outside the major urban areas. Fatally for his career, Cameron is looking less like a leader with every turn of incompetence and if the polls continue to reflect this decline, the call for Boris may come sooner than anyone thinks.

Cameron used to run PR for ITV Digital. With his talents, I think we now see why it went bust. Looks very much like he's intent on wrecking the Tory party as well as the British economy.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

An academic exercise

The Boundary Commission have announced their plans for the parliamentary geography for the West Midlands. The highlights for Birmingham are that Sutton Coldfield remains as it is, but the rest of Birmingham looks to be safe Labour, should these plans go ahead, although the Tories might fancy their chances in Erdington or Harborne, but that would be a stretch with the current political system. I would suspect that Solihull would be a Tory gain still, but only marginally over the Liberal Democrats, who will import their mass vote from Sheldon. I also think that Meriden could be interesting, particularly with the mass Labour vote from Shard End being imported into a previously true blue constituency - which was a close-run thing in 1997.

Is this just an academic exercise or will the Tories surprise us?

Birmingham Edgbaston - LAB
Edgbaston, Moseley & Kings Heath, Selly Oak, Sparkbrook

Birmingham Erdington and Castle Bromwich - LAB (Poss Con target)
Erdington, Kingstanding, Stockland Green, Tyburn, Castle Bromwich (currently Solihull)

Birmingham Hall Green - LAB
Billesley, Brandwood, Hall Green, Springfield

Birmingham Harborne - LAB (poss Con target)
Bartley Green, Harborne, Quinton, Weoley, Old Warley (Sandwell)

Birmingham Ladywood - LAB
Hodge Hill, Ladywood, Nechells, Washwood Heath

Birmingham Northfield - LAB
Bournville, Kings Norton, Longbridge, Northfield

Birmingham Perry Barr - LAB
Aston, Handsworth Wood, Lozells and East Handsworth, Perry Barr

Birmingham Yardley - LAB
Acocks Green, Bordesley Green, South Yardley, Stechford & Yardley North

Sutton Coldfield - CON
Sutton Four Oaks, Sutton New Hall, Sutton Trinity, Sutton Vesey

Meriden - CON (Lab target)
Shard End (Birmingham), Bickenhill, Chelmsley Wood, Kingshurst & Fordbridge, Knowle, Meriden, Smith's Wood (all Solihull)

Solihull - CON (LD marginal)
Sheldon (Birmingham), Elmdon, Lyndon, Olton, St Alphege, Shirley East, Silhill

Birmingham's Soho ward goes into a Smethwick constituency, which is safe Labour. Oscott goes into Walsall South,

[EDIT: to correct misspelling of Old Warley]

Monday, October 15, 2012

Over the boundary

According to the Financial Times, senior Tories are plotting to buy Liberal Democrat support for their gerrymandering of the constituency boundaries with a blunt offer of cash for votes when the proposals return to parliament in autumn 2013. Grant Shapps specifically denied that he was in negotiations with the Liberal Democrats on yesterday's Sunday Politics, but that doesn't preclude somebody else plotting.

Now, although I will believe much of the Liberal Democrats, I don't think that they can formally shift their position on this. There doesn't seem to be a narrative that could provide a credible cover for a policy change. There's also a practical aspect for them, that if the review goes through, many of their sitting MPs will find re-election massively challenging. As we all know, they are like limpets once they are elected and typically focus on building up a personal constituency vote to shield them against electoral shifts. However, this only works in areas where they have incumbency and with new boundaries bringing in new areas, spreading the LibDem gospel will be even more challenging. So, for those reasons, I think a formal shift in policy is unlikely and I also think it is unlikely that the measures will pass next autumn.

However....

Look at the numbers.

There are currently 650 MPs in the House, but of those, the five Sinn Fein seats remain unoccupied. Add in the four members of the Speaker's team and that reduces your number required for a majority to 321. The Tories can be expected to have 304 MPs by the time the vote rolls around next autumn (assuming that Corby goes to Labour in November 2012, as expected), so the gap that needs to be closed is less than twenty. This does assume that all Tory MPs will vote for the changes - even those, like Nadine Dorries, who would see their seats abolished. Is it beyond belief that some of the nationalist parties could be persuaded to come on board and perhaps even a handful of 'rebellious' Lib Dems to bolster the numbers?

I don't think that Clegg will further erode any credibility that his party might have by deciding to support the change in policy, but I don't think that it is beyond the bounds of possibility that some deal may be done whereby certain MPs 'decide' to support the government or even abstain in return for financial support for the Lib Dem party.

Of course, the way to kill the idea now is to stop the work of the Boundary Commission. Hasn't happened yet, has it?


Friday, October 12, 2012

The Mitchell Question

Alistair Campbell, I believe, always took the view that if a bad news story ran on for more than a few days - and certainly across a weekend - then a resignation was on the cards. The same was true if the messenger became more important to the story than the message. Ultimately, that was why he himself left government - you can't get the message across if you are the bigger story.

Time and time again, Cameron has ignored this advice, perhaps out of some loyalty to his colleagues or perhaps because he lacks the necessary inner steel to tell them that their time is up and is more scared of having big beasts lurking on the back benches waiting for a chance to savage him. If, as expected, Andrew Mitchell falls or is pushed onto his sword today, I don't think that it will do much to reverse the damage caused by his outburst at the police. The swearing was out of order, but the sentiment of privilege is the most damaging, as it retoxifies the Tory brand (although savage cuts to benefits for the hardworking poor don't help much, even if they are given a light dusting of public approval and branded as cracking down on scroungers).

Even though the news agenda has moved on in the past few days, the echo chamber that is a party conference has been filled with grumbles about Mitchell - who wasn't even able to attend a conference in the city he represents. The Mitchell saga also puts the lie to Cameron's speech about wanting to spread privilege.

The problem is that the message over the past few days has been that it is time to move on, although Mitchell still accuses the officers on the gate of lying, even if nobody actually believes him. Mitchell should have been sacked/resigned on the spot, because it has been obvious that this story would run and that it would become bigger than the message.

With his speech in mind, Cameron could have demonstrated his views on privilege in a practical manner, by leading and not following public and media opinion and dismissing Mitchell in advance of the conference. He doesn't look like a man in control, but one carried away on the tide of events. While that may be an accurate representation of his leadership, it doesn't bode well for his future. People don't have to like a leader to elect them, but they do have to respect them. Gordon Brown would probably have won a - reduced - majority in 2007 after a strong summer of events that demonstrated his leadership abilities.

Cameron and Osborne have probably done enough to hang on until 2015 in their respective roles, after this conference, but it would be wrong to say that the Tory party likes or respects them. I think it is resigned to having to put up with them for the time being, but I don't think they are secure. Neither looks like a winner and neither looks like a leader. If that is maintained, I wouldn't rule out a challenge over the next eighteen months, particularly in the face of events.

Monday, October 08, 2012

Osbornomics - answering questions that have not been asked

With today's announcement that employees will be able to sign away their employment rights in return for a handful of shares, Osborne continues his record of economic illiteracy, providing ineffectual supply-side answers to demand-side problems. More than that, he's also created a tax break for the 'high worth' employees.

Employees will be able to surrender their rights to claim unfair dismissal, redundancy, the right to claim flexible working, the right to training and will also have to provide 16 weeks notice of a return to work after maternity leave rather than the current 8. Companies get to choose whether they offer this contract and, while it is aimed at small startups, it can be used by companies of any size.

This originates in the Beecroft Report - although report seems to be a generous term for a document entirely devoid of evidence or references and largely consists of a wish list from venture capitalists about how to further take advantage of their workforce. Nowhere is there any evidence that any of these changes will boost the economy. In fact, we already have the second weakest protections for employees of any comparable country - Germany is far tougher and has not suffered the same level of economic collapse that we have.

As I have said repeatedly, in my experience of recruitment over some fifteen years, I have never had employment rights raised as an obstacle to hiring a new employee. The main question you should ask is if there is a business case for recruitment and that is almost entirely based around demand.

What Osborne has done is to make Beecroft sufficiently palatable for Cable to swallow chunks of it - but Osborne has also written in a tax break for his mates. So, we will have the 'plebs' being offered £2,000 worth of shares - in return for a job which has significantly reduced security, while top level employees get an instant golden handshake of £50k in shares which will be exempt from capital gains tax.

This is not aimed at creating a stable economy, but increasing instability for the lower-end workforce - the very people whose spending helps sustain our domestic economy.

George - the problem isn't with regulatory issues holding the economy back. It is a lack of demand.