Wednesday, October 31, 2007


State Aid only way to break Party Funding Gridlock?

I'm not sure if I agree with the sentiment expressed to the left but something needs to be done to break the deadlock over party funding. Two decades ago Labour held the high ground on this when the Tories sucked up huge donations from business 'front organisations' and dodgy foreign billionaires while Labour relied on the unions which at least had some tenuous connection with democracy. But since then we have seen Labour break their own rules over loans and arguably break the law over the cash for peerages scandal. Now it is the Tories who can sound high and mighty and they have not missed the chance.

Sir Hayden Phillips has tried for over six months to negotiate a deal between the parties but has now given up in despair.

His report called for a £50,000 cap on donations, reduced spending at general elections, restrictions on spending between elections, and an increase in state funding for all parties. This received general support in principle from all parties but no agreement on the fine detail. Last night both parties blamed each other for the breakdown.

The sticking points of course related to: the one half of Labour's funding which comes from the unions in large sums breaking the proposed cap; and the in between elections funding of marginal constituencies by the Tory 'sugar daddy', Michael Ashcroft. Labour can now seek to do a deal with the Lib Dems to push through a measure aimed against the Conservatives or they can continue to seek common ground. I would have thought if Labour dropped its assault on Ashcroft's funding, the Tories would drop their demands over union funding.

But Labour are in power and see the fate of the marginals as their future. However, forcing through a measure might show them in a bad light and open the risk that once in power the Conservatives might run amok to destroy the sources of Labour finance. The other alternative - favoured by purists like Simon Jenkins - is to engineer the revival of political parties so that they can raise money through their own memberships: at the moment an unlikely road to salvation. This line of thinking also rejects totally the idea of state funding of parties, though, as the situation stands, this might prove to be the least politically damaging course for Labour to follow.

Monday, October 29, 2007


Conservative Hypocrisy over West Lothian Question

Anyone who insists individual MPs have no impact should consider ('Black')Tam Dalyell's famous question on why the representative for West Lothian could vote on English matters while, following devolution, English MPs could not vote on Scottish matters by virtue of the Scottish Parliament's domestic jurisdiction. Seldom has a question -the famous West Lothian one- resonated so damagingly for a policy which had clearly not been properly thought through.

However, I suggest that much hypocrisy exists in the emerging Conservative position on this subject. They are aware that Scottish MPs provide a crucial element of Labour's majority and hope to neutralize it by exploiting the WLQ and also the incipient resentment felt by the English that the Scots do so much better out of the Treasury's annual largesse(see my post for yesterday). However shrill their protest that they are basing their position on democratic principle, I ask them to recall their attitude towards Ulster Unionists following The Government of Ireland Act in 1920.

For most of the time these MPs acted as de facto Conservatives on most matters pertaining to the UK, sitting with the Conservatives and providing a Conservative whip. I can't quite recall the Conservatives ever expressing any concern about their Ulster supports in the House, being able to vote on English matters while their equivalents were precluded by the jurisdiction of Stormont.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


The Devolution Dilemma: Just Reform the Barnett Formula

The Observer today leads on Cameron's Democracy Working Group's suggestion that only English MPs should vote on English matters. It's a good political ploy when the SNP are enjoying a triumphal conference and the Independent led yesterday with a banner headline: 'Scotland 10 England 0', listing on its front page the various benefits the 29% extra per capita GDP spending Scots enjoy compared to the English: no university fees, no prescription charges, better hospitals, etc.

In addition the Mail on Sunday reports an opinion poll
which shows 33% of English voters favour independence for Scotland: 2% up on last year and a bigger percentage than Scotland itself registers on the issue. Alex Salmond welcomes the findings, suggesting it's sign of 'mutual respect' between the two countries. I'm not so sure: I think it's more likely to reflect a sentiment along the lines of: 'Sod off then you miserable Jocks!"

What can Gordon do to halt this apparently inevitable drift towards the break-up of the Union? Seems to me it's easy: reform the Barnett Formula which last year allocated per capita spending as follows:
Ulster, £8,898;
Scotland, £8,096;
Wales, £7, 509; and poor old
England, £6,623.

Even Joel Barnett himself admits the formula, based on the relatively higher English GDP in the seventies, is now absurd. Re-ordering it to make it less unfair will win votes in England and deliver a black eye to Salmond. Why has Gordon delayed so long?

Saturday, October 27, 2007


Why in God's Name do we Keep Putting the Clocks Back?

[Last year, about this time, I expressed my indignation at the absurd putting back of clocks every year by that precious hour. I have not heard one single person in favour of this measure which continues to shroud in gloom a period of the year which does not need any more more gloom than it already has. So I'm republishing my post of last October and intend to do so until this ridiculous outdated practice is done away with(I know, I know).]

No doubt most people in this country have felt the first chill of autumn as recent unseasonably warm temperatures begin to give way. This reminder that winter is at hand is bad enough but what astonishes me is our government's insistence on putting the clocks back by an hour; this year it's on 29th October.

The case against this joyless annual donning of a temporal hair shirt is as follows:

i) studies show that while there might be more accidents in the mornings these would be more than compensated for by fewer in the evenings; The Guardian some time ago, quoted studies predicting a net saving of 140 lives.

ii) 80 per cent of the population want to keep summer time throughout the year.

iii) Many influential pressure groups favour it, including the CBI, the Police and the Royal Society for the Prevention of Accidents.

iv) the experiment of maintaining BST through the winter 1968-71 was, as far as I recall, a substantial success.

v) It would extend the tourist season, the sporting season and..., perhaps most important of all it would make us all feel a damn sight better about the miserable imminence of winter.

The case against reversing the measure is summed up in the two words: Scottish farmers. They would face much darker mornings as the sun would not rise until 10.0am. However, against this it can be adduced:

i) The rate of decline in accidents would actually be greater in Central Scotland(5.5%) than in the south of England(2.5%).

ii)When I used to visit Northern Sweden regularly, farmers up there did not see daylight until much later than 10.0am and accepted it as part of their cost for living in that latitude.

iii) Now Scotland has its own parliament, why doesn't it set its own regional time and do us all a big favour?

iv) is it fair that a nation of 60 million should suffer merely because a few hundred farmers should be able to see their cows more clearly on a winter's morning?

In the war we had a clocks turned forward two hours- Double Summer Time!- why not return to those good old days? Brown might even find his recently flagging popularity recovering immensely if he introduced this simple yet highly popular measure.

Friday, October 26, 2007


Is Gordon Sincere About Constitutional Reform?

The picture is intended as a joke about the writing of Britain's constitution. Indeed there is an irony on this supposedly dry as dust topic. While Britain's evolving constitution has done so much to serve as a template for democracy everywhere and its transformation from absolute monarchy to representative democracy in a thousand years is truly astonishing, we are currently lagging behind many other democratic countries. This is partly to do with our innate conservatism, our disinclination to engage in root and branch reform. But now it seems we have a flurry of activity from Gordon and Jack and maybe we'll catch up a bit- or maybe not.

Politicians love to expiate on how they are going to introduce a new era of democratic politics, hand power back to the people and so forth, but rarely do they go on to deliver. How often, for example, have we heard local government is going to be given more power, to 'empower' ordinary people? We're still waiting. Does Gordon really mean all this stuff? We don't know but it does look promising, given that he's returning to the topic he raised in July with a consultation paper- if it had been a mere ploy, we'd have heard no more about it.

Brown's speech on improving liberty, complete with references to Mill must have pleased the likes of Henry Porter who has bravely persevered with this theme in The Observer for some years now. Citizens will receive more protection from the state regarding privacy, freedom of the press and data banks. Jack Straw backed this up with his speech at Cambridge promising a 'bill of rights and responsibilities', though whether this will 'enhance' the Human Rights Act or just muddy the water remains to be seen. Liberty has pointed out already that such promises from a government determined to press ahead with ID Cards and detention without trial are not that easy to accept at face value. The real test for me will be two fold.

Firstly, will Parliament be reformed in a truly democratic way: a substantially elected Lords and more powers against the executive like the right to vote on the use of troops abroad? Secondly, will the 'review' of voting systems show any sign of recognising the glaringly obvious and move to introduce PR for Westminster elections as well as for so many other elected bodies at regional and local levels in the UK? Actually writing the constitution down is less important though desirable. It will be a big 'ask' as it will so complex it potentially rivals in size the works of both Dicey and Erskine May. We should aim for concision and clarity: the US constitution, which has stood the test of time remarkably well, is only six pages long.

Wednesday, October 24, 2007


Monbiot Hits Northern Rock Bullseye

Sometimes George Monbiot's columns, though mostly excellent, can seem a bit heavy or depressing but I thought he was right on the money yesterday when discussing Matt Ridley, the widely published scientist and former head of Northern Rock. Ridley, in addition, to once chairing a bank is a robust defender of unfettered capitalism, which he views in Darwinian terms.

In his books Ridley argued that we all pursue selfish aims but that if people behave altruistically economically- with generosity and cooperation- they realise they earn the trust of others, thereby advancing their own interests. It followed, he argued, that if left alone by government, this genetic predisposition would enable mankind's benign behaviour to blossom and benefit us all.

Monbiot's counter argument is to accept the premise about selfishness but to argue that if left unfettered, by government or close community, we behave not well but badly, exploiting, maximising self at the expense of others. The history of capitalism in the 19th century and in its current globalised incarnation, proves Monbiot correct in my view.

But the bulls-eye hit in the article is the juxtaposition of Ridley's quote that:

-The little-known ninth law of thermodynamics states that the more money a group receives from the taxpayer, the more it demands and the more it complains.-

with the fact that this highly principled Darwinian's axiomatic beliefs lasted just as long as his company needed to stretch out its prehensile paw for that little matter of the state's £16 billion. No wonder he didn't get any pay-off.

Monday, October 22, 2007


'Small Academies': New Hope for Inner-City Education?

I was brought up by a very strict school-teacher mother whose methods sometimes owed more to the Victorian age than the post-war one into which I was born. Personally I reacted against such strictness though always felt approaches to teaching had swung hopelessly the other way during the sixties and seventies. My own brief experiences of teaching secondary school kids from urban areas further convinced me that strict, structured teaching is what such young people respond to best.

Support for this 'tough love' approach now comes to us from across the Atlantic. We learn that a new breed of small 200 pupil academies:

Some call it extreme education: 10-hour days, parental contracts and zero tolerance behaviour policies in small, 200-pupil academies. The result, seen in an evolving breed of US school, is 100% college acceptance, test scores to rival private schools, and south Bronx teenagers who play the viola like their Manhattan neighbours.The small school movement has been accused of undoing decades of progressive education. But its greatest proponents claim to be part of a new civil rights movement working to free America's urban underclass from a cycle of under-achievement.

Recently a group of British teachers travelled to see how the scheme works in Newark, New Jersey. Parents queue up to get their kids into these schools but have to sign a three-way contract with children and principal, promising to participate fully from their angle like ensuring homework is completed on time and attendance does not slacken.

When a child's homework isn't handed in by 8am there is a phone call home. When the parent doesn't turn up for a meeting, their child is not allowed back into school until they turn up. Signs telling them "No excuses" line the walls. "I was working until 11 last night. I'm tired, but I know I've got to [work]," says one 11-year-old, as she finishes up a "brain food" worksheet over breakfast. "Even my mother's gone back to school since I've been here."

Lord Andrew Adonis, the Schools Minister, is quoted in favour of this tough love approach. So am I and so, I'm sure, would have been my gifted teacher of a mother. I would love to see experiments with it over here and if they worked a stream of small academies introduced in all the big urban centres where so many kids end up without hope, prospects or awareness of what transforming delights education can provide.

Sunday, October 21, 2007


Lid Taken Off Those Final Blair-Brown Rows

I used to work with Anthony Seldon and am hugely admiring of his biographies. His book on Blair is a masterpiece of astonishing industry and sound judgement. Ih addition to all this: he manages to head up a major independent school at the same time and gives all his royalties to educational charities. So his most recent production-Blair Unbound- deserves to be taken seriously, even if it is serialised in the awful Mail on Sunday.

I realise this picking over the bones of a defunct feud is strictly 'anorak' territory but as one of these anoraks, I can't resist it. Several points stand out for me from this first serialisation:

1. Brown's aides, the two Eds, Balls and Miliband both hated Blair with the former judging him a 'moron' (how come the brother of the latter could be such a dedicated Blairite then?). On 5th may 2006 in the wake of disastrous Euro-election results and a botched reshuffle, Brown appeared on the Today programme. When he failed to find the words to call on Blair to finally go, rousing the party to make it happen, Balls was furious and 'screamed at his boss "you bottled it"'.

2. Further to the above Balls was said to resemble the Dirk Bogarde character in the film, The Servant, insidiously working his way into a position where he virtually controlled his employer.

3. Blair sacked Cook because he was becoming too powerful and did not want to be faced by someone formidable in the Treasury as well as the Foreign Office. He also knew, that unlike Brown, the 'loner' Cook had little support in the party.

4. Jack Dromey's revelation that Labour had financed the 2005 campaign with loans from private donors ignited the 'cash for peerages' story which brought Blair so low. Seldon suggests this was a straightforward pro Brown ploy originating with his '110%' pro Gordon wife Harriet Harmon, still smarting from her dismissal by Blair in 1998. (And didn't she gush over Gordon in her conference speech?)

5. Brown insisted that Blair prevent anyone standing against him in the election following the latter's departure. This despite the fact that Blair had no power to prevent anyone standing: this perhaps reflects Brown's authoritarian cast of mind on such matters. Blair did eventually hope someone would stand but this faded when David Miliband decided against(wonder what brother Ed advised?).

6. The negotiations between both camps in the autumn of 2006 was marked by extreme fractiousness. The 'Two Eds' were so abusive Blair complained 'I feel like an abused wife'. Jonathan Powell, incidentally refused to join in these negotiations as he could not stand to be in the same room as Gordon Brown.

We all knew the passions behind the scenes were running high during key periods in 2004 and 2006 but I was frankly surprised Brown was so ruthless and his aides so arrogant on his behalf. Not a pretty period in Labour history, but I daresay similar things happened within high commands of Thatcher, Wilson and Heath as well as governments down the centuries. The disappointing thing, perhaps, is that passions were raised to such a pitch, not through clashes of principle or ideology, but that sadly so, so familiar motive: dirty old personal ambition.

Saturday, October 20, 2007


That Referendum Question: Do We Need One?

Fellow blogger Cassilis suggests I and others he mentions have a go at thinking about whether we need a referendum on the EU treaty. So I'm having a go at it. Given that I have a naive belief that most political questions are at heart quite simple, I'm inevitably going to oversimplify. I'm going to adduce reasons for a referendum and then those against.

Reasons For

1. Labour promised one on the 'new EU Constitution' before the 2005 election. Admittedly this pledge was born of weakness but in these days of almost zero trust in politicians a promise should remain a promise.

2. The treaty is almost identical with the earlier draft constitution; something attested to by no less a person than the prime mover and author of that document Giscard D'Estaing. If the earlier one required a referendum then, so the argument runs, does this 'clone' of a treaty.

3. A majority of British voters want a referendum and in a democracy this should be reflected in action.

4. The very soul of the nation is involved here. Sixty items will lose the veto which sovereign nations could use to over-rule a majority against. A new 'president' will be elected to oversee the council of ministers- surely a presage of federalism: a United States of Europe's president? In essence, Britain will be ruled by foreigners and who wants that?

5. A referendum, if successful, argue Europhiles, like the one in 1975, will spike the Eurosceptics' guns for a generation so should be fought and won.

Reasons Against

1. The EU has just expanded to include 27 countries yet is still being administered by a system basically designed for only 15. It needs to be streamlined and made more efficient to do its difficult job properly. The treaty will substantially answer this question.

2. We should never forget that the treaty of Rome in 1957 was designed to prevent the kind of conflagrations which destroyed Europe and much of the world besides, twice in the last century. That such a war is now unthinkable is attributable to no little extent to the success of the 'Idea of a United Europe'. A weak EU makes such eventualities less unlikely.

3. Many assert-including Miliband and Brown- that the treaty merely amends the draft constitution; they have a case, though the statements of those senior people who think otherwise renders such a case a weakened one.

4. To maintain its economic dynamism as the largest economic market in the world(China excepted) the EU needs to maintain good decision-making procedures; the treaty will do this.

5. Any nation wishing to assert its sovereignty can ultimately opt out of the EU- membership is not irrevocable.

6. We live in a uni-polar world with one military hyper-power which, led, by its Republican neo-cons, has led the world into dire trouble in the Middle East. To counter such power, the EU needs to speak with a united voice and a single foreign affairs spokesperson is therefore both necessary and desirable.

7. Related to the point above, Britain can never hope to exert influence on world affairs on its own- even Bush's 'best friend' Blair, could not persuade him over crucial aspects of the Iraq operation. A united EU would be able to exert huge influence and Britain as an integral element of such a power bloc would punch its weight.

8.The Guardian's leader today points out, subtly maybe, that those who claim parliament will be diminished unless we have a referendum, are arguing for just such a reduction of its power as it is essentially a representative democratic chamber, designed to preclude such a direct form of democracy.

Of course my list of points is incomplete, but it identifies, I hope, the major arguments. I've noticed that it doesn't matter how rational one is on this issue, people eventually side with their emotions- comments on Cassilis's post reveal this most clearly: 'do you want foreigners ruling Britain?' Only a sceptic could so phrase the question. I have tended to regard crude nationalism as something we should minimize: be proud of your country, but don't think you are morally or in any other sense better than others.

So I'm in favour of blurring the lines, of building up European unity, of hoping more international unity will help solve the problems of climate change, civil wars, religious differences and the rest. Shrinking defensively into one's own national 'kraal' is so not the way to go. Our representatives in the Commons have been elected to use their judgement on our behalves. I suggest we let them do their jobs.

Friday, October 19, 2007


Lazy Journalism at the Independent

The Spectator blog points out that the recent Independent page one story, '10 Myths About the EU Treaty' was lifted virtually word for word from a Foreign Office briefing(See also the inimitable Guido)The accompanying story was written by by Andrew Grice, their political editor and a journalist I have always hitherto admired. As a veteran reader of Private Eye I'm used to reading about lazy journalism, but if there were an annual prize for such things I suspect the Indie would have walked it with this really rather shocking example.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007


Fallout from Gordon's 'Black Saturday' Continues

Gordon Brown's horrendous misjudgement over the election that never was has had a number of direct consequences. Firstly it has threatened his leadership credentials and placed a question mark behind his chances of winning the next election and, even, if he will still be the leader going into it. Secondly it has delivered a swingeing advantage to Cameron, which he used to such devastating effect last Wednesday at PMQs, though today honours were more even in a more typical contest. Thirdly it exposed poor old Ming Campbell to the point that he felt forced to resign. Already in trouble following on from poor poll showings, the thought of Ming, on the cusp of 70 leading his party into a 2009 election was too much to bear and this modest and decent man stood down.

Which raises the question of appearance in politics. An American political scientist has suggested Abraham Lincoln's jutting lower jaw would have excluded him from serious consideration as a modern presidential candidate; Robin Cook himself recognised he was insufficiently good looking to ever become leader-though this seemed not to cramp his style as the most unlikely of Lotharios. Ming was apparently too old to make the cut but had his deputy, Vince Cable, been leader, would his 64 years have been held against him? No, it was because Ming looked so old that he was judged not fit for purpose.

Now the two candidates to succeed him, Huhne and Clegg are held to be near identical in background and beliefs. However, Huhne is judged the 'less charismatic' by most commentators; this being a euphemism for good looking. Clegg, with his cleaner cut good looks and slightly sexy hairstyle will get the nod, I predict, proving just how superficial our political culture has become. And there is one more consequence from this consequence too: Gordon, by comparison with Cameron or Clegg with look both old, boring and, most definitely 'less charismatic'.

Monday, October 15, 2007


Gordon in for a Nervous Couple of Months

Yes, he must have expected the fallout to be bruising but as bruising as it has been? It's been like herd of Sebastian Chabals piling into this hugely exposed politician. I sort of doubt he was wholly ready for the intensity of it all. Gordon faces flak from three main sources:

1. Conservatives: Cameron has been as revitalised by Brown's poor judgement as the England rugby team in recent weeks. I have seldom heard a PM taken to the cleaners as Brown was last Wednesday. Gordon's feeble replies clunked; he lacks the sharpness of repartee to match Blair in such situations or the self- deprecating wit to disarm his critics. Stand by for much more of the same.

2. Blairites: We hear that leading Blairites are not content with mere schadenfreude. After years of being disrespected by Brown, they are now feeling more than a bit smug as they see Gordon squirming. Charles Clark, Stephen Byers and Alan Milburn are rumoured to be planning a public critique addressed to Brown's lack of vision. Blair himself is said to have described Brown's conference speech as 'empty' of any such vision. Meanwhile Charlie Falconer, hugely miffed by being refused by Brown the five figure pension he feels he deserves, has penned a critical article for The Times website calling for genuine leadership in shaping a vision voters can share. More score settling cannot be avoided given the awful time Gordon gave colleagues over the past decade.

3. Media:
As Jackie Ashley points out, the reaction to Gordon's bloomer has been about as overblown as the idolatory which preceded it. Having built him up the media is delighting in taking this prickly, sensitive man down. The Economist led its cover with a 'picture' of a naked Gordon(see part of it above) under the title 'The Emperor's New Clothes', his modesty covered only by a 'mini budget' fig leaf. How he must have suffered when he saw that. That press conference last Monday was also a savage affair with no quarter given.

But Gordon must know all this. He has to step very carefully for the next two months if he wants to prevent his Black Saturday becoming the same as the Tories' Black Wednesday. His political stock is vulnerable and could implode for good if he is not careful. He will also know that Ashley has the right answer for his situation:

Labour's taken a knock. But my impression is that people are laughing at the prime minister's embarrassment, and enjoying the return of a real political fight, rather than seething with anger. That's an opportunity. Brown should kick a few walls, remember why he went into politics in the first place, then get down to work and win this. For the time being he's the incumbent and he can, while Cameron can't.

Sunday, October 14, 2007


The NRA and Gun Control in USA

I happen to be teaching my students right now, the role of pressure groups in society, so was fascinated to read the major article in The Observer on the National Rifle Association(NRA) in the USA. Shirley Katz, a teacher, has just taken to court her assertion that she has a right to carry a gun when she goes to her school in Oregon. We are chillingly familiar with stories like Columbine and Virginia Tech but we also heard a few days back of Tyler Peterson, a deputy sherif, who walked into a party and shot six former schoolmates in cold blood.

The availability of guns in the USA- all 215 million of them- must surely explain at least partly- why there are more than 14000 gun murders a year in the USA; 16000 suicides and 650 fatal accidents. We learn that since 1963, more Americans have died by indigenous gunfire than died as a result of warfare abroad throughout the whole of the 20th century. A gun in the house makes it 22 times more likely that it will be used in an accidental shooting a murder or a suicide than in self defence.

The NRA trades on the gun-toting pioneer history of the States but in reality this is a myth; guns were far too expensive for impoverished settlers to own. The NRA fights the slightest attempt to apply controls to the free purchase of guns in the kind of store shown in the picture. Few candidates feel they can oppose the NRA and even Democrats regularly adopt NRA platforms. All politicians run scared of the NRA.

Other nations have high gun ownerships- Canada and Switzerland for example- without comparable homicide rates but, as the Paul Harris in The Observer points out, it's the deprived urban areas where gun crime flourishes; rural areas can have high ownership without the fatal downsides. The NRA has managed to brainwash a nation that it needs something, that literally, it needs like a hole in the head. But maybe the point of no return has been reached in that there are now so many guns that to ban innocent purchasers will be to leave them helpless against criminals who will have no difficulty in acquiring any number of those over 200 million guns already available in the USA. Oh, nearly forgot to add: Ms Katz won her decision in court.

Saturday, October 13, 2007


Do Conference Timings Advantage Tories?

Looking back on the fevered events of the past month, two aspects seem to stand out requiring change. The first is that parliamentary terms should be fixed, with elections slated for specific times, as in most other developed democracies. I can see no advantage to the present unfair system whereby the person most interested in winning the race, gets to fire the starting pistol. Moreover, we are surely fed up with the perpetual 'will he won't he' speculation that obsesses our politics usually after a government has done three to four years in power. This most recent speculation came, of course, after less than three months had elapsed. But, as with so many sensible necessary measures, this is unlikely to take place as the incumbent PM always hopes to benefit by the opportunity and aspirant PMs want to keep it too as a means of securing their second term.

The second possible change refers to the timing of party conferences. This point was made to me by a perceptive member of my current affairs discussion group whom I meet every Wednesday at the university: Bernard Bloom- he won't mind my describing him as a fellow 'political anorak'. His point is that by always convening last, the Conservatives benefit most from any 'conference bounce' produced. If Labour had 'conferenced' after the Conservatives, Bernard suggests there would have been a completely different outcome. Brown and Darling could have 'trumped' the aces deployed by Cameron and Osborne and would Cameron have risked his 'Bring it on' challenge not knowing what Brown was going to say the following week?

These are fair points. One might argue that going first bestows advantages too but not as many as going last: allowing one's 'last word' to resonate with voters. Who decides the order of the annual conferences? I've no idea, but guess it has been the product merely of custom and practice. Given the trick he is arguably missing, this might be something Brown actually does investigate and consider changing for future years. Always assuming, that is, he has future years available to him- something which at present and after the fearful Eton style kicking he suffered at PMQs, really does seem to be doubt.

Thursday, October 11, 2007


Extravagance and the Public Service

When I worked ingloriously and briefly as a Whitehall civil servant, I was struck by how penny pinching it was. If you wanted a new ball point pen you had to take the empty plastic tube to the stationary room and you'd be given a refill. If you wanted a new toilet roll, you had to surrender the cardboard tube to qualify. Things like rugs, mirrors and pictures on the wall were awarded strictly on the basis of rank. Senior Executive Officer? You can have a rug;Principal? You can have that mirror. Just one of the petty restrictions which convinced me after two years that this was not the place for me.

I had read about the alleged extravagance of Sir John Bourn, the Comptroller and Auditor General, in Private Eye over the last few months and now we see the mainstream press have taken it up, though, I note, without any acknowledgement to the Eye. I was especially interested as Sir John was my boss during my last six months in the job where I worked for the MOD in the Navy Department. I have to say I had huge respect for the man. Intellectually he was in the top echelon: writing his LSE doctorate on Hegel during his first two years in Whitehall, composing some of it while he commuted on the Tube. All I could do on such journeys was try and survive their awfulness let alone unravel the mysteries of possibly the most difficult philosopher of them all.

As a boss he was endlessly solicitous and helpful to a struggling young officer and one of the chief reasons persuading me to stay and try to make my life within government service. I would have cited him as evidence against Peter Oborne's new book The Triumph of the Political Class in which he argues that the long tradition of 'integrity and duty' in public life is being replaced by 'casual corruption, venality, nepotism and mendacity'. Never have I met a man more decent and honourable or more committed to advancing the public good.

So I was dismayed to read of the accusations of extravagance-a third of a million pounds on travel over the last three years and £27K on meals- levelled against him. No doubt top officials are entitled to travel first class, but quite so often and with their wives? And all those meals in the very best restaurants? I wasn't able to acquire new biros or bog rolls with as much apparent ease. I do hope the allegations prove to be misdirected.

Tuesday, October 09, 2007


Enough of Gordon: Now on to UK's Urban Squalor

After all that stuff about the election that never was, I'm returning to one of my favourite soap-box issues: our national tendency to sully our land with piles of litter. I have three pictures to illustrate my theme:

1. Picture One is taken on the road close to my home. I have lobbied my councillors, my council officers and sent letters to the local press but still the single litter bin on this much used road- not least by kids en route to school-remains unemptied for days at a time. In front of it you see the three bags of litter collected by myself and my partner along a mere 150 metres of the road. Yet our local council, Stockport, has the temerity to publish self congratulatory articles in its Civic Review about how it has achieved such high rating assessments and how much extra cash they have received for cleaning up the town(some evidence would make a nice change). It remains the most disgracefully dirty town I have ever seen.

2. Picture Two is of a recycling unit in Bavaria, Germany, where people can leave most material free of charge but have to pay to leave certain hard to dispose of items. Householders choose to have large, medium or small rubbish bins according to how much rubbish they produce and how much they recycle. It works(see below) Why don't we adopt a similar system over here?

3. Picture Three is of the square in Kaufbeuren, an hour south-west of Munich. It offers no sign of any litter, even the occasional sweet wrapper, though I did find a few dog ends lurking between the cobblestones. If the Germans can keep their towns so pristine and sparkling, why can't we for God's sake?

I'm fairly sure my Victor Meldrew rantings are echoed in towns and cities all over the nation. One opinion poll in Southall recently revealed litter as the number one source of complaint. Once an area becomes knee deep in detritus, people stop treating it with respect and subtle deterioration is set in train. It makes me feel weak with frustration and irritation that nothing is done about it, either locally or nationally.

Monday, October 08, 2007


Why Didn't Gordon Consult Kenny Rogers?

'You got to know when to hold em, know when to fold em,
Know when to walk away and know when to run.'

Apparently England's valiant national rugby team have a talismanic song, familiar to all who enjoy a punt: The Gambler by Kenny Rogers.
This song they belt out before making their menacing appearance on the field. Oh boy, why didn't Gordon do the same and listen to its wisdom? Seems to me he didn't 'know when to fold 'em' having held 'em for far too long thus allowing the pot to become dangerously big. He should have 'walked away' much earlier and instead of choosing 'when to run', was forced into it.

He does not want for advice this morning, much of post hoc. Lance Price in The Guardian urges him to lose his 'sense of inadequacy' which drives him to seek his own mandate rather than the one he inherited from Tony Blair; Tim Montgomerie, in the same place, exults in his 'Ratner Moment' in which he trashed his own brand; while Martin Kettle thinks he shoul;d have avoided the cosily spun interview with Marr and freely admitted his misjudgement in an open press conference. Kettle concludes that even when trying to rescue his miscalculations he has continued to think tactically rather than strategically.

I suspect Jackie Ashley is on the money when she thinks he can 'survive being called a coward':

The accusation of cowardice won't, I predict, be very damaging. Deciding whether or not to call an election against unpromising polls is not, in most people's view, a matter of courage but of sensible political calculation. Brown has taken, and will take, enough tough decisions for those outside the Westminster bubble to judge him strong enough to weather real storms. "Frit" and "bottled it" will be charges made by chortling Tories and Blairite hacks, but they should beware: too much sniggering may be enjoyable, but doesn't necessarily impress the public.

More damaging she thinks is the possible accusation of a devious manipulation of election arrangements, especially that ill-advised Basra jaunt. Brown really did promise to be different to his predecessor; most of us knew he was not but now a much wider audience might have picked it up too. The upside is that Brown has over two years in which to make amends, to govern successfully and banish the memories of a truly, truly Black Saturday.
PS(1.0p.m.) have just heard Brown taking Kettle's advice and facing the press to deliver a robust 'mea culpa'. Not wholly convincing, of course, but a decent and very necessary stab at damage limitation.

Sunday, October 07, 2007


Never Underestimate your Opponent: in Sport or Politics

The Aussies certainly entered the fray against England yesterday, confidently expecting victory and crashed out to the side captained by Phil Vickery(pictured), undone by a side which for once punched its weight. The All Blacks trotted onto the pitch at the Millennium Stadium, with similar confidence against the French and went the same way. For which northern hemisphere victories I, for one, exult. Who knows the Scots might even make it three in the semi-finals; at least that would help cheer up our Prime Minister after his worst week in politics.

In June this year David Cameron expected Gordon Brown to be a lumbering, grey, extinct volcano of a politician whilst he proved remarkably nimble, steady of nerve and fecund of ideas. So confident did Gordon become, boosted by poll leads of up to 11% that he fancied taking on the still untested David Cameron in a snap election. This was to be a clinical crushing of the kind anticipated by our Antipodean friends with the oval ball; maybe, Labour allowed themselves to dream, it would end the career of the former Etonian. Oh dear! It didn't quite work out that way did it. As for Cameron, Brown's over-confidence led to a similar, but more grievous misjudgement. Ming Campbell has called it 'a humiliating climbdown'; the Observer's

He[Brown] was seduced by the short-term goal of annihilating the Tories. He so craved a mandate from the ballot box that he squandered much of the implicit moral mandate he had from soaring poll ratings. The public had invested in him that crucial and most ephemeral of political commodities - the benefit of the doubt. He has gambled it unwisely on political games.

The worst ramifications of this defeat may not survive the new year but Gordon may have sustained a crippling hit:

i) he has lost, temporarily at least his reputation for strength which so boosted his ratings compared with Cameron.
ii) Cameron has leapt in with confident sounding certainties. They are based mostly on supposition of course but every opposition has to have ready and waiting to unroll and he has done so adroitly.
iii) Brown has lost his reputation for being decisive and for getting things right.
iv) He tried to blame his advisers- Balls and Miliband were the most gung ho for the plan- but everyone knows he deliberately let talk of an election continue until it seemed imminent. It was his call and he must take the blame he could not bring himself to admit to Andrew Marr this morning.
v) Having declined to fight George Robertson in 1978, to stand for the party leadership in 1992 and take on Blair in 1994, Brown's reputation for 'bottling it' has been possibly sealed for ever.
v) the next election is nor definitely off for spring 2008 and we must wait for the long haul in 2009, or even later if, as we are told is likely to happen, things go pear-shaped with the economy.
vi)The Tories already have posted leads in a number of newspapers, much to the glee of the right-wing press. It'll be while before they change and will help Cameron immensely as he ploughs his 'liberal Tory' furrow.
vii)instead of 'finishing off' Cameron's project, he has reinvigorated it mightily and handed the political initiative to the Opposition until such uncertain time it can be wrested back.

Saturday, October 06, 2007


Gordon has Lost this Game of Political Poker: but can he admit it?

Yesterday I lectured on voting behaviour, explaining how a pattern of voting characterised fifty years ago by class loyalties was gradually transformed largely through occupational, home ownership and educational changes so that automatic support for voters' 'class party' became disengaged, or 'de-aligned' to use the correct term. The result has been a much higher degree of 'volatility' as voters now refer to their own interests before deciding how to vote. Gordon Brown and his advisers seem to have forgotten this basic truth of current British politics in contemplating an autumn election. Relatively new blogger Benedict Brogan bravely predicted Brown would back off two days ago and today gives chapter and verse from the marginals:

I'm told that Labour's research has already established that the situation is "bad" in a sample of key constituencies, and that the impact of the Tory inheritance tax giveaway has been "stark". Voters appear to have been struck by George Osborne's offer, and are swayed by the Tory claim to be the party of aspiration.

Osborne's promise to abolish inheritance tax has gone down well and I'm not surprised. My partner's father's estate was fairly typical in that house price increases had pushed a modest earner's bequests into one which resulted in a much resented tax bill of several thousand pounds. Taking this, plus Cameron's impressive 'look Mum, no notes' speech and the party unity which Brown's election threat inspired and it is clear the famed strategist has lost this autumnal game of political poker.

We read in The Guardian today that Number 10 insists 'nothing has changed' and that by 48 to 43 percentage points, voters want an autumn election. However, 40% also say they are more likely to vote Conservative as a result of the inheritance tax proposal. Brown has a history of chickening out of big decisions-whether to fight a by-election against George Robertson in 1978, whether to stand for leader in 1992 and then against Blair in 1994. But this is a decision, on all the evidence we have to date, on which backing off is by far the wisest and least damaging course.

He will be hurt, naturally, and will suffer accordingly for weeks if not months, but he will suffer as prime minister with over two years left to run- plenty of time to retrench and recoup. One thing worries me though: Gordon has never, to my memory, been able to admit he was wrong. Will he bite the bullet this time or resort to 'spun' explanations? Either approach will be better than taking the risk which an autumn election now poses.

Thursday, October 04, 2007


Has Gordon Blown it?

I'm sorry if my picture is even more literal than usual but the political situation really is so fascinatingly poised at the moment. I've just read all the quality papers' reaction to Cameron's speech and the rough consensus seems to be that that, despite Dave's bravura no-notes-no autocue speech-the columnists were really impressed it seems- the election arithmetic has not changed, according to John Rentoul. Offering a different angle or two, Simon Jenkins says something similar.

Writing from his vantage point as the UK's top election number cruncher, John Curtice suggests Labour are by no means assured of achieving their goal of achieving a 'Tory rout'. Brown's bounce has proved 'solid and potentially durable' and the average lead for Labour over the conference season has been 8%. To equal Blair's 66 majority in 2005, Brown needs a 4% lead, so is he sitting pretty? Not really:

i) Boundary Commission changes have shaved at least 18 seats off Labour's expected haul.
ii)Voters in November might have to vote in the dark; though, as Curtice points out, they returned Labour in 1964 and 1974 on the last two occasions we had autumn elections.
iii) the polls predicted a 5% lead for Labour in 2005 yet it turned out to be only 3% on the night. What if the polls are over reporting Labour?
iv) In each of the 47 marginal seats which Labour lost at the last election new MPs have been bedding themselves in and nurturing local support. It will be no push-over ejecting them, meaning that exceeding that 66 number might prove very difficult.
v) Anything can happen during an election campaign, as Curtice points out:

Mr Brown's bounce may look durable but no party leader can be sure his party will not slip a couple of points during the course of even a short election campaign.

So, it's no shoo-in for Gordon and for a famously cautious man, it might look too risky. But maybe he's held back from quelling the speculation for so long that he cannot escape a damning accusation of cowardice, of 'choking it', if he calls a halt next week instead of firing the starting pistol as most people still expect. Either way, few can deny, let alone Labour supporters like me, that this last week has been an excellent one for David Cameron's Conservatives.

Gordon hoped election talk would rattle the Tories and further open up divisions; instead the party is more united than at any time since autumn 2005. And I'm sure the next set of polls will show a substantial narrowing of the gap with Labour. Gordon may have blown it.

Wednesday, October 03, 2007


Never mind Dave's speech, the Election is Still Probably On

Well, was that speech good enough? I'd award it 9.5 out of ten for memorization(Dave must have taken one of those miracle courses), 8 for performance(maybe a tad 'Blairlite', like most of his sppeches) and 6.5 for content. Given the anodyne, rhetorical quality of conference speeches, it was better than most: the sections on devolved local control and education were quite good for example, but only because, I suppose, they resonated with my own thinking just a little. But will it dissuade Gordon from launching the election race?

Of course, I don't know. But the delegates at the conference seemed in very good heart- overall they've made a decent fist of appearing to relish an election. But in reality the party chiefs are hoping Brown will row back and decide to wait at least until next spring. Whether public opinion has been shifted sufficiently to make the snap election a gamble not worth taking lies in the hands of the private pollsters no doubt already posing questions as I write this.

I always take the opinions of my current affairs class seriously- two dozen senior citizens who share some of my fascinations with British politics. At our first meeting this morning a big majority thought Brown would not take the gamble. I'm not so sure. Gordon has allowed the speculation to continue to such a pitch- he could have squashed it days ago-and has taken other apparently preparatory steps like bringing announcements forward. I can't see him backing down now without losing an unacceptable amount to face. I think the election is still on.

Monday, October 01, 2007


Citizen Juries: Where are They?

I get a bit confused about Citizens' Juries, one of Gordon's new 'big ideas' to help reconnect government to voters. We also learn from Jo Revill in The Observer that there is some discontent at what is seen as a 'sham' listening device, being nothing more, according to the National Consumer's Council(NCC), than 'glorified focus groups'. Blair used focus groups, via his pollster Philip Gould, to an inordinate extent as the latter's The Unfinished Revolution revealed. The idea was to offer a more reliable substitute for opinion polls and a formidable new weapon in the democratic armoury. Revill explains:

Citizens' juries are like focus groups, but with the key difference that they are controlled by a facilitator who introduces particular ideas and directs the conversations around the table. The juries - panels of 20 or more people who can meet for one day or over several days - can call witnesses to hear evidence before deciding how they feel about policies.

According to Gould, he also sat in the group and acted as a virtual facilitator and it would seem natural that someone would have to run the discussion. The key thing would be whether it was controlled. But, one wonders, who would wish to do so? Could the government plant supportive 'facilitators' all over the country? I'd doubt it. Opinion Leader Research, run by Deborah Mattinson, a friend of Brown, runs many such events and presumably feeds results back into the nerve centre of policy making.

What rather concerns me is that I have never heard of any such consultative events taking place in my area or in the north-west in general. It's natural that bloggers, being fecund of opinion, would like to have some input on certain topics yet this avenue seems not so much closed as kept secret. The key test, of course, is whether the government would listen whatever was fed back. Bower's biography of Brown suggested he only listened to advice upon which he had already decided and ignored everything else. And Tony Blair, recall, took no notice at all of the 1-2 million citizens who marched against the Iraq War in March 2003.

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