Saturday, May 31, 2008

Labour - is the light at the end of the tunnel that of an oncoming train?

Until fairly recently I felt that the next General Election would be a bit like 1992, with Labour's majority down but with them remaining the largest party. However, if experience on the doorstep is anything to go by, I may have to change my stance.

Last weekend, Ros and I were in Shepton Mallet, canvassing in support of our by-election candidate, Rachael Witcombe. When the seat had been fought previously, the result had been Conservatives 37%, Liberal Democrats 32% and Labour 29%. Labour were campaigning to some extent, so it was clearly a 3-way marginal. Yet when canvassed, the number of those volunteering that "we're not voting Labour!" was significant. My sense was that some of our previous supporters were switching to the Conservatives whilst previous Labour supporters were switching to both ourselves and the Conservatives. The result? Conservatives 47%, Liberal Democrats 38%, Labour 13%, a result which does not augur well for Labour.

Today, I'm in Red Lodge, where a Conservative resignation has caused a by-election. Red Lodge itself centres on a mixed development which includes former service housing. It's the sort of place where you would expect to find a residual Labour vote. The only problem is, no Labour candidate. Is this another symptom of a Labour Party losing the will to fight?

When morale falters, defeat is seldom far away. My sense is that, unless the Labour leadership rally fast, election defeat is only as far away as Gordon chooses it to be...

Friday, May 30, 2008

Abortion rights and wrongs

I have not, I confess, followed the debate on abortion time limits particularly closely, perhaps because I tend to the view that it is a woman's right to choose - a position which is consistent with my liberalism if not my Catholicism.

However, I happened to be outside Parliament on a day when both sides of the argument had gathered across the street to make their point. The pro-choice lobby were loud but reasonably well-humoured, chanting a fairly catchy little ditty opposing the interference of church and state. The 'pro-life' (and why are they allowed to claim the phrase?) lobby stood in solemn silence, although the fact that they were outnumbered by about three to one might have contributed to that.

It was interesting that those willing to turn up to oppose abortion were predominantly men, and one might presume that their spouses were at home, pregnant, barefoot and in the kitchen. On the other hand, I was disappointed that there weren't more men joining the pro-choice campaigners.

I fully accept that abortion is an emotive issue, and that it tends to lead people to extreme positions. However, I find it objectionable when people replace facts with emotion, and the anti-abortion protestors have, regrettably, wilfully distorted science and reason in constructing some fairly weak arguments.

It is interesting that other European countries have much lower time limits for legal abortion, and one must acknowledge that we should be troubled by the fact that many of these countries believe their legislation to be sufficient. On the other hand, their rates of teenage pregnancy are far lower than ours, their health services more responsive and their sex education programmes more effective. Sadly, our rather prurient attitude to sex as a nation tends to reinforce this and despite the explosion of magazines and websites catering to a younger, more curious audience, such media seldom reach the necessary target audience, i.e the relative poor and under-educated.

In terms of the science, the argument that foetuses below the age of twenty-four weeks can survive is severely dented by the figures of disability for those premature births. It is all very well insisting that such children have a right to life, although I see no action to move legislation providing better support, both financial and practical, to their parents.

Ultimately, when you see the charge being led by the likes of Nadine Dorries, you need to remind yourself that this is a woman who claims to believe in the freedom of the individual. Actually, she doesn't believe in your freedom, she believes in her freedom to limit yours, be it economic, social or political. Naturally, she doesn't admit to the hypocrisy of her position, as it is so much easier to persuade people if you don't, but she would be the first to pick up on factual inaccuracies of your argument if you contradicted her.

And so my hope is that the status quo is maintained, so long as scientific advances don't undermine the position. Frankly, I expect that they will, as they did the twenty-eight week limit. At that point, I will change my position but at least it will be on the basis of science and reason, not on a prospectus of lies and slander.

A nostalgic return to the old alma mater

Ros had been invited back to her old university. coincidentally mine too, although I graduated in the mists of time when dinosaurs could still be seen roaming the grassy meadows next to Suffolk Terrace. Noting that I had been there too, the invitation to meet the Vice Chancellor was graciously extended to her husband too, and I was delighted to accept.

I enjoyed my years at UEA, and though I wasn't incredibly successful in academic terms, I learnt a tremendous amount, much of which was put to use in my political activities that followed.

We were met by Joyce and David, who escorted us to the Sainsbury Centre for the Visual Arts, an incredible facility which would doubtless draw many more than its current annual 70,000 visitors were it in London. The original building was architecturally daring when it was first opened but refurbishment and extension have made it into a facility that is the envy of other universities. We were given a brief tour before being shown to the restaurant where lunch was taken with the Vice Chancellor, the head of Ros's former department and my former academic advisor, Dr Gareth Janacek.

Dr Janacek also had the misfortune to have taught me statistics, a subject I enjoyed in the abstract, but this doesn't appear to have done him too much harm, as he has aged rather better than I have. It was a great pleasure to have the chance to talk to him after so many years and he very kindly proffered an invitation to visit if I was in Norwich in the future. It isn't that far away from Needham Market, so who knows...

After lunch, we met with some politics students, who quizzed Ros on the role of women in politics, on Burma and on the role of the European Union in resolving the Israel/Palestine question. I chipped in with some thoughts on the selection of women Parliamentary candidates and Ros demonstrated just why she's a Parliamentarian.

All in all, a very pleasant visit, and it was topped off by the very generous gifts of a history of the university and a guide to the architecture of the campus. I'm tempted to get more involved in the alumni group, although I probably don't have the time to do it justice...

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Suffolk Reviews: the Bungay Spring Garden Fair

Bungay is a small, but perfectly formed, town almost surrounded by a curve of the River Waveney on the Suffolk/Norfolk border and is well-known in the surrounding area for its street fairs. Mid-May sees the Garden Street fair, when Earsham Street, in the middle of the town, is closed to traffic and stalls are set up to sell plants and gardening related items.

It isn't just flowers and shrubs though, as you can see from the picture of the hog roast. I'd never seen one of these before, although they are pretty traditional in Suffolk. The hog is spit roasted for hours so that the meat falls off the carcass easily, and is served in a bun with stuffing and some apple sauce (the latter isn't mandatory).

There are also opportunities to buy local products, including the fine products of the St Peter's Brewery, based in the nearby village of St Peter South Elmham, ice cream from Norfolk and all manner of other good things.

We were lucky in that the sun shone, although this did mean that traffic was heavy and parking difficult. If you are thinking of going, my advice would be to turn up early, or wait until lunchtime, when the crowds thin a bit. And, if you can't make it to Bungay in May, you might try the Antique Street Fair in June, or the Christmas Street Fair in December...

Sunday, May 18, 2008

The Government clearly doesn't worry about all of the working poor

In terms of Civil Service pay, I'm comparatively lucky. I'm never going to become rich on my salary, but my needs are met as long as I don't get careless.

Many of my colleagues, on the other hand, earning less than £20,000 per year, struggle to raise families and put a roof over their heads. Housing in London is increasingly out of their reach, their salaries have lost value in real terms, and they acknowledge that the Government is terribly keen to use them as an example to the private sector in terms of clamping down on wage inflation. Of course, most of them have been affected by the loss of the 10% rate band, and some will still be worse off after Alastair's little fix.

So, the pay rise due for June will be quite welcome, you would think. Alas, despite the unions putting in their pay claim in good time, it has been announced that HM Revenue & Customs will need more time to commence negotiations, as they are still unclear as the amount of money available to cover any settlement.

Given that the lapsing of the existing pay deal was hardly a secret, it is a sign of the increasing shambles at the top of the political food-chain that the message sent to staff who have been asked to make 5% budget savings year on year whilst shedding 25% the staff over six years is, "We don't care enough about you to fulfil our moral and ethical obligations toward you."

I fully accept that civil servants aren't wildly popular. The image of tea-drinking, form-filling jobsworths is one that has been cultivated by the right-wing press over many years, yet when something happens that upsets people, the cry of "something must be done" is heard. By whom? The government, of course. Who does these things on behalf of government? Oh yes, civil servants...

If you're too incompetent to live up to your end of a contract, there is a price to be paid, unless you're the government and the contract is with your own staff, it seems. On the other hand, if you're a government that's 20% behind in the polls, you might not want to see a naturally friendly constituency go out on strike against you, especially when you need all the votes you can muster... Over to you, Mr Darling?

Friday, May 16, 2008

The 10p debacle - why the bleeding won't stop

It's all become like passing the scene of an accident on a motorway. As people drive by, they can't help but slow down to look at the grisly sight of wreckage and perhaps the odd smear of blood. Voyeuristic, I know, but human nonetheless.

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Alastair Darling, having been given one of the worst 'hospital passes' of recent years, understandably concluded that silence was the best approach to dealing with his inheritance from Gordon, and it would probably have worked but for the misfortune that at least one opposition party was on the ball. The calculation wasn't difficult to do, but the fact is that either it wasn't done by the Government or, worse, it was and they ignored it. It does, I admit, puzzle me that there was silence from the Labour benches, but they probably took their eyes off the ball celebrating the reduction in the basic rate of tax to 20%.

And so the demands for a fix, and a quick one at that. Worse still, the Conservatives were allowed to claim that they were standing up for the disadvantaged. Chutzpah, I admit, but a fine example of the art of opposition.

I have to admit that the solution is a pretty elegant one. By reducing the threshold for the 40% rate band by £1200, higher rate taxpayers do not benefit, whilst most of those who had lost out are compensated in full. There are some additional beneficiaries, like myself, who earn between £18,500 and £40,000, who benefited from the reduction in the basic rate and now benefit from the enhanced personal allowance but we won't complain.

The downside is that we have a government that is on the run, and everyone knows it. £2.7 billion to fix what might charitably be described as a mistake is not a promising start in rebuilding economic credibility and the package has an impact in future years in terms of income tax take. Of course, the Chancellor might be planning to claw it back, for example by not increasing allowances or rate bands with inflation next year, but everyone will be watching now, and such slight of hand will be harder to get away with. Besides, if we shout loudly enough, it will probably be overturned anyway.

The Conservatives and ourselves will be pecking away at the weaknesses in Labour's taxation strategy, knowing that in an increasingly complex tax system, the scope for unintended consequences grows almost exponentially. It isn't even necessary to offer a concrete alternative, as very few people will understand the concepts requiring grasp. On the other hand, cries of unfairness will have Labour's Treasury team running for the hills.

Finally, there is the question of the additional borrowing. There is now very limited manoeuvre in terms of borrowing is concerned if the various 'golden rules' are to be adhered to and, in a recession, an inability to pump-prime the economy could bring dire consequences for jobs and for those juggling large mortgages and other debt.

Credibility, once lost, is often elusive to those trying to recapture it. For the time being, Alastair resembles someone trying to catch an elephant with a butterfly net. And time, my friends, is not on his side...

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

List Elections - get better, or die trying...

And so the wedding is done, the honeymoon too, and it is, sadly, time to return to Planet LibDem. Yesterday saw a jet-lagged Regional Conference Chair attend a meeting of the Regional Executive, where thoughts of the elections past were uppermost on people's minds. I won't go into any detail as to what was discussed, although it would be fair to say that there was a variety of views to be had.

Our performance does lead me to ask one question though - is our poor performance in regional/state list elections a problem or an inevitability? We have become exceptionally good at fighting FPTP elections, squeezing opposition parties using the classic 'two-horse race' tactic. There is, however, a problem when you move into a list-based election system. You can't claim that X can't win here, because they can, and often do. The Greens, for example, have proved that beyond doubt.

Perhaps we need to start thinking about how we can give people positive reasons to vote for us. Labour and Conservative campaigners start with an advantage in terms of access to the media and, to be brutally honest, a traditional vote which takes time to shift. Other parties, such as the Greens, UKIP and the BNP have one issue which they have an incredibly strong view on, loathesome though it may be in one case.

For Europe, this should be easy. We are, by far, the most positive of the British political parties on Europe, and we should be talking loudly about how to make Europe better, more democratic, more accountable, more successful. That doesn't mean selling our nation down the river, and there aren't many of us who are so europhile that we are blind to its weaknesses. It's only a pity that those who matter in terms of our campaigning have seldom been keen on nailing our colours to the mast.

London is more complex. With its plethora of voting systems, first past the post for the Assembly constituencies, alternative vote for the Mayor and a D'Hondt based top-up list for the city-wide Assembly Members, how best to focus our efforts where they will have most effect is difficult to pinpoint. However, I think that we need to work on giving people something positive to inspire them out to vote for us.

It's time that we really learned to utilise our elected representatives better, especially our four London-wide ones, to fly the flag in places where we are weak, getting Liberal Democrat views into the local media. In turn, that means conveying a reasonably consistent message, and repeating it until it sinks in.

Time is not on our side though, with another region-wide elction next year, and we need to learn fast...

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Pachyderm in bureaucrat-induced non-rampage!

Most people with Indian blood in their veins love elephants, or as the press here refer to them in their curiously old-fashioned manner, pachyderms. I am no exception to that rule so today was an opportunity to meet an elephant and, more importantly, introduce Ros to one for the first time.

I had arranged a sightseeing trip to an organic spice plantation in central Goa, as I know that Ros loves flora and cooking, in the knowledge that the farm has elephants. I made sure that I had packed two large apples and a camera, and we set off with our driver towards the town of Ponda.

The tour of the plantation was very interesting, and we both learned a surprising amount about the various spices and fruits to be found. However, for me, the highlight was our meeting with Ganga, a female pachyderm, weighing five tons. Asking the mahout for permission, I fed Ganga an apple, stroking her trunk and forehead whilst Ros looked on. I then passed Ros the other apple so that she could feed Ganga too and touch her leathery hide.

Asiatic elephants, once trained, are wonderfully placid, gentle creatures. Just don't try this with African elephants...

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

Bob Shaw: it's not about cojones, it's about hypocrisy, stupid...

I read Bob's recent conspiracy theory about the Crewe and Nantwich by-election candidate selection with some interest, as the only member of the English Candidates Committee who blogs.

Now I'm not a perpetual defender of the processes of the Party, although I'm perfectly happy to debate why things are done the way they are. On the other hand, it disturbs me when the 'system' is attacked without any factual basis for doing so other than ill-informed accusation.

Marc Goodwin is unhappy, perhaps justifiably, that he wasn't shortlisted for the selection of our by-election candidate, despite having already having been selected as the PPC for the next General Election for the seat. I don't know Marc, have no idea how capable he is, although he will have made it through a development day, indicating that he has met the standards required for approval.

He has made the assumption that he was not shortlisted for reasons of political correctness, although on what basis he reaches that conclusion only he can tell. He certainly hasn't, to date, indicated any evidence other than his own supposition. Now, Bob has jumped in to support him, as this clearly fits with Bob's conspiracy theorist view of the world whereby anyone who disagrees with him must be a fool to be ridiculed or a Cowley Street plant. He hasn't suggested that we are part of an alien, reptilian conspiracy, but I'm sure that, in time, we will be denounced as such.

Normally, such foolishness is best ignored, but one thing that really annoys me is hypocrisy. And like so many self-declared 'beacons of truth', Bob likes the bully pulpit. He tends not to like it when people have a go back (plus ca change...). And so, when confronted with a number of responses contrary to his position, instead of accepting that he might be wrong, he changes his argument, on this occasion stating that he would have made the same point regardless of whether or not a woman had been selected.

Not read your original piece, Bob? Not even the title? What an idiot! However, given the number of times he talks about balls, it's a pity that instead of having any attached, he has to just talk them instead...

Saturday, May 03, 2008

London - a campaign in review

It would appear that an inquest is already underway into our disappointing result in London. So, I think to myself, perhaps a comment or two of my own is in order...

Picking our candidates earlier is indeed a good thing. We do it for Europe about eighteen months out, and we probably should have done for London. Perhaps the then Regional Candidates Chair should explain why we didn't...

The Mayoral candidate is a different question. A year ago, Ken looked pretty unassailable and both the Conservatives and ourselves were finding it difficult to attract 'sacrificial lambs' to run against him. In all honesty, had anyone known that Ken was going to implode so dramatically, I suspect that volunteers to take him on would have been much easier to find.

Indeed, the difficulty for Brian Paddick this time was that Boris's emergence as the Conservative candidate rather sucked the oxygen out of the other campaigns and a classic third (and for that matter, fourth) party squeeze ensued.

One interesting aspect was the result of the Greens on the Assembly relative to their Mayoral vote. They clearly managed to do much better on the Party top-up list than Sian Berry's vote would have implied. Perhaps our efforts to be seen as a serious party of government have damaged our ability to attract protest votes which have gone Green instead?

The Regional Candidates Committee will meet on Tuesday to continue their review of the GLA/Mayoral selection. Whilst I won't be there myself (romance 1, politics 0), I look forward with, until my return at least, vague interest as to their progress...

Fraternal greetings from the People's Republic of Kerala

Ros is taking a swim, so I thought that I'd take the opportunity to reconnect to the outside world.

After three days in Bangalore to recover from jetlag and acclimitise to the weather (it's about 35 degrees and the sun is beating down from an almost entirely blue sky), we've moved on to romantic India of legend, with a visit to Mysore, where we toured the Maharajah's palace before retiring to our hotel overlooking the famous Brindavan Gardens.

We stood on the terrace of our hotel, drink in hand, as darkness fell and the evening light and water show began. The gardens are renown for their appearances in Hindi movies and the moment when the lights all come on at once is absolutely amazing.

Since then it has been glorious scenery, amazing hotels and general pampering all the way. We've tested ayurvedic massage - in the cause of research, we haven't enjoyed it at all, you understand - eaten good food, seen some amazing sights and generally taken on a slightly darker skin tone.

Today, we leave our resort in the Kerala backwaters for a day on a houseboat. Think of it as being like the Norfolk Broads but with guaranteed sunshine...