Saturday, January 31, 2009

A Liberal Democrat Film Festival - Graham Watson launches the European campaign in the South West

Once in a lifetime, there comes a motion picture...

Back in the main hall, delegates were treated to 'Graham Watson MEP - the movie', a documentary of an average week in his life as our Member of the European Parliament here in the South West.

Graham then spoke about the importance of linking the European and County campaigns, and the opportunities presented by the weakness of Labour and the decline of UKIP, before introducing the rest of the six strong team of candidates, Kay Barnard, Justine McGuinness, Humphrey Temperley, Paul Massey and Jeremy Wilcock.

Kay then spoke with passion about how important it is to elect more Liberal Democrats to the European Parliament, important for the environment, important for improving accountability and democracy.

A lively question and answer session followed, touching on Iceland's membership of the Euro, UKIP and Conservative sleaze in the European Parliament, and economic protectionism.

Nick Clegg: nationalise the weakest banks, cut out unfair tax breaks for the wealthy, invest in our future

I'm standing at the back at the joint Devon & Cornwall/Western Counties Regional Conference, watching Nick make the keynote speech.

He's in bloody good form, as far as I can judge, and his dander is well and truly up. Best of all, he's not just talking about concepts and philosophy, he's actually talking about specific measures which, if the media would pay any attention, would resonate with the public (that's a hint, by the way...).

He started with an attack on both the Labour and Conservative Parties and, let's be honest, they're both culpable. You cannot imagine that the Conservatives would have done anything different, and now they have nothing to say. Unfunded proposals and a general 'the Government are at fault' mantra actually say nothing of value.

Tax breaks for the wealthy are as contrary to the notion of progressive taxation as can be conceived. Nick highlighted the fact that wealthy individuals benefit from twice as much tax relief on their pension contributions as basic rate taxpayers do. Indeed, he could have gone on to note that most tax reliefs for investment merely enable the wealthy to make more money at lower risk to themselves. Don't get me wrong, there have to be incentives to invest, but if those incentives distort investment trends in a way which unbalances the economy, then perhaps we need a rethink.

Nick then attacked the sheer waste of the money spent on a temporary cut in the rate of VAT. Investing that money in infrastructure, in environmentally sustainable works, in insulating homes, in developing alternative energy sources, would actually achieve a return on our money. From the perspective of a Government, it would actually generate some tangible product, and one wonders how a Labour Party so keen on spin and image failed to reach the same conclusion.

The question and answer session was an interesting reflection of how political activists are thinking, with the emphasis on the economy. Questions about tax rates, encouraging saving and the Euro were fielded with some aplomb. I have sometimes felt that Nick hasn't always done himself justice, but this session, as well as his speech at the launch of 'Unlocking Democracy', have indicated that he has grown into the role of Leader.

Nick also made it clear that Liberal Democrats will be pressing for stronger sanctions against errant Peers, acknowledging that there will be much greater scrutiny of all members of the House of Lords, at least in the short term, until action is taken to tighten the rules of expenses

All in all, a really good session, and delegates left the room with much to talk about.

A cosy dinner, just sixty or so close friends...

Back on the road again, this time to Western Counties.

Ros and I set off for Yeovil Junction, where we were met by Jill Shortland, Leader of Somerset County Council, and whisked off to Chard for the first engagement of a busy weekend, the Chard Branch Annual Dinner in the lovingly restored Guildhall.

Now I know what you're thinking, branches, not very big. And yet, there were sixty people there, and a great time was had by all, with a great meal, good company, and speeches from David Laws and Ros.

Now, for those who have, how can I put it, doubts about Orange Bookers, there would have been some amusement at the introduction given to the local MP, which began, "Slightly to my left... David Laws.". I've always thought of David as 'fearfully bright' but never seen him at close quarters. His introduction of Ros was a very astute analysis of how her campaign was perceived by others, and I was quite impressed given my perception that he doesn't really involve himself in the internal workings of the Party.

Jill very kindly put us up for the night, and it was interesting to hear her take on the forthcoming county elections, scheduled for the same day as the European elections. Somerset is a key battleground for us, and with Conservative Districts suffering from truly weak leadership, Mendip in particular but Sedgemoor as well, there are real prospects for consolidation of our position.

A good night's sleep and a cooked breakfast later, off to the centrepiece of the weekend, the joint conference of Devon & Cornwall and Western Counties in Taunton...
Back on the road again, this time to Western Counties.

Ros and I set off for Yeovil Junction, where we were met by Jill Shortland, Leader of Somerset County Council, and whisked off to Chard for the first engagement of a busy weekend, the Chard Branch Annual Dinner in the lovingly restored Guildhall.

Now I know what you're thinking, branches, not very big. And yet, there were sixty people there, and a great time was had by all, with a great meal, good company, and speeches from David Laws and Ros.

Now, for those who have, how can I put it, doubts about Orange Bookers, there would have been some amusement at the introduction given to the local MP, which began, "Slightly to my left... David Laws.". I've always thought of David as 'fearfully bright' but never seen him at close quarters. His introduction of Ros was a very astute analysis of how her campaign was perceived by others, and I was quite impressed given my perception that he doesn't really involve himself in the internal workings of the Party.

Jill very kindly put us up for the night, and it was interesting to hear her take on the forthcoming county elections, scheduled for the same day as the European elections. Somerset is a key battleground for us, and with Conservative Districts suffering from truly weak leadership, Mendip in particular but Sedgemoor as well, there are real prospects for consolidation of our position.

A good night's sleep and a cooked breakfast later, off to the centrepiece of the weekend, the joint conference of Devon & Cornwall and Western Counties in Taunton...

Friday, January 30, 2009

Julie Andrews wouldn't be pleased, the hills are alive with the sound of...

... naked German hikers, according to the authorities in Appenzell.

It would seem that this rather pretty part of German-speaking Switzerland has been chosen by naturist hikers as a good place to go on holiday, and the locals aren't happy. I suppose that I can see their point.

Appenzell is a fairly conservative place. Women weren't entitled to vote in cantonal elections until 1990, and the two Appenzell half-cantons are probably amongst the least industrialised in the entire country (they do make very good cheese though).
I visited Appenzell myself some years ago and, halfway up the side of a mountain, came across a monument to 500 brave men of Appenzell, who had defeated an army of 5000 Austrians. Perhaps the fact that the Austrians were attacking up the side of an exposed mountain, towards a group of archers hiding in trees might have been a contributory factor, but the locals are proud of the victory anyway.

The good news for anyone planning to hike naked in Appenzell is that the locals have laid down their bows. The bad news is that they are instituting a SFr200 (about £122) fine for anyone caught hiking au naturel. My advice is to make sure that you wear thick socks - you get terrible blisters otherwise. Oh yes, and don't forget the sun cream, the UV index is higher at altitude...

Thursday, January 29, 2009

Starbucks annoy me, I boycott them, and see what happens...

The BBC reports that Starbucks are cutting 6,700 jobs worldwide, with the closure of 300 stores. This may have something to do with the announcement that quarterly profits were down 69%, although I'd like to think that my decision to give up my regular vanilla latte was a contribution.

Frankly, I'm surprised that it has taken this long, given the cost of their product. However, it is a sign that people are reining in their spending in anticipation of a long, hard recession. If that money is used to buy other things, then all is good. If it is used to pay off debt, we could be mired in gloom for some time.

Unfortunately for the Government, I'm more inclined to the cautious view and, whilst I tend to shun debt, the idea of building up my savings, if only in a small way, is an appealing one. Forget the miserable interest rates, the idea of having reserves is reassuring.

Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Isn't it funny how things work out? When a pay deal goes from bad to good(ish)...

In August, I reported on the latest travails of my employers, noting their particularly ungenerous pay offer. It is a measure of how things have changed in just five months that an offer which implied an 8% pay cut in real terms over three years now looks like being a reasonable reflection of inflation in the economy. Indeed, with more than a million jobs likely to be lost over the next year or so, if the experts are to be believed, it looks like a pretty good deal.

Interestingly, my union seem to have gone quiet in terms of protesting about the pay deal, focusing their fire on the proposed office closures and the difficulties likely to be caused for those staff in comparatively remote areas when their offices are closed. I would suggest that this is a fairly pragmatic line to take. Frankly, we civil servants aren't popular at the best of times, tax officials even less so, and the uproar if we got an above inflation pay rise would be great.

Meanwhile, reorganisation continues apace, and jobs continue to be shed, slowly but surely, as we head towards the new, leaner, more efficient organisation that is our target. I was talking to a senior figure in the accountancy world over dinner last week, and he is of the view that we're not doing very well. The ability to get information, to find the right person to talk to about a specific problem, the lack of interconnectedness, all of these things worried him. Yet he acknowledged that the training we provide to our technical staff remains at a high level, and that they are still worth poaching in terms of the skill sets they offer.

I remain concerned that we are reorganising with a headcount figure in mind, rather than a structure which optimises our ability to close the tax gap, improve compliance and serve the public in a way that fulfils their varied needs. There is a sense that things are done because something needs to be, rather than taking a step back and evaluating properly the impact of a particular change. However, the pressure to cut costs, move work away from London and the South East, and introduce greater use of technology is great, and comes from the Government, and a degree of confusion is inevitable.

Let nobody think that the public sector isn't taking its share of pain in terms of this economic crisis. The difference is that, for many of us, we were already suffering before everyone else did. We may not be fashionable, but you might be a lot worse off when we're gone...

Someone has been too clever by half...

Yesterday, I blogged about 'Progressive London' aka 'Get Ken elected in 2012'. I noted that the administration he had led prior to last year's election had become, how can I put this, morally and ethically ambivalent at best, noting Lee Jasper in particular.

Frankly, I've tended to the view that Mr Jasper and, in particular, his approach towards plurality and inclusion is decidedly sub-optimal. You can be included if you agree with him but not otherwise, and plurality is a one way street whereby his perspective should be considered when he is out of office, and yours can be disregarded when he is in office. However, that is a personal view, and anyone has a right to hold a view to the contrary.

There was, however, a quite educational exchange of comments, anonymous naturally, where the author first accused me of racism and then, when I noted my mixed race status, accused me of suffering from self-hate.

I usually enjoy these anonymous comments because, unless I happen to agree with them, they give me an opportunity to abuse the author on grounds of cowardice. Spleen venting is always amusing...

However, there was an interesting twist. I had referred to a GLA hustings in 2000, where Mr Jasper's behaviour was, to my mind, indicative of an utter disrespect for the democratic process and for the right of legitimate political movements to make the case for their views. I named the constituency but not the location. Curiously, my anonymous commenter knew where the hustings had taken place, which might lead one to reasonably assume that he, or she, was there and, might I suggest, a participant in the orchestrated abuse.

I made that point, and the comments stopped. Curious, eh...

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

Progressive London - just another Labour front...

Mark Pack has already noted that Progressive London is not all that it seems, or at least that not all of those involved are singing from the same hymnsheet, so to speak.

I am not in the least surprised that Dawn Butler doesn't get it. Anyone willing to claim more than £21,000 as a second home allowance when they represent a constituency within 24 minutes of Westminster, who complains about unfair coverage in her local newspaper and who appears to have given up representing those constituents being transferred into Brent North, is hardly likely to be backward in seeking endorsement of her Party above a wider cause.

However, I thought that I should see what 'Progressive London' is all about. After all, I am a Londoner, born and bred, and I want the city to be successful. So imagine my surprise when, amongst the articles posted are a series of pieces from the Socialist Economic Bulletin, penned by one Ken Livingstone, and which make no reference, direct or otherwise, to London.

The Conference was opened by one Ken Livingstone, and one might almost suspect that the organisation is simply a front for a 're-elect Ken' campaign for 2012.

In fact, why beat about the bush, it is a front for Ken, and anyone who has any experience or knowledge of how the old hard left worked, will recognise it for what it is, a way to keep Ken in the spotlight. Given that Citizen Ken led an administration which became more and more ethically bankrupt as it felt more secure - Lee Jasper, anyone? - I for one don't want to see him back.

I'm not attacking Susan Kramer or Mike Tuffrey, after all, it was certainly worth checking the lie of the land. And whilst I do wonder why Lembit has gotten himself involved - Montgomery must be in, oh, zone 127 - he does live in London midweek and it's nice to see him take an interest. But enough is enough. We have a fairly appalling relationship with London Labour - with a few honourable exceptions - and I see no advantage in lending them the credibility that comes with our involvement.

After all, they'll almost certainly shaft us if their ploy works...

Lords reform in an age of scandal - not as easy as it looks...

The publication of allegations of wrongdoing against four Labour Peers by the Sunday Times has dealt another blow to the current arrangements in the House of Lords. Lord Taylor of Blackburn, in particular, has been particularly foolish, and the recording of parts of the conversation he had with the undercover journalists appears to be pretty damning.

Much attention has been drawn to the current lack of effective sanction against those who break the rules, and there have been many who have been quick to condemn the allowances system that applies at present. On first glance, it looks pretty generous. A daily attendance allowance, supplemented by additional payments for those who reside outside London, amounts to approximately £330 per day. There are additional allowances for secretarial support, as well as reimbursement of travel costs.

And there's the rub. To get paid, you have to turn up. Given the age profile of the Lords, that's less easy than it sounds, and it also needs to be borne in mind that the House only sits for about 160 days each year, less if there is a General Election. Ill health means that you lose your income and, for those whose primary source of income is their activity in the Lords, an accident or surgery can be very expensive indeed.

Whilst some Peers are assiduous in their attendance, holding down frontbench roles, serving on Select Committees, or on one of the various committees that manage business in the Lords, there are many who turn up infrequently, if at all. I notice that journalists have referred to Jeffrey Archer (Lord Archer of Weston-super-Mare) as a convicted criminal who still sits in the Lords, yet he has not attended for some time. Some of the Peers are in their nineties, and given that Life Peers cannot renounce their peerages, they are 'on the books' until death.

So, what do you do to reform the Lords, if the Government is so unwilling to do anything to change the way people get there? Salaries for Peers might be attractive to some, but what level of remuneration is appropriate? How do you link it to attendance? Indeed, what can one expect in return?

There are those who will suggest that Peers be barred from earning from sources other than the Lords. Frankly, this is a non-runner. Too many Peers have established income from their activities established long before they were elevated to the Lords. Captains of industry, bankers, local councillors, lawyers and even the bishops are often there because of those activities. Some of them attend less frequently than they might for the very reason that it permits them to engage in those other activities. And, of course, if they don't turn up at the Lords, they don't get paid.

Indeed, if you have a job or profession that pays £70,000 per year or more, you would be guaranteed to be worse off if you then accepted a peerage. If you want the best and the brightest to contribute to public life by means of scrutiny of legislation, or by amending poor legislation, then either you provide them with an incentive, or you leave them with the scope to obtain supplementary income.

A more limited reform would be to ban Peers from being lobbyists or Parliamentary advisors. Ironically, this is pretty much banned already, and Peers are expected to declare their interest if they speak or raise questions. This convention could be toughened up though, with meaningful sanctions for those who breach it. The inability of the Lords to punish miscreants is a serious failing, and the options of suspension, with its financial implications, or outright expulsion should be considered.

Given that most Peers will be perfectly happy to see the book thrown at any Peer found guilty of taking cash for amendments, such legislation would almost certainly be welcomed.

We must be careful not to over-react. If we place too many restrictions on Peers, we risk restricting new appointments to those with sufficient financial resource to take the hit of reduced income, the retired and, ironically, the poor. As an example, an Executive Officer in the Civil Service would probably be better off as a Peer if they attended half of the sitting days. On the other hand, if we want the best and the brightest, and there really are some astonishingly knowledgable people in the Lords, we need to provide some flexibility.

Of course, the best solution is an elected second chamber, but does anyone see that sort of reform coming in the next ten years?...

What do you mean, you haven't filed your tax return?

Yes, it's that time of year once again, when thousands of people around the country suddenly realise, "Oh dear (or something similar), I've forgotten to deal with my tax return. I'd better get it done.".

Only this year, there's a difference. In years past, you could download the return form, fill it out quickly, and deliver it by hand. I remember when self assessment was new, my then office opened over the weekend to deal with the late rush. Taxpayers were queuing down a flight of stairs to hand over their return and a cheque to settle their liabilities. As the office's Customer Service Manager, my job was to keep things moving along and deal with those who felt that queuing was beneath them. It turned out that they were wrong...

Unfortunately, such an option isn't open to you this year, as the deadline for filing paper returns was 31 October. Your only option is to file online, although you'll need an activation code if you haven't already got one. Oh yes, and it's almost certainly too late to get one in time.

So, a penalty of £100 beckons, unless you take my advice. In fact, the penalty is £100 or the amount of tax unpaid at 31 January so, if you make sure that you pay your tax in time, and I recommend today, any penalty will be reduced to nil once the tax return is filed.

You know what to do. Besides, the Government needs your money...

Monday, January 26, 2009

A picture may not be worth a thousand words...

Yesterday, Ros and I could be found in Newport, where we were scheduled to meet up with Ed Townsend, the Deputy Leader of Newport Council and our PPC in Newport East. Ed has been building up support over recent years, and got within 900 votes of winning the Welsh Assembly seat in the 2007 election. Now he has his sights on the Parliamentary seat, and we were there to take photographs and do a little light delivering.

We were first taken to the M4 near Severn Tunnel Junction station where, from an overhead bridge, we had a clear view of the toll plaza. This pinch point acts to cause congestion, especially as there is a restricted range of payment options. If you don't have enough money to pay the toll, you are obliged to exit the motorway, and are escorted off. To make matters more entertaining, there is a 50 mph speed limit on the motorway as it approaches the toll boothes, and much money is generated by use of speed cameras.

Entertainingly, there was a speed camera vehicle on the bridge whilst we were there, with loud music blaring from it, illegally parked on the footway. Given that it's all automated, I suspect that the officer in the back of the van probably acts merely as a guard.

Photographs were orchestrated by Veronica German, Mike's wife and our leader on Torfaen Council, as combinations of Ros, Mike, Ed and local campaigner, Linda Guppy, were pictured looking at the toll boothes or talking to each other. I took the opportunity to get some shots for Ros's Facebook group and for the website.

Next, we visited a post office which had been saved. Yes, saved. I was intrigued to discover that the Post Office appear to limit the ability of a postmaster or postmistress to campaign to save their facility. Apparently, they had known that they were earmarked for closure, but were sworn to secrecy for nearly three months. I find that level of cynicism quite remarkable, but am not terribly surprised. More photographs were taken, and then it was time to do some leaflet delivery.

Beechwood ward is bounded by the M4 to the north and Beechwood Park to the west, and I was tasked with delivering the two boundary roads (not the M4, the one parallel to it...). Luckily, it was mostly downhill, although I felt as though I'd done a round on the step machine by the time I'd finished. At least the sun was still shining...

And then it was time to head back to London. We had the company of some Arsenal fans heading back from their cup game at Cardiff City, and their chanting on arrival at Paddington was amplified by the great curved train shed. They're surprisingly melodic...

Sunday, January 25, 2009

Tea and gentility on the Welsh border

In Abergavenny, we attended an open house at the home of Alan Butt Philip, the number 1 candidate on the Welsh Liberal Democrats list for the European Parliament elections in June.

The comparatively low number of seats in Wales, the dominance of Labour and the existence of four credible alternatives have all combined to make winning a seat difficult for Liberal Democrats here. However, the drop in Labour support over the past five years has led to support for whichever opponent has established itself as the credible alternative, and Labour's hammerlock over the politics of South Wales is slowly being loosened. This is our opportunity to win that elusive seat in the European Parliament.

Jo drove us back to Cardiff Bay, where we grabbed dinner in a Turkish restaurant on the waterfront, before returning to our base in one of the new developments in the area. Of that, more later...

Saturday, January 24, 2009

To Merthyr... and beyond!

We grabbed a quick cup of tea with Amy Kitcher, the PPC there, and her husband Kevin, before hitting the streets of Merthyr. Ros went off to meet local shopkeepers with Amy and Cllr Bob Griffin, whilst I went off with Kevin, Dominic and others to deliver leaflets.

Whilst Merthyr has a reputation for being a bit grim, and I acknowledge that some of the economic and social statistics are depressing, to say the least, yet it is surrounded by some incredible scenery. If only the Labour council weren't so deluded...

I was astonished to find that the local development plan presumes that 4,000 new homes will be built in Merthyr in the period to 2022. What they will do for work is something of a mystery, and there are suspicions that it is an excuse to permit open cast coal mining - after all, land will need to be levelled and foundations dug... 45% of households in Merthyr are without paid employment already so why not develop employment opportunities instead?

Indeed, local Liberal Democrats have published their critique of the plans at Alas, Labour in Merthyr have been in power so long that they have developed a sense of invulnerability, and won't listen to other voices.

Like a welcome parcel, we were then passed on to Jo Foster, Chief Executive of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, who whisked us off to Abergavenny, Y Fenni in Welsh...

There'll be a leaflet on the hillside...

I've been having a bit of a stroll today, enjoying the sunshine and the crisp winter air. Strangely enough, I've had some bits of paper to read and, best of all, share, with some complete strangers.

My day started in Cardiff Central, with a breakfast meeting with some Cardiff students. Luckily, students are sensible souls, so we met at 10 a.m. I was chatting away when in walked a memory of my days in Brent. Elizabeth Clark was an activist in Brent and now lives in Cardiff, where she was recently elected to the city council. We talked briefly of past memories before she had to leave for a ward surgery.

Fortified by a bacon sandwich and a capucchino, it was time to deliver some leaflets. Off to Penarth with Cardiff South & Penarth PPC, Dominic Hannigan, where Ros and I met up with Rodney Berman and Jenny Willott, whose generosity in supporting the campaign in a neighbouring seat is great to see.

We grabbed lunch in a local pub before Dominic drove us to Pentrebach to meet with key campaigners in the Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney constituency...

Friday, January 23, 2009

A visit to Freedom Central

Not just a collaborative blog, Freedom Central is the new headquarters of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, and I have now visited it. They make a very nice cup of tea (thanks, Rachel!) and have a nice view out of the windows. It's pretty hi-tech, so I'm sure it will be a great success.

Yes, Liberal Bureaucracy is brought to you live from Wales, where I'm accompanying Ros on her first weekend trip as Party President. We caught a mid-afternoon train from Paddington, which arrived at Cardiff Central on time (amazing, given that we were on First Great Western...). We were met by Dominic Hannigan, our PPC for Cardiff South & Penarth, who whisked us off to HQ for a look round and light refreshment.

Ian Walton, an old friend, was in the middle of announcing the election results for the Welsh version of Liberal Youth, and we exchanged a few stories about youth wing elections - I'm the Returning Officer for Liberal Youth in England.

We then retired for a breather in our base for the weekend, before attending a pizza and politics event in Cardiff Central at the home of Cllr David Rees, something of a local legend.

Tomorrow, we're in Cardiff South & Penarth, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney and Abergavenny (where the cheese comes from). Should be fun!

A posting of no interest whatsoever...

It has been brought to my attention that the rate of interest paid on income and corporation tax overpaid is about to drop.

To make life simple, there is an automatic link between the base rate and the rates of interest paid and charged, and with the recent rapid drop in the base rate, it's gotten to the point where it was hardly worth calculating the interest. However, with the base rate at 1.5%, the interest rate for overpayments should be almost negative, i.e. you get charged for the privilege of being owed money.

And so, as of 27 January, the interest rate for tax overpaid will drop to zero.

There is a silver lining though. If you owe HM Revenue & Customs money, we're only charging 3.5%. Why do I think that the Government is going to drop down the list of priority debtors?...

The Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill - another curate's egg from Labour

According to the website of the UK Borders Agency,

"The Borders, Citizenship and Immigration Bill will lay down a radical new approach to British citizenship that will require all migrants to speak English and obey the law if they want to gain citizenship and stay permanently in Britain - while speeding up the path to citizenship for those who contribute to the community by being active citizens.'

I have to say that, whenever I see language like that, I am immediately wary and, given the form of this Government in terms of talking tough and then failing to resource the work properly, creating hardship and organisational chaos.

Certainly, the new proposals will appeal to those who feel that immigration to the United Kingdom is too easy, and the talk of restricting access to benefits, and of sending foreign criminals home probably qualifies as 'dog whistle' politics.

I admit to doubts about the proposals that all foreign migrants committing crimes will risk the automatic loss of their right to remain (for those earning prison sentences), or an extension to their qualifying period for citizenship for minor offences. For those migrants from countries that are unsafe, or with whom we are unable to reach agreement over repatriation, a future of semi-permanent detention beckons, and the cost to the public purse will be formidable. Restricted access to benefits, particularly if applied to genuine refugees, will cause great hardship and greater temptation to commit minor crimes to keep body and soul together. If, however, we enable refugees to work, this might be mitigated to some extent.

We've already had plenty of warning of the new points-based system and, whilst it is claimed that it will 'allow the Government to manage immigration which in turn will help contribute to future population projections and control', I am yet to be convinced that, when immigration from other EU countries is unlimited, it will prove to be much more than guesswork. Besides, in an employment market as complex and fluid as we have in the United Kingdom, I suspect there will be plenty of work for lawyers in challenging how the points system operates.

Border and Immigration Minister Phil Woolas is quoted as saying:

"We are clear that newcomers should speak English, work hard, and earn the right to stay here - and only get British citizenship once they have proved their commitment to the country.
"Migration only works if it brings benefits, and these measures will ensure that only those migrants that make a positive impact on their local community will be able to stay in the UK."

Nonsense, of course. Lithuanians, Poles and Bulgarians will be exempt from this, as will French, Portuguese and Greeks. Given that much of our immigration is from EU nations, it's all talk from 'Bruiser Phil'. As a bid to draw voters away from the BNP, it may well do the trick, at least temporarily, but it hardly acts to mark us as reaching for higher moral and ethical standards in public life.

There are some positive elements though. The Bill will strengthen Britain's security by giving frontline staff of the UK Border Agency combined customs and immigration powers, allowing them to be more effective.

The Bill will also place a duty on the UK Border Agency to safeguard the welfare of children in its work; introduce new rules to give automatic British nationality to a child born in the UK where at least one parent is a foreign or Commonwealth member of the British armed forces; and fix the current situation whereby a father could pass on his British nationality to a child born abroad before 1961 while a mother could not. I think that we can all applaud that...

I suspect that the Conservatives will wave this through whilst complaining that it isn't tough enough and the Government are all talk and no action. They're probably right on the second point, but I'm hoping that our Peers and MPs will do what they can to improve the Bill. The notion that we have to be tough on people coming to our shores 'just because' is no excuse for injustice.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

A society debut - sort of...

So there I am, sitting on a southbound Northern line train, dressed in black and white, my one rebellion against monochrome a pair of cufflinks in a variety of pinks and purples, on my way to a dinner party. At least I am coloured co-ordinated with the line I'm travelling on...

I admit that it isn't a particularly intimate dinner party, although I have no idea who the hosts are, and the list of sponsors is fairly spectacular. I do know what the occasion is - we're celebrating the onset of the Year of the Ox - so am guessing that there is a Chinese element.

So, why am I going? Good question, my friend. Apparently, our glorious Leader, a.k.a. the Cleggster, is in the South West this evening, and in his absence, our Imperial Sereneness, the Party President, is standing in. I'm tagging along. And yes, you guessed it, two blokes called Gordon Brown and David Cameron are turning up as well. I wonder if their skills at small talk are any good...

I'll tell you about it afterwards, assuming that there is an afterwards, that is...

Another political quiz, and how did I make out?

My Political Views
I am a left moderate social libertarian
Left: 4.51, Libertarian: 2.78

Political Spectrum Quiz

So, I remain modestly left-wing and modestly libertarian. In United Kingdom terms, that makes me centrist and socially liberal.

My Foreign Policy Views
Score: -3.75

Political Spectrum Quiz

My Culture War Stance
Score: -6.4

Political Spectrum Quiz

I'm not really an interventionist and I'm a cultural liberal. I'm reassured by that, wouldn't want to think that I was becoming a reactionary as I get older...

Wednesday, January 21, 2009

Who's afraid of the big Ken Clarke, the big Ken Clarke, the big Ken Clarke?...

Not me, I must confess? In fact, I would suggest that having Ken Clarke back on the Conservative frontbench is probably good for us.

The justification is that the Conservatives need someone with experience to take on Peter Mandelson. Hang on a minute, the noble Lord is... in the Lords, the one place where our suede shoe wearing, jazz loving Europhile can't go. And yes, he'll be up against him on television, but how many of the public actually care about business regulation? Indeed, how many Conservative shadow spokespeople in that role can most people remember?

Let's be honest here, bringing back a sixty-eight year old is hardly intended to be a long-term appointment. The prospects of Ken Clarke serving in the first Cameron cabinet are probably pretty remote, and this is simply a short-term fix intended to distract attention from the fact that there is no policy substance (still!).

He will entertain, in all likelihood, but he is a bruiser, not a strategist. You always sensed that his primary tactic as a minister was to pick a fight, and then get shuffled off to another job, leaving some other poor soul to mend fences afterwards.

From an outside perspective, his well-publicised differences with the Party leadership on the subject of Europe mean that he will be distrusted by the Eurosceptic right and by the more reactionary press (Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph). Every utterance with regard to Europe (and his portfolio is impacted by Europe more than some others) will be analysed for adherence to the 'line', and I frankly doubt his discipline.

I have to say though, he will at least be consistent, unlike his leader. Now, Mr Cameron, your policy on leaving the EPP and forming a more conservative grouping in the European Parliament. How's that going?

Cannabis: a gentle warning from your friendly neighbourhood bureaucrat

Of course, I am fully aware that my readers are all thoroughly law abiding souls, but given your catholic tastes in friends and acquaintances, I thought you might like to pass word on…

The change in categorisation of cannabis from class C to B was announced by Home Secretary Jacqui Smith last May, and comes into force on 26 January. It means the penalty on conviction for summary cases, those conducted without a jury trial, will increase.

Offenders currently pay three times the value of the drug or £500 – whichever is greater – and can be imprisoned for up to three months. This will go up to three times the value or £2,000, with a potential prison sentence of six months.

The penalties for conviction on indictment are not affect by the reclassification.

Rules governing compounding, where offenders found with small quantities of the drug may in certain circumstances be offered the chance to pay a settlement instead of facing court proceedings, also differ between class C and class B drugs.

A more diverse Parliament: it isn't about shortlists, it's about electoral systems and changing the culture

Whilst the inauguration of Barack Obama has been occupying the attention of most of the world's media, the Speaker's Conference on increasing diversity in Parliament has been hearing evidence. Two of those giving evidence today raised interesting points, and I agree with one as much as I disagree with the other.

I'll start with where I agree. Fay Mansell, from the Women's Institute (a far more radical organisation than one might expect), was of the view that the culture of the House of Commons was much too macho, and dissuaded women from getting involved. Indeed, the House of Lords, a much more civilised place, has women in a range of key roles, and some of the best performers on all benches are women. Ironically, such a situation might not survive the coming of an elected second chamber if the 'first past the post' electoral system is used.

There is no question that the culture of the House of Commons, while improved, is outputting to those who believe that a good argument and a strong case should help you to make policy and persuade others to support it. The quality of debate, the lack of courtesy and the childish sub-public school humour make you despair sometimes. Once again, compare and contrast with the House of Lords.

As a backbench MP, or an opposition one, you probably have less power and influence than a senior councillor on a unitary authority. The councillor will certainly have a budget, unlike MPs, will be able to go home at night, unlike MPs, and attract less abuse. You can understand why women are better represented at council level.

So yes, change the culture, cut out the mindless confrontation, make question sessions real, rather than an opportunity for the rutting stags on the green benches to score petty points, and resource MPs so that they can do their jobs well. That way, you might persuade some of the really talented women on county councils and unitary authorities to take that last step towards parliamentary candidacy.

And now for my area of disagreement. Simon Woolley, of Operation Black Vote, continues to promote all-black shortlists for Parliamentary candidate selection. Curiously, I supported the legislation permitting political parties to seek an exemption from anti-discrimination rules, on the grounds that such a notion fitted very nicely into Labour Party philosophy. If it does, I see no reason why they shouldn't be able to do it. Yes, they'll need to deal with the potential consequences - and Blaenau Gwent is a living reminder of what can go wrong - but they need to be true to what they think is right.

However, it appears that Mr Woolley is oblivious to the question of political philosophy. To ask Liberal Democrats to apply positive discrimination demonstrates that he doesn't 'get' liberal democracy as we see it. We are mostly uncomfortable with the notion that we should favour someone because they are something rather than having the right skills. We believe in merit, and that anyone with the right skills can succeed with work and a dash of charisma.

There are some in our Party who give the impression that, if we discriminate in their favour, all will be well, and we will have our more diverse Parliamentary party. And yet isn't it about the concept rather than the named individual? Our aim should be to create opportunity for everybody, and our 'tool of choice' is proportional representation.

Multi-member constituencies would create greater political diversity, would encourage political parties to cast their net wider for support, for activists and for candidates, and allow for the development of new political parties that fill niches that currently have insufficient oxygen to allow meaningful life. I don't hear Simon Woolley calling for that though...

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

The eyes of the world are turned towards Washington DC

And so the big day has arrived, and all of the news coverage is of the inauguration of that nice Senator Obama as President.

The British have always felt more at home with a Democrat in the White House, regardless of the affability or competence of the man himself, and I suspect that this is due to the chasm in ideology between Europe and the US.

Even the British, with our so-called special relationship, find Republicans hard work. The fixation with guns and religion is alien to most of us, given that we've banned handguns and licenced everything else. As for religion, we tend to the view that our faith, or lack thereof, is a private matter, not to be broadcast. Even the evangelical movement here is rooted in the Afro-Caribbean community, and hasn't really penetrated the consciousness of the rest of the population.

We're also more internationalist in our outlook. Whilst Kennedy, Clinton and Obama had travelled widely prior to their election, and not just to fight, many Republican contenders have been less travelled. Our experiences within a common Europe engender a belief in collective action, whereas Republicans tend to the view that, given that they have the capability, they can act alone, at least to some extent.

Bill Clinton was so popular here that, even in the midst of the impeachment hearings, his approval rating was 63%. Regardless of what he did at home, he was felt to be willing to persuade allies to act in concert, rather than browbeat them into acquiescence. His support for the Northern Ireland peace process was invaluable, and the warmth of the welcome given to him when he visited Belfast was utterly genuine.

George W Bush will be irredeemably linked to the invasion of Iraq, an action opposed by the majority of the British people, and the cause of too many resented deaths of young servicemen and women. Regardless of the validity of the invasion, it was felt that the US was ignoring the international framework for conflict resolution, faulty and ineffectual though it has often been.

We also struggle with questions related to the role of government. There is a far greater sense that government has an active role in building a better society, whereas Americans, particularly Republicans tend to be suspicious of 'big government'.

And so we welcome President Obama. He represents politics that we can relate to, but with added charisma and a sense of romance that we aspire to. He looks like a statesman, sounds like one too. The only worry is that we expect too much of him, but he's clever, articulate and appears to be managing our expectations closer to reality.

I wish him well...

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Gaza: the war is over (sort of), let the stupidity begin

The Israelis, having reached the point where a continued military offensive was likely to transform itself into a drawn out ground war, have announced a ceasefire. Hamas, having called upon world opinion to condemn Israeli aggression by means of a fair bit of shroud waving, have survived, albeit in rather battered form. The people of Gaza should now be able to emerge to survey the damage and start to rebuild their shattered lives.

That's the theory. Unfortunately, it looks as if we will end up with the worst of all worlds. Hamas have picked up where they left off, with seven rockets already launched into southern Israel, and the Israel Defence Force responding with air attacks on the sites from whence the rockets came. Neither side has peace or security, and the likelihood is that the Israelis will feel totally justified in repeating the whole bloodstained process of attack all over again.

To be blunt, the 'international community', one of those meaningless terms we all fall back on, has failed to achieve very much, and it is public opinion that has led the way. However, public opinion can only do so much, and it is time for moderate Arab nations to step in and provide support for those forces for civil society in Gaza who might create the basis for an administration focussed on building a sound economy, a strong democracy and a secure environment for both.

If Hamas are serious about being part of the process of building a viable Palestinian state, they need to accept that using the population of Gaza as a human shield is, to put it mildly, unhelpful. Given the imbalance in terms of strike power, the pain and suffering is always going to fall disproportionately on civilians in Gaza.

This is not to say that responsibility for this tragedy falls wholly on Hamas. I fully accept that some Israeli actions have been provocative and deliberately so. However, a state can be influenced by other nations in a way that a freedom fighting/terrorist (your choice) organisation cannot. The United Nations and the European Union can withdraw co-operation from Israel through bi-lateral agreements on culture, trade or whatever. We don't have those links with Hamas.

So, as liberals and internationalists, we must channel our passions into lobbying governments, and not just our own, into doing something concrete towards a lasting peace. Otherwise, I'll see you on another demo in five years time...

The concessionary fare scheme for buses - good news and bad news

I was intrigued by a question that Ros asked in the Lords recently, regarding the impact of the extension of the concessionary fare scheme for buses across England, in terms of local government finance. And so I did some research...

Firstly, I was keen to find out what the grant position was for the three years ended 31 March 2011. As it turns out, the grant is due to increase by 2.36% in 2009-10, and by 2.76% in 2010-11. Why is this good news?

Here is the November prediction for forward inflation, courtesy of the Bank of England... As you can see, the Bank is predicting inflation as averaging about 1% over the two years. Therefore, presuming that grants remain at the level stated, there will be a little bit of slack available.

And that's where the good news ends. Sadly, there appear to be a number of cases where local councils are finding that the costs exceed the grant quite considerably.

Ros and I visited Teignbridge last year, and Cllr Alan Connett noted his concern about the looming gap between the grant and the additional expenditure that was being incurred. If spending turns out to exceed the grant, local councils will be forced to make choices as to what to cut, in order to meet the difference.

Given that District Councils are bearing the brunt of the cuts in local government grant support, and that capping will be applied to any council seeking to raise its precept by more than 5%, this will be all the more difficult to manage. Worst of all, it is virtually impossible to manage demand, especially for those authorities which attract large numbers of tourists.

I sense from Lord Adonis's answer to Ros's question that he really didn't fancy answering the question because, in answering the question, he will demonstrate that, once again, the Government has bought some short term popularity at the cost of locally provided services. And of course, who will be held accountable? Yes, you guessed it, the local councils that will have to cut services to fulfil someone else's gift...

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Conservatives: it's not ideas, it's money that will gain us power...

I have been consistently critical of the lack of hard policy coming from the Conservative Party over the past year. The Cameron-led attempt to re-enact the Labour strategy pre-1997 had been pretty successful until the wheels fell off of the economy and it became clear that the lack of stated policy masked an absence of any real, coherent policy worth writing home about.

The political strategy appears to be to oppose anything that is unpopular, suggest that you're thinking about doing things that appear popular, and state that you wouldn't have managed the economy in the same way that Labour did. In normal circumstances, that might have been enough. However, in the gathering crisis, voters are keen to see something being done. I'm not convinced that there is a sense at to what that is, but the sense of activity is vaguely reassuring.

The Conservatives have responded with a flurry of speeches which, when analysed, give little steer as to what their underpinning philosophy is. Unconvincing on tax cuts, unconvincing on the role of government, unconvincing on the environment or the economy, their support is founded on not being Labour, rather than on being for anything.

Clearly, there is a realisation that this is the case at the top of the Conservative Party, and this comment, from their Treasurer, when asked if it meant he was trying to crush Labour financially;

"We will blow them out of the water."

Now I am not so naive to think that money has no place in politics. In order to get the message across, a political party needs resources, both financial and human. However, if the leading opposition party needs to 'blow its opponent out of the water' in order to win the argument, it implies that what they are offering isn't that great. Add the advantages of favourable media coverage, and you really worry about the ability of the Conservatives to make a positive case to earn voter support.
Of course, this also makes the case for campaign finance reform here in the United Kingdom. The impact of campaign spending on the result of the US Presidential election cannot be ignored. The Obama campaign outspent the McCain campaign by a vast margin, yet they only won by 5% or so. Had the two campaigns been equally resourced, who knows how things would have panned out?
In a multi-party democracy, the impacts on campaign spending are even greater. With one party of business, and one of labour and the unions, other political voices are in risk of being pushed to the margins. Given the drop in voter turnout in recent decades, might providing all political parties with the means that reflect their electoral strength provide potential voters with meaningful choice?

South West Trains: not telling the whole story

In another round of railway industry job cuts, South West Trains have announced the loss of 480 jobs, 10% of their workforce. According to their website,

"Subject to consultation with staff, our plans will involve a reduction of around 480 management, administration and other roles across the company. Train drivers, guards and frontline fleet maintenance staff are not affected by these proposed changes."

Whilst the notion that there are so many people whose jobs can be axed without impacting on services to passengers is, to a cynical mind, unlikely, it appears that I have much to be cynical about. The press release continues;

"Our priority throughout this process has been to protect the core frontline service and excellent performance we currently provide to our customers."

So, you could reasonably expect that the service to passengers will be maintained at its current level, couldn't you?

But no, for the BBC have uncovered the truth. 93 full-time and 87 part-time ticket office jobs are to go, along with 62 full-time and 9 part-time platform jobs. That would be 251 roles, 52% of the total under threat. Passengers will find it harder to buy the cheapest ticket for their journey, will find it harder to get help when they need it and will feel less safe when they travel.

At least the trains will run, won't they? Well, yes and no. The BBC have also discovered that South West Trains are now running nearly 100 shorter trains every day. Once again, weasel words from a rail franchise to disguise a drop in standards...

It's a streetcar, but not as I know it...

Neil Williams has welcomed the arrival of streetcars in Haringey, and I have to admit that I was quite excited by the prospect. So I read the article, only to find that it was a bit of a let down. A car? What is this all about? No use to me, I fear, as a non-driver.

To me, a streetcar is one of these... an Art Deco example from San Francisco's F-line (no, sniggering at the back, Jennie...), which forms part of the finest vintage public transport systems to be found anywhere.
If you're interested in seeing more examples of San Francisco streetcars, follow this link.

Friday, January 16, 2009

MP expenses: we've got a longer memory than they thought

The announcement that there will be an exemption from the Freedom of Information Act for Members of the House of Commons is a disappointment, albeit it an expected one. Given the comments of John Spellar last year, when the Speaker's Conference was set up, I never expected MP's to 'come quietly'.

However, I am surprised and disappointed that they have so badly misjudged public opinion. At a time when politicians are the subject of almost universal disrespect (some earned, some not), and personal finances are under strain, why they believe that they have a unique right to privacy is beyond me. Indeed, why they feel that the public should just let matters go on as they have is equally a mystery.

There is no doubt that MP salaries and expenses are an increasingly uncomfortable fudge, designed to keep headline pay levels comparatively low (note that I don't say low) whilst providing levels of effective remuneration commensurate with their perceived value. Unfortunately, Labour's willingness to legislate for freedom of information has not always been matched by an understanding of the implications of doing so, and situations like this arise as a result.

I have said in the past that the salary levels for MP's are not competitive with those in similar jobs, and that, as a result, we disincentivise the best and the brightest from running for public office. This has consequences for our democracy, and for our society.

We create a situation whereby, for most MP's, a second home in London is necessary. Shouldn't we make a contribution towards the cost of that if we insist on them turning up? Alright, perhaps we should keep the profit and bear any losses from such purchases, but they do need somewhere to live. Unlike some of the more cynical conservative bloggers, however, I do feel that they should not be accommodated in some spartan barracks...

Heathrow: proof that the middle classes are pandered to by politicians and media alike?

Whilst the attention of the media and politicians is on Heathrow, something is stirring in East London.

When I first got involved in international youth politics, nearly twenty years ago, I discovered what I thought was a little gem, London City Airport, a new stolport (short take-off, landing) built on the east side of the new Docklands development. With ten minute check-in, business class seating and service for economy fares, it was ideal. Alright, it was tricky to get to, with the nearest station at Silvertown on the other side of a housing estate, but I liked it, especially as I wasn’t keen on airports. There weren’t many flights, but you could get to Paris and Brussels, and other destinations were slowly added.

Featured on Liberal Democrat VoiceLater, when my travel patterns changed, I stopped using London City, switching to Heathrow to take advantage of the range of direct flights to the US. I wasn’t the only one who had discovered London City though, and the numbers of passengers and destinations steadily increased. As a concession to local residents, the airport was closed at nights, and for twenty-four hours every weekend, and all was presumably well.

The decision to expand Heathrow has thrown into sharp relief the differences in response to airport expansion, however. Heathrow is, on the basis of its current user numbers, horribly overcrowded. Its runways run east-west, forcing flights to either take off or land directly over heavily populated west and central London. Noise and pollution are a blight on the lives of those who live under the flightpath.

London City Airport, whilst not suffering from overcrowding, has quietly extended its terminals, obtained a direct rail link via the Docklands Light Railway, and increased annual passenger numbers beyond three million. Its single runway runs east-west, forcing flights to either take off of land directly over heavily populated east and central London, and close to the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf. We hear little about the impact of noise and pollution, although the airport does tend to attract smaller, less noisy, less polluting aircraft.

The impact of the airport on the surrounding population is not something that has created a media stir, yet even quieter aircraft make noise, less polluting aircraft still pollute. The fact that Newham is notable for the lack of a vocal middle class (it is one of the country's most deprived boroughs) possibly explains that.

In October 2008, the London Borough of Newham resolved to approve the airport’s planning application, increasing the number of permitted flight movements from 80,000 to 120,000 per annum. There was little fuss, and little protest outside of those immediately affected. The council, something of a one-party state (54 Labour, 3 Respect, 3 Christian Peoples Alliance), appears to have simply waved the application through. Worse still, the recently published master plan for the airport envisages an increase in annual passenger numbers to a staggering eight million by 2030.

It is entirely reasonable for protestors to vent their anger at the Government and the owners of Heathrow Airport. However, we really need to take a holistic approach towards international travel. If Heathrow expansion is to be prevented, how do those wanting to, or needing to, travel get to their destinations? Do we object to the rise in passenger numbers generally, or just at Heathrow? What does that mean for Luton, Stansted and Gatwick, let alone Southend, Kent International, Biggin Hill and Farnborough, all of which are either expanding, or proposing to expand?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

An escape to Fantasy Island - Digby Jones's unwitting tribute to Ricardo Montalban (somewhat revised)

This week saw the death of Ricardo Montalban, who is probably best known in this country for his role as the proprietor of Fantasy Island, a place where visitors could, for a fee, live their dreams. Ricardo greeted clients in an immaculate white suit and, assisted by Tattoo, his diminuitive assistant, handed out lessons for living to people who rather badly needed them.

It probably wasn't his finest moment as an actor, and his fans probably knew him better as a bit of a heartthrob in his time, but he gave his character depth and a sense of moral authority when dealing with those who had an exaggerated sense of their importance or value.

Unfortunately, his death, at the age of 88, means that he can't help Digby Jones to see the error of his recent statement about the Civil Service, so I'll have to stand in for him.

I see that Digby is of the view that many civil servants deserve the axe. Funnily enough, my fellow civil servants would quite like to take an axe to him...

Whilst he believes that the Civil Service is 'honest, stuffed with decent people who work hard', he was amazed 'at how many people deserved the sack and yet that was the one threat that they never worked under, because it doesn't exist'.

Lord Jones of Birmingham was appointed as a Life Peer in 2007 to serve as a Government Minister, stood down in 2008 and has now resigned the Labour whip, sitting as a crossbencher. As a Life Peer, he cannot be removed from his position except by death. Ironic, isn't it?

In the meantime, I raise a glass to Ricardo Montalban. He brought a little sunshine to the lives of filmgoers everywhere. Not a bad epitaph...

Much ado about nothing - more Conservative flapping over the Euro

This morning's Metro newspaper leads with 'Minister hints at joining the Euro', after a comment by Europe minister Caroline Flint, opposing a promise made by David Cameron yesterday to keep the pound regardless of the circumstances.

It is clearly a slow news day because, when you actually read the article that follows, she is quoted as saying,

"We will make a decision based on economic conditions. We have identified five tests that have to be met: convergence with other European economies, flexibility, impact on investment, the impact on the financial services industry and growth, stability and employment. At the moment, those economic tests have not been met."

So far, so sensible. Ms Flint is merely reiterating existing Government policy and, as most sensible politicians do, leaving options open.

That said, the exchange does raise two interesting questions. The first is, "Are the tests now met?". The last Treasury assessment was carried out in 2003, and much has changed since then. I am not so up to speed that I believe that they have been met, but it would be interesting to see how the situation looks now, would it not?

And, whilst the Conservatives and their friends in the media would doubtless get on their high horses about loss of sovereignty and saving the pound, a commitment by the Government stating categorically that entry to the Euro would be preceded by a binding referendum would shoot that particular fox. Given that the Liberal Democrats are already committed to such a referendum, the existence of a coalition of political parties representing more than half of those who voted in 2005, would legitimise the position quite effectively.

My second question is, "What are the Conservatives thinking?" I accept that Conservatives have a virulent aversion to the Euro, but to say that they would keep the pound 'regardless of the circumstances' is economic idiocy of the highest order. Are they seriously suggesting that the retention of a currency trumps the wider economy in terms of their policy priorities? I can't imagine that they really mean it, so is Mr Cameron's comment merely a bit of red meat for the troops, and a bit of a white lie for the rest of us? Given the rumours regarding the return of Ken Clarke to the Shadow Cabinet, one's gut reaction is that it is exactly that...

The unbearable lightness of sporting failure

I am a hopeless romantic in most aspects of my life. My political leanings have brought me to a political party that has been out of power nationally since the 1920's, and I was described as 'wonderfully soppy' by the Daily Telegraph. But it is sport which brings out a truly hopeless faith in the underdog.

When American football made its first inroads into British consciousness in the mid-eighties, I was quite excited, and decided to adopt a team to make it more interesting. As the colour of my political party, and of my beloved football team was orange, I chose the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. As it turned out, I'd selected the team with the worst record of any NFL team that decade. Not so much an orange as a lemon...

My cricket team of choice was Sussex, the county of my mother's family. One of the oldest counties in first class cricket, they had won precisely zero County Championships, the pinnacle of the domestic game, despite 130 years of honest effort. A bit of limited over success, admittedly, but perennial underachievers nonetheless.

Ironically, both ugly ducklings turned into swans eventually. The Buccaneers won a Super Bowl, but only after changing their colours from a friendly tangerine to a rather more assertive deep red and black combination. Sussex won their first County Championship, inspiring the classic headline '164 years of hurt, never stopped believing' before winning two more in short order.

So, it couldn't really be much worse, could it? Actually, it can be - I support Luton Town, currently the worst team in the Football League, or so it would appear. In the years that I have followed them from the old Second Division up to the First, back down to League 2 (the old Fourth Division) before two promotions and two relegations brought them to League 2 at the beginning of this season.

Bad enough, you might think, but the ineptitude of the previous Board had taken the club into administration, and breaches of league rules meant that punishment was due. A ten point deduction for going into administration, an extra seven for failing to agree a deal with creditors, plus thirteen more for the rule breaches, meant that my beloved Hatters started the season with minus thirty points, the worst penalty in league history.

Relegation to the Blue Square Premiership, the fifth tier of English football, looked like a certainty. However, the team have tried hard and, after twenty-four fixtures, with seven wins, nine draws and eight defeats, we're back to zero. Alright, I admit that the team will still be playing away games at places like Eastbourne Borough next season, but at least they'll have tried. And, as hope springs eternal, they're not relegated yet, so you never know...

There is an eight inch long golden penis in my wife's office...

Perhaps I should explain. Ros shares her office at the Lords with Lord Lee of Trafford, our Defence spokesman, and Baroness Miller of Chilthorne Domer, our Home Affairs spokesperson, and it is the latter who won a 'Flying Penis' at Wednesday night's 'Erotic Awards'.

Quoting from their website;

"The Erotic Awards began in 1994 to honour the stars in the erotic universe. We are cutting edge, grass roots and philanthropic and have become increasingly influential on an international level. Our 14 categories – artists, performers, sex workers, artists, campaigners, film makers, websites, blogs and podcasts – include the famous, the struggling and the previously unknown. Many of them have been ostracised simply because they work in the sex world."

Sue Miller was nominated in the newly instituted 'politician' category, for a work on last year's Criminal Justice Bill, alongside Lord Faulkner, a Labour peer, and John McDonnell, who found time following his quixotic attempt to run for the Labour leadership to arrange a discussion in the Palace of Westminster between politicians and sex workers to discuss the laws impacting on sex work.

I was intrigued, but not entirely surprised, to discover that there are such awards, and my concerted research uncovered a trio of nominees from 2002 who might be familiar to my Liberal Democrat readers...

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

There’s always someone worse off than you are…

I’ve commented in the past about the failure of the Government to understand that, unless you offer competitive salaries, you risk facing difficulties in recruiting and retaining the quality of personnel required to run efficient public services.

The Irish Independent reports that, no matter how bad I might think it is here, things are about to get much worse in Ireland, where the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, is suggesting that, far from receiving scheduled pay increases, it may be necessary to enforce pay cuts on Irish civil servants. Clearly, the Irish Government are not planning to take a Keynesian approach to public spending, although with rumours that the International Monetary Fund are standing by to step in, and the Euro at unprecedented levels against the pound, there is very little room for manoeuvre.

Worse still, for those living near the border with Northern Ireland, the temptation to cross the border to shop is huge, given the exchange rate movements over the past year. A year ago, one euro bought less than 74p. By September, it bought 79p. Now, one euro is worth more than 90p, a 22% increase in just one year.

The economy that was so strong is being undercut by the developing economies of Eastern and central Europe, with the irony of the Irish Government appealing to the European Commission to investigate state aid given by the Polish Government to attract Dell, one of Ireland’s flagship employers, to move production to Lodz, with an immediate loss of 1,900 jobs in Limerick, and another 8,000 at risk according to reports.

Perhaps we shouldn’t be quite so gloomy, after all…

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

An evening of culture with my mates, Henry, Georg Friedrich, Joseph and Felix

And so to Brunswick Square for the launch of the 2009 Radio 3 Composers of the Year. It is:
  • the 350th anniversary of the birth of Henry Purcell;
  • the 250th anniversary of the death of Georg Friedrich Handel;
  • the 200th anniversary of the death of Joseph Haydn; and,
  • the 200th anniversary of the birth of Felix Mendelssohn

It is a very rich year for musical anniversaries, especially given the connections that all four had with music making in this country.

Handel, in particular, has an unexpected link to this otherwise anonymous part of North West London in which I live. His Chandos Anthems were written for the 1st Duke of Chandos, whose palatial mansion in what is now Canons Park, was one of the finest houses in the country when it was rebuilt in the years 1713-1720. They were performed in the Church of St Lawrence which, unlike Canons, still stands today.

The problem with events like these is that we don't really know many of our fellow attendees. The artistic set and politicians don't often come into contact so people mill about, talking to the people that they know, so we didn't stay too long, before heading for dinner at a restaurant in the Brunswick Centre nearby, and a relatively early night.

If you're going to be irritated by something, you might as well profit from it...

This afternoon, I decided to pop down to the Starbucks on the ground floor of my otherwise unappealing office skyscraper, to buy a skinny vanilla latte with sugar-free syrup (as I'm sure you all do). It isn't something that I do every day, but often enough that the staff recognise me.

Today, however, I found myself behind a couple of young, smartly dressed employees of Deloittes, that ubiquious accounting firm, with a whole page of drink and snack orders. It was clear that they had the full attention of the staff, and that nobody else was going to be served until they were done. Given that the whole purpose of the exercise was to grab a quick coffee, I allowed my irritation at their thoughtlessness to convince me that I wasn't willing to wait, and returned to my desk, uncaffinated.

Except that I could, if I wasn't so lazy, make my own coffee. I have a cafetiere, some quite good filter coffee and some sweeteners (I take my coffee black). Not only would I save myself something like £2.50 a time, I'd drink the blend of my choice, and I wouldn't have to go as far to get it.

And so, at least for a while, goodbye Starbucks. Perhaps once the irritation subsides, I might return, but until then, the money saved can furnish my bank account...

Another Conservative forgets how the public sector works - or is Lord James of Blackheath not paying attention?

David James was, in his day, a 'company doctor' of some renown, rescuing a series of British companies from misfortune, incompetence, or the vagaries of the economic cycle. In recent years, however, he became better known for his review of government spending, carried out on behalf of the Conservative Party prior to the 2005 General Election.

That review called for fairly swingeing cuts in public expenditure, involving a reduction in the size of the civil service. I didn't then, and don't now, have an objection to cutting the size of government as an aim, although the Labour Party took great delight in shouting from the rooftops that Conservatives were going to cut 'vital public services'. The proposed spending cuts, totalling £34 billion, were one of the many self-inflicted wounds that cost the Conservatives in 2005.

His reward was a seat in the House of Lords in 2006, where he specialises in issues relating to defence procurement, NHS finances and Olympic funding. Yesterday, he asked the following question in the Lords;

"To ask Her Majesty's Government, in light of the current economic circumstances, whether they will impose a freeze on new public sector recruitment and permit only replacements for staff who have left."

I fear that the noble Lord has rather lost touch with recent developments in government employment strategies. In terms of Central Government, the existing target of cutting budgets by 5% per annum in real terms has had significant effects on employment levels, with 25,000 jobs going over six years in HM Revenue & Customs alone. The costs of government bureaucracy arise predominantly from the salaries of staff and the buildings needed to house them, and so it is inevitable that job losses are part of the strategy.

Lord James also overlooks the need to maintain a conveyor belt of future senior civil servants. They don't come fully matured, but need to be trained and developed across a range of government activity. Recruits entering the Civil Service this year will be the mandarins of thirty years hence, and you need to allow for that.

I won't say much about the impact of such a proposal on Local Government, except to note that centrally driven restrictions on public sector employment are hardly consistent with Conservative thoughts on localism.

Lord Myners's response is somewhat reassuring. Yes, there will be continuing efforts to drive down the costs of government. However, he seems to understand that some elements of its work are demand-driven. For example, if unemployment increases, you need more staff to handle benefit claims and to assist peope to find work.

It would be foolish to suggest that Lord James is engaging in the politics of the cheap soundbite. However, he should be cautious lest his actions give the impression that he is doing just that...

A bureaucratic faux pas - nobody dead

As readers may recall, I 'accidentally on purpose' failed to get my nomination in for both the Regional Executive and English Council. You know how it is sometimes...

However, all was not lost, as there were still vacancies to be filled at last night's Regional Executive Committee meeting. I had taken the precaution of writing to the Regional Secretary, Andrew Horsler, a thoroughly decent guy and a worthy successor, noting that I would like to serve as a member of English Council and, in addition, as the London nominee for the English Party's Appeals Panel.

Andrew very kindly got back to me this morning, confirming that my place on English Council had been secured. However, I had been unsuccessful in terms of the Appeal Panel. In many ways, this was a good thing, as it was discovered afterwards that I am ineligible to serve due to my membership of the English Candidates Committee. You live and learn, don't you?...

Monday, January 12, 2009

Are Londoners more selfish than the rest of the country? Or just busier?

It’s amazing how much reading material reaches ‘Liberal Bureaucracy’, particularly since I married Ros. She gets magazines and mailings from a vast range of organisations and, because much of it is linked to politics and government, I take a keen interest in it.

My attention has been drawn to a report from the Department of Communities and Local Government, which indicates that the proportion of people formally participating in voluntary activities at least once a month is lower in London than in any other English region. 23% of Londoners engage in some form of formal volunteering at least monthly, compared to 25-31% in other regions (step forward the South West, at the upper end of that range).

It doesn’t look good for us, I admit, but I do wonder whether or not there are contributory factors. For example, I spend about ten hours a week commuting, an amount which is hardly extraordinary for Londoners. There is somewhat less of a sense of a community in the faceless city, and less of the groups which thrive in small towns and villages. The temptation to give money so that someone else can do the work is easy to give in to.

As a political activist (of sorts), I find myself wondering if this impacts on the ability of political parties to recruit and retain members and, more importantly, activists. Attending evening meetings tends to get in the way of the rest of my life, occupying time I might otherwise spend with my wife and family, disrupting my meal schedule, and preventing me from doing the other things that occupy the day to day lives of many people.

Under such circumstances, it is hardly surprising that membership and activity of political parties is in long-term decline. The expectation that women, in particular, will have household or carer responsibilities, increasingly on top of their careers, tends to lessen the desire to commit even more of their precious time to politics, or other volunteering activities for that matter. And now that men are beginning to take on a fairer share of domestic chores, they are less likely to engage too.

Returning to the report though, it is interesting to note that, contrary to some opinions, the involvement of younger people in volunteering activity remains relatively high, although one must differentiate between informal and formal volunteering. 41% of those in the 16-25 age bracket participate in informal volunteering activity at least once a month, a figure which drops away through the age ranges. On the negative side, 23% of 16-25 year olds, and 22% of 26-34 year olds participate in formal volunteering activities at least once a month, less than any other age group.

This might not augur well for community organisations in the decades to come, and how to attract new volunteers is likely to become a more pressing concern in future. At a time when political parties are keen to involve the voluntary sector in the provision of services, it would be ironic if they lost the ability to respond.

Paying the cost for a false market in train travel

Last week, I indicated how unimpressed I was with the way that our railways are run. I suggested that;

"Naturally, if off-peak passenger numbers fall, the Train Operating Companies will use that as an excuse to cut off-peak services."

Yesterday came reports that only reconfirm my fears. Dan Milmo and Tim Webb, reporting in the Observer, warn that rail and bus services are under threat due to collapsing passenger numbers. Now I find myself wondering whether or not increasing fares by at least 6% when inflation is at 4% and falling, hundreds of thousands of people are losing their jobs and, worst of all, the cost of using a car has dropped substantially in recent months, was such a great idea.

It's all very well the likes of National Express, Stagecoach and First Group pleading that they were only doing what they were permitted to, but they signed up to a contract, and now they don't like the consequences. The franchises that they signed, giving them for the most part a monopoly on rail travel, allowed them to, in some cases, receive huge subsidies in the early years of their deals, with reductions in later years before switching to net payments.

They bid for the franchises on the basis that they would still make money. Nothing wrong with that, if it provided an incentive to run more trains, provide better service and support the switch from private transport to public. However, the clamour to renegotiate means that we, the public, get to pay more through the public purse to support the railway and, better yet, pay more for our fares too. A double whammy, methinks.

If the cost of travelling by train had been relatively low, this might not have been so unwelcome, but in a country with the highest fares in Europe, and where the railways are supported to the tune of £4.5 billion per annum already, is it any wonder that demand is proving to be somewhat less than elastic?

The United Kingdom has one of the most bizarre arrangements for running its railways to be found anywhere. Restrictive practices, including barriers to new entrants to the market, seem to work against the interests of those of us who use the railways. Some of us have little choice, I admit, but to drive away those who do is likely to have serious ramifications for all of us over time...

Take AK-47, aim at foot, fire at will... an object lesson in how to lose sympathy by Hamas

The overall leader of Hamas, Khaled Meshaal, pictured to the left, is based in Syria, where he lives. As its official leader, his words carry much weight amongst Palestinians, regardless of their political persuasion or degree of militancy. So, when he suggests that any hope of a peace settlement has been destroyed forever, has he really considered what message he is sending out to the wider world?

To moderate Arab opinion, to the European Union and to the other players in the Middle East peace talks, he indicates that any effort on their part to broker a ceasefire is futile. To the Israelis attacking Gaza, he provides every justification to continue. Worst of all, to the residents of Gaza, he sends a clear message that their lives are to be sacrificed for a cause that will never be satisfied. Sitting in the safety of Damascus, perhaps he should mull over the foolishness that was Saddam Hussein's, claiming to have offensive capacities that didn't exist and daring the world to take them from him.

The US-led coalition called Saddam's bluff, and I fear that the Israelis will call Mr Meshaal's. The collateral casualties in Hamas's campaign of terror against Israel will not thank him for it...