Thursday, 31 December 2009

New decade on hold

Thank goodness we have another twelve months to wait before we can confidently celebrate a new decade.

Despite the fact we will have a Conservative government in a few months, it won't be the type of government we once had hoped for, or expected.

This new government will be mired in the path of depression laid for it by its predecessor.

But by the end of the year many dark issues will be addressed – if not resolved. Then the time will arrive to enable a true and creative Conservative government to emerge.

So hold on to your Champagne. Pop some when the Conservative era arrives. But keep the rest on ice for the dawn of the proper Conservative decade.

I hope you will join me in correctly welcoming this century's next decade on 31st December 2010 – as every logical person should!

After all, who could possibly want to celebrate a new decade with the scourge of a Labour government still beating down on our heads?



Monday, 23 November 2009

Global warmists feel the heat

Hello again.

This September, I had occasion to travel by train from Budapest to Vienna. Finding an empty compartment, I prepared to settle in when a polite, tall man in his thirties asked if he and his companions could join me for the journey. He left and returned with two other gentlemen who all carefully made themselves comfortable as the train drew out of the station.

My companions appeared a cerebral lot. They started talking between themselves, though a bit stiffly at first. I gleaned they had been at a conference in Budapest and though they had attended separately were leaving as a thrown-together party.

I chose to keep my eyes on my book rather than engage with these apparently gentlemanly, but passing, strangers – but my ears unavoidably tuned to their conversation.

The youngest of the three, curly haired with a designer beard, was Danish. The man who first greeted me, thin and a little nervous, was Russian. The third, seated in the centre of the group, was older, more senior, and by the clipped precision of his voice either German or a Swede.

It was soon apparent that all three were academic scientists engaged in various researches connected to the phenomenon known as GLOBAL WARMING.

The German(?) began questioning his companions in a school-masterly manner. It was culturally unavoidable but also seemed to stress his importance in the pecking order.

The Dane began to explain with enthusiasm some of the wind farm projects in which he was involved. The projects roamed globally wide and he backed up his descriptions by opening his laptop and pointing to graphic diagrams.

The German turned to the Russian and asked about his work. A little defensively, the Russian explained he had been employed as a climatology lecturer in Russia but was now doing research work for a climate science institute.

'How many are involved?' asked the German. The Russian mumbled. 'Ten, a hundred, five hundred?' the German asked. 'I don't really know,' said the Russian. 'You see, I contribute remotely and just focus on my own work.' He too opened his laptop and searched for papers.

The German showed a little compassion. 'I see, I see. Well it's good you've found a niche. As long as they need your speciality I'm quite sure they'll continue to pay for your work.'

Now the German opened up his own laptop. He said, 'See, here this is the agenda of the lecture I gave in Ankara. And this for the conference in Cordoba. And this in Gothenburg.'

'There's a great deal of funding available now, you know.' 'There are many, many grants through the European Union.' 'You will have no trouble at all,' he said confidently.

The Dutchman got up to get some coffee. The Russian proffered an orange. And the three of them settled back for most of the rest of the journey, focusing on the laptops on their knees. Three grown-up boys playing with their tools.

When we arrived at Westbahnhof Station they thanked me for my companionship. Had I contributed just by listening? I was certainly thankful for this brief insight into the driving forces behind the scientific academic world.

My thoughts were that this was nice work if you could get it. Payment by the taxpayer, possibly for life, simply to produce endless paper displaying writing and diagrams. Oh, and the travel to far-flung locations to deliver research papers to similarly funded audiences. And getting papers published in peer-group publications, enhancing reputation, credibility, longevity, salary and retirement pension.

So, to me, the ongoing revelations emerging out of the Climate Research Unit at East Anglia University (the chief scientific advisers to DEFRA) are astoundingly, mind-blowingly shocking, but not unbelievably surprising.

They lead me to a further and obvious observation, that such research is linked not only to the receipt of taxpayer grants but also to the financial incentives of industry. And what an industry – a multi trillion dollar industry – who wouldn't want to guarantee a share of that?

There have been many instances of scientific fraud perpetrated in the historic past, but this one seems to take the chocolate biscuit.

...Go get 'em!

Monday, 29 June 2009

Digital hiatus

For a while, postings may be more sporadic than usual due to meteorological conditions. Enjoy!

Tuesday, 23 June 2009

Labour don't get it

The young Labour candidate for Speaker had some interesting ideas. But heaven help us whenever Labour try to turn ideas into policy.

First there is a committee. The committee passes its ideas to a commission. The commission takes 15 months to deliver a report that repeats the ideas of the committee.

A Tsar is appointed to oversee a quango. The quango is given an enormous budget. The quango recruits lots of young people just out of school. The quango issues a public consultation document. The quango takes 15 months to filter public responses. It issues recommendations for how it will implement policy.

The Cabinet receives the quangos recommendations and passes them to the Policy Committee. The Policy Committee eliminates controversial elements of the policy and passes it to the drafting department. The drafting department takes 12 months to issue a Draft Bill.

The Draft Bill is mentioned in a Queen's Speech. A four-year Parliament passes. The Draft Bill is mentioned in the next Queen's speech. Pressure arises for something to be done. The government removes more controversial clauses from the Bill and places it in the Lords for a reading. More clauses fall but a few good intentions remain. Eventually the Act is passed unnoticed on a Thursday afternoon, after a debate with a Minister, two supporters and two opposition members.

The quango begins to implement the policy up and down the country. It promises enormous funds to local authorities, supported by eager private finance. Two years later, news reports emerge that the quango has gone bust. Local authorities are left with scores of unfinished constructions and massive unpaid bills. Questions of litigation and compensation for taxpayers are raised.

The Tsar is called before a Parliamentary Committee. The Committee asks if implementation of the policy had really been thought through. Were expectations too high? Was financial management too weak? Why did he imagine he had available a bottomless pot of money?

The Tsar replies he was merely implementing government policy. He steps down from his post with a Treasury pension of £12 million.

The government announces it will completely reform its policy and it sets up a committee...

Monday, 22 June 2009

John Bercow – Public Speaker

I remember occasional meetings with John Bercow ten years ago, when he was a eurosceptic speaker.

He was known then as a principled eurosceptic Thatcherite Tory, with a stoical resistance to traditional 'one nation' Tory pressures. I also learnt that he had a photographic memory, enabling him to quote freely from whatever, deliver forceful speeches without notes and confound opponents through his expert precision with words.

While an MP, Bercow also developed his media training business, which undoubtedly assisted the presentation skills of many fellow politicians over the years. He has also been used by the Labour government to report into facilities for children with communications difficulties.

John Bercow married in 2002. Since that time, his political views (with the possible exception of his euroscepticism) have been reported as progressively turning nearly 180 degrees. It is rumoured his wife is a Socialist.

I was always aware he was an ambitious MP, accepting junior Shadow Cabinet positions that appeared to override political reservations. But, while his political views have clearly changed over time, he has still been able to place personal principles above preferment, as with his resignation from the Shadow Cabinet over his party's support for Section 28.

His ambition to become Commons Speaker has progressed through a long campaign. It was probably sparked on first hearing the incomprehensible Glaswegian tones of Speaker Michael Martin expounding his knowledge of parliamentary procedures to the floor of the House.

The MSM, especially the BBC, consistently claims Bercow's frequent sneering from the backbenches, and his association with Labour MPs, has made him a hate figure among the whole of his party. Yet he wouldn't be where he is today if a good number of his party colleagues hadn't acknowledged the talents he has.

We await with interest to hear how Speaker Bercow's public-speaking skills are used to enhance the public interest.

Sunday, 21 June 2009

You can't get the staff these days

Expenses claims redacted to the point of invisibility make the administrative facilities at Parliament as much an embarrassment as the financial antics of some MPs.

Sir Stuart Bell, Chair of the House Finances and Services Committee, insists the Fees Office was asked to limit the cover-up of MPs' claims to the minimum necessary for security.

In my view, the excessive caution shown has more to do with the skills of the staff assigned than with deliberate intent to be obscure.

Either the staff could not be trusted to apply judgement to their task or they could not be trusted even to seek advice. So they were given blanket instructions to black out almost all sources of identification.

To follow this up with the recall of just-published details of cash repayments by penitent MPs makes the Fees Office seem a genuine Whitehall farce.

Much as I'm suspicious of the political orthodoxy of France's École Nationale d'Administration, its consistent product might provide some training lessons for Britain's civil service.

Britain's Civil Service College was first created by Harold Wilson in the late 1960s, together with a new Civil Service Department.

This was a result of the Fulton Committee report, which recommended moving beyond the Victorian 'Northcote–Trevelyan' concept of independent generalists in the civil service, and the 1918 Haldane model of a partnership of authority and expertise between ministers and servants, to the recruitment of specialised talent that could address the needs of a modern economy.

It suggested such specialists could nevertheless work across departments where similar skills were needed, thus increasing career opportunities. Individual government departments were also to be brought closer into the recruitment process so recruitment and training would better match actual needs.

Three new training centres were established under the Civil Service College – at Sunningdale, Edinburgh and a Centre for Administrative Studies in London. By 1970, 200,000 civil servants were receiving departmental training and 25,000 were engaged in external courses of varying length.

Wilson's Civil Service Department, while recognising government needed skills used by modern business and industry, ensured central management training retained the ethos of a unified service.

Since then, various half-hearted or semi-detached attempts to reform the Civil Service have been made.

Margaret Thatcher introduced the report Improving Management in Government, which resulted in considerable devolving to governmental agencies or quangos. John Major presented Continuity and Change, which created a Civil Service Code. The Conservative period resulted in shifting a previous employment peak of 571,000 civil servants in 1977, to a low of 479,000 in 1999 (two years into NuLab's initial period of matching Tory budgets).

Since 2000, NuLab have overseen a plethora of civil service policy reviews. Initially this began under the still-ongoing Modernising Government Initiative. In 2002, Cabinet Secretary Sir Andrew Turnbull took over control with the message that he intended holding Permanent Secretaries to account for civil service reform and service delivery. This later shifted to the introduction of Performance Partnership Agreements with departments engaging in change programmes to meet purposes and priorities.

Sir Michael Lyons next presented a report in 2004, which called for 20,000 civil servants to move out of London to the regions. Then came the Sir Peter Gershon report, which recommended 84,000 civil service jobs be cut. This was to be accompanied by the merging of several agencies and departments and the effective re-centralisation of back office functions, procurement and IT.

Gordon Brown took up this efficiency programme and eventually cut a net 70,000 jobs, particularly affecting the DWP and the newly merged Inland Revenue and Customs and Excise departments. Most of these cuts came from back office administrative staff while the number of front line delivery staff was increased.

Nearly 75% of civil servants now work in four departments – DWP, Justice, MOD and Revenue & Customs. Reports by the national Audit Office in 2006 found departments were unable to demonstrate whether efficiency gains had actually been delivered or costs of personnel had simply been cut. The risk was that the efficiency programme could result in a drop in service quality.

A report by the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) later in 2006 determined that the civil service was well known to be under-performing in its core functions. It said too much Whitehall activity was undermined "by its inability to work effectively across departmental boundaries; by a narrow skills-base; and under-developed leadership ... Performance is poorly managed, and poor performance too often goes unchecked."

The report added that ill-defined relations between civil servants and ministers resulted in "a ‘governance vacuum’ at the top of Whitehall: lines of accountability are confused and leadership is weak".

The IPPR recommended reform of the governance system of the civil service. This would make politicians responsible for ‘policy’ decisions and civil servants responsible for clearly defined ‘operational’ ones. Thus, both would be independently accountable to Parliament and the public, with clear demarcation of responsibilities. However, making civil servants legally accountable for decisions made by ministers is an issue that raises much debate.

The Labour government has been promising a new Civil Service Act for more than nine years. In 2004, a draft Civil Service Bill was published for consultation but no action followed. Gordon Brown, since becoming Premier, has said he will present a Civil Service Act. But the issues such an Act are likely to focus on are those of high principle – strengthening the impartiality of the Service, the power of Ministers to make appointments rather than on merit and the role and responsibilities of 'special advisers'.

The question of 'service delivery', as the jargon has it, remains one that is very much in the hands of government itself. National government objectives, and the ways each government deems they should be brought about, will always heavily influence the public's perception of the actual outcomes being delivered by our civil servants.

More reading, if you want it, here and the Draft Civil Service Bill here.

Thursday, 18 June 2009

Darling shatters Labour's spending myth

So now we have the truth.

Alastair Darling, in an interview with Faisal Islam for Channel 4 News, has finally spoken the words that Brown and Balls dared not.

Current and capital spending will increase between now and 2012.

So what's new?

All of that increased spending will take place this year.

The Chancellor did not actually use the words spending will fall from next year. He didn't need to. He simply said that Labour's spending plans for the next three years had been brought forward to the current year.

Now Labour's spending plans actually make some sense. At least, they do if you're a Labour Chancellor. Extra spending in time of recession and all that.

But the Brown and Balls story that spending will continue to rise in real terms year on year is revealed as total fantasy. Lewis Caroll might approve of such inversion of fact: political commentators certainly haven't.

Now we've stepped out from behind Alice's shattered Looking Glass, perhaps the debate between 'Labour investment' and 'Tory cuts' can assume something nearer reality.

Watch the interview: 2/3rds through this clip at 11:48

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

A wisp of smoke and mirrors

Listening to a skirmish between Ed Balls and Michael Gove on R4 yesterday was to gain an insight into the government's terminal disarray.

Ed Balls had evidently emerged from the bunker for this rare confrontation because he had an initiative to display. But it seemed increasingly likely that he had an initiative to display purely because he had agreed to appear with Michael Gove.

The 'initiative' was to declare he had secured £650 million extra funding from the Treasury to spend on schools and training. Apparently, listeners were supposed to be impressed with the Treasury's beneficence in finding the School's secretary yet more taxpayers' money to spend.

Balls challenged Gove to commit the Tories to similar spending. Gove challenged Balls over recent mismanagement of the further education budget. Then he discredited Balls' initiative with news that the sums were already being underplayed by Chief Treasury secretary, Liam Byrne.

Labour initiatives, such as they are, are media-driven – drawn out of the air for the positive PR impact they might deliver or to wrong foot the Opposition. It's not a new tactic, but it seems it is all Labour has left. And, of course, it's just what to expect from Peter Mandelson.

Master of crisis spin and people-manipulation Mandelson may be, but he is not a profound long-term strategist, nor yet master of all he surveys. Getting the Treasury to support announcements is one thing. Getting them to support them with money is another.

The government's new team seems increasingly lost and divided against itself. Expect more Mandelson inspired initiatives that disappear when held up to a mirror.

Monday, 15 June 2009

More cuts please

When Andrew Lansley made his infamous 10% cuts blunder last week, it is understandable he thought he was presenting a good news story.

Being wholly focused on his brief of Health, he was keen to let the nation know that Conservatives would protect the NHS and refrain from including it in future budget cuts.

Unfortunately, by backing up his statement with statistical facts, he answered a question that hadn't been asked. Only Conservative Central Office and wonks at the Institute for Fiscal Studies – or perhaps Fraser Nelson – had worked out that the government's own published figures were a plan for 7% future spending cuts across the board.

But now that Labour have a stick to jab at the Tories there is no way they will let it drop. Twelve years experience shows that Brown will never admit the true costs of his budgetary tricks. So the responsive answer is for Cameron to go on the offensive.

To deny Conservatives will need to cut public spending would be nonsense. To be precise about future budgets would be equal nonsense – the government figures Lansley quoted are likely to be the minimum estimates currently required.

But Conservatives have been recommending sensible government cuts for years. Not only should they be pointing them out now, they should be making absolute pledges to carry them out.

ID cards, regional government, endless quangos and their superannuated public servants, useless super-computer programmes, wasteful public information budgets: cutting these won't solve the government debt crisis, but pledging their axing would show a clear and popular sign of intent.

Thursday, 11 June 2009

Democratic Reforms

Have we missed something?

Last week a vacancy occurred at the Europe Minister department (one Carolina LaFlint stormed out of the chorus leaving a rude message, apparently).

Mr Broon immediately replaced her with a certain Mdme Glenys Kinnock.

Mdme Kinnock was last known as a guest worker in Brussels. Previously, she had been known as wife of a Mr Kneel Kinnock, previously top Don at the European Commission, former Welsh MP and leader of the Labouring under Grand Illusions party, isn't it.

It now transpires that, in recent years, Mdme Kinnock has in fact been working as an MEP at the European Parliament.

This is quite a coincidence given her new appointment as Britain's Europe Minister. Did Mr Broon know or was it pure chance?

Anyway, this has given rise to a small problem. There is a curious convention that someone appointed as a government minister at Westminster can't at the same time be an MEP in Brussels.

At least that's probably the convention.

Or perhaps the convention is that someone who is not a Lady cannot be appointed as a government minister. Or perhaps someone who is an MEP cannot become a Lady.

Anyway, a wholly satisfactory solution has now been found. The post of Europe Minister will be given to Mdme Kinnock, but she will not in fact take up the position until a proper financial settlement is reached with her current employer.

In the meantime, by a sweep of his hand Mr Broon will make Mdme a Lady. Then when she's good and ready Lady Kinnock will be able to be a Europe Minister from the House of Lords.

This surely is the first real success to emerge from Mr Broon's National Council for Democratic Reform.

At a sweep, he addresses the expenses issue by appointing someone whose whole family has immense experience in this area (ask Marta Andreasen).

He answers the issue of public accountability by not selecting an untrustworthy MP.

And he signals that his reforms will include the House of Lords, where only people with public trust, such as television show presenters, MEPs and European Commissioners, will in future be appointed by him to govern us.

Thank goodness for democracy.

Wednesday, 10 June 2009

Westminster's sheep

How many of our laws are made in Brussels — 75%, 80%, more? No matter, the effect of each on democracy at Westminster is the same.

Yesterday, another unwanted, wasteful and damaging EU law passed unhindered through the House of Lords. This was the requirement for all sheep farmers to introduce electronic tagging as an identity aid in the event of an epidemic.

British sheep farmers – among our lowest income earners – already operate an efficient and effective traceability system for just this purpose. But that is not the concern of Brussels who insist each farmer must pay for a new electronic implant unit and set about re-tagging his sheep.

The minister, Lord Tunnicliffe, neatly summed up the actual impact of this compulsory measure by saying: "I accept that this regulation is probably, on balance, not a good idea. It will create more costs than benefits in most of the industry". Nevertheless, both Houses are required to agree to it and it will duly appear on the Statute Book. Brussels : 1 more – Westminster : 0.

And I foresee further unwanted costs being imposed on the public with the announcement, from Lord Mandelson yesterday, that the higher and further education departments are to be merged. A sensible staff rationalisation programme one might think. But my experience while working at a charity of how further education classes can be undervalued suggests more cuts are on the way.

Lipreading classes help deaf and hard of hearing people to communicate. A little over two years ago, the Qualifications and Curriculum Authority switched these day and evening classes from Life skills to Leisure studies. The impact was to triple the cost of classes as Leisure classes receive no central subsidy. Student numbers dwindled and scores of classes around the country closed.

It would be hard to think of a more appropriate term than Life skill to describe the study and practice of lipreading. Yet I imagine other life enabling classes being deemed unessential in future as the government's impractical entry targets for higher education swamp the needs of older people seeking further educational skills for life.

Friday, 5 June 2009

Ticking off politicians – and commentators

Political news this morning is of electoral doom for Labour, more resignations due and Darling to stay in post - in other words no change - so I divert to constructive comment on an even more important issue.

I refer to a link from Iain Dale yesterday to Chris Dillow's article Why I'm not voting.

Appended was Dale's summary: "explains why he's not getting off his fat arse to do what people died so that he could. Vote. Makes me sick."

Dillow's article is somewhat circumlocutional. But Dale's comment raised my ire. The prevalence of such vacuous acceptance of EU status quo is a major cause of why we find ourselves with most Westminster legislation being prepared by others in Brussels.

My comment in response was this:
I agree with Chris Dillow with respect to the European elections.

This week I have tramped about my constituency delivering Conservative leaflets for the Euro elections. Today I have spent three hours telling outside poll stations and four hours delivering further leaflets to get out the vote.

But I didn't vote for any Euro candidate, nor have I in the past. Though I have voted to select candidates to stand.

The reason I don't vote in the Euro elections is that I'm unconvinced of their UK constitutional legitimacy. To participate in the election by voting would be to submit my agreement to their legitimacy. And I just can't do that.

Other people have other ways of expressing dissatisfaction with the EU and its parliament - by voting UKIP or for eurosceptic Tories. I don't object, it's their choice. I make my protest my own way.

My conscience is personal and it won't allow me to participate in the Euro election. Even, I'm afraid, if it makes you sick, Iain.
And I added:
Furthermore Iain, I don't appreciate your point that voting in European elections was what British people died for in the World Wars. The opposite makes a more convincing case.

I know that some, perhaps many, people will disagree with my point of view.

LibDems will disagree, but I respect, if disagree, with what is presumably an issue of political conscience for them. Many ardent Tories will have voted for their candidates in the Euro elections. Others (including some Tories) will have voted for 'let's quit the EU now' UKIP candidates.

I'm in no position to challenge the wisdom of their consciences. But, for me, I've always felt uncomfortable with the notion that to remove our nation from subservience to a political process that is imposed upon us by other nations we should participate in the very political process we object to and which has been imposed upon us (notwithstanding our democratically-deceitful European Parliamentary Elections Act).

I respect the genuine belief and commitment of MEPs like Dan Hannan and Roger Helmer, who have certainly shifted the balance of euroscepticism among Tory MEPs. (I suppose I should also say that I guess Nigel Farage believes in what he says too.)

But if I chose to join the euro system by standing to become an MEP it wouldn't be because I ever imagined my presence could end the UK's political subservience. It would have to be just for the rewarding lifestyle. At which point I'd know I'd given my conscience a miss.

The search for political freedom leads in many directions. As potential electors we should try to discover whether potential politicians really believe in what they say. This discovery process is not helped by well-read commentators and erstwhile political candidates, such as Iain Dale, who claim a eurosceptic perspective yet completely miss the point about the political significance of elections to the European Parliament.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

The Quiet Mutiny

Seafaring metaphors are appropriate for our island nation – and I notice I use a few. Today's choice is "abandon ship" as government ministers clamber over themselves (perhaps with some help) to jump over the rails.

Yet none of them are diving straight into the briny, oh no. They are simply jumping off the Bridge onto the lower decks. Some will attempt to hang on there through the storms. Others have decided to disembark at the next port. All have given up trying to influence the Captain. Apparently he can't or won't change course.

Abandoning the bridge at sea is usually a high risk strategy. But parliamentarians like their comforts. They're clinging to the privileges they can still get. Even helpful offers for immediate rescue have been rejected. They'd rather stay to collect their baggage to be sure they can take it all when they go.

But at least the timing of this passive mutiny should give some comfort. Yes, the fiction that local and European elections are related in any way to national politics has finally been abandoned. Just as the government of our nation has been abandoned.

I'm sure current events on the good ship Labour Government won't affect the outcome of Thursday's elections in any way.

Friday, 29 May 2009

Questions for Cash

The issue with Bill Cash's allowance claims seem to be as much about his son as his daughter.

On R5 today, he explained that he moved out of his Pimlico property and into his daughter's flat while his son stayed rent-free in Pimlico.

I don't know how big Bill Cash's Pimplico flat is, but it seems it wasn't possible for son and father to stay together. This implies the flat has just one bedroom.

Staying at his daughter's flat and paying what he insists was a market rent, did not abuse the taxpayer in 2004 parliamentary rule terms provided he was genuinely London homeless.

Should he have vacated the Pimlico property he owned in favour of his son, given this resulted in an allowance claim on the taxpayer? It put him in no different a position from most MPs claiming second home allowance in London. So the question is not whether he complied with the rules but whether his actions were morally reasonable.

After his daughter sold her flat — and the profit she made on the property is surely irrelevant — Bill Cash appointed two London clubs as his official second home. He charged the taxpayer for staying there and also for his wife to stay some of the time. Again, the same question as above applies.

Given the extended stay of Bill Cash's son in Pimlico, it is unlikely the affair was a ruse to guarantee his daughter rent. She could easily have rented her flat to anyone. So the greatest favour Bill Cash was providing was, in fact, to his son.

Bill Cash making himself homeless created a burden on the taxpayer. It was no more, and possibly less, a burden than that paid to most MPs with distant constituencies. But was this 'right'?

In reality, a similar question might be asked of an independently wealthy MP claiming second home allowance in London. Is he or she 'right' to claim for a second home when they have the means to pay for two homes themselves?

That's a question only the taxpayer can answer. But for myself, I think means tests dividing MPs between rich and poor is not the way to go.

Bill Cash has been balancing loyalty to his family with loyalty to the taxpayer. His constituents in Stone should know whether he deserves their support. I hope he gets it.

Thursday, 28 May 2009

The odd couple

Julie Kirkbride's resignation will be a tragedy for her and a loss for her constituents, her party and for parliament.

I have wanted to write a brief blog of support. But I have had no better idea of her financial affairs, her domestic arrangements or even her political activities than any other outside observer. It's unwise to propose a defence without knowledge of the facts.

Yet, somehow, Julie has seemed a parliamentarian worth preserving. And of all the 'victims' (venally culpable or simply naive) of the MPs expenses scandal she represents to me an example of possible collateral damage that highlights another unsavoury aspect of our society - the harm the media can do to individuals once they taste blood.

Of course, my concern for Ms Kirkbride is more than likely entirely chauvinistic. She is an attractive female with a pleasant personality who chose the honourable path of abandoning broadsheet journalism for the noble cause of active public service. This was surely not to achieve untold wealth or an easy life.

After the 1997 general election, my constituency party invited several of the newly elected young Tory MPs to attend a one-day political conference. The MPs included John Bercow, Julian Lewis and Julie McBride. Charming though Julian is, I was profoundly bowled-over by the glowing Ms McBride. It was not her intellectual powers that struck me, but her emotional capacity. And I remember thinking she might be vulnerable in the hot-bed of political intrigue that is the Westminster parliament. When I later learned of her impending marriage to fellow MP Andrew Mackay, it seemed an odd coupling - a fairy tale of Beauty and the Beast perhaps.

Far be it for me to comment on others' private lives. Love guides in ways beyond our understanding. Yet Julie Kirkbride's fall from grace is in no small way due to the actions of her husband. She says herself that as a new MP she took lots of advice from her husband and understandably did not question it. Her own expenses claims, as an individual, are not entirely unreasonable. Only as a couple do the Mackays expenses rightly disgust the public.

Who knows what the future now holds for that couple? But it is worth noting that this is the third MPs marriage partnership to fall foul of the current furore. Ed Balls and Yvette Cooper have been left dangling by the media. Nicholas and Ann Winterton have agreed to stand down. And now the Mackays.

The working and domestic partnership of active married MPs, especially with young children and each with constituencies outside London, must be one of the most complex relationships anyone could devise. It is almost a guarantee there will be pitfalls. Julie Kirkbride has fallen victim to the compromises that beset working mothers, the seediness that exudes from parliament, the relentlessness of her former profession and perhaps conceding too much trust to those who offer advice. But I'm sure she will be a survivor in another profession.

Wednesday, 27 May 2009

When they reach the scene of crime …

The atmosphere in which constitutional reform is being proposed is far from ideal. However, without this public excoriation of MPs behaviour no reforms would ever have been proposed.

The problem with creating a more stable and rational environment — in which to decide the fate of MPs, the workings of parliament and the public's relationship with it all — is that there is no-one able to take charge by creating a framework through which these issues can be addressed and resolved.

Logically, the prime minister should step up to this role. He is at the top of the political tree as far as implementing constitutional change is concerned. Furthermore, at a time of public disquiet, regardless of his constitutional obligations, the public looks to a prime minister to allay fears and set an agenda that encompasses public concerns.

Unfortunately, the prime minister is on holiday. Even if he wasn't, it's clear he is inadequate to fulfil this public duty. Either he cannot appreciate that leadership is needed or he knows he is devoid of the talents to provide it. His absence from control and command just as parliament's walls are crumbling speaks volumes. Can anyone imagine Cameron hunkering down in the bunker like Brown if political roles were reversed?

Cameron is acting more prime ministerly than the prime minister. He has the advantage of not yet being granted the Queen's commission. But the longer Macavity is nowhere to be found the greater chance an unsettled public will demand the Queen has the opportunity to rectify her commission PD soon.

Tuesday, 26 May 2009

Yes, we can

No shortage of ideas from Cameron's quarter today.

I wrote last week of sea changes in political affairs and suggested the public should grab their opportunity to reform parliament today before MPs took the opportunity away.

Well David Cameron has certainly set full sail on this political high tide, but thankfully he seems to be sailing towards us, the people, rather than away.

In fact he is sounding rather more like one of us - ordinary folk - than one of them - MPs.

The scale of reforms he is suggesting go well beyond parliament into the contract between the people and anyone with statutory authority over our lives. A redistribution of power 'from the elite to the man in the street'.

His ideas are ambitious - rather like the revolutionary views of the 1960s aimed at casting out the stultifying authoritarianism and condescension to power that existed in the 1940s—1950s.

As we know, there were a lot of babies thrown out with the bathwater of that social change and the danger of constitutional as well as social change is that, in the end, we are worse off rather than better. But calling for change will always be much easier than implementing it.

For now, Cameron has stolen a march on other parties and is leading a vanguard for change on every political front. And what more can be asked at an election time when the country and its institutions are at their lowest ebb for decades?

I hear a political slogan in my mind 'Yes, we can'. Then again, I'm sure Saatchis can come up with something better than that.

Friday, 22 May 2009

There is a tide in the affairs of men

We at the height are ready to decline.
There is a tide in the affairs of men
Which, taken at the flood, leads on to fortune;
Omitted, all the voyage of their life
Is bound in shallows and in miseries.
On such a full sea are we now afloat,
And we must take the current when it serves,
Or lose our ventures.

— Julius Caesar (IV.ii.269–276)

I never thought I'd live in such interesting times. A life long passion is about to be turned inside out and upside down. Perhaps…

Forward thinking MPs have spoken of this time as being a great opportunity for parliament. So it is.

But let us not allow this simply to be a great opportunity for parliament's MPs.

The opportunity at hand is for ‘the people’ to decide what kind of parliament they want.

It is the people's voice - stimulated by the fourth estate - that has raised us to to this disagreeable but expectant state. Let us take our anger and turn it into something constructive.

There are many issues to be addressed — MPs pay, accountability of the executive, the power of the party whips, the role of select committees, the selection and deselection of MPs. Instead of an elite, clubby institution, managed by impenetrable rules that have led to stasis, we have the opportunity to create a parliament that can proudly be called democratic.

Let us consider well the options for radical reform. Then let us tell our parliamentarians what changes they must make to introduce a parliament that truly challenges government and honourably represents the people it serves.

If we the people do not seize the moment now it could pass all too soon.

Thursday, 21 May 2009

Richard Shepherd for Speaker

Richard Shepherd MP spoke at a public meeting I attended last night.

He spoke about what had befallen parliament, amongst other subjects. In fact, everything came back to what had befallen England and the United Kingdom.

Mr Shepherd has a long memory. He was born in 1942 and remembers the respect offered to all - even between parliamentarians - that used to be a legacy of the common purpose of war. There was a recognition not merely of the importance of life but of liberty.

Today, his criticism of parliament is that although the omnipotence of the Monarch has long been curtailed, authoritarianism has returned in the form of the Crown. While all proceedings of parliament are defined as matters of the Crown the present government abuses its majority power by simply ignoring the wider concerns of parliament.

Worse still, perhaps, is the resulting idleness of MPs. There is little point in questioning an executive that is deaf to its questioners. A situation enhanced by the fact that so much legislation and regulation is now framed in Brussels.

Without much to do in parliament MPs have sought to confirm their status in other ways. The result is the lurid stories of MPs expenses spread across the media.

The best remedy for parliament's ills was the anger of the public, Mr Shepherd said. A notion I'm pleased to say echoes an earlier post.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

Gordon Brown claims high ground

What Douglas Carswell may have overlooked is that Brown always sounds good in the pincer-grasp of a crisis.

Brown has managed to spin the Speaker's removal into a magisterial report on the joint meeting of party leaders the Speaker had originally called.

Brown gave the appearance of single-handedly getting to grips with the trousergate problem and wound proposals on the future modernising of parliamentary procedures into a tale of progressive political reforms he's been introducing for the last 12 years.

But tomorrow is another day for Labour's prime minister. And a day is a long time in revolutionary politics.

Tributes to The Speaker




The blood letting begins

Gordon Brown's remarkable announcement that no Labour MP who has 'defied the rules' can stand at the next general election will start an inevitably bitter process of accusation and defence that may be even more unedifying than the drip-feed revelations of the past few weeks.

David Cameron has already announced his own party Scrutiny Panel to examine MPs excessive claims and arrange for repayments. He has said his MPs should face constituency panels that will determine whether their MPs can continue or should face de-selection.

A long process of parliamentary stable cleaning seems to lie ahead, which is likely to put issues of more importance to the average Briton, such as managing the consequences of recession, into the political shade.

Perhaps we will learn that the normal interference of politicians into our daily lives is not as essential as politicians like to believe.

The Speaker goes, long live the Speaker

This morning, on LBC Radio (London's biggest conversation), presenter James O'Brien is leading London's conversation on the proposition that the Speaker is being expelled by MPs as a smokescreen, hoping the heat over MPs expenses will fall away.

Anyone who follows the career of Douglas Carswell MP will find it hard to believe such motivation on his part. But, LBC's listeners being easily led, many agree thoroughly with Mr O'Brien.

Now that the wish of many in the House is apparently to be fulfilled, we shall see the outcome of a change of Speaker. One of the issues that could immediately raise debate is whether the Speaker should continue to be responsible for MPs financial affairs. A new Speaker may want to retain responsibility in order to introduce the changes needed. Others, especially among the public, may believe such matters should be removed from parliament entirely.

One cutting observation from LBC listeners notes that none of those MPs calling for the Speaker to go have equally called for resignations from other fellow MPs.

Time for independents?

Esther Rantzen has expressed her keenness to stand for parliament against 'three homes' Labour MP, Margaret Moran.

I imagine Esther sees herself delivering barnstorming speeches in the Chamber that shake up parliament and its tired MPs.

If she gets herself elected she may soon find the job is both boring and very hard work. I would love to watch the few occasions she might be granted to deliver such speeches. But I doubt she would think those few opportunities made up for the rest of her tiresome lot.

She would soon become thankful for time out from her duties to be spent in comfortable accommodation surrounded by expensive luxuries. Fortunately, she already has such facilities of her own.

Esther has spoken of meeting a number of successful business people who think this may be the time to consider standing for parliament. Independent voices untainted by parliament or party is what electorates may now vote to see. However, most of those she has spoken to were almost certainly, like Esther, independently financially secure.

Could we be about to witness the return to parliament of the independently wealthy independent MP?

Hardly what the constituents of Luton South, or Glasgow North East, are probably expecting. But, these days, it might be worth giving anyone deaf to the call of the Fees Office a sporting chance.

Monday, 18 May 2009

The Speaker can't change Parliament ... but

I've written here before on the responsibility of Speaker Martin and Clerk of the House, Graham Jack, for poor management of parliament's accounting duties.

Views on whether the Speaker should resign have polarised rapidly.

On the one hand, many MPs blame the Speaker for holding back reform. They want to see an appropriately chosen 'new brush' Speaker to clean up the stables and restore parliament's dignity. In support of this they add, rather weakly, that delaying replacing the Speaker until after a General Election will mean new MPs must select from colleagues they do not really know.

On the other hand, other MPs are hesitant to over-rule precedent by voting their Speaker out. These MPs also believe it is the wrong point in the process of reform to remove the present Speaker. To do so would open MPs to the charge of using a scapegoat to absolve them from their own faults.

While a competent and respected new Speaker, especially with skills in management as well as communication, would be a great benefit to the House, MPs calling for Speaker Martin's immediate resignation may be attaching more significance to a Speaker's abilities than the role actually allows.

The Speaker cannot directly affect either the timetable or the agenda for reform. It is up to the government to call for internal or external commissions to review MPs allowances and expenses. And it is up to MPs in parliament to agree to any suggested reforms. The Speaker can only agree to voting debates.

Management of the Fees Office certainly needs reform and a new Speaker is certainly needed to implement such changes. But such changes can't be effectively introduced until MPs have agreed a new structure for their additional pay.

Replacing the Speaker now might seem like bringing the dawn of a new day. But until MPs new pay arrangements are settled and a general election has truly cleared out the stables it won't much improve the public standing of parliament or MPs.

Following Speaker Martin's performance in the House this afternoon, I'm no longer so sanguine about the date of his retirement. His suggestion of talks with party leaders can have no affect on the agenda. His revelation that he relies on waiting on a report from Sir Christopher Kelly not available until the autumn brings little confidence. Even less confidence comes from his inability as Speaker to distinguish between early day and substantive motions. Nothing much has changed except the standing of the Speaker and the House has fallen further. He seems determined to be obstructive and dig in his heels. This is not the right attitude to encourage reform of the House.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Craig Murray's bias

I'm sure Craig Murray has some worthy talents. They appear not to include an ability to accept that political bias exists throughout the world, parties will and should have their supporters and these will and should include publicists and journalists.

Perhaps the reason he is so damning of Michael White, Iain Dale and other commentators for their partiality is that his former career as a diplomat required an impartial obedience to whichever political party was in power. The consequence is a loathing for dedicated supporters of any influential party. Perhaps his ignominious treatment by our political class during his service for this country shapes his view of anyone sticking their colours to a political mast. Or perhaps he contrasts his honesty in exposing undemocratic Uzbeckistan politics with party political commentary here.

Fair enough to point out that White and Dale may be motivated by politically partiality. But this is not a crime. It's the consequence of a free press. The last thing that could be said of the British media at present is that they're engaging in a cover up.

Methinks he protests too much about the messengers. Perhaps this is because he is condemned to be merely a rival member of the message-carrying class himself.

Friday, 15 May 2009

Public anger can cleanse our democracy better than any enquiry

Speaker Michael Martin was quick to authorise a police enquiry into the leak of MPs' expense claims from the Fees Office. This highlights how firmly he has clung to the wrong end of the stick. It would be more appropriate to hold an enquiry into management of the Fees Office itself.

The Fees Office is managed by the House of Commons Commission, chaired by Speaker Martin. According to Kate Hoey MP, although excessive claims by MPs have been a long term problem the widespread scale of excesses has only developed in very recent years.

The limited skills of the present Speaker are well established, which places additional focus on the role of the Commons Chief Executive, Clerk of the House, Dr Graham Jack. The Clerk occupies his post by Royal appointment, a precedent dating back to 1363; his distinguished predecessors include Sir Thomas Erskine May.

Dr Jack's wide ranging responsibilities within the House, including being the Speaker's closest advisor, appear onerous (although he appears to also maintain a rewarding second career as an international novelist). He has overseen a culture fostered by the House Fees Office in which MPs have felt a right, even a compulsion, to maximise their claims.

Mixed messages concerning the Fees Office have appeared in the Press. According to the Evening Standard, over two years ago Dr Jack was warned before the all-party Public Administration Select Committee that MPs were unhappy about junior House staff questioning them over their home expenses. The MPs' message was to warn House staff off. On the other hand, many MPs, particularly the newer entrants, claim the Fees Office was virtually forcing cash into their hands, recommending they make claims to take full advantage of their allowances.

Clearly Fees Office staff and their managers have been fully aware that MPs have abused the spirit and the letter of the regulations set out in the Commons' Green Book. Speaker Martin has been content to support and take advantage of this practice. Dr Jack is also fully implicated in maintaining a system that the public now regards as totally corrupt.

But the problem with calling in the police to investigate the accounting procedures of the House is that the rules are the House's rules, voted for by MPs. There is no law above the House's law and whether or not they obey their own rules remains entirely up to MPs. Tax fraud is a matter for the Inland Revenue. But there is no law to sanction lawmakers' self-sanctioned greed.

Yet, democracy requires that MPs remain in charge of their own affairs. Despite all appearances that they have become an out-of-touch elite, MPs are not only public servants but also the public's own representatives. Listening and responding to their electorate may bring our representatives back to reality. Public anger is the only sanction our democracy has.

Tuesday, 12 May 2009

Making Government Accountable

Pol-e-tics' own Pseuds' Corner notes that parliamentarians are today invited to an optimistically instructive event:

Making Government Accountable:
Understanding Resource Accounts

A presentation by the House of Commons Scrutiny Unit

Time: 15:00 - 16:00
Date: Tuesday 12 May 2009
Venue: Boothroyd Room, 1st Floor, Portcullis House

Rather a lost cause, I would think.

Sunday, 10 May 2009

Sinking feeling

Clearly MPs' have been regarding their extensive allowances as rightful supplements in lieu of pay. But this is not the way the Green Book says they should be treated.

Lord Naseby, who used to sit on the body recommending MPs' pay, says the situation is getting serious. If public reaction continues to get worse Parliament may have to be dissolved and a general election called, he says today.

An early date for an election might get heads together to sort out a solution. But although it would make hustings interesting, there would be small point in each party standing on rival proposals on pay. A new system should appear to be accepted by all.

The committee on standards in public life, chaired by former parliamentary secretary Sir Christopher Kelly, has expelled MPs from its pay enquiry due to 'actual or perceived conflicts of interest'. The remaining members are senior public servants and there is no certainty when they'll deliver their report.

Perhaps an external body including 'people's representatives' is needed for an acceptable solution. But with such an intractable politically-charged problem, anyone from 'the people' willing to add a democratic stamp must also expect their name to end up Mudd.

MPs and their shameful lot

'Shame' seems to be the political word of the moment, closely followed by 'abuse', 'scandal' and 'fraud'.

To be honest, many of the revelations of MPs' expenses leave me unmoved and not even warm under the collar. Others are unwise and certainly regrettable. Others still seem to be outright fraud.

Unfortunately, the media and, most importantly, the wide public are now treating almost any allowance or expenses claim, beyond an MP's salary, as a disgraceful act of theft.

How the mighty are fallen!

It might be remembered (although Tory and LibDem MPs have yet to be fingered) that these 'abuses' seem to have ballooned under a profligate Labour government, in which it is second nature for MPs of that party to regard access to public funds as a 'people's right '.

The touchy point that the taxpayers paying for these MPs' benefits come from all parties and all classes – including the poor – becomes an insignificance when Labour mistakenly still sees itself as a government of the people, by the people, for the people.

With Gordon Brown spraying taxpayers' money around like water for a decade, where has been the incentive for MPs to do other than grab their share?

Thursday, 7 May 2009

'Doing a Lumley'

Has the fragrant Joanna spawned a phrase and a new PR tactic?

'Doing a Lumley' involves holding a media conference at the same time and studios as a representative of the department you are seeking to influence is doing the same.

With good planning and a sprinkling of luck, journalists and camera crew will instinctively encircle both parties, thereby bouncing the ambushed representative into responding directly to campaigners' questions, forcing them to deliver policy on camera in real time.

This might be classified as the latest form of 'flash mob' media event. It certainly appears to work for Joanna.

Is Afghanistan worth the cost?

Nigel Lawson has recommended the British military pull out of Afghanistan. This could save the government perhaps £3 billion this year, based on costs of £2.6 billion for the last financial year.

The MOD presumably would not favour withdrawal. Afghanistan is now Britain's major theatre of war. But Western military objectives in Afghanistan have always been shaky and active deployment without firm objectives has always been thought a no-no in military terms.

The present deployment began as a response to sheltering Al Quaida camps following the terrorist attacks in the US on September 11, 2001. It then spawned the zeitgeist of wrongly including Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime as a further source of global terrorism. But now the military focus has returned to Afghanistan, the effectiveness and ultimately the purpose of our forces remaining there has to be seriously questioned.

Al Quaida is a ubiquitous global group. It is uncertain how many international terrorist acts performed under its name are dependent on direction from a few individuals hidden in the Afghan-Pakistan borders. US high-tech intelligence and strike capabilities are the best answer to searching out and removing these individuals and their military camps. But the main focus of British and US troops now has become controlling the Taliban.

In Afghan terms, the 'threat' from the Taliban is the enforcement of a strict Sharia regime, which we in the West happen to find abhorrent. But, while many fighters flow from Pakistan, this is essentially an internal civil war, not unlike the many Afghanistan has suffered, almost continually, for years.

Over the last few months mainly US and British military efforts appear to have displaced the Taliban into northern Pakistan where the threat from their presence is of far greater political as well as military concern than their Afghan activities.

This cannot be countered directly by British or America forces. It requires technical and intelligence aid to Pakistan. Whatever we think of the government of Pakistan at any particular time, protecting this nuclear-capable country from Taliban forces is the real priority, given its own border with economically-important India, the largest democracy in the world.

Continued deployment of British forces in southern Afghanistan, far from the lawless North-West Pakistani border, should deserve a hard cost–benefit analysis, even in less economically strapped times. Today, with the government's coffers bare, there is far more reason for concluding that domestic Afghanistan is someone else's war and we should concentrate on less visible and less costly (in terms of lives as well as cash) support for stability within Pakistan.

We wouldn't gain much favour in Washington where military expenditure will presumably continue, but presented in an intelligent way, withdrawal from Afghanistan could well receive British public support.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

The UK's Poet Laureate

I have no literary pretensions. If commenting on another's writing, I am most likely to note spelling, punctuation, clarity or ambiguity of meaning, and the need for subjects to remain in relative contact with appropriate verbs.

These are not the skills needed when trying to appreciate poetry.

Modern poetry especially assumes the right to ignore the conventions of grammatical prose. But I don't object in any way to the stylistic variety this freedom provides.

What I hope to gain from reading poetry is a feeling, an insight, a representation or perhaps, a dilemma, that inwardly I can recognise and agreeably or grudgingly acknowledge with an understanding "Yes".

Carol Ann Duffy, who has just been appointed as the new Poet Laureate, has been a poet of record for some 35 years and, apparently, is one of the best-selling poets in the United Kingdom.

According to The Guardian, Duffy has managed the rare feat in the poetry world of combining popularity with critical acclaim. And if gongs are anything to go by she has achieved a lot: awarded the OBE in 1995, a CBE in 2002, a recipient of the TS Eliot prize, the Dylan Thomas award, the Whitbread poetry prize, the Somerset Maugham and the Forward prize, and her poetry features regularly on school and university syllabuses.

Following her ten-year appointment last week, which was confirmed after public consultation and endorsement by the Queen, Gordon Brown paid tribute to her ability to put "the whole range of human experiences into lines that capture the emotions perfectly".

Personally, although I sense Ms Duffy puts much effort into reaching deeply into her subjects – and she has a particular fascination for 'words' – on the qualities I hope to receive from poetry she doesn't really cut it, and for me FAILS.

See what you think. This is a poem by Carol Ann Duffy:

In his darkroom he is finally alone
with spools of suffering set out in ordered rows.
The only light is red and softly glows,
as though this were a church and he
a priest preparing to intone a Mass.
Belfast. Beirut. Phnom Penh. All flesh is grass.

He has a job to do. Solutions slop in trays
beneath his hands which did not tremble then
though seem to now. Rural England. Home again
to ordinary pain which simple weather can dispel,
to fields which don't explode beneath the feet
of running children in a nightmare heat.

Something is happening. A stranger's features
faintly start to twist before his eyes,
a half-formed ghost. He remembers the cries
of this man's wife, how he sought approval
without words to do what someone must
and how the blood stained into foreign dust.

A hundred agonies in black-and-white
from which his editor will pick out five or six
for Sunday's supplement. The reader's eyeballs prick
with tears between bath and pre-lunch beers.
From aeroplane he stares impassively at where
he earns a living and they do not care.

And this is a poem by Ted Hughes, Poet Laureate from 1984 to 1998:

I found this jawbone at the sea's edge:
There, crabs, dogfish, broken by the breakers or tossed
To flap for half an hour and turn to a crust
Continue the beginning. The deeps are cold:
In that darkness camaraderie does not hold.

Nothing touches but, clutching, devours. And the jaws,
Before they are satisfied or their stretched purpose
Slacken, go down jaws; go gnawn bare. Jaws
Eat and are finished and the jawbone comes to the beach:
This is the sea's achievement; with shells,
Verterbrae, claws, carapaces, skulls.

Time in the sea eats its tail, thrives, casts these
Indigestibles, the spars of purposes
That failed far from the surface. None grow rich
In the sea. This curved jawbone did not laugh
But gripped, gripped and is now a cenotaph.

And this is a poem by John Masefield, Poet Laureate from 1930 to 1967:

Quinquireme of Nineveh from distant Ophir,
Rowing home to haven in sunny Palestine,
With a cargo of ivory,
And apes and peacocks,
Sandalwood, cedarwood, and sweet white wine.

Stately Spanish galleon coming from the Isthmus,
Dipping through the Tropics by the palm-green shores,
With a cargo of diamonds,
Emeralds, amythysts,
Topazes, and cinnamon, and gold moidores.

Dirty British coaster with a salt-caked smoke stack,
Butting through the Channel in the mad March days,
With a cargo of Tyne coal,
Road-rails, pig-lead,
Firewood, iron-ware, and cheap tin trays.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Sinking ship

I'm surprised (perhaps I shouldn't be) and encouraged by the level of despair and depression that has fallen on our politically active comrades from the Left.

The McBride/Draper saga seems to have been the turning point. Alastair Darling's 'do nothing' budget merely proved the intellectual cupboard was bare. Gordon Brown's absurd shenanigans over MPs' expenses and the Gurkhas simply confirm to all how far he's lost the plot.

David Blunkett says, "Labour has lost its political antenna".

Charles Clarke says, "Labour's good governance is fading away" (not good whatever that means) and "I'm ashamed to be a Labour MP".

And a glance through the subject matter and comments at LabourHome confirms how Labour supporters now recognise the game is up.

Everyone knows this government has to go.

Do we need to adopt Thai tactics and occupy Heathrow to get Brown to understand the message?

Monday, 27 April 2009

David Cameron's speech: The Age of Austerity

If you're curious to know what David Cameron actually said in his 'new direction' Spring Forum speech (but are intimidated by reading the full text) here is the video answer.

I find it encouraging.

Saturday, 25 April 2009

Recession: Keeping up appearances

Dizzy raised an interesting question earlier this week. 'Where is the recession?'

Many commenters agreed that signs of poverty, despair and social disruption are hard to spot. This failure to observe the tell-tale symptoms of recession could be middle-class Nelsonianism. However, in this recession, the middle-classes are apparently being hit as much, or more, proportionately as the labouring class. We should all be able to witness and tremble at the stone-faced skeleton figure of Mr Recession stalking amongst us, swinging his merciless scythe. But that's not the way this recession looks or feels.

There are a number of possible answers to this conundrum.

1) Let us not forget, as if we could, that our government has gone to great lengths – in fact lengths that may be unprecedented in the history of mankind – to make us feel as if nothing too dramatic has happened to our lives. One of the reasons government borrowing is reaching such staggering proportions is that this government is unwilling to allow public services to decline – at least until the general election absolves them from further responsibility. To take the least partisan description I can, Labour feel their proper role is to relieve the population from acute pain. As long as they have done this they will feel satisfied they can claim their Brownie points. It will be left to others to deal with the chronic long-term pain their short-term, pill-popping remedies cause.

2) Middle class professionals are being hit hard, but the middle classes do not complain. An analysis in today's Telegraph shows that, to date, the professional classes are indeed the hardest hit by redundancies. Property related professions are the most affected, with the number of architects claiming unemployment benefits over the past year increasing by 860%. Following behind are town planning technicians (696%), construction managers (581%), chartered surveyors (464%), town planners (425%). HGV drivers make an appearance amongst the redundant professionals with a 379% increase in Job Centre attendances. But solicitors, lawyers, judges and coroners follow just behind with a 371% increase in benefit claims. (Bankers are not mentioned, perhaps because they are unwilling to be classified.) The point to remember behind these statistics is that professionals are programmed to look on the bright side of life. It is a middle class trait not to reveal desperation. Keeping up appearances is vital. So is providing a sense of encouragement to family and friends. Many may also have a savings buffer, for the present, which can delay the full impact of recession while family life is re-engineered.

3) Those affected on the high street are mainly small independent entrepreneurs. The Telegraph survey shows only a 20% increase in unemployment claims from this class. But this is unlikely to reflect the true impact of reduced income on such businesses. Small business persons are inventive and resourceful. They operate on day-to-day market risk principles of counting pennies and employing minimum staff. They have no union or collective voice: representative bodies, such as FSB, FPB and chambers of commerce, are mainly discreet lobbying organisations. Moreover, the profile of inner-city small business persons has changed considerably over the last thirty years. Many have origins in other countries, such as the Indian sub-continent or the Middle East, and run family businesses. They also have large extended families, good contacts with local ethnic communities, and know well from experience how to stretch a reduced income to feed many mouths.

4) The labouring classes once were used to working for large industries that never collapsed. They began aged fifteen or sixteen and kept going in the same company or industry until official retirement, or forced to retire sick. But that was decades ago. Since the 1980s, when nationalised industries were privatised and unproductive industries closed, hands-on labouring workers have become used to employment through contract work. Living with employment that offers no long-term guarantees has become a fact of life. This recession presents greater employment challenges than for a dozen years, but the principle of natural job insecurity is one they have had to come to terms with over many years.

5) Many people who can still afford to pay for their homes are benefiting from collapsed interest rates through tracker mortgages. Those who benefit are naturally remaining pretty quiet about this windfall (in contrast to savers), and are probably stashing this cash beneath the mattress as a resource for harder times ahead.

6) Credit cards have not been banned and remain an indispensable means to multiply reduced income, albeit at near-criminal exorbitant rates.

So the conclusion to the conundrum of the 'absent recession' seems to be that it is still mainly a middle class affair and the pervading principles of Hyacinth Bucket ensure that not everything is quite as it seems.

How long it will be until barren streets populated by angry dole claimants and burning braziers offer an air of community menace may depend on how long the recession lasts and the strata of society it eventually affects. Unless, perhaps, we've all become middle class now.

Update 26 April
One glaring omission from the above that deserves mention, of course, is the size of the public sector payroll. Official statistics (ONS) put this currently at about 20% of total employment. One can expect this to be a protected sector at least until the middle of 2010. But, in addition, the scale of outsourcing to the private sector should not be overlooked, which was expected to reach £64 billion in cost this year.

Thursday, 23 April 2009

Sexed up evidence

Alastair Darling is accused of sexing up evidence that our economy will grow by 1.5% next year and 3.5% thereafter.

"You can grow your way out of a recession you can't cut your way out of it," he responded.

"Over the past two years I have ensured that annual borrowing has grown from £34 billion to £175 billion. That's a fivefold increase," he boasted.

"Over the next two years this government will borrow more than every government added together over the past 315 years," he crowed.

"What's more, we are now witnessing the fastest growth in unemployment in the nation's history," he added.

Finally, stepping beyond his brief, he reassured the public that all measures would be taken to locate known weapons of mass destruction in Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

Sunday, 19 April 2009

(All washed up) and Nowhere to go

It feels like the countdown to the general election has begun. Not in the number of days, but in the number of further accusations of sleaze, corruption, failures of management or policy that Brown, his party and government attract before the election is finally called.

Unusually for Brown, the McBride affair struck home so directly he was unable to declare as usual that responsibility lay elsewhere – resulting in his eventual, reluctant "sorry".

But the electorate is not fooled by his regular absence from responsibilty for the state of the nation's affairs.

McBride focused attention on the clunking fist style of Brown's and Labour's governance that denies room to criticism, principle and basic democracy.

Alice McMahon pinpoints the trouble with the Labour party in her resignation from the party on Saturday. Never a fan of New Labour, she has been a confirmed left-winger and anti-war campaigner, criticising Labour's alliance with the US in Iraq and Afghanistan.

But now her criticisms are more personal. "I can no longer be a member of a party that at the leadership level has betrayed many of the values and principles that inspired me as a teenager to join."

She says she was sickened by the recent smears of Conservative politicians and their families. And at local level she cites the treatment of Janet Oosthuysen, a prospective Parliamentary candidate in Calder Valley, who was deselected by the National Executive Committee last year. Such party bullying and irregularities are raised again this weekend by suspected candidate vote rigging in Erith and Thamesmead.

"My final reason for leaving the party is because it is no longer democratic. The personally vindictive, dishonest, campaign played out on the pages of the tabloids by certain Labour Party members was despicable."

So that's the view of a former MP and dedicated Labour party member for fifty years. She joins seven out of ten grassroots members who have also left the party over the past ten years.

Not everyone shares the politics of Alice Mahon. But very many people can see the cynicism, dishonesty, bullying and lack of principles that riddles the executives of the Labour party and its government as yet more reason to deny it electoral support at the coming local elections and in twelve months time.

Thursday, 16 April 2009

All washed up

"I am sorry about what happened."
We are sure he is.

"I was horrified, I was shocked and I was very angry indeed."
We are very sure that, when he read of Guido's revelations of the scandalous activities in the Cabinet office, he was.

"I think the most important thing we do is reassure people everything is being done to clean up politics in our country... I take full responsibility."

Cleaning up politics in our country is a grand ambition, Mr Brown. Will you be calling a general election? Unfortunately, Mr Brown was silent on this matter.

After 12 months more of the Nasty Party inflicting pain and poison on our country, surely, things can only get better.

Tuesday, 14 April 2009

Dog eats dog

Yes, it's a dog eat dog world.

Shock, horror, and great disgust cry the tabloids, broadsheets and broadcast media: they who have all too often been fed at the hands of the vile spinner, Damian McBride.

But what was the actual sequence of events that led to Guido's headline-topping slur story hitting the paper presses?

According to The Telegraph, it was it that first broke the story. But since no-one of importance seems to read the former Torygraph any more, anyone might be forgiven for thinking it was the Sunday Times and News of the World that jointly claimed the scoop.

Apparently, Guido had already been seeking a buyer amongst several 'Fleet Street' organs. Although this revelation from the Telegraph's Christopher Hope might seem embarrassing to Guido, I'm personally entirely sanguine and real-politik about earning money from the keyboard, when one can (as Dr Johnson might have said).

Far more disconcerting, but no less surprising, is the subsequent action of The Telegraph towards Guido's story. Having rejected a deal with Guido, it went ahead and printed the story on Saturday anyway, after first presenting the details to Number 10. A distressed Guido (for we presume it is actually he) left a message at My Telegraph that the organ "revealed sources, broke a confidence, breached a signed non-disclosure agreement and behaved like patsys for McBride".

Scurrilous behaviour is it not? And all to be the first to reveal McBride's plan to publish ... scurrilous stories.

And while on the subject of The Telegraph's priorities: what on earth was Janet Daley thinking of with her item yesterday titled, 'No need to demand an apology: Gordon Brown is damaged beyond repair'. According to Janet: 'Apart from the obvious virtue of giving the story another day or two of media life, what exactly would be the point of this? Mr Brown is now damaged beyond repair.'

Janet, you need to get out more or find a circle of friends nicer than McBride's patsies. Of course the individuals smeared by this affair need a bloody apology!

Believe it or not, life is not all about political strategies. There are human beings with families at the end of Number 10's sordid tales. At least Gordon Brown, being the master of PR spin, has delivered something that is the nearest to an apology they'll actually get.

Monday, 13 April 2009

Brown and Hitler - is there a link?

I listened yesterday to a review of a new film about a young German writer approached by the Nazi propaganda machine because they thought his appeal would be useful to them. He was flattered by their interest and promises of support. But soon he regretted selling his soul to the Devil with no means of escape.

Derek Draper's attraction to the realms of power was rather different. He deliberately sought out the bright lights and important personalities for his own ego and self-aggrandisement.

Damian McBride, on the other hand, was the regime's propaganda agent – Draper's handler. But considering the depth of slurs and lies he was prepared to inflict on the regime's opponents (while sitting in the Prime Minister/Chancellor's office) it might be appropriate to describe him as the Devil's agent. This would, of course, make Gordon Brown the Devil himself.

This is an extreme point of view, undoubtedly. But while reflecting on the significance of Slurgate in our political process, I've been drawn by the potentially narrow line between a self-justifying authoritarian government using propaganda slurs to discredit opposition and the regimes of Hitler, Stalin, Mao Tse Tung and any number of other evil dictatorships.

In Britain, we have freedom of the press, even greater freedom of the blogosphere and a history of vibrant but stable democracy. We're not about to allow ourselves to be taken over by a vicious totalitarian political regime. But that is not the point.

The current regime allowed a cabal of propagandists (some as inner circle as it gets ) to prepare an operation that would publicly release a stream of slanderous lies about the political opposition. These techniques are on the wrong side, by a very long way, of the spectrum between open democracy and vile tyrannies we've witnessed in the past – many of which used such methods to justify eliminating not just political opponents but swathes of their own population.

Thankfully, disgust at the revelation of the depths to which Brown would sink is almost universal. His attempts to spin our media have turned all of it against him.

Sunday, 12 April 2009

Student politics

There's nothing I can add to the McBride of Dreapergate affair. I regret to admit there is some lurid fascination in watching this grubby business take its toll of its own proponents. Like watching armed bank raiders jump into a faulty stolen car and plough at speed into an unforgiving brick wall.

But this is not the type of politics that gives me any intellectual pleasure. I would describe it as like the worst kind of student politics were it not so serious, emanating as it does from the Prime Minister's right hand.

Perhaps this is just what we might expect from the dying days of those managing the NewLab project. As the tawdry self-serving edifice crumbles down about their ears, they rely on the only consistent feature throughout their administration: that of truth-denying spin. But with no further hope of spinning their way out of their national political disasters, as a last gasp they turn their dark arts onto the opposition. "If we're sinking then we'll take the opposition down with us."

It's tawdry, sick and not worthy of the title 'politics'. And I wish I could just leave that as NewLab's appropriate epitaph.

But over at our friend Donal Blaney's Blarney there's more student politics going on.

I do hope Donal doesn't spend his days trawling through Facebook looking for victims for his clunking fist, as his latest target suggests. So far, whatever his errors, I think the young undergraduate, who is the focus of Donal's latest attentions, manages to stay on the moral high-ground against threats of expensive legal action from the Blarney man.

Donal can do as he wishes, and he usually does. But I've no time for irritating, poisonous, personality-based student politics – from left or right.