What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

September 29, 2005

Diet Labour, Mr Creosote and the dream-catchers

"Nations aren't built by dreamers. They rise by the patient courage of the change-maker. That's what we have been in New Labour: the change-makers". (Mr Tony Blair, 27th September, 2005). It used to be joked that New Labour was a piece of fluffy marketing gimmickry; that the party might as well be called Labour-lite or Diet Labour. Today that joke was shown to be startlingly prophetic. The depressing reality of what Mr Blair means by a party of "change-makers" became apparent with Ms Ruth Kelly's breathtaking announcement that the Government has decided to outlaw junk food in schools.

It says much about Labour's fetish for centralisation that such a top-down injunction seems neither strange, nor unusual. Ms Kelly left no room for doubt that she is on a crusading mission to stop our nation's children tucking into starchy carbs, washed down with a can of carbonated artificial sweeteners: from September 2006, low quality reprocessed bangers and burgers high in fat, salt and sugar will no longer be served in schools, and crisps, chocolate and sugary fizzy drinks will no longer be available from vending machines.

And about time too, you shout. Who didn't watch Jamie's School Dinners, and reflect on the depressingly impoverished menus offered to our school-children? Who didn't want to shout at the Government for expecting schools to be able to offer a nutritious meal for just 35 pence? Who didn't despair of the kids who couldn't identify a leek, and whose work suffered from ADD in the afternoons?

All of which is true. And none of which justifies the Government in banning junk food in our schools.

Let's look at the practicalities. First, who is to police the Government's new regulations? Ofsted. Yes, you read that right. Ofsted, which is responsible for inspecting educational standards in schools, is now to become the Government's very own Egon Ronay. As Dr John Dunford, general secretary of the Secondary Heads Association, observed: "Food inspectors are not asked to inspect the quality of education, and education inspectors should not be asked to inspect the quality of food."

Secondly, will this ban solve the problem? Will it ensure the 15% of children currently classed as obese will be cured? Will it prevent the 83% of kids who are consuming more sugar than the maximum amount recommended for adults from snacking on sweets? No, of course not. And why not? Because school dinners account for no more than 200 of a child's 1,000 annual square meals. This ban is a red herring (and an overcooked one at that) which distracts from the root cause of our children's poor nourishment: poverty - whether financial or of parental care - in our homes.

This latest bout of 'initiativitis' is typical of New Labour's state-centric approach to problems. Everyone is agreed that school dinners are too often of poor quality. Everyone is agreed they need to be improved. There are two groups of people - "change-makers" if you will - who are essential to make it so: teachers and governors, who are responsible for ensuring the best possible educational atmosphere in our schools; and the parents of children, who are responsible for providing at least 80% of kids' meals. If they are both agreed that junk food should be banned in our schools, then great. What is signally wrong is for Labour to take this decision out of their hands.

The Government's role is three-fold. First, it must provide schools with sufficient resources to enable them to offer a balanced diet. Secondly, it can help create the economic conditions by which parents are able to lift themselves out of poverty. And, thirdly, it should regulate the food market to ensure accurate nutritional advice is available for parents and schools to make informed choices about the meals they offer.

Oh, and fourthly, it can quit trying to nationalise every aspect of this country's public life.

Mr Blair, we are told, is worried about his legacy. He is concerned he frittered away his first two terms' rule, and is now resolutely determined to make amends. His sights now are set fixedly on "change-making" in this Indian summer of his premiership.

What he fails to appreciate (indeed, has never understood) is that he and his Government cannot, single-handedly, be "change-makers". Holding onto power for another four years will not embed his reforms in the public sector unless he learns to devolve responsibility to - and learns to trust - those whose job it is to run the system, and who will be running it when he's long gone.

Such trust is not unconditional. The public sector must, in turn, be willing to accept that it is accountable both for the quality of services it delivers, and for the money it spends. Mr Blair has been quite right to champion the importance of competition in achieving these twin aims. But his determination to hug power so tightly to the centre has constricted the development of any meaningful local accountability. He needs to learn the "patient courage" to let go; to recognise that mistakes will happen; that lessons will be learned from those mistakes; and that this is how real changes are really made.

It is New Labour which now faces the biggest obesity problem. Daily this Government accretes new regulations, new powers and new laws, hoping desperately to flatten any problems in its path beneath an avalanche of well-meaning statutes. Diet Labour has become bloated: like Mr Creosote in Monty Python's Meaning of Life, this Government is unable to stop gorging, devouring each and every opportunity to stuff the body politic with another morsel of interference. "And finally, Prime Minister, a wafer thin ban."

Mr Blair's speech was rather dismissive of dreamers: they don't build nations, he says. So I hope he will understand the importance of 'dream-catchers', which, American Indian tradition has it, filters a person's dreams, allowing through only the good ones. Let's hope the next time Mr Blair dreams up a new way to centralise power, it's caught before he wakes up.

September 25, 2005

Tesco: every little helps (except after death)

Browsing the Tesco Clubcard site on a Sunday night (as you do), I was relieved to see that the FAQs covered all the essentials. For example: "One of my relatives has died – Can I change the card to my name so that the points are not lost?" Well, it would be my first thought too...

You can imagine the scene: granny's just karked it, and a family row is brewing because dad wants to convert her 73 remaining points into air-miles, while mum thinks it's better to fill up on petrol. Sadly their best-intentioned wishes are scuppered, for Tesco informs us that no transfer is possible in the event of a family death:

"The Data Protection Act prevents us from changing any details on a card without the owners consent."

So my tip for those worried an unexpected family death might rob them of their rightful money-off vouchers... make sure all close relatives have pre-signed a letter authorising Tesco to transfer their Clubcard points to a named beneficiary in the event they pre-decease the aforementioned.

After all, it's taking care of the little details which brings true peace of mind.

September 21, 2005

Matthew d'Ancona makes sense...

... Not a headline I thought I'd be likely to write. However, Mr d'Ancona has written a terrifically perceptive and judicious article in today's Torygraph analysing the Lib Dems' current prospects.

Leaving aside his silly swipe that the German election deadlock proves PR would be a calamity (shock! horror! PR produces election results reflecting the way people voted), this is a first-class SWOT analysis. I don't agree with every word - his dismissal of Simon Hughes is, I think, unfair - but this is the kind of 'oppo research' for which political parties pay good money.

The Lib Dems are fluffing their chance to be in government

"… usually the conference is an amiable canter around the paddock of irrelevance. This year, the mood is different, and with good reason. The spectacular non-result of the German elections looms like an ailing Zeppelin over the conference in Blackpool.… for Charles Kennedy and his colleagues, the other, more potentially cheering signal from Berlin is that when coalitions are formed, smaller parties enjoy formidable power.

This year, the Lib Dems performed respectably enough: they accrued an extra million votes, increased their share of the vote from 18 to 22 per cent, and won 62 seats, up from 54. But a vote for the Lib Dems was still what I would call an intransitive vote: that is, one without an object.

By polling day this year, Mr Kennedy had turned his non-strategy strategy into a fine art, hoovering up support from those disgruntled with New Labour but unwilling, or unready, to vote Tory. Inasmuch as they positioned themselves at all, the Lib Dems postured as the "decency party" or the "slightly cross party", a means of protesting against the Iraq war or calling for higher taxes (without any danger of having to pay them). Mr Kennedy bobbed along with the floating voter, offering genial company rather than a political harbour.

As they survey the last election and the political terrain ahead, the smarter Lib Dems have drawn two conclusions. The first is that the Kennedy formula - incremental gains achieved by a brew of high-mindedness, protest politics, and chatshow charm - has inherent limitations: the more seats the party gains, the more searchingly it will be scrutinised and judged as a policy-making organisation rather than a middle-class protest movement.

The second development is that the notion of the Lib Dems as participants in government has moved from the realm of fantasy to the realm of the possible. Let me emphasise: I do not myself see much prospect of this after the next election. But the idea is no longer psephologically ridiculous. The Lib Dems are now second to Labour in more than 160 seats. The redrawing of the electoral map alone will probably eat into Labour's majority. The Tories and Labour will be under new management by the next election, with political consequences which are as yet unknowable. Gordon Brown, naturally, is confident that he can renew his party in office. …

The real split in Blackpool has not been between Left and Right. It has been between those Lib Dems such as Vince Cable, Mark Oaten and Nick Clegg who want their party to have policies that add up, sound practical and look contemporary, and those, like Simon Hughes, the party's president, who are content to warm the voters' hearts with meaningless promises and dewy-eyed nostalgia. It is between those who see a future for the Lib Dems as potential governing partners, and those who do not.

When Mr Clegg talks about "breaking up" the NHS and making it more responsive to patients, he is not lurching to the Right, but acknowledging that the fate of the core public services and the value for money which they represent will be at the heart of political debate in the next decade. For Mr Cable to declare that "we also need to consider the upper middle-income professionals" when reviewing his party's tax policy is a sign of political maturity, not political sell-out.

This, it must be said, is not a view shared by most Lib Dems, who are screaming betrayal. On Monday, the party voted to ignore calls for a spending cap on the EU's unreformed budget - a gesture aptly described by Sarah Teather, the party's spokesman on communities, as "a prime example of where we demonstrate a lack of responsibility". Yesterday the activists threw out a plan to part-privatise the Royal Mail that had become emblematic of the new spirit of practical policymaking.

Who cares? Nobody. As the party's modernisers have grasped, voting Lib Dem will remain the equivalent of signing a petition until their policies reflect the realities of the political landscape. That landscape will undergo astonishing changes before the next election. Extraordinary opportunities may arise, for which a hungry third party would be readying itself aggressively. But here's the funny thing: at the very moment when, at last, after all these years, after all the cruel jokes, the Lib Dems should be going back to their constituencies and preparing for government, most of them have no interest in doing so."

A perpetual party of protest?

This year's Lib Dem conference has been a frustrating paradox. There is an honest disagreement in the party between those, like me, who believe the private sector can deliver key public services equitably and at lower cost, both of which would further the cause of social justice; and the many (clearly the conference majority) who believe only the state can possibly provide citizens with the services they need.

This is an important debate - a clear point of difference - and we need to discuss it openly. Far better we start it at this stage of the Parliamentary cycle. After all, half the criticism of the Orange Book was that it was gauchely timed, six months before the election. (And the other half was from people who seem never to have read it...)

But we Lib Dems have grown rather accustomed to cheery conferences where we can parade our latest by-election victor, and forget our political differences - which are larger than our philosophical differences.

Blackpool's been different, and - despite my huge frustration with those activists (and MPs) who seem to have relished ostentatiously flexing their muscles against the leadership, sometimes out of sheer bloody-mindedness - I'm glad it has been. It shows we're starting to take the prospect of power a little more seriously, recognising we need a well-thought-through slate of policies.

However, the media has pretty much ignored our splits - a stark contrast to the coverage of the disastrous Alliance split on nuclear disarmament - obsessing instead about Charles Kennedy's performance as leader. Nothing could more strikingly demonstrate the party's credibility gap with wider public opinion than the fact that only our personality politics are held by the commentariat to be of much interest.

My fear is that Blackpool '05 will have given the clear impression our party is less serious about government than we like to think we are, and is far happier being a perpetual party of protest which will never need to take responsibility.

September 20, 2005

The Lib Dems' growing pains

Of course, Norman Lamb's splendidly liberal proposal to save the Post Office was widely expected to be defeated. And so it came to pass. Or rather didn't. The party still has a little growing up to do, it seems, before we reach economic puberty; let alone maturity.

Here in my council ward in Headington, Oxford, the postal service has become a joke. Bags of mail are lost or stolen by posties with little or no experience; sub-post offices closed without consultation; and the main post offices so over-stretched that queues form round the block. But at least now I know I can tell my residents what the Lib Dems would do if we were in power - we'll have a bit of a think.

Perhaps those activists who vetoed Mr Lamb's motion would like to put up an alternative vision to transform the fortunes of Royal Mail? Perhaps they would like seriously to address how Royal Mail will compete when, in three months time, the postal delivery market is opened up to full competition? Or perhaps they're simply happy to put off a decision which isn't universally popular, happiest when winning deferred success?

And perhaps they would like to resist the knee-jerk impulse to label as Thatcherism any proposal which will enable competing companies to deliver services through a free and fair market? Liberals can scarcely complain about the media's pre-occupation with left/right labels if we indulge in such empty rhetoric ourselves.

The last time we were in government we were in favour of free trade. I hope we are when we next return to government. Today's vote makes both those aims less likely.

September 19, 2005

Time our political hacks grew up

"Ditch Kennedy if you want to be taken seriously, say voters" urges The Times. "Kennedy gets personal endorsement: 58% want him to continue as leader" retorts The Guardian (sorry, theguardian). Well, I'm glad that's all clear then. Nothing symbolises better the death of serious political journalism than the over-reliance by journalists on opinion polls to lend some spurious pseudo-scientific credibility to their own pre-conceived notions. Take a bow, Mr Peter Riddell of the Thunderer.

I'm singling out Mr Riddell for writing this asinine sentence in Monday's paper: "a third of the public (and 35 per cent of Lib Dems and 40 per cent of swing voters) say that people would be more likely to back the party if Mr Kennedy were replaced with someone who would be a more credible prime minister."

Now I'm not practiced in the art of opinion polling (though I take a keener interest in it than is healthy), and I have no qualifications in psephology - but that strikes me as a no-brainer of a question. Of course the party would do better with a better leader! I'm far more intrigued by the 65% of Lib Dems and 60% of swing voters who think people would be less likely to back the party if our current leader were replaced with a new leader who was "more credible". As the ubiquitous (and splendid) Nick Clegg, the new MP for Sheffield Hallam, observed: this is like asking "whether you want £1m or £4m".

So why did The Times major in on the Kennedy non-story? It could, of course, be that Mr Rupert Murdoch's quality (ahem) tabloid was not over-enamoured of the results their opinion poll uncovered. For despite the determination of the media to make the Lib Dem conference a "Should he stay or should he go" sideshow, the findings reveals an encouraging picture for the party, as Mr Riddell (to his credit) reports:
  • "The party's general image remains favourable. More voters think the Lib Dems share their values; understand the way people live their lives; are honest and principled; are united (by a huge margin); and have clear ideas for the most important issues facing Britain, than take that view about either the Conservatives or Labour."
  • "Just under a half of all voters, and even two fifths of non-Lib Dems, think that the party would do a good job of running the country."
  • "half of non-Lib Dem voters in May said that they would seriously consider voting for the party if it had a chance of winning."
  • "half the public highlights the attractions of a strong commitment to civil liberties in debates about ID cards and anti-terrorism measures."

Today's ICM poll in theguardian is also a harbinger of some good news, suggesting that Mr Kennedy's Lib Dems would fare well if Labour were led by Mr Gordon Brown and the Tories by Mr Ken Clarke: our current poll rating of 21% would rise to 25% in such circumstances. It's a moot point how much can seriously be read into such ineffable hypotheticals - at this point in the last Parliament, Mr Blair had yet to decide to lead this country into a disastrous and illegal war against Iraq on a flawed prospectus, yet that was to be the single biggest defining issue come the general election.

However, two aspects of Mr Julian Glover and Mr Michael White's co-authored report struck me as lazy thinking. First, is the repetition of the tired canard, "people are backing the party because they dislike the alternatives, not because they are attracted to Lib Dem policies." It is not because the criticism is wrong that I object to it - rather that it is such a commonplace of voters' rationale that it could be applied to all three parties, and is therefore utterly devoid of meaning.

Political views are often as much defined by what we are against as what we are for. On the canvassing trail, I have met many, many voters who view British party politics as an essentially binary process. They vote Labour because they hated what "that bloody woman did to the country"; or they vote Tory because they "remember rubbish and unburied bodies piling up in the streets". And sometimes they vote Lib Dem because "the other two have had their chance". Such are the negative faute de mieux choices by which this country's political classes are elected. To assume that this works solely to the benefit of the Lib Dems is fallacious.

Their second lazy thought is the Lib Dems' faithful lament - the absurd predilection of journalists for dividing politics into left and right strait-jackets: "29% saw the Lib Dems as being to the left of their own position and 15% to the right; 26% thought the party was in the same position as themselves." It is possible I will be thought (at least by non-Lib Dem readers) to be disingenuous when I say: I have absolutely no idea what this means. But I don't. Really, I don't.

I don't think of my opposition to the war in Iraq as left-wing: I think of it as liberal. I don't think of my dislike of ID cards as left-wing: I think of it as liberal. I don't think of my support of the European Union as left-wing: I think of it as liberal.

Equally, I don't think of my view that drugs should be legalised as right-wing: I think of it as liberal. I don't think of my belief that tuition fees are essential for well-funded universities as right-wing: I think of it as liberal. And I don't think of my support for part-privatisation of the Post Office as right-wing: I think of it as liberal.

I am sure I cannot be alone - even among Guardian reporters - in viewing such left/right tags as an anachronistic hangover. There is no real right-left economic divide any more (if indeed there ever were - 'Butskellism' dominated British political discourse for 25 years, just as 'Thatcherism' has since): all three mainstream political parties have signed up, to one degree or another, to a broadly liberal capitalist model.

Of course, it is much easier to continue to talk left/right, to stick with the familiar, to hold onto such bipolar epithets as an ideological comfort blanket. But journalists might at least have the grace to understand why we Lib Dems get a tad uppity when constantly forced to identify our philosophies by such clichéd over-simplifications.

September 18, 2005

How to save the post office and Royal Mail

I've been banging on about the poor quality of the local postal service since I started blogging nine months ago. But I'm never very happy complaining - much better to use your energy positively. So I was very pleased to hear trailed in the press in August that Norman Lamb, the Lib Dems' Shadow Trade & Industry Secretary, would be proposing major reforms of the Post Office; and even happier when I read the details of his motion to be debated at this week's Lib Dem conference in Blackpool.

The starting point of the proposal is straightforward. The Labour Government has failed to invest properly in Royal Mail because it ranks lower down the priority list than schools and hospitals. But, while starving the postal service of cash, it has also proscribed Royal Mail from raising capital under its own auspices, for instance through borrowing. The result has been predictable. Some 2,700 post offices have closed down across the UK since 2000, a reduction of 12%.

That Labour has presided over the mass closure of such valuable local community resources - vital to the elderly and most vulnerable in society - is a deeply sad state of affairs.

What is needed is a postal service able to borrow-to-invest, fully accountable to its customers, and whose workers have a stake in future service improvements. Mr Lamb's proposals are a good, and vital, first step in achieving this. See what you think:


Mover: Norman Lamb MP (Liberal Democrat Shadow Secretary of State for Trade and Industry)

Conference notes:
i) The continuing programme of Post Office branch closures and the damaging effect this has on communities.
ii) The ending of the Royal Mail's monopoly on mail delivery by the opening of the mail delivery market to full competition from January 2006, which was welcomed by Liberal Democrats when it was announced.
iii) The need for Royal Mail to invest over £2 billion in automation and new equipment to keep the company competitive and to maintain the Universal Service Obligation under which mail is guaranteed delivery to any address in the country for the same price.
iv) The tight centralised Treasury constraints on the Royal Mail, which requires the company to compete with schools and hospitals for investment.
Conference believes that these challenges can be met by:
a) Separating Post Office Limited from Royal Mail Group and retaining it in the public sector.
b) Improving the service for customers with mail services through competition.
c) Maintaining and protecting the Universal Service Obligation as a statutory requirement.
d) Appointing a strong regulator to protect the interests of customers and to hold the company to account on behalf of the public interest.
e) Ensuring Royal Mail has full commercial freedom to borrow to invest in new equipment and modernisation, and to develop new services without the interference and constraints of the Treasury.
f) Changing the ownership of Royal Mail by ensuring a substantial holding is given to Royal Mail staff which would be placed in a trust, thereby making them partners in the company, in a similar manner to those working for the John Lewis Partnership.
g) Allowing a substantial minority of shares in Royal Mail to be made available for purchase by small investors which could be bought through Post Office branches as well as other outlets.
h) Allowing a minority of shares to be floated on the Stock Market or sold to another bidder.
i) Ensuring Royal Mail staff have a full opportunity to participate in the running of the company as partners.
j) Preventing any proceeds of the sale being taken by the Treasury by putting the capital raised into a fund for the benefit of the Post Office network.

Conference believes that the Government's managed decline of the Post Office network is unacceptable and believes that a fund created from the sale of shares in Royal Mail should be used to reverse the decline. In particular, Conference calls for the fund to:
1. Invest in branches so that every Post Office, with the support of the sub-postmaster/mistress, can offer the full range of services currently available only in some branches.
2. Support credit unions and other self help organisations, especially in low income areas, to help provide Post Office services.
3. Invest in opening new branches in communities currently without a Post Office.
4. Support financially the setting up of partnerships between Post Office Ltd, local councils, health authorities, police authorities and other governmental bodies to establish joint Post Office branches and one stop shops for service providers.

Conference calls on Liberal Democrats to campaign against the Government's continued and gradual demolition of the Post Office network and welcomes the Party's calls for a revival of the service.


It will be very interesting to see how Labour reacts to the Lib Dems' proposal. There is some overlap with plans put forward by the chairman of Royal Mail, Allan Leighton - who wants to sell shares in the organisation to its 200,000 workers - which have been smiled on by No. 10 and in the DTI. But the Government will be hampered by the opposition of the Communication Workers Union, who are agin anything to which the word 'privatisation' can be attached. The CWU - which in its earliest incarnation as the Postmen's Federation, was a founder member of Labour - has seats on the party's National Executive committee and on its National Policy Forum: its voice matters.

This state of affairs sums up why I left the Labour Party. They have been tortuously slow in giving any thought as to how the Post Office can be improved, allowing a vital public service to descend into chaos and despond. And at least part of the reason for this torpor is that they know the only viable solution will antagonise an affiliated trade union whose money they need. If their sole concern was how they could improve the post office - for customers and workers alike - they would have sorted the issue long ago.

September 14, 2005

Thanks theguardian: no more Amazon jungle

Well, I'm still not wholly convinced by the new-look theguardian (c) - their front-page after England captured the Ashes just so missed the mark (left).

I mean, I know they're trying to eschew the self-counsciously studenty SHOUTING front pages the Indy loves, but... They've got state-of-the-art colour printing presses, a new format and the one of the most photogenic good news stories of the year. Talk about a showcase. And they turn it into a dour, run-of-the-mill, 'whatever' affair. A shame.

But huge kudos to their comic supplement G2 for managing to get some response from Amazon. I realise Amazon can only keep their costs low by not responding to people who fear they've deleted the internets if they click on 'Buy'. But on the few occasions I've really needed to get in touch with them to sort out some cock-up on my/their part it's been hugely frustrating. Not now!

How to find a human being at Amazon

For years Peter Chapman of London was a carefree Amazon customer, until a cruel truth dawned on him: in cyberspace, no one can her you scream when you have problems with your shopping.

"They've built a wall round themselves to avoid direct contact with anyone," he says, reflecting on his vain attempts to return an erroneous delivery. "They email me but won't accept replies. There's no postal address and no phone number. They allow communication only via their website but that didn't allow me to report that part of my order was wrong."

Amazon defends its cyber complaints policy as being convenient and efficient (for itself, presumably). Happily, Consumer possesses a rare treasure: Amazon's press office number. Within days of our intervention Chapman was speaking to flesh and blood. At this point everyone should get out paper and pen, for here is a prize indeed - an old-fashioned telephone number to get you through to customer services (once you've exhausted the web route). That number is 0800 279 6620. If you cannot get through on that, try 020-8636 9451.

Oxford Mail: City Council's £1m 'black hole'

Today's Oxford Mail picks up on the story I reported here last week about the failure of the City Council to make £1 million in promised savings. Under the headline, 'Council faces budget cuts', the Mail rightly warns of the 'black hole' which may see services suffer.

The Council's Labour leader, Alex Hollingsworth, is quoted saying in response: "The budget is well under control and well managed. The savings will be reductions in expenditure and this will be tied up before February."

Now I like Alex, and have a lot of respect for him, but I'm less than underwhelmed by his complacency that it'll be alright on the night. The report on which my article was based came directly from the City's chief financial officer. It states quite clearly that the Council is almost certain to miss out on £1m in planned savings in 2006-07. I'm baffled how Alex squares this account with his own verdict that budget is "well under control".

But perhaps Alex hasn't yet read the report which came to the Finance Scrutiny Committee meeting on 7th September? Rather bizarrely for a report of this import, it was not even on the agenda of the Council's Executive Board - the City's ruling body, which Alex chairs - last Monday, 12th September.

I'm not sure which I find more worrying: the thought that Alex hasn't read the view of the City's chief financial officer that the City is £1m adrift from its budget for next year; or the thought that he has read it, and still thinks the budget is "well under control".


Oxford Mail (14/9/05)


Councillors have been warned cuts may be needed to plug a £1m "black hole" in next year's budget because savings have not been made.

In February, finance chiefs at Oxford City Council said £1.6m worth of savings would be made in time for the 2006-07 municipal year - but just months before the annual budget-setting process starts, only £600,000 of efficiency cuts have been achieved.

The Town Hall had hoped to save hundreds of thousands of pounds by closing some civic offices, closing the Oxford Museum at the Town Hall and reorganising its customer service arm, but progress has been slow.

The ruling Labour administration is confident the books will balance, but opposition groups have lined up to take a swipe at the council's financial management.

Liberal Democrat city councillor Stephen Tall, chairman of the finance scrutiny committee, said: "In the most recent budget, set in February, officers recommended to councillors that £1.6m of savings could be made in time for the 2006-07 financial year.

"'Thank you' we said, but experience has taught us to be sceptical, so we asked the council's chief financial officer to report back to us what progress was being made.

"And the answer: 'very little'.

"This year the council underspend is projected to be £315,000 but I predict it will be much more once the final accounts are reconciled. So, a gaping budget aperture of £1m is patched up with a Band Aid and the council is able to struggle on, injured but alive."

The council hopes to generate an extra £350,000 from increases in city centre car parking charges and is anxious to discover how much it will receive from the Government to fund concessionary bus fares for OAPs. It hopes to get £400,000.

Labour council leader Alex Hollingsworth said: "We had a series of proposals put forward where savings could be made -- and all of them came with a health warning.

"The budget is well under control and well managed. The savings will be reductions in expenditure and this will be tied up before February."

The city council has a net annual budget of £25m.

Green councillor Elise Benjamin said: "This is yet another example of poor financial management and I am horrified it's still going on."

Independent Working Class Association leader Stuart Craft said: "If there is a black hole we are very concerned and will make sure the working classes are not affected."

How the council manages its finances is one area the Government closely looks at before rating the authority. The city council is currently ranked as `weak'.

City council chief executive Caroline Bull said: "All managers at the council are committed to making our services more efficient and cost-effective.

"The savings ideas we put forward for this year were subject to more detailed analysis and, in some cases, we're finding that savings will be less or later than we had hoped. We're continuing to look for savings across all departments."

September 12, 2005

Ashes to Ashes, funk to funky, we're all major cricket junkies

The cost to business has not been totted up - I imagine it will run into hundreds of millions of pounds in lost productivity. First, there is the cost of work simply not touched. I tried to get my head down today, and it started well (chiefly because I had meetings which kept me away from the temptation of "just quickly checking the score").

Secondly, because of the cost in bandwidth: the interweb must have taken one hell of a battering from obsessives like me clicking 'Refresh' every five seconds as we followed the BBC's online over-by-over scoreboard. (I had had to give up on the Grauniad's fantastically entertaining OBO website as rush-hour site traffic had slowed it to a tottering crawl.) In the end, I admitted defeat at 3 pm - when my live streaming radio commentary crashed for the umpteenth time - and searched for the nearest telly. My boss was already there, feigning to get through some paperwork. I'm now typing this watching the highlights - Channel 4's, not Kevin Pietersen's.

Ten weeks ago, it was all so very, very different. Heavy defeat in the first test match at Lord's prompted premature obits: "What had been billed as a tight contest between well-matched sides - the top two teams in the world fighting it out for supremacy - was not even close," The Guardian observed fairly on 25th July. What we could not have then known, would not dared have dreamed, was that England could out-play the Aussies in the next four matches, winning two (Edgbaston and Trent Bridge), just missing out on one (Old Trafford), and holding their nerve today at the Oval to clinch that dinky little wooden urn.

Amid the encomia which have rightly greeted this fantastic cricketing series, two thoughts have struck me. First, how remarkable it is that a game predicated on elaborate tactical strategies which put Risk to shame has proven so tantalising exciting. The pendulum has swung so gloriously wildly this whole summer - England and Australia tossing the advantage between each other as if the pin's been taken out - it has been impossible to rest easy if you're at all partisan. Our agonies and ecstasies have been elongated to snapping point over four or five days of unbearably oscillating tension. This is not the modern way. A football match - even if it goes to extra time and penalties - is settled within three hours. Ditto rugby. Yet a nation has been transfixed by a game whose ebbs and tides, its modulating rhythms, are integral to its out-moded charm.

It is ironic that while this paragon of sporting endurance was playing to packed houses, Prince Charles was eulogising "a gentler, calmer approach to life in a world which has become frenetic". For while test cricket is anomalous in this world of fast races and quick wins, it has adapted to modern living with huge success. Drawn-out drawn test matches which last five days (other than to make up for bad weather) are rarities, swift four-day results the norm. One-day internationals and Twenty20 games are rapidly growing the game's popularity. The Ashes is the crowning triumph for a domestic game whose outlook has rarely seemed healthier.

Which leads me to my second point. There has been much criticism that Sky has acquired the rights to England's international cricket games. As a non-Sky subscriber, a part of me shares those laments. But the plain fact is Channel 4 had to make a commercial decision, and cricket does not pay its way. Of course, if the programme controllers could guarantee all future test series would fizz and snap to the delight of eight million viewers the decision would be a cinch. Advertisers would be queuing round the block for a 30 second spot. But as Steve Hewlett dryly notes in today's Guardian: "spool forward to a wet July Thursday in the middle of a series against Pakistan"…

Sky's exclusive deal guarantees £220 million which can be pumped into promoting cricket in schools, and funding improvements to the county's clubs and grounds. Yes, there's a short-term hit to the game from the lower visibility non-terrestrial coverage will gain - though it hasn't noticably hampered Premiership football - but the England and Wales Cricket Board were right to hammer out the best deal available at the time. I am content to swap a cash-starved England team facing a drubbing in front of the whole nation for a thriving England team half the nation can cheer on pay-TV.

9/11 + 4: an abject failure of leadership

It didn't have to be like this. Today, the fourth anniversary of 9/11, brought news of the death in Iraq of another British soldier, the 95th to date. The US military has suffered 1,896 losses since war began in March 2003. Both these figures are dwarfed by the estimated 25,000 Iraqi civilian casualties killed by the Allied invasion. Neither George W. Bush nor Tony Blair will ever recant their decision to pursue military action in the teeth of international opposition.

As Jackie Ashley remarked, with uncharacteristic perception, of Mr Blair in the Guardian in September 2003: "he has a theological belief that it was right - he has to believe it was right, or he would go mad." Doubtless President Bush's 'dry drunk' evangelical convictions of his own moral rectitude are at least as strong. Both will view their actions as testament to their profound ability to lead their countries through the most testing trials and tribulations. That they are the co-authors of the most disastrous foreign policy decision in half a century is a fact from which they will as proudly dissent as historians will loudly condemn them.

It was all very different four years ago when, dumbfounded, the world watched the World Trade Centre crumple helplessly. We cried not only for the 2,106 Americans, but also for the 53 British, 34 Indians, 25 Dominicans, 20 Japanese, 18 Chinese, 18 Columbians, 16 Canadians, 16 Germans, 16 Filipinos, 15 Trinidadians, 14 Guyanans, 13 Ecuatorians, 13 Italians, 11 Ukrainians, and 208 other foreign-born residents who perished there. This was an international tragedy. It required an international response.

Mr Blair pledged solidarity, promising our two countries would stand "shoulder to shoulder", and a nation applauded. Le Monde - long before it became the newspaper for cheese-eating surrender monkeys - staunchly declared "We are all Americans now." For the first time in its history, Nato invoked Article Five and declared that the whole organisation had been attacked. The Americans had allies, a natural coalition of the willing. If Mr Bush were a true leader he would have recognised he had a unique opportunity to harness this unparalleled display of unity: to foster alliances, to combat terrorism, to make the US a shining beacon of enlightened democracy. Yes, it would have been a tough sell to his base. Yes, there would have been disagreements with peripatetic partners abroad. But the glistening possibility to confound his critics was briefly, tantalisingly his to grasp. And he coughed up the ball big time.

The 2004 US Presidential race was a test of character, both for the candidates and the American people. To reduce it to one question is to over-simplify, but not by much - who did US citizens trust most to defend them: President Bush or Senator Kerry? Fifty-one per cent of them chose Dubya, presumably on the rationale that he would shoot any intruder stone dead - or, more likely, ask someone to do it for him - no questions asked (then or later); while the 'flip-flopping' JFK would wait first to see if he recognised his assailant, so he could work out how best to disarm them, in order that justice might take its course. The irony was certainly noted that those who were most likely to trust Mr Kerry - the liberal-leaning Eastern Board states - were the ones most likely to have to face another terrorist attack. The deep Red, southern states of Oklahoma and Texas were never high up Al'Qaeda's target list of Must-Bomb destinations.

The iconic image the 43rd President has spent the last four years attempting to erase is the one Michael Moore's infamous polemic Farenheit 9/11 dwelt on most lingeringly: the moment Mr Bush's chief-of-staff, Andrew Card, leant over to inform his boss of the hit on the second WTC tower, and Mr Bush chose to continue reading My Pet Goat with a class of school-children. For seven minutes. If any piece of videotape should have nailed the idea that Mr Bush is a man at his best in a crisis - it was that one. If any piece of videotape should have nailed the idea that Mr Bush's faults were well compensated by the talents of his closest advisors - it was that one. To sit still, stunned, trapped, petrified while your country is under attack when you're the Commander-in-Chief is pretty lame. To know that he hired the staff who let him sit there stupefied is pretty terrifying. If you ain't got the smarts, at least hire you someone who has.

But the US was a nation in crisis, in mourning, desperately searching for some hope among the rubble: they wanted so much for Dubya to inspire them, to become their hero, to be their President. So when he eventually summoned up his famous strut, and held aloft the arm of an NYC fire-fighter at Ground Zero, a pact of mutually assured deception was implicitly, complicitly, sealed. Mr Bush would appear presidential in the future in return for the American people's promise to forget that he had not been presidential in the past.

Which is why the past fortnight has proved so damaging for the President. Yet again destruction has hit the US - this one an Act of God, not man-made - and yet again their Commander-in-Chief's capability is in tatters, smashed to pieces in Katrina's wake. It took a day for Mr Bush to appear even semi-concerned, mounting perhaps the least well-advised photo opportunity since John Gummer force-fed beef-burgers to his daughter to prove they were safe - Dubya flew over New Orleans, peeking out of the window of his jet to comment that it looked bad from 2,500 feet so "It's got to be doubly devastating on the ground."

He then succeeding in combining inane optimism ("out of the rubbles of Trent Lott's house - the guy lost his entire house - there's going to be fantastic house. I look forward to sitting on the porch.") with insane out-of-touchness, obsessing over 'zero tolerance' for looters at a time when some of his poorest, most vulnerable citizens were dying. To cap it all, he heaped praise on the out-of-his-depth head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown ("Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job"), before relieving him of his post-Katrina duties when the weight of media derision became just too much to bear.

Perhaps the President can take some solace in reflecting that it takes a special kind of skill to unite his former Secretary of State, Colin Powell, and hip-hop rapster Kanye West: both have, in their different styles, criticised his lacklustre performance. Mr Powell opined "not enough was done"; Mr West was more forthright, more bang-on-the-money: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." More worrying for Mr Bush is that his approval rating - crucial ahead of next year's mid-term House and Senate elections if he is to avoid being a lame duck - is now at its lowest ever, 42%, according to Time magazine's latest poll.

It is not as if Katrina could have been a complete shock. FEMA had already identified a hurricane strike on New Orleans as one of the three most likely catastrophic disasters likely to face the US (along with a terrorist attack on New York City, and a major earthquake in San Francisco). And Mr Bush had already observed the political collateral damage which could be wrought by gauche handling of a natural disaster. Back in 1992, his father, George H. Dubya, almost lost the state of Florida to then-Governor Clinton in the presidential election, following the federal government's much-criticised response to Hurricane Andrew's ravaging of Miami.

Dissing Dubya is a favourite liberal game on both sides of the Atlantic, but he should not be mis-underestimated. Despite all evidence to the contrary, 36% of Americans are satisfied Mr Bush did all he could to help those whose lives Katrina destroyed. And, according to the latest Zogby poll, he would still beat Senator Kerry in a future, hypothetical Presidential race. That Mr Bush has successfully established a sizeable wedge of über-loyal neocon support should not, however, blind us to the obvious. This is a President who has failed, and continues to fail, every serious test of leadership. He has frittered away the colossal good-will which was America's to build upon on 12th September, 2001, and has entrenched in its stead a hatred of his nation which will endure long beyond his pitifully abysmal tenure. I hope he will be forgotten by history. My fear is he will be remembered, but for all the wrong reasons.

September 09, 2005

Berliner Guardian - the first peek

So at long last we get a glimpse of the Grauniad's new-look. It'll take a bit of getting used to... My worry is it seems just a little too much like a trade journal. And surely they could have put the bar code somewhere less prominent?

September 08, 2005

Oxford City Council: how to lose £1m without really trying

Council finances are a labyrinth inside a maze inside a vortex. In the first year I was a councillor, I'm not sure I understood a single word of the Council's budget discussions. (It's possible I may have neglected to mention this fact in my Focus leaflets at the time.) I've cottoned-on a bit more since then, which is just as well as these days I chair Oxford's Finance Scrutiny Committee. To prove it, let me casually drop in some big numbers.

The Council has a net revenue budget of roughly £25m which it can spend on local services. That's a lot of money in an absolute sense, but not so much by comparison: it represents just 0.029% of the £85 billion spent by councils in England and Wales.

Which means that the city's political parties get to have spirited annual debates asserting that our respective group's budget is the only one which adds up and delivers local people all their heart's desires. While our opponents' budgets will bankrupt the city, and provoke such a wailing and gnashing of Council Tax-payers' teeth as Oxford has never before known. But no matter what our political hue, we are all dependent on the Council's officers to translate the budget from paper into reality.

In the most recent budget, set last February, the Council's officers recommended to councillors that £1.6 million of savings could be made in time for the 2006-07 financial year. Thank you, we said. The Labour administration, and the Lib Dem and Green opposition parties all adopted these savings (more or less, anyway. We made sure there were a few differences to ensure the voters could distinguish between us.).

But experience has taught us to be sceptical. So the Finance Scrutiny Committee asked the Council's chief financial officer to report back to us in June what progress was being made in making these £1.6m savings happen. He did so, clearly and concisely: very little. Indeed, reading the progress column was like wading through treacle in a heavy fog: "further work", "investigative work", "exploring" and "inconclusive" were the phrases depressingly strewn across the page, and with virtually no action timetabled.

In stark contrast - it would be comical if it weren't for real - all the £1.7m spending proposals are proceeding like billy-oh: "all employed", "recruitment complete", "job descriptions ready", "staff and budgets transferred", etc, with detailed timetables. This in spite of the clear injunction that unless officers achieved the savings they had promised their spending proposals would not be approved.

The cross-party Committee was not impressed, and we asked for a formal assessment to be reported in September. Yesterday, in fact. When we discovered some progress had been made: that £590k of the promised £1.6m savings looked like they might be made. Which only leaves a short-fall of a little more than £1m. (You can read the 4-page report for yourself here.)

Now a £1m 'black hole' in a budget of £25m is pretty serious. Or is it? This should be a simple enough question, but in the illusory Wonderland that is local government finance, smoke and mirrors are all important.

First, it's possible the City Council will receive a £400k windfall saving on the cost of Oxford's concessionary bus fares for senior citizens - currently funded from Council Tax - because the Government has promised to fund a national scheme. (As usual, Gordon Brown is being very unforthcoming about what money really will be available.)

Secondly, every year the Council under-spends its £25m budget. This year, the under-spend is currently projected to be £315k, but I confidently predict it will be much more than that once the final accounts are reconciled. So a gaping budget aperture of £1m is patched up with a band-aid, and the Council is able to struggle on, injured but alive, for another year.

It is just this resigned-to-reality attitude which sadly governs too much of the Council's financial thinking. Each year we muddle through, so all is fine. It isn't. A Council which, year after year, relies on one-off windfalls and under-spends may be financially stable, but that most certainly does not mean it is well-managed. A Council which year after year proves itself to be more adept at spending than saving is simply putting off the day when cold, hard reality comes knocking on the door. This is a Council which is wallowing in deferred failure.

And that is pretty much what the Finance Scrutiny Committee unanimously agreed. We have urged senior officers to get a grip on their departments, and not simply to accept that savings which, just six months ago, were achievable are now utterly impossible. This is quite simply too important an issue for councillors to roll over and play dead. Savings are not simply a way of ensuring a budget balances: they are necessary for the Council to be able to afford its priorities, providing the people of Oxford with the services for which they have paid.