What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

February 28, 2007

Trident: a conversation with Nick Harvey

So I answer the phone, and it’s Nick Harvey, the Lib Dems’ defence spokesman. I guess that, rather like being famous for 15 minutes, it’s something that should happen to everybody at least once in their lifetime. His call isn’t out-of-the-blue, of course - we’d arranged to speak about the forthcoming Trident debate, which will be the hot topic for discussion at the Lib Dems’ Spring conference in Harrogate this coming week-end.

Nick and the Lib Dem leader, Ming Campbell, will be backing the recommendations of the majority report of the Federal Policy Committee’s Trident working party. This recommends the UK immediately cut its nuclear stockpile in half, but take no decision on renewing Trident - as the current system has many years of life left in it - until after the 2010 Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT) talks.

I began by asking Nick to outline his reasoning. “We’re entering a dangerous period, globally,” he comments, “with both Iran and Korea showing an active interest in developing nuclear technology. This could result in a potentially significant increase in nuclear weapons as their neighbours start to equip in response. It’s absolutely vital to stop this happening.

“The UK is in a strong position to take a leading role, comparable to our stance against climate change, or poverty in Africa. Cutting our nuclear capability in half sends a clear signal of our good faith. If we get international commitment on disarmament we can then get rid of the other half.”

To which a fair response might be: is this realistic? After all, one of the most common criticisms of Tony Blair’s Iraq policy has been that he over-inflates the importance of his relationship with George Bush, that he imagines the UK to have greater leverage with the White House than either the past or the present would suggest is actually the case. Does Nick really believe wholesale disarmament is possible?

Yes, is the answer: “This isn’t completely pie-in-the-sky. The five-yearly NPT talks made modest progress in 1995 and 2000. No headway was possible in 2005 because of Iraq. But, by 2010, Bush and Blair will be gone: the climate could be very different.”

The amendment from the Lib Dem Peace and Security group to the Working Party’s motion which has been tabled for debate at conference worries him. It advocates retaining the current Trident weapons system for the rest of its life at an estimated cost of £1.5bn a year. Peculiarly, this is a more hawkish position than the leadership’s, as (presumably mistakenly) the amendment removes their proposed 50% cut to Trident.

More controversially, the amendment seeks unequivocally to nail down the Lib Dem position on any future ‘Son of Trident’, urging conference to take the decision now not to replace it. “But if we have already made the decision to disarm unilaterally,” says Nick, “the UK will be in no position to take leadership, and will have no cards left to play.”

It’s a familiar argument, one most famously deployed by Nye Bevan, who pleaded with the 1957 Labour party conference not to adopt unilateralism: “It would send a British Foreign Secretary naked into the conference-chamber.”

The question has to be asked: would Nick feel able to defend the party’s policy if the amendment at conference were passed? He - understandably - chooses his words with care: ”The amendment is an inherently illogical position, and it won’t take political opponents long to spot this. It would be an uphill struggle to defend it convincingly. To keep Trident going, but to say no to any successor lands you with all the cost and none of the influence. At least the unilateralist position, though not mine, is intellectually clearer and cleaner.”

Which segues us neatly into the argument in favour of retaining Trident, and not (yet) ruling out renewing it: deterrence. Is Trident an effective deterrent? Nick replies instantly: “Absolutely. The big issue is future unpredictability. The current system has another 20 years in it. A new system would take us through to 2060. Who knows what the world might be like by then?

“Fifty years ago, would anyone have predicted the global situation today? Being a nuclear power could in desperate circumstances give the UK the ability, for example, to offer humanitarian relief to the population of another nuclear power - which the UK could do if it’s perceived as an honest broker.” There is an obvious counter-argument to this, of course: a nuclear-free state is more likely to be perceived as an honest broker than one which retains such weapons of mass destruction.

The key issue in the debate for me is the increasingly complex global situation. Nuclear weapons were developed at a time when the USA and Britain were at war with Germany. Between 1945 and 1989, global politics remained bi-polar, ‘West’ versus ‘East’. The collapse of Communism didn’t just splinter the Berlin Wall into a thousand pieces: the so-called ‘world order’ which, however patchily, was kept in check by Nato (aka the USA) and the Soviet Union also fragmented.

To the five legitimate nuclear states - the USA, Russia, the UK, France and China - we can add five non-legit states: Israel, Pakistan, India, North Korea and (perhaps, soon enough) Iran. Frankly, the idea that the UK unilaterally disarming will persuade the other nine to follow our example beggars belief. The five non-legit states are not equipping to defend themselves from the UK, but as protection from the future potential aggression of their neighbours. Whatever traction we have - and it would be rash to exaggerate it - will come from sitting down with them at the same negotiating table.

There are currently just too many variables. What are the future intentions of either Russia or China? We simply don’t know. As Nick says, “There is no pending nuclear threat from any one state - but who can say that will be the case over the next 50 years?” Then there is the question of non-state actors, terrorist groups with WMD operating beyond the control (but perhaps with the tacit approval) of national governments: the perfect front for an enemy looking to commit an atrocity on foreign soil with plausible deniability.

International terrorism dominates thinking about defence matters. But there is an equally real, if less immediate, danger: climate change. The Foreign Secretary, Margaret Beckett, made the connection in a speech in Berlin last year:
“Wars fought over limited resources – land, fresh water, fuel – are as old as history itself. By drastically diminishing those resources in some of the most volatile parts of the world, climate change creates a new and potentially catastrophic dynamic. The Middle East is a case in point. Five per cent of the world's population already has to share only one per cent of the world's water. Climate change will mean there is even less water to go round. Current climate models suggest that – globally – Saudi, Iran and Iraq will see the biggest reductions in rainfall. Egypt – a pivotal country for regional stability – will suffer a double blow.”
The unpredictability of today’s global situation means the stakes are high. This, Nick argues as we conclude our conversation, is why the 2010 NPT talks are so vital: “Our objective for the next few years must be to make sufficient progress with multilateral negotiations so that another generation of nukes becomes unnecessary.”

My final question: what does Nick think will happen at conference? He doesn’t know: fair enough. “There is everything to play for at Harrogate. The FPC motion is something the party can unite around. I dearly hope people can see there is something here for everyone.”

* You can read the motion backing the recommendations of the Majority report of the FPC Trident working party, together with the proposed amendments from the Peace and Security group, over at Lib Dem Voice here.

February 27, 2007

Podcast #1: keeping Council Tax down

Well, here it is - my first podcast. Not too sure if this is a step back from video, or if it fosters the kind of cosy bonhomie fireside chat which would make FDR proud. Whatever, I decided it had to be tried.

A report back from me on last night’s Council Tax-setting meeting in Oxford. Happy listening.

powered by ODEO

Beaton, not stirred

Last year the Indy chose the headline, Is Alistair Beaton Britain's greatest living satirist?, to trail its profile of the Spitting Image writer turned playwright.

The answer is clearly no*, as anyone who has seen his most recent works - The Trial of Tony Blair and A Very Social Secretary - will well understand. (He was also, lest we remember, co-responsible for 1990’s Dunrulin, an execrably unfunny BBC1 sit-com depicting Margaret and Denis Thatcher’s post-Downing Street lives.)

Rather, he is the clunking fist of modern satire - shades of grey, nuance, character development and subtlety are all knocked to the four corners of the earth by his tediously heavy-handed approach.

Tomorrow, Mr Beaton’s executive producer on those earlier collaborations, David Aukin, turns his attention to John Prescott in ITV1’s Confessions of a Diary Secretary. I won’t be watching. Nor, it seems, will The Guardian’s John Harris, who lambasts it as “another contribution to the chain of comedies and dramas in which TV's much coveted edginess is simply a matter of wildly speculative scripts about politicians in office”.

However, I do feel the need to stick up for the show in one respect. Mr Harris alleges that:
Its acme of awfulness is a reconstruction of the watershed Brown-Blair summit at Prescott's Admiralty Arch flat in 2004. Brown requests a higher chair than Blair's, only for the latter to observe that - please, hold on to your sides - "Gordon's always looked down on me."
He’s entitled to his opinion about the humour. But, at least if we are to believe the Indy on Sunday’s political editor, Steve Richards, the incident is real enough. Indeed, he wrote a column describing just such a scene in July 2004:
The truce began last November [2003], when Mr Prescott famously hosted a dinner, acting as a mediator for both men after they had fallen out in public. Friends of the duo describe that evening as "cathartic". Mr Prescott is uniquely trusted by both figures. Indeed if there was not a John Prescott there would be a need to invent one in the current stormy climate. I am told that when the three of them first sat awkwardly around Mr Prescott's table, Mr Brown complained about his chair, that it was uncomfortable and too low. Mr Prescott rushed off to get the Chancellor a more satisfactory seat. He asked Mr Blair if he also wanted a new chair, to which the Prime Minster replied, "No, it's alright, Gordon has always looked down on me." That characteristically self-deprecating and accurate joke lightened the tense proceedings.
I have to say I find it hard to believe that (rather pointed) joke would actually have lightened the atmosphere between Messrs Blair and Brown. But I find it even harder to believe that this example of accurate characterisation will transform Confessions from overblown farce into acute satire.

* The answer is Chris Morris as any fule kno.

Correction (28/2/07): this post originally, and erroneously, referred to Alistair Beaton as the writer of Confessions of a Diary Secretary. The only link to Mr Beaton is via the show's executive producer, David Aukin, and I have amended the article accordingly. Though he hasn't requested I apologise - simply to correct what was wrong - I'd like to take this opportunity do so anyway.

February 26, 2007

Counting the cash

Here’s a fun thing for a cold, dark evening - browsing the Electoral Commission’s register of donations to political parties. This, for example, is the breakdown for the Lib Dems for each of the past six years.

2001 = 312 donations with an overall total of £1,537,428.32
2002 = 247 donations with an overall total of £937,629.10
2003 = 386 donations with an overall total of £2,964,902.85
2004 = 445 donations with an overall total of £3,889,052.56
2005 = 646 donations with an overall total of £6,934,233.53
2006 = 545 donations with an overall total of £4,912,266.14

Encouraging to see a generally upward trend over the last six years; and in particular the healthy £4.9m of donations last year - an especially impressive total given both the, erm, challenging year the party endured, and the stage of the electoral cycle we’re at (just compare it with 2002’s total).

Of course, the real fun to be had is from nosing through the list looking for names you recognise...

Why the UK's universities are dwarfed by Stanford

Here’s a rather frightening statistic… the ‘Ross Group’ of 75 universities in the UK raised £450m in donations during 2004-05 (the most recent year for which figures are available).

Sounds pretty impressive, doesn’t it?

However, it is rather put in perspective by Stanford University, which raised US$911m in 2006 - that’s £464m at today’s exchange rates.

In other words, Stanford raised more philanthropic gifts last year than the rest of the British higher education system combined.

And even that stark fact paints our universities in an overly flattering light. Oxford and Cambridge universities collectively benefited from £185m of that estimated £450m. The top 10 US universities raised an eye-watering £2.14bn between them.

Small wonder, then, that though the UK and USA governments spend roughly the same proportion of GDP on higher education, private giving means the overall investment in universities in America (2.7% of GDP) is more than double that in Britain (1.1%).

If this doesn’t worry us, it should do. There are two principal effects:
  1. British universities have less money to spend on their students.
    Edinburgh, which is Britain’s third wealthiest university, can boast £9,100 of endowment per student - which means they can invest roughly £450 a year in each student’s education (assuming a 5% income return on its investments). Princeton, though, has £830,700 of endowment per student - the equivalent of £41,500 a year to invest in each student’s education.
    Guess which university will be able to afford to offer the best education?

  2. Success generates success: the higher the endowment, the greater the risk (and therefore profit) a university can take in managing its assets.
    The average annualised return on endowment investments in the wealthiest 10 UK universities between 1994 and 2005 was 7% - it was 12% for the US’s wealthiest 10. Which means that (because the US universities were starting from a higher base) the absolute gap has widened - by £12.5bn in just the last three years.
    Guess which country will be able to afford to offer the best education?
It is a myth that US universities have always been rich: 25 years ago, Harvard was the only US university with an endowment of US$1bn. Now there are 56 such institutions. Europe has only two, Oxford and Cambridge.

The recent announcement by Tony Blair of matched government funding for donations to universities is, therefore, welcome. But, as can be clearly seen, it’s just a start.

And, of course, none of this is helped by the fact that most of the top British universities currently have to use much of what endowment income they do sweat to offset the losses they make on teaching undergraduates because of the government cap on tuition fees.

There is an obvious deal to be done here.

In return for UK universities being able to start charging (incrementally) a more realistic price for the cost of the education they provide, the government might reasonably expect increasing amounts of endowment income to be designated for student financial assistance to ensure the poorest in society can still afford to apply.

It’s what happens in the US - which is, in part, why many more Americans have the opportunity to experience higher education than we Brits do.

* The boring declaration of interest: I’m an educational fundraiser for St Anne’s College in Oxford.

Stats extracted from the Council for Aid to Education report, Data & Trends on Giving to Education (Feb 2007); and the Sutton Trust’s report, Univerity Fundraising - an update (Dec 2006).

February 25, 2007

And back down to earth

The following - short - conversation took place this afternoon:

So, did you see me on the telly, then?
Friend: Yes - you could have done with some make-up.

The day Mr Blair reached his point of no return

Today’s Observer previews one of the revelations to be broadcast in the second part of Michael Cockerell’s profile of Tony Blair - the confirmation by Mr Blair’s former chief policy advisor, Sir Stephen Wall, that the Prime Minister and his press secretary Alastair Campbell cynically played the anti-French card to justify the Labour Government’s decision to go to war with Iraq on a false prospectus:
'I recall the moment,' Wall says in the documentary, 'because I happened to be in the corridor in Number 10 when he and Alastair Campbell were walking down the corridor and they decided effectively to play the anti-French card. They'd been given an opportunity to do so because President Chirac had given a broadcast interview the previous day in which he said that, as of that moment, France would veto a resolution authorising war.' Wall says it was clear that Chirac had not ruled out the possibility of future French support for such a compromise.
The moment Sir Stephen recalls was, I believe, the point of no return for Mr Blair - the day he chose dishonest means to promote dishonest ends. This is what I wrote about the incident, almost two years ago, in the lead-up to the 2005 general election:
One incident defined for me the depths to which Mr Blair's desperately ugly utilitarianism plummeted in the build-up to war. A second UN resolution authorising military action against Iraq was, the Prime Minister knew, vital to obtain before he could give the go-ahead to the right-wing, gung-ho, nut-jobs in the White House. Without it, he might not win the vote approving war in the House of Commons, and British troops might be liable to prosecution for war crimes in the international courts. Such a resolution required a unanimous vote of approval from the nine UN Security Council members: the trouble was the UK and US could scarcely muster half that number, despite the blackmail, bribes and arm-twisting to which the poorer members were subjected. So what did Mr Blair decide to do? He pulled that trusty old British stand-by - blame the French.

President Chirac had pledged to wield France's veto against a second resolution unless robust proof of Saddam Hussein's contravention of UN resolutions could be demonstrated. The threat was academic, as Mr Chirac himself noted, because France was not alone in this position on the Security Council: in fact, she was in the majority. Summing up, he concluded: "My position is that, whatever the circumstances, France will vote 'no' because she considers this evening that there are no grounds for waging war in order to achieve the goal we have set ourselves, that is to disarm Iraq."

Mr Blair, and his Bad Angel, Alastair Campbell, spotted the chink in the Gallic armour. Though Mr Chirac had been referring only to "this evening", meaning the French position was not fixed in granite, it was too late: the full might of the xenophobic populist press was unleashed against the 'French worm' with Mr Blair's full connivance. The story was spun to show France deliberately and maliciously putting the kibosh into Mr Blair's best endeavours at international consensus. It was a crude and disgraceful distortion, reprehensible ends used to justify squalid means. Mr Blair chose his destiny - American imperialism over European partnership - and now deserves all the electoral opprobrium that can be heaped upon him.
Mr Blair’s departure from No 10, and Gordon Brown’s likely assumption of office, doesn’t change anything. Every single member of today’s Labour Cabinet voted for the war. As I remarked in 2005, when explaining why Labour deserved to lose the election:
They are all stained by Mr Blair's decision. And at least the Prime Minister believed in what he was doing: most of those who went along with Tony for the ride did so not out of gut conviction, but out of expedience, or careerism, or ignorance.

Don't Watch This, Watch That!

Don’t read this posting - it’s only purpose is to blog-up the new ‘Top of the Blogs: the Golden Dozen’ feature I’ve posted over at Lib Dem Voice… 12 of the best (including seven of the most popular) articles featured on the Aggregator in the last week.


Just so you know

If you live in the BBC South region, I’m on the lunch-time Politics Show today (BBC1, 12 noon) discussing how politicians market themselves. I’ll be appearing alongside Ed Vaizey, blogging Tory MP for Wantage, Oscar van Nooijen, a former fundraising colleague and now a New Labour councillor here in Oxford… and Captain Sensible, in his latest guise as leader of the direct-democracy Blah Party.

I’m told we’ll “probably be asking if new technology can bring politicians closer to the voters, if new media methods of campaigning are more effective than hitting the streets and whether people are turned off by politicians using new technology to get their message across - does the public think it's gimmicky?”

I still have an hour to think up something semi-coherent and interesting…

February 23, 2007

Stockton on TVs

On this day, in 1959, so the BBC informs me, prime minister Harold Macmillan and Soviet premier Nikita Kruschev ‘spoke of "cultural matters of interest between the two countries" and ways to encourage the exchange of literature, film and study.’ Which was, I’m sure, all terribly useful.

It does at least segue me into this week’s too-lazy-to-write-anything-proper YouTube clip: Peter Cook being interviewed as the Earl of Stockton (as Supermac was later ennobled) by John Bird for a 1986 edition of Saturday Night Live.

It’s followed by a performance from Twisted Sister (if that’s your thing).

February 22, 2007

Will the Lib Dems stick up for their own policy?

I’ve been biding my time on the vexed issue of road pricing. Not because I’m in two minds about it: road pricing is absolutely essential. As I wrote here, in June 2005, it “offers a new, and fairer, income stream to pay for public transport improvements; and offers government an highly elastic fiscal mechanism to regulate road capacity according to the local demand for it.”

No, this post has been in the pending tray because I wanted to see how long it would be before the Lib Dems remembered that our party supports road pricing (it was adopted by conference in Bournemouth in 2004). The answer was - almost a month.

I think it was the Telegraph which first picked up on the petition which propelled road pricing into the news: Half a million tell Downing St: Scrap road pricing plans (27th January).

Eventually, on 12th February, our Shadow Transport Secretary, Alistair Carmichael, issued a press release. Instead of setting out the Lib Dem view, he noted, “This response demonstrates the need for the Government to be open and honest with people about their plans for road pricing.” I think the word I’m looking for is pusillanimous.

To be fair, this statement was followed up yesterday, a mere 26 days after the story first broke, by a further, and slightly less equivocal, press release: “Tony Blair's email demonstrates a total lack of leadership. To convince the public of the case for road user pricing, he must give a guarantee that it will be a different tax, not an extra tax.”

Now this is an important point. Much of the protest from those opposed to road pricing has been generated by the view that this is yet another New Labour stealth tax. Such public scepticism is scarcely surprising given this Government’s record in fleecing the taxpayer on the sly. Lib Dem policy is to support a revenue-neutral switch from fuel duty - which we would abolish - to road pricing, with motorists paying to use road space according to when and where they are driving.

The policy was summed up pretty well by Tom Brake (then our Shadow Transport Secretary) in his 2005 speech to the party conference:
Road pricing is a fundamentally liberal policy. There is a value in ensuring freedom from congestion and pollution. There is a value in having liveable neighbourhoods and cities. …

Road User Pricing offers freedom, fairness and trust.

FREEDOM: from pollution, congestion and the effects of climate change.

FAIRNESS: by promoting a ‘fair tax’ instead of a ‘fuel tax’. Why is it that rural dwellers, where there is no public transport alternative, have to pay a lot more for fuel than in urban centres where this alternative actually exists. Road user pricing would reduce their fuel costs.

Research shows that under our proposal whilst congestion would halve, four out of five journeys would actually be cheaper.

And TRUST: By scrapping fuel duty you would decouple the cost of fuel from the tax that has to be paid. This would bring far greater transparency over what people pay to drive their cars.
He was also careful to dispel the civil liberties qualms that party members (understandably) harbour:
Let me lay to rest at the outset the concerns about a so-called ‘spy in the sky’. Passive technology means that civil liberties would not be compromised by road user pricing in any shape or form. The car would communicate with the satellite, but does not tell the satellite where it is. You are not being tracked.
Road pricing is a policy in which the Lib Dems have been ahead of the game, with Labour playing reluctant catch-up. It is a policy which utilises the market system to make better, more efficient use of resources, and which will improve the environment. A liberal, Liberal policy.

Which makes it all the more agonising that the party has ducked and covered for the past month, allowing the Government to take the flak for making a complete hash of putting forward a perfectly sensible policy. The Lib Dems can hardly criticise the Prime Minister of lacking leadership on this issue when we have shown ourselves to have absolutely no fire in our own bellies. This was a real opportunity missed.

PS: though the Lib Dem response to the road pricing controversy has been disappointing, we do at least have the right policy. The Tories’ backing of the anti-road pricing petition simply confirms something I have long suspected: they believe in the workings of the market only if they think it will profit them personally. And, of course, it shows - yet again - that their talk of wanting to improve the environment was never anything more than hot air.

February 20, 2007

The art of spurious opinion polls

I’m a self-confessed opinion poll-geek, as regular readers may have garnered. But I have had my fill of ‘what if’ polls making psephologically spurious claims to predict what might happen if/when Gordon Brown faces up to David Cameron and Ming Campbell.

The latest (I’m sure you’ve seen) dominates today’s Grauniad front page - the headline screams, Brown v Cameron - exclusive poll puts Labour 13 points adrift. The question which prompts this hyperbole asks how the public might vote if Mr Brown led Labour, the Tories are led by Mr Cameron, and Sir Menzies leads the Lib Dems.

Astute readers will have noticed a small flaw: one of these people currently does not lead his party. What ICM are in fact asking is: how well do you think Gordon Brown might do a job he’s not currently doing? To read anything into the answer, other than that the Chancellor currently suffers a PR deficit, is plain silly.

Opinion pollsters often defend their claim to represent a science by pointing out (quite rightly) that all they can do is take a snapshot of public opinion; that they can’t predict the future. But they do their art no good by asking questions which seek to anticipate the future. Especially when they know such polling will be spun by newspapers with their own agenda.

February 19, 2007

Oxford Labour and Greens: muddle-headed or political opportunists?

Well, at least no-one can say that Oxford's rubbish is being swept under the carpet. The local press are reporting that councillors are in "major revolt" over the 'recycling revolution' - introduced last November by the new Lib Dem administration with all-party support - which is on-track to double the amount of recycling in the city.

"Major revolt" is, perhaps, an exaggeration. I say 'perhaps' because it's becoming increasingly hard to tell quite how committed are the Labour and Green groups to the City Council's recycling expansion. On the one hand, they pay lip-service to the obvious - that everyone wants to see an increase in recycling in the city; but on the other hand they seem intent on undermining at every possible opportunity the Council staff implementing the scheme.

A cynic might infer that both Labour and Greens are more than a little guilty of political opportunism - hoping to share the credit as the recycling rates improve, but to wash their hands of the difficult decisions being taken by the Lib Dems which are needed for this improvement to happen. But, as I'm not a cynic, I'll charitably assume they are simply muddle-headed.

The issue has reared its head again as a result of an odd Council motion passed last month by Labour and the Greens, which sought to undo a fundamental tenet of the new recycling scheme.

All party groups are agreed that weekly collections of recyclable materials, and fortnightly collections of residual (non-recyclable) household waste, are the best way to reduce landfill. It stands to reason that - if you are going to move to fortnightly collections of non-recyclable waste - you need to ensure it can be stored hygienically.

That is why all households are being offered a wheelie bin. No-one is being forced to have one, not least because we recognise some households (eg, flats, or terraced houses with no gardens) simply cannot cope with a wheelie bin - in such cases special sacks are being provided as an alternative. My experience, as both a resident and as a ward councillor, is that the Council's officers are being polite, diligent and understanding in their conversations with residents. The handful of problems which have occurred in my Headington ward as the scheme has been rolled-out have been amicably settled.

However, Labour and the Greens have joined together to demand that any householder can refuse to have a wheelie bin for any reason at all. Sounds pretty reasonable, you might say. However, it ignores the following facts:

(1) Neither Labour nor Greens are proposing to return to the old weekly collections. Instead, their policy would result in more bin bags being left out on the streets, almost certainly resulting in an increase in rats and other vermin. Wheelie bins are not rat-proof - is anything? - but they are certainly more secure than loose sacks. Why should any resident have to suffer a likely increase in vermin simply because their neighbour doesn't like the look of a wheelie bin?

(2) The sacks provided to households which cannot cope with a wheelie bins are over three times more expensive, yet neither Labour nor the Greens ear-marked extra cash in last week's budget for a switch away from wheelie bins to sacks.

(3) The Council has a duty of care to its staff, and it's clear that wheelie bins are more popular with the collections crews than loose sacks, which offer no protection from hazardous materials. A Council employee has taken the highly unusual step of e-mailing all councillors to point this out:
"How many people including members of the council are aware of the many hazards when picking up refuse sacks. Injuries are plentiful, such as broken glass slashing operatives legs, needle stick injuries from discarded hypodermic syringes and strains on back and other muscles and limbs from lifting overweight sacks. We are then put in the firing line for taking too many 'sicky' days off work. The operatives are also expected to scoop up waste when bags are ripped apart by scavenging animals. The introduction of the wheelie bin service has brought a breath of fresh air to the collection of waste and the operatives I have spoken to are 100% in favour."
It will be interesting to see if Labour and the Greens - often happy to pose as the champions of staff rights - will recognize the ill-effects of their motion on the Council's work-force.

Perhaps the least pleasant aspect of this "major revolt" is one Labour councillor's publicly-stated wish to make this a vote of no confidence in my colleague, Cllr Jean Fooks, the portfolio holder for a Cleaner City, who has the unenviable job of implementing the recycling revolution.

Such personal attacks reflect far worse on those levelling them than they do on Cllr Fooks, who has devoted huge amounts of her time to ensuring the scheme is implemented flexibly, fairly and efficiently. Where mistakes have been made - as they inevitably have been - she has apologized, and ensured they are swiftly corrected. But she at least has never lost sight of the reason we are doing all this: to double the recycling rate, and reduce this city's landfill.

I can safely say that Cllr Fooks has the complete confidence of the Lib Dem administration, and that she is acting in the name of us all. I hope the unfortunate views expressed by Labour's Cllr Colin Cook do not accurately reflect his group's line, and that we might once again see a return to cross-party working to ensure the whole Council unites behind what is proving to be a hugely successful scheme.

With only one-third of the city so far covered by the new scheme, Oxford's recycling rate has already increased from 19% this time last year to 27%. In most cities, this would be a cause for celebration, and an occasion to thank the Council staff and local residents who have helped achieve such a result. It's a real shame that there are some who, instead, view it as an opportunity to indulge in some petty, partisan grand-standing.

February 18, 2007

I can see the park from here

I can’t pretend that delivering leaflets to tower blocks is my absolute favourite activity for a Sunday afternoon. However, it does have its compensations, as I re-discovered today when distributing the latest Lib Dem newsletter round Ploughman’s Tower in the Northway estate of Oxford East.

First, it’s warm and dry inside - less important today, but a boon when you’re seeking refuge from wet and blustery weather.

And, secondly, the views from the top of the tower. This photo was snapped from the top floor, looking east towards the John Radcliffe Hospital in my Headington ward. A shame it was so overcast, but still a pretty impressive sight.

It’s one of the constant delights of Oxford that, as a small, densely-packed city surrounded by greenbelt, you’re only ever a few minutes away from countryside.

I should also pay tribute to my ward colleague, David Rundle, who helped me deliver one of the 14 floors. The first floor. That’s what political comradeship is all about.

We then repaired to Old Headington village, only a five minute drive from Ploughman’s Tower - but it somehow feels a lot further away.

I took the opportunity to nip into Bury Knowle Park, right in the heart of Headington - and, therefore, for such is the barking madness of the Boundary Commissioners, just outside Headington ward.

The park is in post-winter splendour right now, with naked trees hinting that spring is soon to break through. And the new lamps the Council has installed are helping to combat the lingering gloom. Terrifically tranquil.

Now if I could just get rid of the ink still staining my fingers…

February 16, 2007

Ming more popular than Dave

Visit the webcameronuk channel on YouTube, and you can view the nine most recent videos recorded by David Cameron for his vlog. To date they have, collectively, been viewed a grand total of 377 times, an average of 42 views each.

Visit the Liberal Democrats channel, and you can view the nine most recent videos recorded by Ming, Norman Lamb and Nick Clegg. To date they have, collectively, been viewed a grand total of 3,235 times, an average of 359 views each.

I’m sure there’s a Focus bar chart in these stats somewhere… but it’s not exactly a two-horse race, is it?

Bleary viewing

Inspiration for Friday’s regular YouTube clip was provided by Jonathan Calder’s sly post, Hazel Blears: A nation holds its breath, which has the nerve to suggest that an announcement of an announcement by the Labour Party chairman that she may, or may not, contest the deputy leadership is not the world’s most earth-shattering event.

Anyway, this six-minute ‘Best of Paxman’ clip-fest includes the infamous joust between Jeremy and then Home Office minister Ms Blears which took place on Newsnight two years ago (it’s 2 mins 36 secs in). I call it a joust… it’s more of a skewering, really. The words ‘rabbit’ and ‘headlights’ spring to mind.

Oh, and a certain Michael Howard briefly features, too.

February 15, 2007

Seen and Hurd

According to single-sourced gossip-mongers Popbitch:
Lord Douglas Hurd was seen last week at a foreign policy think-tank seminar near Temple, "trying to get in but unable to work the lift. He didn't seem to know which button to push, or indeed that one had to push a button to make it move at all."

Good to remember that this man was for years our Foreign secretary. Let's hope his finger was never close to the nuclear button.
Personally I’m a little relieved. Surely it would have been more disturbing if he’d shown himself to be trigger-happy when trying to work the lift?

Where have all the big beasts gone?

Adrian Hamilton makes a fair point in today’s Independent:
The New Labour government will soon be 10 years old. But what may well be most remarkable about this administration as it approaches its birthday is not so much its longevity but how little heavyweight talent it has at the end. Think of almost any cabinet since the Second World War and even the weakest of governments - the later Wilson administrations, John Major's and Jim Callaghan's - had some pretty formidable figures round the table. You might think some overrated, others positively loathsome, but it is hard to deny that Tony Crossland, Denis Healey, Roy Jenkins and Dick Crossman from the Wilson government or Ken Clarke, Michael Heseltine and Chris Patten from Thatcher and Major's, were pretty formidable politicians, "big beasts" in the jungle that is Westminster.

Compare that with the present Cabinet and, if you exclude the PM and the Chancellor, it is hard to see a small duck never mind a large beast.
Of course, it’s a little too easy to look back in wonder and pick out exempla. Harold Wilson’s cabinets also included such yesterday’s men as Fred Peart, Michael Stewart and Richard Marsh (to name but three). Margaret Thatcher made space for dull worthies like David Waddington, John Moore and David Hunt.

But the point remains: the top three posts - Chancellor, Foreign Secretary, Home Office - were occupied by, inter alia, Jenkins, Callaghan and Healey (under Wilson) and Lawson, Howe and Hurd (under Thatcher). All except Lawson ran for the leadership of their respective parties, and, if successful, would have become Prime Minister.

Small wonder, then, that when Frank Field cast around for an alternative to Gordon Brown as Labour leader (in yesterday’s well-reported Grauniad article) he ducked naming an alternative until his last, four-word sentence: “Step forward, David Miliband.” If Mr Miliband’s your answer, a well-worn put-down is required: ‘What the hell was your question?’

But then if you look at this page - the current Cabinet - you see Labour’s problem: who else is there? (Which is all the more remarkable considering this Government was originally elected with over 400 MPs.)

Why this dearth of talent? Is politics failing now to attract the right calibre of candidates? Does the growing scrutiny of MPs’ lives filter out bright sparks with some vim and vigour about them? Has the increasing centralisation of Westminster politics overloaded cabinet ministers with tedious operational minutiae? Are our expectations unrealistically high?

February 14, 2007

Facing up to facts

This time last year, then Lib Dem education spokesman Ed Davey - noting the drop in applications to English universities from English students - commented:
“This decline in university applicants shows student fees are already beginning to bite.”
I wonder what his successor, Sarah Teather, will say in response to the news today that applications have risen by 7.2% this year?

The reason for last year’s downward blip was evident to anyone who looked at the figures - 2005 had been a bumper year for applications (up 9.7% in England) as prospective students sensibly sought to apply to univerities before top-up fees kicked-in. It was unsurprising that 2006 saw a correction.

The Labour Government was hypocritical to introduce tuition fees, having explicitly ruled them out in its 1997 manifesto; and even more hypocritical to introduce top-up fees having explicitly ruled them out in its 2001 manifesto. As a result, parents were given less time than they should have been to prepare for their introduction, and many have found it harder to fund their kids through education as a direct result.

But it is the right policy - indeed, the only policy - which will give our universities any chance of standing on their own two feet. The Lib Dems need to start facing up to that reality.

Barren of Thurso

Sky News’ political editor Adam Boulton has published his annual Valentine’s list of the top 10 most fanciable MPs.

Congratulations are due to Nick Clegg (No. 3) and Lynne Featherstone (7) for holding the Lib Dems’ end up (so to speak).

But the real scandal, of course, is the omission of John Thurso, the party’s very own love-walrus (© Lib Dem Voice), so recently voted sexiest male by this blog’s readers.

Polls can be so fickle.

February 13, 2007

There's seven hours of my life I'll never get back

Last night was Oxford City Council's budget-setting meeting. It's always a long-winded, grandstanding, pettily partisan affair (show me a Council budget debate which isn't); this year's was no exception.

As you may gather, I'm no fan of such occasions. But as I was co-presenting the Lib Dem administration's budget, I had little choice but to endure the whole seven hours from start to finish.

  • You can read my speech proposing the Lib Dem administration's budget here.
  • You can read all about Labour and the Greens' decision to ramp-up park-and-ride charges here.
  • And you can read all about the deal the Lib Dems and Greens eventually struck here - including meeting the Lib Dem pledge to keep Council Tax down.
And now the rest of tonight is devoted to not doing politics.

On defections...

I’ve been reflecting on the nature of tribal allegiances today - Oxford readers will know why, as the Lib Dem city group has experienced another defection, the third since last May. (Two to Independents, including this week’s, and one to Labour.)

Understandably, I guess, the local press is trailing it as a ‘bombshell’, and implies some kind of internal turmoil. Not remotely true - as a minority administration, the Lib Dems successfully steered through a budget last night which delivered on our pledge to keep Council Tax down, and funded many (though not all) of our priorities.

We did so with good-natured unanimity - in spite of the tensions inherent in a seven-hour Full Council meeting, which was the usual pathetic pantomime but with knobs on. But no amount of denial from me here will convince those who don’t wish to be convinced, so I’ll move on.

What did occur to me was that our party’s tendency to be non-tribal is both our blessing and our curse.

Very few people are born and brought-up as Liberals - even if they are gut liberals - and certainly not to the same extent as Labour and the Tories, where there’s residual, though ever-declining, class-based allegiance. To become a Lib Dem is mostly an active, intellectual choice; rather than an instinctual reaction associated with where you live, your perceived social class, or actual economic standing. And that’s a Good Thing.

(To avoid mis-understanding: I well appreciate there are many Tory and Labour supporters who also make an active choice to vote for their party. I am being deliberately broad-brush.)

But that strength can be a weakness, too, for we sometimes lack the tribal DNA which glues parties together through thick and thin. Witness those left-wingers in the Labour Party, who hold their nose while voting for a government which waged war on a false prospectus. Or observe the Tory right-wing’s loathing of Mr Cameron’s ‘hug-a-hoodie’ agenda, while grudgingly acknowledging the increase in the party’s ratings (and praying he doesn’t really mean what he says).

What has been encouraging in the past 12 months has been the resilience of the party. A little over a year ago, the Telegraph splashed its front-page with the hyperbolic wish-fulfilment headline, ‘Lib Dems in freefall’. Well, 2006 may not have been our best ever year, but freefall? Not so much.

We are a party founded on an ideology: a party which is about ideas, or it is nothing. I would never want the Lib Dems to become a group of my-party-right-or-wrong├╝ber-loyalist adherents. We are free-thinking individuals, and proud of it. Which is why we’re so damn awkward.

PS: just noticed - this is my 500th post. Just thought I'd mention it really.

February 10, 2007

Hype or hope?

Senator Barack Obama (D-Il) finally announced his Presidential candidacy today. You can watch his speech in full here.

I’m still not too sure whether the reality will match the hype. But if the reality matches the rhetoric the next couple of years are going to be a helluva ride.

His final, poetic paragraphs are stirring stuff:

As Lincoln organized the forces arrayed against slavery, he was heard to say: "Of strange, discordant, and even hostile elements, we gathered from the four winds, and formed and fought to battle through."

That is our purpose here today.

That's why I'm in this race.

Not just to hold an office, but to gather with you to transform a nation.

I want to win that next battle - for justice and opportunity.

I want to win that next battle - for better schools, and better jobs, and health care for all.

I want us to take up the unfinished business of perfecting our union, and building a better America.

And if you will join me in this improbable quest, if you feel destiny calling, and see as I see, a future of endless possibility stretching before us; if you sense, as I sense, that the time is now to shake off our slumber, and slough off our fear, and make good on the debt we owe past and future generations, then I'm ready to take up the cause, and march with you, and work with you.

Together, starting today, let us finish the work that needs to be done, and usher in a new birth of freedom on this Earth.
Is it just me, or is there more than a hint of Bartlet to such soaring rhetoric?

February 09, 2007

A good news story

The latest ABC newspaper circulation figures show the Daily Star has started out-selling the Daily Express. Or, as Oscar Wilde might have put it: the unspeakable is in full pursuit of the unreadable.

On a more cheerful note, both papers are selling fewer copies than last year: the Express is down by 9.15%, the Star by 5.66%. Now that's what I call progress.

Always the bridesmaid...

For what will soon become obvious reasons, I’m going to blog-up e-Politix.com’s round-up, ‘Week on the web’:
Inspired by Political Betting, which thinks there is a chance of a Tory/Lib Dem coalition, Stephen Tall and Tabman at Liberal Review have both written their fantasy post-election speeches for Sir Ming Campbell.

Tall in particular has captured the Liberal Democrat leader to a tee - perhaps the party should offer him work as understudy speech writer?
Which is all fine and dandy… but ‘understudy’? Pah.

Just how well-endowed are the Tories?

So the Conservative Party is less in debt, at last, thanks to the sale of its former HQ, 32 Smith Square. The £30m transaction is reputed to have netted the party a cool £15m profit, and should bring down the Tories’ total loans to a more manageable £5m or so.

I’m sure the party is breathing a sigh of relief at this result. But it’s interesting to compare the flogging of assets to pay down debt with the slightly loftier aspirations which Michael Howard articulated in December 2003, when, in one of his first acts as Tory leader, he announced the sale of Smith Square. Here’s what the Tory press release said:
The [Conservative Party] Foundation will be responsible both for raising money for the Party's general election campaign and for building a Conservative Endowment Fund. The Foundation will receive, as a founding endowment gift, the proceeds of the disposal of the Party's Smith Square headquarters. Michael Howard wishes to see the capital, realised by the disposal, invested in the Party's future - not spent on the day to day costs of Central Office.

Michael Howard said: "The asset of the freehold of 32 Smith Square is a great legacy from previous generations of Conservative leaders to our generation. I want the Foundation to ensure that my successors also receive a long lasting bequest".
Hmmm. Not so much of a long lasting bequest, then.

Miliband's over-blown gaffe

I’m not too sure what David Miliband’s done to deserve his reputation as next-Labour-leader-but-one. (It won’t ever happen.)

But I will stick up for him today in the face of the rather pathetic reporting which has followed his supposed ‘gaffe’ that Gordon Brown will make an unpopular Prime Minister.

Here is what he said on last night’s Question Time:
"I predict that when I come back on this programme in six months' or a year's time, people will be saying, 'Wouldn't it be great to have that Blair back, because we can't stand that Gordon Brown.'"
The point he was quite evidently making - obvious to anyone with a scintilla of objectivity - was that being at the top guarantees you attract flak. And that, as people begin to view the past with red rose-tinted spectacles, Tony Blair will be increasingly highly regarded. (John Major’s resurrection among popular opinion, despite having led the most disastrous government of modern times, is testament to the redemptive power of impotence.)

Nothing controversial about that. However, a quick scan down today’s headlines suggests otherwise:
Indeed, thegrauniad chose to take Mr Miliband’s remark utterly out of context in their travesty of an article, Public could turn against Brown, warns Miliband:
The enviroment secretary warned that public opinion could quickly turn against the chancellor, with voters claiming: "We can't stand that Gordon Brown." [Do enjoy their spelling of ‘enviroment’ (sic) by the way.]
Time was when a gaffe meant a gaffe. Now it’s deployed by lazy journalists as an excuse to paraphrase ad absurdum an otherwise straightforward remark. Is it any wonder if politicians become ever more banal and tight-lipped in response?

February 06, 2007

Meanwhile, over at ConservativeHome

Tim Montomerie has kindly e-mailed to let me know that ConservativeHome has highlighted yesterday’s posting in which I speculated about the speech Ming Campbell might care to make in the event of a Hung Parliament after the next election.

I’ve not had chance to read all the comments yet - been in meetings all day - but I was especially tickled by these two:
Smug, sanctimonius and typically Lib-Dem.
Posted by: George Hinton | February 06, 2007 at 15:17
No deals with the Lib Dems in any circumstances. Our position should be that in the event of a hung Parliament with a Conservative minority, we will signal to Her Majesty our willingness to form a minority Government. If she is not minded to invite us to do so, our advice would be to call another election.
We should informally tell Labour that we would support the same proposal from them in a reversed postion.

Posted by: Solon | February 06, 2007 at 20:08
In fairness, by the standards of ConHome, those are actually quite charmingly cogent messages.

PS: on this subject, can I highly recommend Tabman's article over at the Liberal Review blog. Oh, and internet telly station 18 Doughty Street have produced this tongue-in-cheek video here.

February 05, 2007

If there's a 'hung Parliament'... what should the Lib Dems say?

Over at PoliticalBetting.com and ConservativeHome.com, Mike Smithson has posed the perennial teaser the party loves to hate: what will the Lib Dems do in the event of a ‘hung Parliament’?

It’s a question that Ming Campbell has persistently - and quite rightly - refused to answer. The best political decisions are those made when in as full possession of the facts as possible (a thought Mr Blair might have borne in mind in March 2003). By its very nature a post-election strategy has to be determined after an election.

Ming closes down any interview which probes with the sound-bite of which we will continue to hear more: “the Lib Dems will campaign for maximum votes and maximum seats”. To do anything else is a fool’s errand. But those of us on the party peripheries have the luxury of being able to speculate in safety.

The premise of Mike’s article is the following election result:
  • Conservatives: 39% (283 seats)
  • Labour: 33% (284)
  • Lib Dems: 22% (54)
  • Others: 6% (29)
Personally, and for what it’s worth, I think he overestimates Tory, and underestimates Labour, support - not least because Mike underestimates Gordon Brown. Of course it’s true that Mr Brown’s promotion to the Premiership will be the least startling political event of the year. He will not, therefore, reap the reward of surprise that John Major’s rise without trace (temporarily) bought the Tories.

But expectations of Mr Brown have now been so tampered down - and Mr Blair’s death-throes so painfully, pointlessly drawn-out - that the Chancellor cannot now fail to ignite the political scene when he steps up to No. 10’s plate. After the turgid torpor of Labour’s last year, the rat-a-tat-tat of reforms with which Mr Brown will pepper his first legislative agenda will jolt politics into life, and boost Labour’s popularity. By how much we’ll see. But if and when this happens it’ll be the first real test of the leadership skills of both David Cameron and Ming; and a real test of the patience of their respective parties.

Nor do I imagine Mr Brown will repeat the mistake of his predecessor-but-four, Jim Callaghan, and delay an election until the last moment possible: we can expect an early poll. This would ordinarily give the Tories the opportunity to accuse Mr Brown of panicked cut-and-running. Unfortunately for them, Mr Cameron’s rather impetuous demand for an immediate election has spiked his party’s gun: a silly error.

So what do I think will happen?

My best guess would be that the Tories - just - win the popular vote, but that Labour remain the largest party in the Commons, with the Lib Dems holding steady. In one sense this would be a dream result for the Lib Dems. Not only does a ‘Hung Parliament’ give the party the balance of power, but such a result would also expose the inherent fallacy of our first-past-the-vote electoral system.

Yet with power (even the balance of power) comes responsibility. And that will be the tough part for the Lib Dems. Because our opponents will seek to paint us into a corner.

We will either be propping up a ‘tired, unpopular Labour government’, or we will be showing ourselves to be ‘nothing but Orange Tories’. Most likely, as Mike Smithson’s article suggests, Prime Minister Brown will attempt to form a minority government, laying down the gauntlet to the Lib Dems (together with a couple of minor concessions) either to back him or throw in our lot with the Tories.

Doubtless the top bods in the party are spending a good deal of time thinking about the various permutations - at least, I hope and trust they are (however much they will be obliged officially to deny it). Anyway, here's a statement Ming might read the morning after the night before:
“The British people have spoken. It is now the duty of all politicians to pay heed.

It is clear the public has little confidence in this Labour Government and its broken promises. But nor do they trust the empty promises of the Conservative Party.

Our role as Liberal Democrats is simple and straightforward: to be honest brokers on behalf of the British people, and to do what is right for this nation.

“Here’s how we’ll do it. Liberal Democrats do not believe in ‘behind-closed-doors’ decision-making: what we say in public is what we’ll stick to in private.

These, then, are the policies we will be working night and day to have implemented within this Parliament, and seeking the co-operation of those parties who are prepared to work constructively with us to achieve these aims.

“First, we will devolve control of local hospitals to the communities they serve. No longer will the Secretary of State in Whitehall be the first elected politician responsible for services of which they know little.

“Secondly, we will abolish university top-up fees to ensure all have access to higher education no matter what their background. [Hey, I think it’s a crazy idea, but it’s party policy, so…]

“Thirdly, the ineffective, unnecessary and expensive ID card scheme should be scrapped, and the money saved invested in recruiting more police for our communities.

“Fourthly, we want to see increases in green taxes matched by reductions in income taxes to ensure that polluters pay, but hard work isn’t penalised.

“And, fifthly, we want to see a democratic revolution in this country: fair votes for all elections, an elected House of Lords, and real power devolved back to local councils and the public they serve.

“These measures are a package. Collectively, they would, I believe, improve the health, enhance the education, and safeguard the liberties of all our citizens. They would nurture our environment and empower our neighbourhoods.

This is what Liberal Democrats stand for. I believe it is a reform package which will inspire majority support among the public.

“And now, if you’ll excuse me, I shall step inside to seek to persuade my Labour and Conservative counterparts of our case.”

The worst of Times

Is this perhaps the ugliest, slowest, cruddiest newspaper website around?

It’s like stepping back 10 years in time. Admittedly, it’s slightly less illegible in Firefox than Internet Explorer… but only just.

The guys responsible for TimesOnline's re-design talk about it here.

Maybe a little less time choosing the colour, and a little more beta-testing might have been in order?

February 02, 2007

Kinnocking on heaven's door

Time is an unforgivingly impudent little monkey… Neil Kinnock led Her Majesty’s Official Opposition for nine years, fought two general elections, and delivered two of the best platform speeches of modern times:
  • “If Margaret Thatcher wins on Thursday: I warn you not to be ordinary; I warn you not to be young; I warn you not to fall ill; and I warn you not to get old.” (7 June 1983).
  • “I'll tell you what happens with impossible promises. You start with far fetched resolutions. They are then pickled into a rigid dogma, a code, and you go through the years sticking to that, out-dated, misplaced, irrelevant to the real needs, and you end in the grotesque chaos of a Labour council - a Labour council - hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers.” (1st October, 1985).
So there’s something rather poignant that the search-term ‘Neil Kinnock’ on YouTube yields only four results:
  1. A Spitting Image sketch;
  2. A clip from the Recommended Daily Allowance;
  3. A rather peculiar song;
  4. And, of course, the Tracey Ullman video, My Guy’s Mad At Me, from a 1982 edition of Top of the Pops. It does at least start to make webcameron look like mature politics.
Here it is in all its glory:

In case that was all too gruesome, cheer yourself up with the rather fabulous Rufus Wainwright singing ‘The One You Love’:

Have a great week-end...

February 01, 2007

Budget joys

Oxford city’s Lib Dems have now published our budget (such a labour of love, believe me). The headlines are:
  • £4m savings identified: no cuts to front-line services
  • Below-inflation Council Tax rises for next THREE years
  • £575,000 new spending proposals in next 12 months to improve public services
For those who find council budgets just toooo exciting, full details are here.

The Lib Dems are a minority administration, so the next fortnight is going to involve a fair amount of negotiation. Which is fine - I mean it’s not like I’ve spent the last three months working on this already, or anything like that…

Executive member for Better Finances? Knackered Finances, more like.

Labour sleaze, comes in threes

Today’s bulletins have been dominated by the revelation that the Prime Minister has, once again, been helping the police with their inquiries in the ‘cash for peerages’ scandal. Understandably so: it’s a big story.

The reason it will get attention is that it’s sensational, and easy-to-comprehend. But Tony allegedly dishing out Ks and Ps to Labour donors pales into insignificance besides the revelations in today’s papers that:
  • The Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, once again buckled under pressure from No. 10 and compromised the integrity of his office by changing his legal advice to suit his boss. First, on the legality of the Iraq war. Now, on the Prime Minister’s decision to order the dropping of bribery charges against BAE to save jobs, erm, sorry, because the Saudis blackmailed him, whoops, I mean on grounds of national security.
  • A Grimsby family, who had fled Pakistan in 2003 under threat, was hastily deported, while their Labour MP (Austin Mitchell) was fobbed off by a minister (Liam Byrne) from his own Government. As Mr Mitchell wrote in today’s Indy: “An out-of-control Immigration and Nationality Directorate is doing what it wants to get deportations up. The minister goes along, ratifies its decisions (he hardly ever rejects them), observes its deadlines and strings MPs along, pretending to listen while doing nothing. … Perhaps we'll win enough National Fronters to compensate for the loss of the many liberals this has alienated. I don't know. But I do know how I feel. Ashamed.”
Put these three stories together… it’s not just about sleaze. It’s about something much, much more: the principles of due process, of equality before the law. It’s clear that such values are now held in deep contempt by this Prime Minister and his Government.

New Labour cannot claim to be a party of social justice until they begin to understand the concept of justice. Days like today demonstrate just how much they simply don’t get it.

There are good people in the Labour Party; and good people who will continue to vote for a party they once believed in, and perhaps still do. But it’s not enough. This Government long since lost its moral compass. It deserves to lose power.

Hard to argue with

The Economist's verdict on Gordon Brown:
... Mr Brown's larger difficulty is that he has failed to make the most of a long stint as chancellor in which he has been blessed with generally favourable economic conditions. For a politician with a reputation for thinking far ahead, his conduct of policy has made little strategic sense. Sharp tightening followed by excessive expansion is a bad way to run things. The chancellor's undesirable legacy will be a bigger state that is palpably failing to deliver value for money for its hard-pressed taxpayers.