What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

April 30, 2007

Councillors' pay: a proposal

The question - how much should councillors be paid? - is prompted by the figures released by the Taxpayers’ Alliance showing the average councillor allowance is now £9,300. As always, this mean hides extremes. Putting to one side the Greater London Assembly, the most lucrative place to serve your community on the council is Croydon, where you would earn £22,142 a year. By contrast, a place on Corby council was rewarded with £2,964.

For the record, Oxford city council is placed 275th out of 386 councils, with an average councillor salary of £5,137. (Though I’ll have earned more in the last year by being a member of the city’s executive board.)

I find myself conflicted on this subject, though not out of personal interest (my city council allowance is not my main source of income). Local government desperately needs to attract top quality, committed citizens to become councillors - one obvious way to do so is to ensure it is reasonably well-rewarded.

However, there’s a paradox here.

If I were paid something approaching a full-time wage, I would not continue as a councillor - because I know I simply could not work a sufficient number of hours to justify such a salary. And, flexible and accommodating as my employers are, they might start to question my commitment to my day job if they knew I had a second job paying the national average salary. So, in my case - and maybe others’ - the effect of increasing the salary on offer is to make the job a less appealing prospect.

Equally, I recognise there are many councillors who throw themselves into their duties, and it would be churlish not to acknowledge their efforts. Though quantity of work does not always equate to effectiveness of performance, of course.

The real barrier to the further involvement of committed citizens in local government is, in any case, the democratic process itself. There is a general decline in voluntary activity, whether at political or community level, in British life. And few sane individuals will choose to spend a good chunk of their evenings and week-ends from March to May knocking on their neighbours’ doors, or posting leaflets through dog-infested letter-boxes.

I am, therefore, unconvinced that increasing councillors’ allowances will drive up the quality of those who seek out the role. In any case, what real accountability is there? Yes, we have elections - but they are a blunt appraisal system. Hard-working councillors can be chucked out by a fickle electorate rejecting their government, while indolent councillors may be protected by an opposition party’s national brand.

Here’s my proposal:

I reckon every councillor should be expected to devote at least a day a week to their job: they should, therefore, be paid an annual allowance of one-fifth of the average salary of those who work within their local authority area.

They should then register how many days a week they reckon they devote to the job of councillor. If they reckon they work a 5-day week, they should say so, and will be paid at the full average salary - provided they produce a weekly digest of how they have spent their time, which would be published on their council’s website. If they reckon they work two days a week, they will be paid two-fifths of the average salary, and so on.

This will give the public a clear steer as to the amount of work they can expect from their local councillor. They will be able to weigh up the cost of that councillor against their judgement of his or her performance. Clearly they will expect more ‘bang for their bucks’ from a full-time councillor than they would a part-timer. But they may prefer a productive and efficient councillor whose salary is not helping ratchet-up their Council Tax.

Those who free-load - claiming the full rate but demonstrably failing to do the job - will find themselves vulnerable to local newspaper 'naming and shaming', and to challenge from opponents at elections.

One final ingredient:

Each year, the Council draws up its performance plan and sets targets it should achieve. Pay increases to councillors should be linked to the council’s delivery in these areas. If they hit their targets, and the council achieves what it has promised, councillors will have earned their corn. If they miss them, they should suffer the consequences, as working folk do in every other walk of life. I suspect this would ensure councillors paid a little bit more attention to the setting and delivery of achievable targets for improvement.

I can take a hint

Full Council today - 46 questions on notice have been tabled for Oxford's seven executive board members, an average of over six for each of us to answer. Except none of them are for me. Not one.

Nor is this an exception. I have been asked three questions in total in my year's servitude as the executive member for Better Finances. It's made my life easier, I guess, but it's not a healthy state of affairs.

April 26, 2007

Return to 'Facing up to reality'

Yet more statistical evidence suggesting the introduction of ‘top-up’ tuition fees of £3,000 a year has not deterred students from applying to university:
The latest snapshot of application figures to full-time undergraduate courses at UK higher education institutions from UCAS shows that 446,765 people have so far applied to start courses in 2007. This compares with 424,560 in 2006 and represents a rise of 5.2%.
All very well, you say, but what about those from poorer income groups? Well, the number of students from the bottom three socio-economic groups applying has increased from 71,709 in 2006 to 76,258 this year. That’s an increase of 6.3% - over and above the general trend.

I shan’t rehearse, yet again, my arguments in favour of market tuition fees for universities. But I do look forward to reading the NUS reaction to these figures. This is what they said back in February:
We have welcomed the overall rise in applications as news that prospective students continue to recognise the value of education despite the annual price tag of up to £3,000. However, UCAS have failed to release information regarding applications from students from under-represented and debt averse backgrounds and we are now pushing for these statistics to be made public. This is the real litmus test of the impact of top up fees - a drop in this group would be extremely serious even in the context of an overall increase and would directly contradict the Government’s own widening participation agenda which appears to have stalled.
What of the litmus test now?

As I wrote back in February:
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.

April 25, 2007

Good-bye, or is it au revoir?

All good things must, so the cliché tells us, come to an end. And so it is with my year’s tenure on Oxford City Council’s Executive Board - what some places, with more pretensions to grandeur than us, call a cabinet - as portfolio holder for Better Finances.

I decided way back in October last year that, if the Lib Dems continue to run the City Council as a minority administration, I would step down from the post this coming May. It’s been a hugely rewarding 12 months, but, to be honest, also a knackering one. Combining a busy, full-time job with being responsible for the setting and delivery of the City’s £70m net spending budget (let alone being a local councillor) is not a recipe for a good work-life balance. I doff my cap to those who do achieve it.

Looking back over the last year, I am quietly and moderately pleased with what has so far been achieved by the Lib Dem administration, working together with Council officers, and frequently with the opposition Labour and Green groups too. In my own area, Better Finances, we have, for example:

1. Met our manifesto pledge to keep Council Tax down, setting a below-inflation 3% rise for the coming year, and proposing 2% only rises for the next two years;
2. Set a budget which made £4m of savings with no cuts to key front-line services, despite having to write-off £2m of savings clocked-up by Labour which had proved completely undeliverable;
3. Transformed the collection of Council Tax - 96.3% was collected in 2006-07, compared to last year’s pretty dismal 94.8% under Labour, making it Oxford’s most successful ever year;
4. Seen the whole Revenues and Benefits team’s performance improve markedly, reducing the Council’s ‘local cost of benefits’ from £500k to zero in a year, and ensuring benefits are paid in the fastest time ever;
5. Put in place, for the first time, a comprehensive IT strategy for the City Council, promising to invest £500k in the Council’s technology year-on-year in order to improve services;
6. Continued to smarten-up the Council’s procurement, with the Facilities Management team short-listed for the LGC’s sustainable communities award for encouraging local businesses and the not-for-profit sector to apply for contract opportunities with the Council and other local public bodies;
7. Improved Council target-setting, ensuring the targets set by Council officers are, at long last, all of the following: robust, stretching and achievable;
8. Improved the Council’s ‘use of resources’ score - the value-for-money it’s giving to its citizens - as assessed by the Audit Commission, from 1 to 2 (out of 4).

Anything left to do? Just a little:

1. The Council’s capital programme is still unrealistic and over-stretched, and too little progress has yet been made to make inroads into the £9m maintenance backlog carelessly built-up under Labour;
2. Value-for-money remains under-developed, though is now heading in the right direction, as publicly noted by the District Auditor;
3. And we have yet to introduce properly devolved budgets to the City’s six area committees, though there should be concrete proposals coming forward on this very shortly;
4. Oh, and there’s the little matter of trying to set a budget next year without a majority in Council.

A part of me would love to spend the next year getting to grips with these challenges, and ensuring the continuing improvement of the Council’s finances. But a larger part of me is looking forward to having more time to get back to the role of being a councillor I really love: working and campaigning in my ward.

That, and to having a little bit more of a life.

April 24, 2007

A two-horse race in Oxford East

Excitement-a-plenty today at the news that Peter Tatchell is to contest Oxford East at the next general election.

Indeed, to read BBC News’ giddily breathless report a casual reader might imagine that the constituency is his for the taking from New Labour’s Andrew Smith. In reality, the Greens polled 4.3% at the last general election, and lost their deposit, while the Lib Dems’ Steve Goddard came within 963 votes of unseating Mr Smith.

Of course, it is true that the Greens have a solid local base in East Oxford (just one part of Oxford East). In the ward where I live, St Mary’s, Green city councillor Craig Simmons was re-elected with 65% of the vote last year. However, what is also true is that votes for the Greens in the local elections have never translated into national votes.

By chance, I watched the votes being verified for St Mary’s at the 2005 general election count - and the Lib Dems recorded one of t
heir best results there. If the Greens really thought they stood a chance in Oxford East, I imagine one of their more prominent local councillors would have run for, and won, the nomination.

It’s hard to know exactly how Mr Tatchell’s candidature will play out. The celebrity-fetishising media will certainly give him a lot of free publicity - which might translate into extra Green votes (though I don’t think the voters are swayed quite that easily).

What it will certainly do is help shine a spotlight on the constituency, highlighting just how close the contest here is between New Labour and the Lib Dems - it really is two-horse race! (Nothing on earth will induce me to dare suggest that it’s a straight choice between Andrew Smith and Steve Goddard.)

I have a lot of time for Mr Tatchell’s human rights work, and it’s impossible not to admire the bravery of his denunciations of Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe at personal risk to himself.

His forte is outspoken campaigning. Whether that will stand him in good stead for the coming election contest - the grit and determination of pavement politics - only time will tell.

He has, incidentally, promised to move into the constituency, to London Road, half of which is in my Headington ward. So I might soon have the pleasure of canvassing him. Or, at the very least delivering a leaflet with a bar-chart prominently displayed. Something like this, maybe...?

April 22, 2007

Alright with being awry

This was my prediction on PoliticalBetting.com of the results of the first round of the French presidential election:

Nicolas Sarkozy 28.9%
Ségolène Royal 22.8%
Jean-Marie Le Pen 16.5%
François Bayrou 15.3%

This compares with the latest set of figures at LeTemps.ch:

Nicolas Sarkozy 30.0% (+1.1%)
Ségolène Royal 25.2% (+2.4%)
François Bayrou 18.3% (+3.0%)
Jean-Marie Le Pen 11.5% (-5.0%)

So, within the +/-3% accepted margin of error for all but Le Pen, whose vote I wildly overstated. Sometimes it’s good to be wrong.

Sunday best

My ninth weekly round-up of the best (and/or most popular) of the Lib Dem blogosphere has just been posted on Lib Dem Voice here. And - shock! horror! - I’ve actually managed to hit my self-imposed Sunday afternoon deadline. Enjoy…

French presidential election poll: hearts say Bayrou, heads say Sarkozy

That, at least, seems to be the message so far of the polls running here.

Here’s how you, dear readers, have so far said you’d vote if you had a say in today’s French presidential election first round:

And here’s what you reckon will actually happen:

Only a few hours before we know for sure who’ll be facing each other in a fortnight’s time for the second and deciding round…

April 20, 2007

"I could happily have stayed for a fortnight."

Sad news: Terry Major-Ball, brother of the last Conservative Prime Minister, Sir John Major, has died, aged 75.

Terry wrote a uniquely understated autobiography, Major Major: Memories of an Older Bother, which was garlanded by Private Eye (with equal amounts of irony and affection): “It makes you proud to be English. No foreigner could dream of such a masterpiece. It is one of the most distinctive products of our great civilisation.”

Here’s a sample passage, as Terry describes his first trip in an aeroplane, aged 61:
Although it was strange, there was something reassuringly familiar. It was a bit like sitting in an armchair at home, watching the telly and having my food brought to me on a tray (though I don’t really expect this kind of treatment from my wife), the big difference being that I didn’t have to worry about doing the washing up afterwards, or boiling the kettle and getting the tea. The service was marvellous, especially when you see the tiny kitchen. The piece of cod I had melted in the mouth, and the sauce was delicious.
His verdict at the conclusion of his trip to New York? “I could happily have stayed for a fortnight.”

Sir John, then plain Mr Major, was at least as impressed by his older brother’s traveller’s tales:
The next time I saw John I told him about my experiences and he listened politely and with genuine interest.

Then he said, ‘Sorry, Terry, I must go now. I’m due at a meeting, in the Cabinet Room.’
You can buy it for £0.01 here at Amazon.co.uk. Worth every penny, genuinely.

Let's hear it for Norman

If Norman Baker did not exist, we would need to invent him. Today, the Lib Dems’ very own Stormin’ Norman is battling Tory MP David Maclean’s attempts, via a private member’s bill, to exempt Parliament from the Freedom of Information Act (2000).

Mr Maclean is hiding behind the skirts of that much-abused notion, ‘public interest’, claiming his only desire is to enhance the privacy of MPs’ constituents, and prevent their personal details being disclosed in correspondence between MPs and public bodies under existing FoI legislation. As Mr Baker has pointed out, such details are already protected by the Data Protection Act (1998).

If, as Mr Maclean claims, perhaps accurately, “things slip through the net”, his job is to ensure existing legislation is being correctly interpreted and enforced, before he piles on yet another layer of legislation designed to emasculate hard-won freedoms.

It is - naturally - a complete coincidence that Mr Maclean’s bill would also exempt disclosure of MPs’ expenses and allowances. Their revelation, in part due to Mr Baker’s unpopular and tireless efforts, has caused acute embarrassment to some MPs. The personal assurance Mr Maclean has received from the current House of Commons speaker, Michael Martin, that these will continue to be released voluntarily isn’t worth the paper it’s not written on.

Of course, the Labour Government is still trying its utmost to undermine its own legislation by passing into law the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007. This will, according to the Government’s own independent review, result in an extra 17,000 FoI questions (out of around 100,000) a year being turned down, regardless of the public interest in answering them.

Small wonder, then, that Mr Maclean’s bill has the tacit approval of Labour, who could easily have squashed it if the Government were actually opposed.

It is on just such occasions, when individual freedoms are being assailed, that the Lib Dems are such a vital bulwark. Labour cares little for such ‘middle-class niceties’, believing the state is the only way in which society’s vulnerable can be protected. And Tories, as exemplified by David Maclean, care little for anything which challenges the status quo, or entrenched privileges.

April 19, 2007

New poll: the French presidential election

With just a few days to go before the French presidential election’s first round, time for a couple of new polls, I think.

The first tests your political philosophy: who do you want to win?

Free polls from Pollhost.com
Who would you vote for in the French presidential election?
François Bayrou Ségolène Royal Nicolas Sarkozy

The second tests your political realism: who do you think actually will win?

Free polls from Pollhost.com
Who do you think will win the French presidential election?
François Bayrou Ségolène Royal Nicolas Sarkozy

My answer to both questions? Nicolas Sarkozy, faute de mieux. None of the candidates has inspired.

Ségolène Royal, whose ballsy campaign to win the Socialist nomination has given way to a lightweight campaign entirely lacking in cojones - let alone any coherent policy proposals - deserves to be eliminated. Should France wake up to her first female President on 6th May, the nation can look forward to continuing economic and political torpor.

Ms Royal’s only redeeming feature is her unfashionable support for Turkish inclusion within the European Union. As Chris Patten has noted:
The reconciliation of France and Germany was the necessary and admirable European accomplishment of the twentieth century; reconciling the West and the Islamic world, with Europe acting as a hinge between the two, is a major task for the twenty-first.
Not Quite the Diplomat (2005), p.144
François Bayrou has achieved a quite remarkable political turnaround, from undistinguished former education minister to shock Presidential challenger - even if much of his rise can be ascribed as a crushing indictment of Ms Royal’s lacklustre efforts. Some of his programme appeals - for example, his robust pledge to cut public debt - but his opposition to Turkish EU membership, muddled economic protectionism, and enthusiasm for a revived EU constitution rule him out of contention for me.

Nor am I convinced that his pledge to unite the ‘left’ and ‘right’ of France is a slogan that would stand up to scrutiny for even 24 hours if he found himself a resident of the Palais de l'Élysée. As leader of the UFD party, he controls just 27 of the National Assembly’s 577 seats. Great admirer of Roy Jenkins though I am, if he had proposed in 1983 that, as leader of the the SDP/Liberal Alliance’s 23 MPs, he was in a position to unite Margaret Thatcher’s Tories and Michael Foot’s Labour party many would have regarded him as a tad naïve. I’m all for pragmatism and cross-party working: I think Mr Bayrou’s presidency would result in a soggy melange.

Which leaves me with Mr Sarkozy. He is very far from ideal. He has shown a willingness to court Jean-Marie Le Pen’s supporters, glorying in social authoritarianism, and displaying a nativism bordering on the unpleasant, including an unswerving opposition to Turkey’s EU membership. There are two factors in Mr Sarkozy’s favour, and they’re enough to swing it for me.

First, he accepts and understands the need for France’s economy to liberalise. Though he has, perhaps understandably, soft-peddled during the campaign, his promise of rupture is both bold and correct, signalling an end to the 35-hour week, reductions in personal and corporate taxation, and beginning the essential task of setting France’s universities free of stifling state control.

Secondly, he appears sufficiently resolute to stick to his prescription. I’m not keen on the notion of the ‘smack of firm leadership’, but, after 26 years of drift and fudge, France may just be ready for a politician prepared to lead from the front, rather than the back.

I have, by the way, excluded Mr Le Pen from both polls, and this analysis. Nothing to do with political correctness, everything to do with political probability. If they get through to the second round it’s possible to imagine any one of Mr Bayrou, Ms Royal or Mr Sarkozy triumphing: Mr Le Pen is nothing more than a spoiler candidate for those parts of the French electorate which wish to find scapegoats more than solutions.

April 18, 2007

Back to earth…

… but not with a bump, fortunately.

My flight from Hong Kong touched down at 5.30 am (BST) on Monday morning. By 9.00 am, I was seated and (just about) in a right frame of mind for the Executive Board meeting of Oxford City Council. Devotion to duty, or sheer bloody madness? You decide.

For the record, the rest of the day was spent in a zombie-like state of semi-sleep. I am now human again.

I mentioned in my vlog (a real word now, apparently) posting below quite what an issue Hong Kong’s pollution has become. This fact was rammed home on Sunday afternoon, when I took the Star ferry across to Kowloon, and was able to observe for myself the skyline in which I’d been living for a week-end.

This is the picture perfect view of the harbour on a sunny day (via Google image search):

And this is the view I had on a sunny day (there were clear, blue skies directly overhead). And, let me assure you, the unclarity of the image is nothing to do with either my camera, nor the photographer

Spot the difference?

The antidote to Dinner at the Campbell-Bannermans

Jonathan Calder’s Liberal England blog recalls the peerless definition* of liberalism propounded by that last-but-three Liberal Prime Minister, Henry Campbell-Bannerman.

A good friend of mine, to whom I eulogised about this quote, sent me this antidote, an extract from Edward Rogers’ and Edmund J. Moyle’s deliciously titled, Sir Henry Campbell-Bannerman: His Career and Capers (London: G. Mitton, 1906):
Sample mean quote on his Commons performance:
"The majority of his speeches he writes out beforehand, even to the jokes, and reads them out with an uplifted forefinger.
If the House accepts his witticisms 'all is well with the child'; if not, C. B. is apt to lose his temper; and sorry indeed is the spectacle then presented. With arm uplifted he will 'Call upon Heaven and earth to witness the —.'
Then he forgets the remainder of the denunciation, and, the manuscript affording no assistance, the sentence remains forever unfinished, and the chubby hands beat a hasty retreat to the back of his corpulent figure."
* C. B.’s quote - which can never be quoted too often - is this:
I should say it means the acknowledgment in practical life of the truth that men are best governed who govern themselves; that the general sense of mankind, if left alone, will make for righteousness; that artificial privileges and restraints upon freedom, so far as they are not required in the interests of the community, are hurtful; and that the laws, while, of course, they cannot equalise conditions, can at least avoid aggravating inequalities, and ought to have for their object the securing to every man the best chance he can have of a good and useful life.

April 13, 2007

Postcard from Hong Kong

My Friday YouTube clip, today brought to you from your correspondent temporarily located in a city where it’s just turned Saturday.

April 11, 2007

What David should do next

What would you do if you were David Miliband? He’s already getting a whole load of advice, some friendly, some not-so-friendly - it’s a moot point which he finds least helpful.

His options appear limited. He can either contest the leadership of the Labour Party against Gordon Brown, so long the heir-presumptuous; or he can choose to keep his powder dry. When in doubt, flip through the history books.

First point to note: Mr Miliband would be the least experienced British Prime Minister since 1945.

There have been 11 post-war Prime Ministers, five of them appointed to the post while serving as members of the cabinet:
  • Anthony Eden (translated from Foreign Secretary);
  • Harold Macmillan (from the Chancellorship, had been Foreign Secretary);
  • Alec Douglas Home (another Foreign Secretary);
  • Jim Callaghan (yet another Foreign Secretary, though had also been Chancellor and Home Secretary); and
  • John Major (who followed Macmillan’s career path).
The other six were elected to the post having served time as leader of HM’s Opposition, itself a pretty thorough preparation for the job to come:
  • Clement Attlee (who had been Deputy Prime Minister);
  • Winston Churchill (a former Prime Minister, who had also held more cabinet posts even than John Reid);
  • Harold Wilson;
  • Edward Heath;
  • Margaret Thatcher; and
  • Tony Blair.
All 11 of them had served at least a decade in Parliament.

By contrast, Mr Miliband has been an MP for fewer than six years, serving in the cabinet for nigh-on two of them. Promotion to the First Lord of the Treasury in one bound would be quite an hubristic leap.

Of course, it can be argued that such experience doesn’t matter a jot. “Look at David Cameron,” comes the cry. Well, we shall come to see how time treats the Tories’ young pretender; for now it suffices to say that I suspect even he is grateful his moment has not yet arrived, that he has a while longer to work out what he would wish to achieve in government.

From this you might think my conclusion is obvious: Mr Miliband would be daft to stand. If only it were that simple! For there is always another consideration - what will happen if he doesn’t stand?

The sensible analysis reads: let Gordon win the leadership and lose the election, allowing David to take over the reins as the Labour Party’s saviour.

That might seem rational now; but so, too, did the Blair-Brown ‘Granita Pact’ in 1994; as did David Davis standing aside for Michael Howard to assume the Tory leadership in 2003. I wonder if either now regrets their choice? And what of Michael Portillo’s failure of nerve when declining to challenge John Major in 1995? The standard-bearer of the Tory right was instead eclipsed by the vulcanesque John Redwood.

Favourites have a habit of thinking their time is yet to come. But events have a habit of unravelling what once seemed seamless.

When Chris Huhne stood for the Lib Dem leadership last year, he was initially dismissed as ‘Chris Who?’ But ‘Who’ had the last laugh - the freshly-minted Eastleigh MP scored 32% in the first round of voting, besting the better-known and vastly more experienced Simon Hughes, and emerging as the newly-crowned ‘activists’ darling’. Nick Clegg might be considered by the media as Ming Campbell’s natural successor, but Mr Huhne will stand in much better stead next time than if he hadn’t risked standing this time.

Such are the considerations for Mr Miliband to ponder. My verdict? He’d be mad to stand. But he’d be madder not to. The real risk for him is that he might win. However, I don’t think he should worry too much about such an outside possibility.

April 10, 2007

Scenes from a Bank Holiday week-end

Very traditional, very British… Sunday afternoon was spent picnicking in Christ Church meadow (albeit eating tortilla and jamon, which is perhaps a little more recherché).

Half a century ago, this idyllic setting was the subject of a bitter planning wrangle, following the proposal by Thomas Sharp, in his 1948 report, Oxford Replanned, that an ‘inner relief road’ be built across the meadow.

The debate raged for a full two decades, before being finally squashed by, inter alia, the then Minister of Housing and Local Government, Dick Crossman, who was my predecessor (by several generations) as a councillor for Headington ward on the City Council.

Part of the fun is reclining by the meadow, and watching the tourists who’ve hired their punts at Magdalen Bridge struggle to control their craft.

Some take to it, like… erm… ducks to water. Others thrash and flail, slaloming from one side of the Cherwell bank to the other - pure sporting schadenfreude.

Such pleasures - together with the gleaming, dreaming spires - even allow you to forget the downsides of picnics: bugs, needing the toilet, and the fact that bright April sunshine isn’t all that warm.

April 06, 2007

The case for fair-minded journalism

How does the media come out of Gordon Brown’s 1997 decision to scrap dividend tax credits, the so-called ‘pensions scandal’?

On one level, they will claim vindication. After all, it was The Times’s two-year battle to publish the advice of Treasury officials which sparked this week’s controversy, with Mr Brown’s credibility once again placed in the full glare of publicity. Only after being ordered to do so by the Information Commissioner, under the aegis of the Freedom of Information Act, did the Treasury hand over the documents showing the possible ramifications of the move, including an immediate £50bn fall in the value of existing pension funds.

So why am I asking the question at all?

It was prompted by Ken Clarke’s interview on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme on Monday, during which he observed:

They had an extraordinary honeymoon period, the first two years of the Blair Government they could do no wrong. … All Conservatives did actually protest strongly about it, but we were being ignored. We were an unpopular Government - even the right-wing press were rejoicing in having brought us down - and all new governments have a honeymoon period, and they had a remarkably long one.
Now we should be wary of cutting the Tories too much slack on this. The Tory Governments of Margaret Thatcher and John Major presided over the infamous pensions mis-selling scandal in its peak years, 1988-94, at an estimated cost of £13.5bn, severely undermining public trust in private pension plans.

In their early years as HM Opposition
they were also regularly predicting that Mr Brown was about to plunge the British economy deep into recession, a claim which, from the party that brought us ‘Black Wednesday’, looked a tad desperate. Nor was it clear, at that stage, quite what a devastating effect Mr Brown’s pensions raid would wreak. It is, then, perhaps understandable the press greeted the Tories’ forebodings with a pinch of salt.

But, still, Mr Clarke has a point: the media was just not interested. Not interested because stories about pensions were regarded then by the media as dull-dull-dull. And not interested because the media regarded Tony and Gordon as shiny-shiny-shiny. No matter that “All that glisters is not gold.”

As it’s holiday season, allow me to neologise my own proverb: If salt is to be pinched, ‘twas well they are equal pinchings. Trustworthy journalism requires sceptical rationalism, the willingness constantly to challenge and inquire into all sides of a story.

It’s a task for which much of the media, with an attention span which makes a goldfish look like a chess grandmaster, is singularly ill-equipped. If there’s one thing the media dislikes it’s nuance, complexity, shades-of-grey; they much prefer a single, simple narrative.

At the moment, that means Mr Brown is getting it in the neck on every possible pretext. The timing of the ‘pensions scandal’ outcry is partly of his own making, of course. Had the Treasury released the documents requested by The Times two years ago the story would have created scarcely a ripple.

The media is eager for Mr Brown to be challenged for the Labour leadership: if he is ‘coronated’ there’s no story. To encourage a plausible pretender to the throne - whether Messrs Miliband, Reid or Hutton - the media must contrive to make Mr Brown less electable. Which is why ordure is being heaped high upon Mr Brown’s head: in the eyes of the media, he can do no right.

I shed no tears for the Chancellor. He has deliberately evaded enough fair criticism during his tenure for some unfair criticism to be mere karmic retribution.

I do not, though, buy Polly Toynbee’s typically over-simplistic rant in The Grauniad that this is a low-down dirty trick conspired across the right-wing press. Their agenda is borne of boredom, not malevolence. But that knowledge should not make us any less sanguine about the power of the media to debase national debate by failing to treat political protagonists even-handedly.

Let’s look at two examples. David Cameron has suffered a couple of bad-news stories in the last month. First, it was revealed he used a private jet to travel 90 miles, from Oxford to Hereford, in spite of his supposedly green credentials. Then, secondly, he was found guilty of breaking Parliamentary rules by using his taxpayer-funded House of Commons office to raise money for the Tory Party. Mr Cameron’s defenders will argue that both these are non-stories: he carbon offsets all his travel, and has apologised unreservedly for his improper fundraising.

Whatever one might think of the rights or wrongs of either of these issues, one aspect is I think indisputable: swap the name of Gordon Brown for David Cameron and both stories would have achieved far greater prominence. Is it too much to ask for the media to treat these two imposters just the same?

Civil political discourse requires civil political journalism. If the choice we will face is the over-excitable hysteria of the right-wing versus the self-righteous defensiveness of the left-wing media commentariat - with the blogosphere playing the role of an amped-up mini-me - we can hardly expect enlightenment.

April 05, 2007

Speccie says Tory Party to split

First it was the Home Office, now it's the Tories... every dysfunctional unfit-for-purpose institution appears these days to think it will prosper by splitting in half. It works for anemones, I guess.

Anyway, this e-mail has just popped into my inbox, trailing the Spectator's scoop for the week. It would appear to mark the death of the Conservative & Unionist Party:
EXCLUSIVE: how the Conservative Party is planning to split.

The slide towards extinction in Scotland has persuaded the Tories to draw up a blueprint for separation. The Scottish Tories would split off - and Cameron's Conservatives would become the English party

Francis Maude's officials have been secretly drawing up the outline of a 'velvet divorce' with the Scottish Conservatives, which would give the Scottish Tories a new name, a distinct identity, and make the Conservatives officially as well as in practice a party exclusively devoted to seeking power in England and Wales. Such a split would mean the final Tory retreat from Scotland, a historic fissure in British Conservatism, and the death of a party defined by its One Nation Unionism.
I'm assured you can read the story only in this week's Spectator. If it's true, I suspect you'll be able to read it elsewhere soon enough.

April 04, 2007

Who else?

Ah, Boris... A few months back, I wrote this, and (I have to say) Portsmouth was not my top suggestion for his next port of crawl call.

April 03, 2007

What will happen in the 2007 local elections?

About this time last year, I wrote an article for PoliticalBetting.com, attempting to predict the parties’ shares of the votes based on their ICM opinion poll ratings. And, if I say so myself, I didn’t do too badly.

I guesstimated Con 39%, Lab 25%, Lib Dem 29% - but noted in the comments thread that followed: “my instincts are that Lab and Lib Dems will be slightly closer together than my extrapolated figures”. And so it proved.

The BBC’s projected share of the national vote was: Con 40%, Lab 26%, Lib Dem 27%. Respected psephologists Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher projected: Con 39%, Lab 26%, Lib Dems 25%.

So I’ve updated my workings from last year to see if it points towards this year’s result...

The figures below show the projected national share of the parties’ votes in that year’s local elections compared with the ICM poll rating (in brackets) immediately prior to those elections:

1998: Con 33% (31%), Lab 37% (48%), Lib Dem 25% (16%)
1999: Con 34% (28%), Lab 36% (50%), Lib Dem 25% (17%)
2000: Con 38% (32%), Lab 30% (45%), Lib Dem 26% (15%)
2002: Con 34% (29%), Lab 33% (45%), Lib Dem 25% (18%)
2003: Con 35% (30%), Lab 30% (42%), Lib Dem 27% (21%)
2004: Con 38% (33%), Lab 26% (38%), Lib Dem 29% (22%)
2006: Con 39% (34%), Lab 26% (32%), Lib Dem 25% (24%)

The Tories have added between 2-6% to their ICM national rating in recent local elections; Labour have dropped 6-15%; and the Lib Dems have increased 1-11%.

If this pattern were to repeat itself in 2007 – using the most recent ICM poll (19th March), with the Tories on 41%, Labour 31% and the Lib Dems 18%, as our bench-mark – we might extrapolate the following shares of the vote this May: Con 45%, Lab 21%, Lib Dem 24%.

Hmmm, well I don’t know about you, but I’ve not convinced me. Despite Tony Blair’s best efforts in the last six months to destroy the party he helped re-build by clinging onto power far beyond his political utility, I cannot see Labour’s vote dipping to 21% this year.

Nor can I see the Tories scaling the dizzy heights of 45% - which would exceed what Tony Blair managed in 1996 - though I may, of course, be proved wrong.

My wet-finger-in-the-air projection gives: Con 42%, Lab 25%, Lib Dem 25%

Seems plausible to me. We’ll see.

Incidentally, the final half of my original article stands the test of time (I think) - and even bears repetition:


The stubborn refusal of the third party to lie down and quietly die points to a wider trend: what has been termed the de-alignment of British politics.

If we look at the combined, average general election vote shares of the two big beasts of post-1945 politics, the Tories and Labour, and compare them with the combined, average vote shares of the Lib Dems and other parties for each of the last five decades, the fragmentation of voter loyalties is clear:

1950s: Con/Lab 92%, Lib Dem/Other 8%
1960s: Con/Lab 89%, Lib Dem/Other 11%
1970s: Con/Lab 80%, Lib Dem/Other 20%
1980s: Con/Lab 72%, Lib Dem/Other 28%
1990s: Con/Lab 75%, Lib Dem/Other 25%
2000s: Con/Lab 70%, Lib Dem/Other 30%

Voters no longer identify tribally with one political party based on their self-perception of class or religious interest (or their parents’ views). In 1964, according to the British Election Study, 48% of Tory voters identified strongly with their chosen party, compared with 51% for Labour. By 2001, the figures were 14% and 16% respectively.

As voter turn-out has declined, transforming the electorate into a selectorate, the remorseless march of the de-alignment process has continued apace. The cosy Tory/Labour duopoly is coming to an end.

And, however much Messrs Brown and Cameron might prefer to ignore such a reality, this is the new politics with which all parties are going to have to deal.


April 02, 2007

Moving up the table

Two quick questions for a Monday night:
  1. Which of the 238 district councils in England sets the highest Council Tax?
  2. Who’s the local MP?
Answers as follows:
  1. Sedgefield - £354.37.
  2. Tony Blair (of course).
For the record, Oxford had - under Labour control - the 10th highest Council Tax of any of the 238 English district councils.

I’m proud to say that, after just one year of me being in charge of the city’s finances, this has improved by one whole place! Yes, Oxford now levies 'only' the 11th highest district Council Tax in England thanks to the Lib Dems proposing a below-inflation Council Tax increase this year. So we’re heading in the right direction... but I think it’s fair to say we’ve a long way still to go.

April 01, 2007


‘Fraid I’ve never been much of a Dr Who fanboy: quite-enjoy-it-sometimes-watch-it is about my level of enthusiasm.

Last night’s episode, ‘Smith and Jones’, was a really rather fine opener to the new series, and it was especially good to see Roy Marsden back on the small screen. Between 1984 and 1998, he was the personification of PD James’s slightly implausible poet-sleuth, Commander Adam Dalgliesh, in ITV’s adaptations of her classy crime novels.

When the BBC took over the rights, the role was given to Martin Shaw. It is apparently the law that he must play the lead in every maverick ‘tec show; just as it is Mr Shaw’s law of acting that he must play each character in the same way, with sleeves purposely rolled-up.

But what I enjoyed most was that Roy Marsden played the part of a senior consultant at the Royal Marsden. It’s either pure co-incidence, or someone at Who-casting has a desert-dry sense of humour.

Spoilt for choice

The 'Golden Dozen' has reached its half-dozen anniversary - check out a selection of the best of the Lib Dem blogosphere at Lib Dem Voice.

Or if you fancy a more wide-ranging round-up, check out the peripatetic BritBlog, the 111th outing of which is mooring at Jonathan Calder’s always-excellent Liberal England blog.