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Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Labour MP loses the plot over expenses proposal

Those of us who were astonished at the proposal, which was mooted yesterday that MPs should receive an unconditoinal lump sum allowance instead of claiming expenses with receipts, were less surprised that the idea originated with Newport West MP and Shadow Secretary of State for Wales, Paul Flynn.

Mr. Flynn is a man of the highest integrity, with the ability to think outside of the box. His problem, in my view is that his judgement is suspect as to which box he chooses to do his thinking out of.

Paul Flynn believes that the current system is time-consuming and has 'robbed' MPs and their staff of their "most precious possession - time":

He wrote: "Our reputation has sunk from rock bottom to subterranean. Financial scandals have continued in both Houses with toe-curling regularity.

"The public are still convinced that MPs use the system for own ends."

Mr Flynn suggested a new system could be based on an allowance calculated on average expenses, based on MPs' distance from Westminster, and could be paid automatically.

How exactly exemptng MPs from the full and proper scrutiny that any expenses system needs to work effectively will restore public confidence is difficult to understand. They may find the process of reclaiming expenses to be bureaucratic, tedious and mind-numbingly boring but so does everybody else. What makes them so special?

Paul Flynn may accuse me of not understanding the issues, but I have been in the position of being a full time elected official with a busy office, a heavy caseload and many demands on my time. Despite that I made the time to complete expense claims in good order and ensured that they were accompanied by receipts and/or invoices as required by the rules.

I also properly managed my staff, signing off their expense claims and conducting six monthly performance reviews. If MPs are struggling to fit all of this in then perhaps their real need is for time management courses, not special treatment and exemptions from the normal rules of accountabilty and transparency by virtue of a hefty back-door pay rise.

Many many people work in occupations where they too have to claim expenses and work within a necessary bureaucracy to do so. Suggesting that poor pampered MPs are above all of this is no way to win back the public's confidence in the democratic system.

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

The Brexit legacy

One of the biggest impacts of us leaving the European Union is going to be on Higher Education. Universities and other institutoins have long taken advantage of the funding opportunities offered by the EU, both revenue and capital and now face the challenge of replacing that funding. Some, however say that there are inherent dangers in that process, especially in the way we fund research.

The Independent reports that scientists have raised concerns about the increasing privatisation of academic research once the UK leaves the European Union, after it emerged two multinational pesticide manufacturers have given millions of pounds to universities.

Referring to figures obtained under the Freedom of Information Act by Greenpeace, they say that the firms, Bayer and Syngenta, which both sell neonicotinoid insecticides linked to harmful effects on bees, gave a combined total of £16.1m to 70 British universities to fund a range of research projects between 2011 and 2016. Roughly, £2.6m of this money was spent on plant sciences, including research into pesticides.

Leading bee scientists have said that such private funding could create a conflict of interest for academics and are warning that after Brexit a potential shortage of public money for science could force universities to seek more finance from the private sector:

Neonicotinoids were once thought to have little or no negative effects on the environment because they are used in low doses and as a seed coating, rather than being sprayed.

But evidence has been mounting that the chemicals do harm bees – important pollinators of food crops – with one recent study linking their use to “large-scale population extinctions”.

As a result, neonicotinoids have been banned by the EU although they can still be used under licence.

However both firms deny there is evidence to show the pesticides cause a significant problem for bees.

Greenpeace's concern is that if research is to command public confidence, then it needs to be independent and impartial. That is why they say that public funding is so crucial. They make the point that we would not want lung cancer studies to be heavily reliant on funds from tobacco firms anymore than we would want research on pesticides to be dependent on the companies making them.

It is crucial therefore that the Government ensures that scientists have access to the same level of funding after Brexit as before it.

Monday, August 29, 2016

Boundary changes leave us all as losers

Personally, I have little sympathy with the plight of the Labour Party as outlined in this Guardian article. The paper argues that two hundred Labour seats, more than 85% of the party’s total, could be affected by the review of parliamentary boundaries due next month.

They say that up to 30 Labour seats could disappear altogether, while the rest will see their composition altered in some form. The changes could give the Tories a substantial advantage at the next General Election.

These changes were initiated by David Cameron with the objective of cutting the number of MPs by 50 to 600. The Tories say that the aim is to ensure that each person’s vote is of similar value by equalising the number of registered voters in each constituency to within 5% of 74,769. Naturally, a higher proportion of Tory seats are currently within this range, so only between 10 and 15 of the party’s seats are expected to disappear.

As the paper points out, a similar exercise was begun in 2013 but abandoned by Cameron in the face of pressure from his Lib Dem coalition partners, and anger from his own backbenches. They add that the Tories are hoping to avoid a repeat of this anger by offering affected MPs the chance to move into seats vacated by retiring colleagues.

It is difficult to argue against equality of representation and it is unfortunate that population changes have seen people move out of traditional inner city areas to the more affluent suburbs, thus leaving many Labour MPs high and dry.

But the real scandal here is not that a long-overdue change is going to disadvantage the main opposition, but that we continue to be wedded to a system that disenfranchises millions of voters from being represented by their chosen party, gave the Conservatives 51% of the seats on 37% of the vote in 2015 and centres the outcome of General Elections on a handful of key marginals.

If Labour are to have any credibility in this argument they should not be crying to the electorate that they have been hard-done-by but instead calling for the long-overdue radical overhaul of a system that is no longer fit for purpose by introducing full-blown proportional representation,

With PR, every vote will count, people living in safe Tory or Labour areas, who have different allegiances, will be able to have some representation through a multi-member system that delivers according to the votes cast, and the government of the country will better reflect the way we voted rather than handing a majority to an unrepresentative minority.

We will no longer see all the campaigning concentrated on the 50 or so seats which will decide the outcome. Instead there will be a full-blown campaign in every constituency that will offer voters a real choice.

The fact that Labour have failed to grasp this and, even now are not advocating this solution is why I have no sympathy for their plight. The fact is that during the coalition years every constitutional reform proposed by Nick Clegg apart from fixed term Parliaments, was foiled by reactionaries in the Tory and Labour Parliamentary Parties, and that includes the very inadequate form of proportional voting that was put to a referendum vote.

In this case, Labour are reaping what they sewed.

Sunday, August 28, 2016

Labour leadership loses all sense of proportion after #traingate

It is one thing to be caught out on a PR stunt, but quite another to then lose all sense of perspective and try to turn a personal act of revenge against your nemesis into a higher cause.

Alas, those leading the Labour Party have done exactly that, leaving their dummy on the field as they gun for Richard Branson.

The Independent has all the details. They relate how Labour's Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has called for Virgin's founder and CEO Sir Richard Branson to be stripped of his knighthood.

Mr Branson's crime is apparently that he sought to "undermine our democracy" by authorising Virgin trains to release footage disputing Jeremy Corbyn's claims about overcrowding on one of its services.

If disagreeing with, or humiliating 'Saint Jeremy' now constitutes 'undermining our democracy' then we really have entered an alternative Orwellian universe.

God help us if these people ever get into power. The UK would become one big prison camp in which all dissent is outlawed and private property confiscated.

That may be an unfair exaggeration but it is the logical conclusion of McDonnell's current stance.

Saturday, August 27, 2016

United Nations highlights post-Brexit hate crime spike

I have written already on the racist legacy of the Brexit campaign, now the United Nations has chipped in with a statement by the UN’s Committee on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination that it is “seriously concerned” that British politicians whipped up hatred and then “failed to condemn” racist abuse during the campaign.

The Independent points out that immediately following the referendum hate crimes surged by 42 per cent in England and Wales, with a total of 3,076 incidents recorded across the country between 16 and 30 June. They add that police figures show that many areas that voted strongly for Leave posted even higher results.

The UN Committee's report’s says that they are concerned about the “negative portrayal” of ethnic minority communities, immigrants, asylum-seekers and refugees in the British media.

Ukip leader Nigel Farage was widely criticised for unveiling a poster with pictures of Syrian refugees alongside the caption the “breaking point”. He was also criticised for saying the referendum campaign had been won “without a shot being fired”, despite the shooting of Labour MP Jo Cox.

No doubt the brexiteers' reaction to this report will be to call for a referendum on us leaving the UN. The wider implications of the normalsiation of racist language in UK politics though have still not been fully assessed. All of this has consequences.

It is up to the media and politicians on all sides of the political divide to try and heal the sores they have opened up by once again making it unacceptable to act in this way.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Could Labour's flagship conference be cancelled this year?

There are some who might suggest that a party that cannot even organise its own annual conference are not capable of running the country.

Fortunately, there is a professional civil service who are able to ensure that the wheels of government are able to keep running irrespective of who is in power.

Alas, that does not appear to be the case with the Labour Party, who seem determined to self-destruct at every level.

The Independent reports that the prospect of the Labour Party cancelling its annual conference has become ever more realistic after G4S turned down a last-minute offer to provide security.

G4S has apparently been present at the event for 20 years, but has recently been criticised by party figures, including Jeremy Corbyn, for various prison contracts and links to Israel.

As a result Labour found a replacement security company called Showsec, but they are in the middle of an industrial dispute with the party over union membership for its workers. There have been threats to form a picket line outside the conference entrance, which several Labour members have said they would refuse to cross.

Merseyside police re not willing to allow the event to go ahead without security, and that they are not in a position to provide it.

The prospect of Labour not having a conference at which it can announce the results of its leadership election looms ever larger.

You couldn't make it up.

Thursday, August 25, 2016

Is the gaffe-prone Owen Smith leaving Labour members with a hobson's choice for leader?

Considering Labour MPs chose Owen Smith as the best chance they have of unseating Jeremy Corbyn the Pontypridd MP's perfomance so far has been less than inspiring.

Smith's anointment as the favoured 'pretender to the crown' makes one wonder whether the Parliamentary Labour Party were either punishing him for some hidden misdemeanor or just having a laugh at the electorate's expense.

More likely is the possibility that many in the Parliamentary Labour Party had made the judgement that whoever they chose as challenger would not be able to beat Corbyn. Their reasoning may have been that it was better to pitch an untried newcomer with a high, but misplaced regard for his own competence against the Labour leader, rather than spoil the chances of a genuine leadership contender such as Angela Eagle in the future.

Whatever the motive, those MPs who had placed their trust in Smith to put up a good show must be disappointed at his performance so far.

Instead of pitching his challenge as that of a moderate centre left politician with a real chance of winning over Middle England, Smith has chosen instead to paint himself as a slightly more competent mirror image of Corbyn. In doing so he has denied Labour members a real choiice.

Even then he has been weighed down by his own past baggage, his previous pronouncements for the use of the private sector in the health service for example. This has seen him having to square some very difficult circles so as not to undermine his current positions, when it might have been better to have embraced them as a sign that he is the sort of pragmatic and realistic politician who could actually run the country.

These reinventions of his past have in turn led many Labour members and ordinary voters to conclude that Smith is just another politician in the Blairite mould, a stark contrast to the refreshing candour and consistency of Jeremy Corbyn. They have also prevented him from effectively capitalising on Jeremy Corbyn's own gaffes such as the recent traingate (do trains have gates?).

And then there are Owen Smith's gaffes. The Independent reports that at a campaign rally Smith seemingly branded Jeremy Corbyn “some lunatic”:

“What you won’t get from me is some, you know, lunatic at the top of the Labour Party, you’ll have someone who tries to form a coherent narrative about what’s wrong with Britain,” were his exact words – and, as you might imagine, it didn’t go down famously (he has since acknowledged that he “should be less colourful with [his] language.”)

As the Labour Campaign for Mental Health has noted, “lunatic” is an unhelpful, derogatory term that infers some level of mental illness. Such a stigmatising and unnecessary taunt could have been avoided if “unity” candidate Owen Smith had bit his tongue.

If you think that is a bit too politically correct then it is worth noting, as the Independent has done, that it was only a few days ago that Owen Smith criticised Jeremy Corbyn for “abolishing” the Shadow Minister for Mental Health role, despite the fact that it was the refusal from many in the Parliamentary Labour Party to serve under the elected leader that resulted in the vacancy. In the same breath he spoke of how mental health would be a priority under his leadership, and that he would be a “champion for disabled people”.

This is not the first clanger Smith has dropped or his first apology. He accused Jeremy Corbyn of being partially responsible for misogyny in the Labour Party and attacked him for not cracking down on it, but then talked about the need to “smash Theresa May back on her heels”. These remarks echoed his sentiments when he told Plaid Cymru leader Leanne Wood that she was invited onto Question Time because of her “gender”.

He also undermined the main criticism of Corbyn’s foreign policy and the Labour leader's attitude towards national security when he put forward the absurd proposal that we should be getting “round the table” with Isis.

If Owen Smith is the answer to Labour's problems then they need to rephrase the question.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Was Farage the victim of internal dirty tricks in South Thanet?

Just how toxic is the on-going civil war within UKIP? Well, if the Guardian is to be believed it extends to senior members actively sabotaging the election campaigns of their colleagues.

The paper says senior members of UKIP have accused the party’s only MP of helping the Conservatives defeat Nigel Farage in South Thanet in last year's general election. UKIP’s main donor, Arron Banks, has written to Kent police with the allegation that Douglas Carswell, the Ukip MP for Clacton, helped the Tory campaign retain the seat. his letter details allegations that Carswell downloaded Ukip data for South Thanet and passed it to the Conservatives, enabling them to do “push polling” of key voters.

Push polling is when an apparently unbiased telephone survey spreads negative rumours about a candidate.

The Guardian says that Carswell defected to Ukip from the Tories in 2014 but has had a fraught relationship with both Banks and Farage:

According to the letter, Carswell was granted access to the Ukip database but then only accessed the South Thanet data.

A letter sent to the police by Precision Risk & Intelligence, where Banks is chief executive, claims that “we have evidence of excessive spending by the Conservatives and secretive dealings between them and a senior Ukip representative to collude against Mr Farage”.

Responding to the accusations, Carswell said: “There is no basis in these claims whatsoever. We should just be relieved that those responsible for the disastrous campaign in South Thanet were not responsible for the successful referendum campaign.”

It may be that any unauthorised use of the Ukip database would be a breach of data protection laws.

The letter also claims that the information was passed to a call centre in New Malden, Surrey, and was then used to target voters in South Thanet. The call centre in Surrey has close links to the Conservative party.

Kent police are investigating allegations of improper election spending by the Tories in South Thanet, a highly marginal seat at last year’s election. They were recently granted a further 12 months to investigate electoral spending in the constituency after a judge concluded that the inquiry could lead to the result “being declared void”.

It is not just Wales where respective members of UKIP cannot stand the sight on one another.

Tuesday, August 23, 2016

The empire strikes back

There is no better sign of how a backswood Tory MP thinks than this tweet:

Clearly riled by equally irrelevant tweets showing how countries within the European Community had topped the Olympics medal table, the MP for South Derbyshire hit back, and in doing so sought to resurrect the British Empire. At least the EU is a current institution.

Heather Wheeler has taken a lot of stick on social media for this tweet, some of it worth repeating. As the Independent reports, one pointed out that “Given that Empire day became Commonwealth Day in 1958 your use of Empire in this context is erroneous. And offensive.” Others pointed out that the Empire was nothing to boast about:

Chris Tacy said: “You have no empire anymore. And soon you won’t even have Great Britain. Well done.”

Aakash Jayaprakash wrote: “This is very offensive to invoke this alleged ‘empire’. Maybe look at all the facets including the killing and theft of millions.”

And Jan Smith said: “What an offensive, insensitive and ignorant comment. There's no empire; when there was we behaved appallingly. Shame on you!”

Another tweeter asked her to do a similar chart so as to feature the Roman Empire and the Spanish Empire. I suspect both of those would have trailed behind the EU.

If I were to be pedantic about this, I would also point out that Brexit has not happened yet and that the EU currently includes the UK. Thus the medal total for that particular institution should be 325, not 258.

This not just a failure to be self-aware on the part of the Tory MP, but also a misunderstanding of history and an affront to Britain's many friends throughout the world. Alas, it is all too typical in a world where the unthinking right wing are in the ascendant.

Monday, August 22, 2016

Labour MPs back away from open rebellion if Corbyn wins

It was less than a month ago that some Labour MPs were briefing that if Jeremy Corbyn wins the leadership contest in September that they would elect their own leader and launch a legal challenge for the party's name. Alas cold reality, not least through speaking to their own constituency members appears to have modified that stance.

According to the Independent the plan now is one of non-cooperation and a work-to-rule. The paper says that Labour MPs might try and use the Co-Operative Party,  a political group affiliated with Labour, as a means to oppose Mr Corbyn.

One Labour MP is quoted as saying: “People are not going to suddenly change their view of Jeremy just because September the 24th occurs. People still have that view, and all the problems still exist.

“Things are going to come up where the divisions are insurmountable. People are not going to suddenly just take a lead from Emily Thornberry on Brexit.

“They are not going to suddenly just take a lead from Clive Lewis on defending the country, or the situation in Syria.”

“It’s really not clear cut what’s going to happen. There are still tensions between different groups.

“A lot will depend on how Jeremy would act after a victory. There is talk of him trying to push out [Labour chief whip] Rosie Winterton.

“For a lot of people that would mean mandatory reselections are getting closer and at that point the PLP could be more galvanised.”

So business as usual then? The so-called Labour rebellion will fizzle out and, apart from a few grumbles here and there, the Parliamentary Labour Party will sullenly go about their business, trying to ignore Jeremy Corbyn as he consolidates his position and that of his successor. Of course, once the reselections start all bets will be off.

Meanwhile, the Western Mail speculates that the general secretary of Welsh Labour and the head of its press office are on a “hit list” of party staff members whose jobs will be at risk if Jeremy Corbyn is re-elected.

They quote party sources as claiming that David Hagendyk and Huw Price could be “purged” as part of an initiative aimed at bringing the party more under the control of Mr Corbyn’s left wing supporters.

Has the civil war within Labour only just begun?

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