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Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Why Zac will not be able to keep his by-election focussed on a single issue

The predictable announcement by the Transport Secretary that the Tory Government plan to build a third runway at Heathrow was followed by the equally predictable resignation of Zac Goldsmith as MP so he can fight a by-election as an Independent opposed to the plans.

The catch of course is that the Tories will not oppose him, so the chances are that if he is re-elected he will end up back on the Tory benches, part of a government which is going to go-ahead with the expansion anyway. He couldn't even be bothered to properly scrutinise the Minister before falling on his sword. Is that the sort of effective representation Richmond Park electors want?

There was also major disappointment in some quarters that Boris Johnson looks like he will not fulfill his promise to lie down in front of the bulldozers. You can't have everything in this world it seems. But the key question has to be can Zac actually make this a single issue election. My view is that he can't.

Over 70% of the Richmond Park electorate voted to remain within the EU. The main challengers to Zac the Independent Tory comes from the Liberal Democrats, who are strong remainers and opposed to the Heathrow expansion. The fact that the only two credible candidates agree on the main issue gives voters latitude to base their choice on other factors. In this regard Zac Goldsmith is out-of-tune with his constituents.

And it is not as if membership of the EU is irrelevant to the Heathrow issue, it is in fact highly pertinent. The EU recognises that air pollution harms our health and our environment. As such a new EU air quality strategy pursues full compliance with existing air quality legislation by 2020 and sets new long-term objectives for 2030.

Europe has also passed an Environmental Noise Directive to help identify noise levels within the EU and to take the necessary measures to bring them down to acceptable levels. Separate legislation regulates noise emission from specific sources.

As this fact sheets says the European Parliament has repeatedly 'stressed the need for further cuts in limit values and for improved measurement procedures with regard to environmental noise. It has called for the establishment of EU values for noise around airports and also for the extension of noise reduction measures to cover military subsonic jet aircraft. [The European] Parliament has succeeded in protecting the power of local authorities to decide on noise-related measures at airports, including possible bans on night flying.'

If we leave the EU we lose that protection. Instead the people of Richmond Park and their neighbours will be at the mercy of a UK Government which believes that airport expansion is more important than the environmental considerations which surround it. And Zac, for better or worse will be part of that government, either having rejoined the Tory Party or as a Tory Party backed Independent.

Zac Goldmisth may want this by-election to be about a single issue but he is going to learn that even clear cut matters such as opposition to an infrastructure project do not exist in a vacuum. The future of Heathrow and our membership of the EU are intertwined and Zac Goldsmith is on the wrong side of the argument.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

UKIP's leadership contest embraces the 'gay donkey' tendency

The UKIP leadership contest progressed from joke to farce yesterday with the announcement by South Wales based member, John Rees-Evans that he was throwing his hat in the ring.

The announcement came by way of a rather tedious five and a half minute video on YouTube which saw Mr. Rees-Evans wander around a South Wales Valley town in a leather jacket talking to camera about his desire to transfer power to the membership, rectify the party's financial crisis and prevent it being hijacked in the future by vested interests. It was Forest Gump at a walking pace.

There was not one mention in the video of course of Mr. Rees-Evans previous claim to fame, namely the assertion in December 2014, whilst he was a UKIP Parliamentary candidate that a “homosexual donkey” had raped his horse.

As the Independent reports, Mr. Rees-Evans made the comments to protesters outside a campaign office in Merthyr Tydfil when he was confronted over claims by fellow party members that “some homosexuals prefer sex with animals”:

Mr Rees-Evans responded at the time: “Actually, I’ve witnessed that. I’ve got a horse and it was there in the field. And a donkey came up, which was male, and I’m afraid tried to rape my horse.”

The former soldier said his stallion had bitten the “homosexual donkey” in defence and that he himself had also intervened.

He later apologised for the donkey anecdote, telling the BBC’s Daily Politics programme: “It was a bit of playful banter with a mischievous activist, I’m sorry if I offended anyone in doing that.

“I concede it was a mistake to be playful with an activist in a street. The fact is I’m not a politician. The guy was just asking me questions in the street. It was an error of judgment.”

Mr Rees-Evans also told the same programme that reports he had carried a handgun around an IKEA in Bulgaria in case it was attacked by terrorists were “an embellishment”.

“That particular day I was doing some training, which is quite normal in Bulgaria. I do speed pistol shooting. I was trained by the British army to operate weapons, it’s a waste of taxpayers’ money if I don’t maintain those skills, of course,” he said.

“It simply wasn’t safe to hand [the gun] over to the security and I had some things that I had to get. That little story about laying siege to the building – quite simply, they said to me the reason they don’t allow weapons to go in there was in case there was an attack – and I said, surely you want law abiding people to be armed if people are going to come in here to attack you?”

He added that further claims he had set up a “secure compound” around his home were “entirely exaggerated”.

“A secure compound simply means a garden with a wall, which I’m sure you have if you have a garden,” he said.

Never let it be said that UKIP leadership contests are not entertaining, nor that we don't get enough of them.

Monday, October 24, 2016

How independent was Labour's report into anti-semitism?

The report by Shami Chakrabarti into anti-semitism in the Labour Party continues to make waves with revelations in today's media that Jeremy Corbyn discussed giving the former director of Liberty a peerage with his team in March, and claims she was aware her name was listed before agreeing to conduct a Labour report into anti-Semitism.

The Telegrpah says that the Labour leader is understood to have long-listed Baroness Chakrabarti for an honour after he was made aware that new peers would be created by David Cameron following the EU referendum.

They add that Chakrabarti, who is now Labour's shadow attorney general, was added before she was approached to conduct a report into anti-Semitism. Labour sources have claimed to the paper that she was told this prior to the announcement on 29 April that she would chair an independent inquiry into anti-Semitism and other forms of racism in the Labour party.

Baroness Chakrabarti denies being made aware that her name was on a long-list before she was officially approached by Mr Corbyn in July and offered the peerage. However, commentators are saying that these latest allegations raise further doubts on the independence of her report.

The claims also bring into focus questions about Jeremy Corbyn's previous announcement that he would not create any more Labour peerages and why that pledge was so quickly abandoned in this one instance.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Will Brexit sound the financial death knell for UKIP?

There is an interesting piece on Buzzfeed by Jim Waterson, which underlines how much the anti-European, so-called establishment-busting UKIP is reliant on European funds and establishment support for its survival.

Warerson says that concerns have been raised about the state of UKIP’s finances following the EU referendum, with major donors defecting to the Conservatives or threatening to form a new party now UKIP has achieved its main objective.

But, to make matters worse, the party's reliance on EU funding makes it even more likely to be cast into oblivion. He says that many support staff and a large proportion of the party’s most prominent individuals are reliant on the EU for their income. That money will vanish in 2019 if the government sticks to its planned timetable for Brexit:

Collectively UKIP’s 22 MEPs can claim up to €6,072,000 (£5,400,000) a year from the European parliament to fund staff costs, with limited scrutiny of how it is spent.

Public records reveal that at least 76 different individuals are currently listed as employed by UKIP’s MEPs using European funds, all working on behalf of the party’s politicians.

There is no suggestion UKIP has broken the strict restrictions on using the funds for domestic political purposes, and some of these simply are simply constituency case workers. However, the majority of these employees have some personal connection to UKIP and many have social media profiles showing their campaigning on behalf of the party.

Among the staff employed by UKIP MEPs are prominent UKIP volunteers, councillors, regional organisers, and parliamentary candidates who may find it harder to dedicate as much time to the party if they were forced to find another job.

UKIP’s 22 MEPs also benefit from EU-funded salaries worth €95,000 a year (£84,484) and expenses, giving them the freedom to campaign for UKIP.

Waterson says that to make matters worse, UKIP does not currently pay its leader from party funds, since Nigel Farage and his predecessors have traditionally survived on their EU-funded MEP’s salaries and outside earnings. This raises the question of how the party intends to pay its leaders in the future:

As a result, whoever wins the second UKIP leadership election of the year will have to battle to raise funds from donors to cover both campaign costs and, potentially, their own salary.

UKIP’s media profile could also be hit by the loss of the EU jobs. Of the eight UKIP politicians who have appeared on BBC Question Time this year, six rely on European parliament funding for their main job by virtue of being MEPs or working for MEPs.

Meanwhile, the loss of EU funding will also see the party lose a number of policy and communications staff. Hermann Kelly, who is frequently referred to in the media as a “UKIP spokesperson”, is technically employed by the European parliament’s EFDD grouping.

The EFDD is nominally a pan-European political party, but in reality consists of UKIP, Italy’s Five Star Movement, and a handful of fringe candidates from other nations. The arrangement was criticised after some EFDD funding was used to finance a Farage speaking tour and for security costs at major events in the run-up to the EU referendum.

Earlier this week UKIP was forced to deny reports in The Telegraph that it had a £800,000 “black hole” in its finances and owed substantial sums of money. However, the party’s most recent accounts for 2015 reveal the party “had no financial reserves” and was “dependent upon contributions from donors” to meet ongoing costs, while the most recent Electoral Commission figures show the party owes £470,000 in loans.

The situation has reached the point where UKIP does not currently even have a press office.

Waterson points out that domestically, UKIP's failure to secure sufficient numbers of full-time elected representatives will cause them further difficulties. He points out that the only prominent UKIP politicians certain to continue to receive full-time salaries from politics after 2019 are the party’s only MP, Douglas Carswell; its two London assembly representatives; and seven members of the Welsh assembly, including Neil Hamilton.

Hamilton himself employs his wife Christine as his personal assistant on a salary estimated by Private Eye at around £25.000 per year. His chief of staff is Robin Hunter-Clarke who is a Lincolnshire County Councillor, living in Skegness. His wife Melanie is also employed by Hamilton.

Another UKIP AM, Mark Reckless chairs the Assembly's Climate Change Committee for which he receives £13,000 on top of his £64,000 salary whilst at the same time working up to 20 hours a week in the UK Parliament for UKIP's sole MP, Douglas Carswell. He employs his wife as his special adviser at a wage estimated by the Eye at £30,000 a year.

The great UKIP gravy train is rolling on, for another couple of years at least.

Saturday, October 22, 2016

The Welsh way

I'm not a big fan of Lord Peter Hain's attempts at constitutional tinkering. It was his legislation that introduced the Legislative Competence Order, which crippled the Welsh Assembly's law-making ability in its third term. The LCO, as they  came to be known, had previously only been tried before when an Imperial British Government had sought to keep the Irish happy.

Hain was also responsible for restricting the ability of people to stand for both the Assembly list and a constituency at the same time, a breathtaking exercise in undermining individual rights and the sort of change I would have expected from somebody with far fewer democratic credentials.

However, his latest attempt to restrict the franchise makes perfect sense. As the Western Mail reports it comes in the guise of an amendment to the Wales Bill currently being considered by the House of Lords, and proposes that only people living in Wales can stand for the Welsh Assembly.

Such a geographical restriction already exists for other institutions, including local councils and the House of Commons and there is no reason why it should not apply to the Welsh Assembly as well. After all there is no reason why somebody who wishes to stand cannot move here so as to qualify.

And surely the least a voter should expect of their representative is that they are accessible and identify with the area they represent, not ensconced in a mansion on the other side of the border paying courtesy visits to their constituency when they feel like it.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Why another Labour-Plaid Cymru coalition would be bad for Wales

As Plaid Cymru gather in Llangollen for their annual conference all the media speculation centres on whether they will finally bite the bullet and enter into another formal coalition with Labour in the Welsh Assembly.

One of the reasons Dafydd Elis Thomas walked away from Plaid was his perception that they are not serious about exercising power and their failure to form such an alliance. He certainly has backers for that view remaining within his former party.

The BBC quote Leanne Wood as saying that there is "ongoing discussion" about whether it  is better to formally share power, with members genuinely torn over the "dilemma". Plaid Cymru AM Neil McEvoy, who came close to unseating Leanne Wood from the top of the South Wales Central list, confirms this when he says that the agreed official position is against coalition and "reports to the contrary surprise me".

Of course what Plaid Cymru and Labour do is up to them but there are minuses as well as advantages to having a 'stable' government coalition consisting of two thirds of the Welsh Assembly's members.

The big disadvantage from my point of view would be inadequate scrutiny of Welsh Government policies and legislation. At the moment the opposition is fairly diverse, with the Tories and UKIP opposing from the right and Plaid Cymru largely from the left. The only liberal voice has been subsumed into the government but Dafydd Elis Thomas himself may be able to provide that in future.

To have the government solely scrutinised from a right wing perspective may well suit some members of Labour and Plaid but it would severely diminish the quality of debate in the chamber and committee rooms. We would lose a plurality of representation within the opposition that currently benefits our democratic process.

That was not a problem during the 2007-2011 One Wales Government of course because the Welsh Liberal Democrats provided that left-leaning, liberal input into debate and scrutiny. It would not be available in the fifth Assembly.

The second disadvantage of such a coalition is that it would give the Government a free pass on the work of building a consensus for their work within the chamber and in the country.

At the moment, if Carwyn Jones wants to get something through he has to work with others and achieve a sort of consensus. In a mega-coalition that debate would be internalised, it would become less of a discussion and more of a whipping exercise.

That is not healthy for democracy nor does it help to advance the cause of devolution in a country that prides itself on a more consensual approach than Westminister. Having to win support for your policies from your opponents so as to get them through can bring a type of democratic discipline to government that is discarded by those Ministers who can rely on an automatic majority to get things through.

The current make-up of the Assembly chamber may not be comfortable for the Welsh Labour Government not does it provide the sort of certainty that some stakeholders would wish, but it does ensure that Welsh democracy remains interesting, accountable and transparent. That is surely a good thing and it would be a shame if it were lost.

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Liberal Democrats influence showing in Welsh budget

The Welsh Liberal Democrats may only have one Assembly Member but the deal that Kirsty Williams struck before accepting the post of Education Secretary is very evident in the Welsh Government's draft budget that was published yesterday.

As this BBC article makes clear, Kirsty Williams influence is obvious with a doubling of the pupil deprivation grant for the youngest and poorest learners. This is a £4.5m boost for deprived children in the Foundation Phase, which was a key Lib Dem manifesto pledge.

The budget headlines are £111m for apprenticeships and traineeships, a £100m tax cut for small businesses, £10m for pilot projects to support 30 hours of free childcare a week, a £20m boost to raise school standards, £16m for a new treatment fund, £5m to start raising the residential care capital limit to £50,000, £240m extra for the Welsh NHS, £60m for the Intermediate Care Fund, the best local government settlement for years, and protection for the pupil deprivation grant.

Some of these schemes are continuations from previous budget deals, others are Welsh Liberal Democrats manifesto promises including the funding for 20,000 new affordable homes within the social sector and the Welsh Development Bank.

The Welsh Liberal Democrats are continuing to deliver in Wales, even with our depleted representation.

Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Why Labour cannot be trusted with our civil liberties

Labour's record on civil liberties has not been a good one. Whether it is their support for identity cards, their attempt to bring in a 90 day and then 42 day pre-charge detention regime, the Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000 that gave extraordinary surveillance powers to local councils and other authorities, and of course their attempt to monitor and store details of our private communications.

Of course there are some that would say that all this came in a different era, when Tony Blair was in charge and when they were in government. And it is true that being in government means making difficult decisions. But it seems that the Corbin era has not seen any change and that not only are Labour continuing to support the erosion of our liberties but they are failing in their duty as an opposition to properly scrutinise the proposals they support.

Thus, as the Guardian reports, on Monday 64 Labour peers backed an expansion of state surveillance powers, within hours of a ruling by top judges that the spying agencies unlawfully scooped up personal confidential information on a massive scale for more than a decade:

The Labour peers voted with the government to ensure that major new powers are handed to the security services to get access to records tracking every citizen’s web use for the past 12 months.

The Liberal Democrat attempt to delete the powers to order the collection and storage of the new internet connection records from the investigatory powers bill in the House of Lords was voted down by 75 to 292.

It was notable that neither the former Labour home secretary Lord Blunkett nor the new shadow attorney general, and former Liberty director, Lady Chakrabarti, took part in the vote. The 64 Labour peers who voted with the government included frontbench spokespersons, Lady Hayter and Lord Rosser and the party’s chief whip, Lord Bassam.

The vote came just hours after the ruling by the investigatory powers tribunal, the only court to hear complaints against MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, that the security services had until 2015 secretly and illegally collected huge volumes of confidential data of millions of British citizens without adequate or safeguards.

Of course the Shadow Home Secretary, Diane Abbott, made all the right noises describing the bill as "draconian” and saying that the ruling demonstrates why it needs amending but actions speak louder than words:

The Lib Dem Lord Paddick said: “Labour’s decision not to back us in opposing this huge intrusion into our privacy shows once and for all that they cannot claim to be the party of civil liberties, regardless of who sits on their benches.

“Internet connection records are ill-conceived and disproportionate and no doubt this fight will continue in the courts.”

Jim Killock, the Director of the Open Rights Group also strongly criticised the Labour peers. He said: “Labour did not table any serious amendments to this draconian legislation in the House of Lords. Labour is simply failing to hold the government to account.

“The Labour Lords had an opportunity to improve the IP bill and make it closer to becoming a surveillance law fit for a democracy not a dictatorship. They could have called for proposals to record UK citizens’ web browsing history to be scrapped or demanded that the police need independent authorisation to access our data.”

I think that those comments speak volumes about Corbin's Labour party.

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

When free speech is treason.

The arguments for and against Brexit have been well-rehearsed and in particular there are strong views on what should happen next.

The Liberal Democrats have argued that the UK Parliament should debate our negotiating position and that the final deal should be subject to a referendum so that the public can accept or reject it.

Nobody though has tried to argue that all debate should be shut down completely with severe penalties for those of us amongst the 48% who want to continue to argue the case to remain in the EU - until now.

The Independent reports that a Guildford Tory Councillor has been suspended after starting a Parliamentary petition calling for anyone supporting EU membership to be charged with treason:

Christian Holliday, a councillor in Guildford, Surrey, placed a petition on Parliament’s website demanding that the 1848 Treason Felony Act be updated to include “the following offences”.

They would be: “To imagine, devise, promote, work, or encourage others, to support UK becoming a member of the European Union.

The petition continues: “It is becoming clear that many politicians and others are unwilling to accept the democratic decision of the British people to leave the EU.

“Brexit must not be put at risk in the years and decades ahead. For this reason, we the undersigned request that the Treason Felony Act be amended as set out in this petition. (These provisions to become law the day the United Kingdom leaves the EU).”

I am surprised that he did not add 'adherence to a foreign Pope' to the list as per the reformation. As Liberal Democrat patron of the Vote Leave Watch campaign, Tom Brake said: “We knew Theresa May was intent on taking Britain back to the 1950s, but it's still a surprise to see a Tory councillor advocating a policy straight out of the 1550s.

“Let me point out gently to Cllr Holliday that 16.1 million people voted to remain in the EU - and the courts are busy enough as it is without trying to prosecute all of them for treason."

What is astonishing is that this petition has attracted nearly 1200 signatures.

Monday, October 17, 2016

Financial sector under threat from Brexit

Bankers are not the most popular of people in this country but it is an unavoidable fact that the UK’s financial services sector employs 1.9m people and is the key to maintaining a balance of payments surplus. Without it the pound would depreciate even further and we would have further increases in the cost of living, increases which will hit the poorest sections of our society the most because they spend the highest proportion of their income on basics such as food.

It is not good news therefore to read in the Guardian that banks could start making decisions to move assets out of the UK as early as the end of 2017 if there is no deal in place to maintain their rights to sell services freely across the European Union:

Open Europe, which took a neutral stance on the referendum, said Britain could risk losing its status as a hub for financial services unless passporting rights are made the top priority in negotiations with the EU. The warning came as the Financial Times reported that the government is considering proposals [paywall] that would see billions of pounds paid into the EU budget in exchange for giving the financial sector continued access to the single market.

The report’s authors also warned that failure to help UK-based banks could have repercussions on the continent, because banks would not necessarily move their business from Britain to mainland Europe, and could opt for New York or Singapore.

Meanwhile in a speech today, Nick Clegg will echo calls from the City for a transitional deal to be put in place after the end of the Article 50 process if the UK does not retain single market membership, warning food prices will see a steep hike if the UK reverts to World Trade Organisation tariffs, including on imported beef, cheese and wine:

Clegg will warn that the under WTO rules, tariffs will also have to be applied to all imports into the UK until a trade deal with the EU is struck. In his third Brexit Challenge report, the former deputy prime minister will say UK farming will be particularly badly hit by tariffs, including 47% on milk, 40% on cheese, 59% on beef, and 40% on lamb.

It really is time for the UK Government to get a grip on this process, accept that the UK Parliament should be able to scrutinise and debate their negotiating stance and that the British people should have the final say on any eventual deal. It would also help of course if the UK Government knew what it was doing. The stakes are too high for any other approach.

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