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Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Gaffes and the political interview

Michael White has an interesting article in today's Guardian on the perils of the political interview. The article is clearly inspired by two particularly poor examples, the rather frank though unwise tone taken by the Tory MP for Hastings and Rye, Amber Rudd and the car-crash interview given by Ed Miliband to World at One.

It seems that Amber Rudd's interview was the most entertaining:

How much trouble is charming Rudd in after taking the Financial Times around her highly marginal constituency of Hastings & Rye (paywalled link), scene of recurring battles since 1066 – mostly against French raiders or Labour challenges? My hunch would be not much more than she's in already with a majority of 1,993. Rudd is smart and charming, unpaid parliamentary private secretary to George Osborne, a well-connected woman with a bit of fight.

All the same it probably wasn't wise to say she'd been looking for a seat in 2010 ""within two hours of London and I could see we were going to win it". Or dwell on the high proportion of benefit claimants the faded-but-resilient Sussex seaside town has acquired. Or admit: "If the worst comes to the worst it's been a great five years." I find such candour rather endearing, but have learned to mistrust my own reactions as psephology. Some of the FT's below-the-line contributors in Hastings were a bit miffed.

Never mind, Rudd, it was a long and informative article, which will be in Fleet Street's e-files for handy reference. And not too many people in Hastings – or even in Rye – read the FT, alas. On the downside the cheeky LabourList website used it to run a feature which will also be in the e-files: how not to do a gaffe-strewn interview like Rudd. Don't diss the constituency or the voters. That sort of thing. And don't do too much detail. On gay marriage, Rudd remarked: "I don't think they'll still be thinking about anal sex" on polling day. You never know, some censorious voters may well think of little else.

The more significant gaffe though was on the part of the Labour leader.  As Michael White points out, whilst on the local election campaign trail Ed Miliband refused to explain how he would cut VAT and low-rate income tax to boost the economic recovery or to confirm (as Ed Balls has done) that borrowing would have to rise in the short term to stimulate the growth UK Plc desperately needs:

That allowed the Tories to say there would be a £28bn black hole in the public finances – shades of Chris Patten and John Major's "tax bombshell" campaign in 1992. The Guardian didn't make much of it, but the Times put it on page one and the Daily Mail helpfully reprinted verbatim his exchanges with Kearney under a "Milishambles" headline. That's now in the e-cuttings too and far more seriously. It hits Miliband where he's vulnerable and where Labour is vulnerable: on management of the economy in tough times when many voters blame the Blair/Brown governments instead of the bankers they failed to supervise properly for the crash of 2008. Worse, it shows Miliband as ill-prepared, callow even.

That may be excusable on the part of a first term MP, it is not what we should expect from a prospective Prime Minister.

Monday, April 29, 2013

'Plebgate' bike goes up for sale

It is hardly sale of the century but for those who are interested in collecting political memorabilia, the prospect of buying the bike at the centre of the Andrew Mitchell 'plebgate' row is now a reality.

The Independent says that the the former chief whip has put the bike onto ebay and plans to give the proceeds from the sale to the charity, Nyumbani UK, which helps HIV and AIDS affected children in Kenya.

They say that according to the listing, the 22-inch framed bicycle has 18 gears and comes complete with a wicker basket and lights. As of 12.45 today, the bicycle has had 11 bids, with the top bid £1,120. It will remain on sale until 7pm on Thursday evening as there is no “buy it now” option on the listing.

Personally, I am not tempted. The basket is a bit too twee for me. It looks like it would fit easily into an episode of Acorn Antiques. However, if you are tempted to bid you can find the relevant page here.

Sunday, April 28, 2013

UKIP in policy turmoil

Following on from yesterday's post about the idiosyncrasies of various UKIP candidates, the Guardian underlines one of the reasons why those representing the party have such diverse views. It seems that UKIP cannot get agreement on a policy platform to present to the electorate.

The paper says that a series of leaked emails between key figures in Ukip reveals growing chaos at the heart of the party. They add that in one email, a senior party figure claims that leading the anti-EU party is like "herding cats". Ukip leader Nigel Farage is warned that his party is facing a decade without credible policies, as crippling internal rows rage, and it is suggested that the party should consider buying off-the-shelf strategy from right-leaning think tanks:

Details of the party's internal crisis are revealed today as Ukip prepares to field an unprecedented 1,217 candidates in Thursday's local elections. The party is unlikely to return large numbers of councillors but Downing Street fears it will deprive the Tories of victory in many seats and be the cause of major trouble for David Cameron's leadership.

Along with its strong anti-European Union message and calls for a hardline on immigration, Ukip is campaigning heavily on issues likely to appeal to wavering Tories, including opposition to green belt development, wind farms and a second high-speed rail line. However, the party's manifesto is vague on details as it attempts to appeal to the broadest audience, including disaffected Labour and Liberal Democrat voters.

The emails leaked to the Observer illustrate how powerless the party is to build a manifesto as it attempts to please its politically divergent support. Bloom says the party's policies are "naturally coming under more scrutiny" as it grows, but warns Farage of the inability of members to agree on policy lines.

Bloom, who also complains that whatever the party says on tax and the economy will "be sneered at or decried", writes: "The charm and frustration of Ukip is we have doctors who fancy themselves as tax experts, painters and decorators who know all about strategic defence issues and … retired dentists who understand the most intricate political solutions for the nation.

"Our website will have no policies at all on there for 10 years if we adopt a neo-Byzantine approach to formulating them. This means some quite senior members are going to have to stable their hobby-horses."

If UKIP are to establish themselves as anything more than a party of protest then this is an issue they need to address.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

What UKIP candidates really think

Today's Daily Telegraph performs a bit of a public service by revealing what motivates many UKIP local council candidates by questtioning them on their beliefs. I am sorry to say there are few surprises.

They say that the party is facing questions over its vetting after campaigners criticised the “far-Right connections” and “cuckoo conspiracy theories” of some of its potential councillors:

One candidate, Richard Wilkins, standing in the Isle of Wight, wrote on Twitter that Mick Philpott, who killed six of his children in a house fire, should have faced “chemical castration” to stop him claiming benefits for more than two children. He suggested Philpott should be “hung or burned at the stake” and objected to police charges against “three blokes [who] kill a pedo”, adding “if they can’t do it we will”. Mr Wilkins said he stood by his comments on “chemical castration and hanging” and wanted them printed “up in lights”.

Chris Scotton, who is standing in Leicester, has a Facebook page that endorses the far-Right English Defence League.

He has “liked” Facebook groups with names such as “No more mosques in Britain”, “Women deserve as much respect as men … LOL joke” and “Racism? No mate it’s just ethnic banter”.

David Waller, a candidate in Malling, Kent, referred to risk of tuberculosis after barriers to Bulgarian and Romanian immigrants are lifted next year. “I would suggest not going to London after January 2014 unless you absolutely have to and if you do, adopt the Japanese practice of wearing a face mask,” he wrote on his blog.

Mr Waller later told The Daily Telegraph he had not meant the remark to be serious and he is in no way xenophobic.

They add that Ukip has been forced to withdraw some of its candidates amid rows over their views. It suspended Anna-Maria Crampton, a candidate in East Sussex, over alleged comments blaming Jewish people for the Holocaust, and Sue Bowen in Cornwall after it emerged she was a former member of the British National Party.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Welsh Labour crack the whip

Plenary on Wednesday was an unusual experience. A last minute change to the agenda saw a substantial clear-out of Labour members from the Children and Young Peoples Committee including its chair, and a consequent knock-on for other committees.

It soon became clear what had happened. Faced with a whole scale rebellion from their members over the issue of putting a ban on smacking children on the face of the social services bill, the whips acted ruthlessly and swiftly to move the dissidents to a committee where they could do no damage.

Betsan Powys on her blog outlines some of the detail:

A motion in plenary yesterday afternoon replaced Christine Chapman, Julie Morgan and Jenny Rathbone with Ann Jones, David Rees and Keith Davies as members of the committee, including Ann Jones as the new chair, moved over from the chair of the Communities Committee, which, in a swift swap, is now chaired by Christine Chapman.

The changes took place with immediate effect. This morning, the committee is starting a day of evidence taking on the long and complex Social Services Bill, including evidence from the Children's Commissioner.

The committee started in a hastily scheduled private session. When the microphones were switched on, Ms Jones asked committee members to "bear with her" as she'd only found out late yesterday afternoon she was chairing the meeting at all.

Opposition sources say the whole operation is a pig's ear - emphasising that there are now three new members of the committee coming to the scrutiny of this troubled Bill cold.

I suppose it beats having a free and open debate on the merits of the amendment. As Betsan Powys says:

The question is this: if the Government gives a Bill to an Assembly committee to scrutinise and amend, and they decide they want to amend it in a way that the Government doesn't like, is it really democratic simply to change the members of the committee instead?

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Ed falls out with the unions

I have used this blog on a number of occasions in recent weeks to highlight the growing rift within the Labour party over the demand by various Blairites that Ed Miliband tack right on issues such as welfare reform if he is to win the next election.

Now the BBC reports that those tensions have erupted again in an extraordinary spat between the Labour leader and one of his biggest funders.

They say that Ed Miliband has called the leader of Labour's biggest donor union "reprehensible", and accused him of seeking to "divide" the party. He was responding to remarks by Len McCluskey, the general secretary of the Unite union, that Labour will be "cast into the dustbin of history" if it is "seduced" by supporters of Tony Blair:

Mr McCluskey did "not speak for the party", said Mr Miliband's spokesman,

The Labour leader was elected with union backing, but Mr McCluskey criticised several members of his team.

He told the New Statesman magazine that listening to figures such as shadow foreign secretary Douglas Alexander, shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy and shadow work and pensions secretary Liam Byrne, could lead to defeat, and urged Mr Miliband to go into the 2015 general election with "a team that he's confident in".
He said: "Ed Miliband must spend most of his waking hours grappling with what lies before him.

"If he is brave enough to go for something radical, he'll be the next prime minister. If he gets seduced by the Jim Murphys and the Douglas Alexanders, then the truth is that he'll be defeated and he'll be cast into the dustbin of history."

He added: "Liam Byrne certainly doesn't reflect the views of my members and of our union's policy,

"I think some of the terminology that he uses is regrettable and I think it will damage Labour. Ed's got to figure out what his team will be."

Mr McCluskey also said: "We believe that Ed should try to create a radical alternative. My personal fear, and that of my union, is that if he goes to the electorate with an austerity-lite programme, then he will get defeated."

But a spokesman for Mr Miliband said: "Len McCluskey does not speak for the Labour Party. This attempt to divide the Labour Party is reprehensible. It is the kind of politics that lost Labour many elections in the 1980s.

"It won't work. It is wrong. It is disloyal to the party he claims to represent."

How this will pan out has to be seen but it cannot bode well for a Labour Party that is starting to look increasingly fractious once more.

Wednesday, April 24, 2013

A plain speaking minister

It is possible that we have not had such a straight-talking, plain-speaking minister since Edwina Curry so Anna Soubry had better watch out that she does not get egg on her face.

The Guardian reports on an interview with the public health minister in which she says that she only got that post because David Cameron saw it as the "soft bloody girly option":

Soubry said she privately questioned the prime minister's judgment when he offered her the post during a meeting in the cabinet room in Downing Street. "To be quite frank, when the PM said to me: 'I want you to do public health,' I thought: 'Oh boss, I respect you so much, but I'm the only woman here and I get public health – I hope there's no connection there.'

"Maybe I can make people realise that this is not a soft bloody girly option, it is a big serious job. I'm a huge fan of our prime minister … but I did sit there in the cabinet room and think: 'Boss, you do know what you've just done? You've given public health to the girl again, except I'm not a girl, I'm a tough old bird.'"

In her interview Soubry criticised Tories – guilty of "doom and gloominess" in her words – who have been speculating about Cameron's future. She said: "When people talk about such-and-such a person as an alternative to Cameron, there is no vacancy … What we now need to do is stop people in the party engaging in quite a lot of twattery, and to accept that we've achieved a huge amount, and it's all to play for.

"I came into politics to fight lefties … That's where political fighting goes. The Tory party must learn from its own history that when we fight each other, you can guarantee to lose."

How refreshing. We need more politicians like this.

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Some companies still don't get it

The Independent reports on what are actually shocking comments by Eric Schmidt, the Executive Chairman of Google when he suggested that his company’s contribution to the British economy was more important than paying its fair share of tax.

According to the paper, Mr. Schmidt defended Google's use of loopholes to minimise its UK tax bill. They say he insisted that Google would comply only with the letter of the law, despite paying only £6m of taxes on £2.6bn of revenue generated in the  UK in 2011. Apparently, Google uses anomalies in international law to move profits into low-tax jurisdictions even if they have been generated by business carried out in Britain:

“We are investing heavily in Britain,” he said. “We power literally billions of pounds of start-ups through advertising networks and so forth, and we’re a key part of the electronic commerce expansion of Britain, which is driving a lot of economic growth for the country. So from our perspective, I think, you have to look at it in a totality.

“The people we employ in Britain are certainly paying British taxes, and more importantly, they’re British citizens and they’re driving a lot of GDP. I think the most important thing to say about our taxes is that we fully comply with the law, and well, obviously, should the law change we’ll comply with that as well.”

However, MPs have pointed out that much of the investment in broadband internet infrastructure that has allowed Google to grow has been paid for by taxpayers. Clearly, the Government need to make their message clearer to Mr. Schmidt that he should pay his taxes.

If not the public may do so. I believe that Mr. Schmidt will be speaking at the Hay Festival. I have a ticket for that event as do many others. Perhaps we should direct the conversation onto taxation and social responsibility.

Monday, April 22, 2013

Danny Alexander suggests radical changes to Welsh devolution settlement

The Western Mail reports on remarks by the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Danny Alexander at the Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference yesterday that the UK Government may be set to offer Wales the chance to vote on tax and borrowing powers:

Mr Alexander told delegates at the Welsh Liberal Democrat conference in Cardiff that he would “not allow” a UK Government response to the first part of the Silk Commission that fell short of a proposal for “significant” tax and borrowing powers for the Welsh Government.

Mr Alexander said there was a consensus around greater financial accountability for Wales and he would “work tirelessly” to make it happen.

Proposals in the first report of the Silk Commission into the future of devolution in Wales were headlined by a call for a referendum on income tax-varying powers, alongside proposals for borrowing powers and a slew of minor taxes.

“We need a new model of devolution for Wales,” Mr Alexander said.

“A model in which additional responsibility for raising revenues strengthens accountability too.

“A model in which significant income tax powers unlock commensurate borrowing powers for Wales too.

“We are still working through our response to the Silk Commission with the Welsh Government. But I will not allow a response to Silk that doesn’t meet those aspirations.”

Danny added: “Wales is still suffering from Labour’s failures.

“For over a decade, Labour refused to let go of the purse strings. Manchester council can set taxes – but not the Welsh Government. Cardiff council can borrow to invest in capital projects – but not the Welsh Government.

“The Scottish Government can vary income tax rates – but not the Welsh Government. The Welsh Assembly is unique across the rest of the world. It can make laws. It can spend money. But it can’t control how much it raises through tax.

“Where Labour failed, the coalition will act.

“I said when I came to Wales in 2010 that there was a ‘strong case’ for tax and borrowing powers, if there is a consensus in Wales.

“Now that we have such a consensus, I will work tirelessly to make this happen.”

Mr Alexander said the Treasury was working out the practicalities of its response to the first report of Silk, due soon, but insisted it was his job to ensure the response does not “fall short”.

Mr Alexander said a new system of assessing whether Wales is progressively losing out in comparison with England in terms of the amount of money it gets from the Treasury would be in place this year, in time for assessing budgets from 2015.

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Opening the floodgates

The Independent reports that there is a distinct possibility that Britain may be forced to lift its ban on political advertising when the European Court of Human Rights rules on its lawfulness tomorrow.

They say that the issue came to court after the campaign group Animal Defenders International (ADI) was told it could not run adverts highlighting the plight of caged primates. Because the organisation was not a charity, it was treated as a political group. ADI are arguing that this is a breach of its right to freedom of expression and appealed against the decision.

The paper adds that if ADI is successful, then the Government will have to amend the laws regarding political advertising or even lift the ban altogether, allowing all groups and parties to campaign on the airwaves.

Personally, I hope this is not the case. I do not want to see British television filled with attack ads from one party or another as in the USA, or have to go through the pain of the consequential review of campaigning rules that this will entail. I am sure the public feel the same.

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Miliband continues to struggle with Blairite voices-off

A bit of a theme is emerging within the Labour Party as their economic message continues to be challenged within their own party.

The Independent reports that Ed Miliband is under mounting Labour pressure to adopt a tougher line on welfare in an attempt to reassure voters about his plans to spend more than the Conservatives if the party regains power.

They say that Blairites are prepared to support a 2015 election pledge for higher spending on major projects such as housebuilding, but they want Mr Miliband to tackle the perception that the party is “soft” on benefit claimants in return. They also want Labour to set out soon a firm timetable for tackling the deficit.

Lord Mandelson, the Blairite former Cabinet minister, said : “If Labour wants to fight the next election with the pledge of more capital spending, the party will need to keep a sharp eye open for any adverse market reaction as the continuing high level of debt as proportion of GDP could weaken confidence. The party also needs to show where it will be tough elsewhere, for example on public sector pay and welfare spending."

Although Labour has pledged to dock benefits of the long-term unemployed if they turn down a government-guaranteed job, some frontbenchers are worried that the party is in danger of losing the argument on welfare and, in turn, on the deficit. Simon Danzcuk, Labour MP for Rochdale, said that “spending my childhood on benefits made me realise it can easily become a destructive comfort blanket, which does as much harm as good.”

Interesting as this is, it leaves the Labour leader with a bit of a headache and no clear message. How he will resolve it will have to be seen.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Builders contradict Welsh Government on mortgage guarantee scheme

The Welsh Government's reasons for abandoning its mortgage guarantee scheme started to unravel yesterday, with key building companies expressing their disappointment that the 3rd June launch date has been abandoned and questioning who exactly has pulled out so as to scupper the proposal.

Those contacted by the BBC told reporters that they were ready and willing to take part in the mortgage guarantee scheme from 3rd June and had not been consulted on the decision to drop it.

Stuart Rowlands, managing director of Redrow South Wales, said: "I was shocked and dismayed to hear the news.

"It certainly was a surprise to hear that the minister is using the reason that house builders and developers won't support the scheme.

"He hasn't been taking to Redrow certainly"

It sounds like the Minister has many more questions to answer on this decision.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

What the Welsh Government's failure on housing means for some

The Welsh Labour Government's failure to get its NewBuy scheme off the ground has left many first time buyers with nowhere to turn. Many can afford a mortgage but not the 25% deposit that mortgage companies require. I have copied below an e-mail sent to Housing Minister, Carl Sargeant by one such person. I have had permission to reproduce it:

Dear Mr Sargeant,

As a 27 year old professional struggling to afford to save for a house deposit, I was extremely disappointed to read that the NewBuy Cymru Scheme has been scrapped. At present I am spending £675 a month on rent which I would much rather be spending on my own mortgage than somebody else’s.

Last year I was interviewed by The Independent about my struggles to get onto the housing ladder and my opinions on the latest budget announcement; my main issue being the lack of opportunities for Welsh first-time buyers. This year I was much more buoyant and have been counting down the days until June for the launch of NewBuy Cymru. I was therefore dismayed this morning at your latest announcement.

I would like to know when Wales will see its own housing scheme initiative rather than trying to piggyback on the English Help to Buy Scheme which is not specifically for first-time buyers (and as such, will likely be used on the more ‘secure’ borrowers rather than FTB’s). I fear that my life will be on hold for at least another 5 years before I am able to scrimp and save for a full deposit.

I respectfully ask that you reconsider your position on the scrapping of the NewBuy Cymru Scheme.

Yours sincerely

More grumbling about Ed Miliband

Just when the Labour leader thought that things might be settling down in his party after unsolicited advice from Tony Blair, another MP puts his head above the parapet and suggests that he is getting it wrong.

The Telegraph reports that Ed Miliband has been accused by a senior party figure of “resting of his laurels” and placing the Labour Party in a “stupid place” over welfare reform:

Mr Miliband is facing growing anger from colleagues who are warning that he risks turning Labour into a party of protest.

The Labour leader has called for public loyalty from his MPs and warned his critics that they risk throwing away the chance of winning the next election.

However, one senior party member yesterday told The Telegraph that the party’s response to the Coalition’s welfare reforms had been “complete nonsense”.

The MP warned that the leadership is in its “comfort zone” because of the “inadequacy of the Coalition”.

“There’s quite a lot of feeling that we’re resting on our laurels because of the total inadequacy of the Coalition Government,” the source said. “We are assuming that that will see us through to office.

Mr Miliband has opposed many spending cuts, including the £26,000 a year cap on welfare per family, cuts to housing benefit for families with a spare bedroom and a below-inflation increase in most hand-outs.

However, the Labour leadership is coming under increasing pressure as polls suggest two thirds of voters support the need for reform.

The senior Labour source added: “We [appear to be] against the welfare reforms because the real answer is to give everybody a job. That is complete nonsense. We’re placing ourselves in a stupid place.

“I’m with those who think that we have got to [do more]. I’m with the modernisers.”

Time for a rethink perhaps?

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Labour let down first time buyers

The Welsh Housing Minister told an Assembly Committee today that a mortgage guarantee scheme, that has been under development for over a year, is being abandoned because the housebuilders they were working with on it have pulled out.

This scheme was agreed as part of a budget deal with the Welsh Liberal Democrats. Having dragged their heels for so long, the Welsh Labour Government has now left first time byers with no way forward to get on the housing ladder until the UK's scheme kicks in in April 2014.

This announcement comes in the same week that the Welsh Labour Government's £36 million back-to-work scheme, Genesis Cymru Wales 2, was wound up due to significant underperformance.

It seems that this Welsh Labour Government is incapable in getting anything right at all and sadly it is the people of Wales and the Welsh economy that is paying the price for their failings.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Champagne Socialists

Given the UK Labour Party's obsession with millionaires I am quite intrigued by the scandal currently unfolding in France around the rich ministers in François Hollande's Government.

According to the Guardian  the Socialist government has been revealed to contain several multi-millionaires. Hollande and his ministers face embarrassing accusations that they belong to a group (highly unpopular in France) known as the gauche caviar, or what British people call champagne socialists.

I understand that the French Government has sought to counter this by increasing transparency. They have published a list of the assets belonging to their Ministers. This has uncovered about half a dozen members of the gauche caviar running France.

I am very much in favour of our Government following suit. But why stop there, shouldnt Ed Miliband and his shadow ministers also publish details and the value of their assets? After all, if Labour are going to criticise we should at least know what they are worth.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Badger cull: reaping the appalling consequences of a misguided policy

The Labour MP, Dianne Abbott has done us all a service this week by highlighting figures that show that the number of people prosecuted for cruelty to badgers has almost doubled in five years.

The BBC say that 58 people were prosecuted in magistrates' courts under the Protection of Badgers Act in 2011, up from 30 in 2007.

Ms Abbott said pro-cull campaigning has given a "green light" to those carrying out crimes such as badger baiting, and I believe that she is right.

There is no scientific basis for a cull of badgers, but the method chosen by the Government of using marksmen to shoot the protected animals at night from a distance is just asking for trouble.

Apart from the obvious danger to human life, the potential for wounded badgers wandering around in great pain and the cost, this policy seems to me designed to exacerbate the perturbation effect so as to spread bTB even further afield. Policing the cull will also be a major challenge.

Given the nature of the cull it is little wonder that individuals are taking the law into their own hands.

There is still time for a rethink. A vaccination programme, as being conducted in Wales, is a viable long-term solution to eradicate the reservoir of bTB in the badger population. All the Government need to do then is to get authority to vaccinate cattle so as to get rid of this problem once and for all.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

The Blairites put Miliband on notice

Another day and yet another Blairite emerges from the woodwork to offer unsolicited and no doubt unwanted advice to the Labour leader.

This time it is the former Home Secretary, David Blunkett who, according to the Guardian has backed Tony Blair in calling for a "one nation" Labour party based on more than just backing the "grievance of a resentful and selfish" public sector against budget cuts.

Given that Miliband has embraced such protest, as opposed to constructive opposition, as his main raison d'etre this is quite a fundamental criticism.

Blunkett says 'that Miliband needs "to speak to all parts of society from the "inner city with the rural hinterland, the more affluent south-east with the once powerful and prosperous economic engine room of the north".

He writes: "Changing the way in which we deliver our public services (as opposed to simply slashing and burning) offers common cause as much in Berkshire or Bedfordshire as it does in Bury or Bolton."

Over to you Mr. Miliband.

Saturday, April 13, 2013

MMR, measles and new myths

The posting of a position statement by the current editor of the South Wales Evening Post justifying their campaign over a decade ago against the MMR vaccine was extraordinary enough, but the latest development in a saga that has now led to nearly 700 cases of measles in the wider Swansea area is just breath-taking.

According to the Independent the man who started the controversy in the first place, Andrew Wakefield has now stepped into the fray with the unbelievable claim that this outbreak justifies his stance.

To be honest it is difficult to follow his argument, but it seems he believes that the decision by the authorities to prevent the importation of the single measles vaccine meant that there was no alternative for parents who were too scared to give their child the MMR jabs because of the publicity generated by Mr. Wakefield and the Evening Post amongst others.

Commonsense tells us that the real cause of the outbreak is insufficient take-up of an effective vaccine as a result of panic generated by now-discredited science. Mr. Wakefield may have made a new life for himself in the USA but surely even he must see that he is on the wrong side of the argument and that he is better shutting up and saying nothing rather than attracting attention to himself once more.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Tony Blair speaks out

Yesterday's Guardian reports on an intriguing intervention by Tony Blair in which he warns Ed Miliband that he must prevent Labour returning to a "comfort zone" in which it attacks all government cuts without providing a compelling alternative for Britain:

He wrote: "The guiding principle should be that we are the seekers after answers, not the repository for people's anger. In the first case, we have to be dispassionate even when the issues arouse great passion. In the second case, we are simple fellow-travellers in sympathy; we are not leaders. And in these times, above all, people want leadership."

Blair directly challenges Miliband's belief that the financial crash and the subsequent recession has created an appetite for a remodelling of capitalism from the left. The former prime minister writes: "The paradox of the financial crisis is that, despite being widely held to have been caused by under-regulated markets, it has not brought a decisive shift to the left. But what might happen is that the left believes such a shift has occurred and behaves accordingly."

Blair does not say Miliband believes this. But supporters of the former prime minister fear the Labour leader is in the process of making a mistake of historic proportions in believing that the financial crash, and a prolonged recession exacerbated by spending cuts, has created an appetite for a shift to the left. Some Blair supporters fear a repeat of 1987 when a reasonably united Labour party, which ran a slick election campaign, went down to a heavy defeat because it failed to tack to the centre.

Blair writes: "Having a modern vision … helps avoid the danger of tactical victories that lead to strategic defeats. It means, for example, that we don't tack right on immigration and Europe, and tack left on tax and spending. It keeps us out of our comfort zone but on a centre ground that is ultimately both more satisfying and more productive for party and country."

The former Prime Minister warns his party that they should not settle back into its old territory of defending the status quo and sets some challenging questions they need to answer if they are to convince voters that they can represent them in government.

This intervention does not appear to have been entirely welcomed by Ed Miliband and his entourage but they would do well to listen nevertheless.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Swansea in 1908

This is brilliant.

This video was put together by West Glamorgan Archive service last year as part of Swansea Council's "Be Part of It!" countdown to the 2012 Olympics. It proved such a hit that it won the first Welsh Libraries marketing innovation award for archive service.

It was designed to show participants the landmarks and streets they would have passed had the event taken place in 1908 when the Olympics were first hosted by Great Britain.

Historic buildings like St Mary's Church and the Cross Keys pub are included as well as locations like the city centre, St Helen's Road and Victoria Park.

Other photos in the video show how Mumbles, Oystermouth Castle, the seafront, Sketty, Cockett and Fforestfach would have looked 100 years ago.

Wednesday, April 10, 2013

Can Wales lead the way on women bishops?

The BBC report that the ordination of women priests as bishops is back on the agenda at a two-day meeting of the Church in Wales' governing body, five years after a move was narrowly defeated by three votes.

They say that the Church aims to draft a new bill to be put to a vote in September. However, even if the bill is backed, the Church says it would not be brought into force until pastoral provision had been put in place for those opposed to women bishops:

"It is now five years since the last time the governing body considered the question of the ordination of women to the episcopate, and many of its members will have changed," said the Bishop of St Asaph, the Right Reverend Gregory Cameron.

"The bishops feel it is important that the governing body has the opportunity to explore the theological questions behind these issues, and understand the conscientious reasons why those opposed to the ordination of women to the episcopate would not be able to accept the sacramental ministry of a woman bishop as well as the theological reasons why those in favour believe that the time is right for such as a step."

Can Wales show England what a progressive church looks like? I certainly hope so.

Tuesday, April 09, 2013

Remembering Thatcher

The very first General Electtion I voted in was in 1979. I was at University and exercised a postal vote for my home seat in the Wirral. A group of us stayed up all night to watch the results roll in with growing despondency. It was the last time I went 36 hours without sleep. Somehow all-nighters never had the same attraction afer that.

I was elected to Swansea Council in 1984 and saw at first hand the impact of Conservative policies. I had cut my teeth in local politics slap bang in the middle of the Falklands' War when I was the Liberal agent in a safe Tory seat. We cut the majority to 171 and went on to win it in the 1985 County Council elections, though by then I was concentrating on taking the two county council seats in my own ward.

Soon after I was elected the council was dealing with the impact of the miners' strike on South Wales. I remember that they gave permission for the miners to collect donations in Swansea market and of course there were the demonstrations and other events to support the strike.

Swansea took a particular interest in the clash between Michael Heseltine and Margaret Thatcher of course, because the former was born and bred in the City.  Equally, Geoffrey Howe's dramatic resignation speech that set the scene for the Prime Minister's removal, bore particular resonance because of his roots in Port Talbot.

I was never one of Thatcher's children as I formed my views during the political turmoil of the 1970s but I started my active life in politics during her premiership and saw at first hand how her will and her agenda reshaped Britain.

Margaret Thatcher is reputed to have said that her greatest achievement was Tony Blair. There is no doubt that she was one of just two or three profoundly influential Prime Ministers of the twentieth century and in that respect, for better or worse, her legacy is secure.

Her death marks the end of an era of sorts, but the country she created lives on in many many aspects. After 1979, nothing was ever the same again.

Monday, April 08, 2013

Labour in disarray on the welfare state

The wheels appear to be wobbling on Labour's bandwagon on changes to the welfare and tax system today. Despite producing internet posters attacking the cut in the top rate of tax from 50p to 45p, it transpires that when it came to the crunch vote in the House of Commons their MPs abstained on this specific change.

Now, the Telegraph reports that some of their Parliamentarians are getting nervous that Labour may be labelled as the 'Benefits Party'. The paper says that a number of Labour MPs have admitted that the party hasd been “behind the curve” on tackling the spiralling benefits problem and that its leadership has “ducked” the issue too many times.

These MPs have urged party members to back plans to reform the welfare state, with one urging people to remember that Labour had been set up for working people, “not as a charity or a social work organisation”.

Labour also boast a shadow Works and Pensions Secretary of course who coined the phrase 'strivers versus skivers' and who advocates a regional benefits regime:

On Sunday the divisions within Labour were laid bare by a series of senior MPs.

Harriet Harman, the party’s deputy leader, admitted that working people felt “resentful” because some benefits claimants were “not pulling their weight” and were being “let off the hook”.

But a number of Labour MPs went even further by acknowledging the party’s past failings on the issue and backing sweeping reforms.

Tom Harris, a shadow environment minister who represents a Glasgow constituency, said welfare dependency was “killing the city”.

He told The Telegraph: “We sometimes allow ourselves to be seen as the party of welfare when clearly we should be trying to be seen as the party of work. We are the Labour Party and not the Benefits Party.”

Mr Harris said there a lot of people in his constituency who were “loath to work” because they were better off on benefits, adding that it was not possible to repair communities where large numbers of people were economically inactive.

Mr Harris said he backs Mr Byrne’s calls for a system that links benefits to how much people have contributed through work.

“We [the Labour Party] were not set up as a charity, or a social work organisation. We will always look after the most vulnerable in society, the homeless, the destitute, no other political party will do that,” he said. “But that is not why we are here. That is not our priority. Our priority is working people.”

In an online comment piece for The Telegraph, Simon Danczuk, the Labour MP for Rochdale, wrote that the Left should not be “proud” of letting people “languish for years on benefits”.

He called for the party to “accept there are some people on the dole that don’t want to work, and we need to have a plan to get them into work”.

Frank Field, the MP for Birkenhead and a former minister, also backed calls for Labour to tackle the growing welfare bill after “ducking” reforms when it was in power.

He said Labour should link benefits to how much people have contributed to the tax system, telling Sky News: “It is certainly [a policy] which is in tune with the public.”

In the light of these dissenting voices the vitriol with which Labour are attacking the Government appears to be severely misplaced.

Sunday, April 07, 2013

What Blair knew about Iraq and when

It is a bit late for a smoking gun regarding Iraq but nevertheless those of us who opposed the war on the grounds that it was ill-founded and illegal will feel vindicated by the revelations in today's Independent that the Chilcott Inquiry has found that the former Prime Minister ignored intelligence reports that Libya was a much greater threat so as to do the bidding of the USA.

The paper says that hitherto unseen evidence given to the Chilcot Inquiry by British intelligence has revealed that Blair was told that Iraq had, at most, only a trivial amount of weapons of mass destruction and that Libya was in this respect a far greater threat:

Intelligence officers have disclosed that just the day before Mr Blair went to visit president George Bush in April 2002, he appeared to accept this but returned a "changed man" and subsequently ordered the production of dossiers to "find the intelligence" that he wanted to use to justify going to war.

This and other secret evidence (given in camera) to the inquiry will, The Independent on Sunday understands, be used as the basis for severe criticism of the former prime minister when the Chilcot report is published.

The paper goes on to chronicle the influence that George W Bush has over Blair in changing his mind over Iraq:

During a closed session with former MI6 chief Sir Richard Dearlove, redacted evidence claims Mr Blair "had understood that Libya posed a bigger threat than Iraq, and understood the risk, therefore, of focusing on WMD in relation to Iraq". It refers to a meeting held by Mr Blair at Chequers days before the visit to Mr Bush's ranch in Crawford, Texas, but is unclear whether the claims were made by Sir Richard or another individual. What is clear is that in 2002, British intelligence "discovered that Libya has an active nuclear weapons programme", according to Sir Richard.

By contrast, Iraq had no nuclear weapons and any actual WMD would be "very, very small" and would fit on to the "back of a petrol lorry", according to one senior MI6 officer. They admitted the danger from WMD was "all in the cranium of just a few scientists, who we never did meet and we have been unable to meet ever since".

Yet the weekend at Crawford in April 2002 marked Mr Blair's conversion to Mr Bush's way of thinking. The former US president was determined to deal with Saddam Hussein. On Friday 5 April, Mr Blair and Mr Bush spent the evening alone, without their advisers. By the end of the weekend Mr Blair appeared to be a changed man, where previously he had said "we don't do regime change", according to Admiral Lord Boyce, former Chief of the Defence Staff.

The report when it comes out could be dynamite.

Saturday, April 06, 2013

Coalition getting it right on tax

As 1,110,000 million people in Wales enjoy tax bills that are £600 lower than in 2010 on Monday, Danny Alexander writes in the Telegraph to show that it is the rich who are funding this revolution:

This week for the first time people flying in business and private jets will be paying the same tax on flying that we all pay when we go on our holidays. Labour were happy for the super-rich to fly for free, we are not.

And this week also saw the introduction of a Mansion Tax for tax dodgers. It’s not the full on Mansion Tax that a Lib Dem government would bring in – but it is a step in the right direction. For thirteen years, Labour allowed the very rich to avoid paying their fair share. They knew people were dodging stamp duty on multi-million pound homes and did nothing to stop it. So, from April 1,those people who employed a small army of accountants to get round the stamp duty rules by enveloping property will end up paying up to £140,000 a year.

And of course the top rate of income tax that Labour raised to 50p in the dying days of their administration is being cut to 45p. But even that means the top rate of tax will be higher in each and every year of this coalition government than under any full year of the last Labour government.

This government’s plans mean that the richest will pay more every year of this government than in any year of the last government. Those with the broadest shoulders will pay the most towards cleaning up Labour’s mess.

In fact a millionaire will pay £381,890 more in tax between 2010 and 2015 than s/he would have paid between 2005 and 2010. It is not perfect but it is a more progressive tax system.

Friday, April 05, 2013

Finding an alternative to Trident

Despite being in a Coalition Government there are issues on which the Liberal Democrats remain apart from the two main parties on a point of principle and, I would argue leading the agenda. The most obvious of these issues is the replacement of Trident submarines, a programme that both the Conservatives and Labour are commited to and which has generated new headlines recently because of the tangential issue of North Korea.

The Prime Minister seems determined to link the two issues and, as the Independent reports is prepared to publicly criticise and misrepresent the Liberal Democrats for their failure to agree with him. He has questioned how anyone can "seriously argue" that now is the right time to surrender our deterrent, when the threat is "evolving". The threat though is not very well defined and in my view, has the same status as the mythical weapons of mass destruction which Tony Blair used  as an excuse to conduct an illegal war in Iraq.

Fortunately, we have Liberal Democrats MPs of the calibre of Sir Malcom Bruce to respond. he said: "We do accept the case for a nuclear deterrent and we are not in favour of unilateral disarmament. We are saying we shouldn't replace Trident on a like-for-like basis but we are looking at alternative nuclear deterrents once Trident has passed its sell-by date.

"But we also recognise that the cost of a nuclear deterrent is extremely high and there are many people inside the Ministry Of Defence and the armed forces who desperately want to ensure that we have the latest and most up-to-date conventional equipment and would be extremely concerned if that was prejudiced by a very heavy commitment to a budget for replacement of a nuclear deterrent which by definition is not used, as opposed to weaponry which they need. If that's compromised then other defence commitments would be undermined."

This is one issue that we will not and need not compromise as part of the coalitoin government.

Thursday, April 04, 2013

What is the problem with some Community Councils?

There has been a spate of news stories recently around Town and Community Councils in Wales that raise a number of questions about the way that some of them conduct themselves and their members' understanding of transparency and accountability.

The latest is Pontypool Town Council, which has decided that it does not like being scrutinised on it distributes grants to local organisations. According to this report Councillors have barred both the press and the public from any part of its meetings where such Local Project Funding grants are discussed:

The council has £30,450 a year to give to local groups, which range from male voice choirs to local schools and sports clubs, among others.

Each of the 21 members of the council has a personal yearly allowance of £1,450 which they can contribute to causes of their choice, with full council ratifying their decision.

But now they will give that money away in secret, with residents only able to find out how their money has been spent at the end of each financial year, when the council says it will send the Free Press a letter detailing all the grants.

The Free Press understands the move has been made because councillors were upset about getting complaints from groups which hadn’t received funding or which hadn’t got as much as another group in the area.

All of this is completely illegal of course but so far the local paper has not been able to get hold of anybody to confront them with it.

There are other examples. Coedffranc Community Council recently took advice from One Voice Wales as to whether it is possible for one of its members to publicly disagree with its decisions. Councillors were reportedly shocked that the answer was in the affirmative.

In Llanelli, the Town Council recently ejected a Llanelli Star trainee reporter from a council meeting and had his notes confiscated after 45 minutes:

Chad Welch attended the meeting, in which councillors were discussing a campaign to protect local health services, last Thursday after the Star was invited to attend the event.

Welch had been taking notes for a quarter-of-an-hour when councillors became aware he was a reporter and told him the meeting was private.

He was told by rural council clerk Mark Galbraith to hand over his notes and leave. Welch tore the pages out of his notebook and left.

Galbraith then refused to return the notes to Welch, who joined the Star in January, on Friday afternoon.

As far as I am aware the newspaper are still trying to recover the notes.

Finally, there is the strange case of Prestatyn Town Council and their problem with Freedom of Information requests. The BBC report that the Council wants make changes to the Freedom of Information Act after receiving nearly 600 questions and information requests in the past three years, mostly from one individual.

Its clerk said dealing with them last year took 30-40% of his time, which equates to about £17,500 in salary.

In short this appears to be a problem with the individual rather than the Act of Parliament but that has not stopped the Council focussing on the symptoms rather than the cause.

I happen to believe in the efficacy of community and town councils but their members sometimes make it difficult to offer such support.

Wednesday, April 03, 2013

Gagging orders

This headline in the Independent is a bit misleading because the vast majority of the officials who have left employment subject to gagging orders are local government officers and therefore not civil servants. Nevertheless it is a disturbing trend and the idea that pay-offs amounting to £14 million of public money have been made to 200 staff in Whitehall and 4,562 in local authorities on the condition that they do not talk publicly about problems with their previous employer does not instill confidence in the system.

For once I agree with Eric Pickles when he says that "For too long, local government has made departing staff sign gagging orders, often with big pay-offs attached, away from the eyes of those who get left with the bill: the taxpayer.

"When leaving a job councils and their employees need to part ways fairly. Giving out thousands in under-the-counter pay-offs to silence departing staff is not the way to achieve this.

"Councils have a responsibility to the public and transparency is at the heart of that. By shining a light on these activities and introducing new democratic checks and balances to stop gagging orders being abused we are helping councils improve accountability in local government."

Perhaps it is worth finding out how many Councils and other public bodies in Wales follow this practice.

Tuesday, April 02, 2013

Double whammy on M4 relief road

There is no doubt in my view that something needs to be done to relieve congestion on the M4 around Newport. But is a relief road the right solution?

The problem with new roads is that they fill up as fast as you can build them and then we have demands for yet more roads to relieve them. In the case of this section of the M4, the main cause of congestion is local traffic travelling distances of less than 5 miles. The obvious solution is to bolster public transport and build new local roads, something I thought the Welsh Government were doing through the Corus site.

However, this does not appear to be enough for some campaigners. They want the full relief road but in doing so it seems that local people and the whole of Wales will have to pay a high price.

The main cost is environmental and the prospect of five SSSIs being concreted over. That action alone will generate huge controversy. But add to that the idea that the relief road will be tolled and we have a potential economic farce on our hands.

They tried this solution on the M6 of course and everybody stuck to the free section of motorway. As a result the M6 relief road is losing money.

On the M4 the issue is more substantial. There is already a toll on the Severn Bridge, which looks likely to remain beyond the ending of the current PFI contract. Thus vehicles travelling into South Wales face the prospect of paying twice. That is hardly going to engender growth.

The idea is barmy. We already lose out because of the bridge tolls, with many businesses relocating to the English side of the River Severn. How will a second toll help?

If this really is the solution then the Government need to go back to the drawing board.

Monday, April 01, 2013

Keeping track of your Welsh Assembly Member

Today we are introducing a new feature to the Welsh Assembly's website so as to improve the transparency and accountability of AMs.

At 9am we will be remotely activating a GPS application in the Assembly-provided blackberries held by all members, so that anybody checking the members area on our website will be able to bring up a map so as to locate where their representative is at the time.

The innovation mirrors a similar provision available on the website of the South Korean Parliament. I first heard about it at an e-parliament conference last September and was keen to introduce it for the Welsh Assembly. We have been developing it ever since along with a number of other changes and innovations.

I am pleased to say that we are now in a position to launch it. The AFD application will transform the relationship between Assembly Members and their electorate. We expect it to be a huge success.

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