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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Save the badger rap

Friday, August 30, 2013

Eric Pickles on tour

Some light relief after last night's Commons fiasco over Syria, the Independent has highlighted one of the more unusal road trips of the summer.

The paper reports that two Conservative-voting British students are taking a cardboard cutout of Local Communities and Government Secretary, Eric Pickles around the United States:

He has been photographed sunbathing in Crawfordville, Florida (fully dressed: he's no fool), snapped striding past bikini-wearers on Miami Beach, briefcase firmly tucked under arm), and was recently seen standing strong on Atlantic beach next to a Union Flag. (No surprise there: Eric Pickles loves flags. Supporters will be delighted to see that his enthusiasm stretches past St George's Day and well into August.) Oh, and he popped up in Olustee Battlefield, standing on some artillery from Civil War times.

He has the look of a man who means business, unflappable in any setting. And well he might, because he's been doing his tour as a near-life size cardboard cut-out of himself, courtesy of university students James Johnson (Oxford) and Daniel Falvey (Nottingham), both 21, who have taken it upon themselves to cart him around America this month. Both Conservative voters, they claim to genuinely admire Pickles: “He has a lot of gravitas, and he's a funny man,” Johnson says, on the phone from Florida. “What better way to spice up our American road trip than bringing along the man himself?”

There is no accounting for taste.

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Government position on Syria is right way forward

Irrespective of how they reached it, the decision by the UK Government not to rush into a military confrontation with Syria is the right one. Like many others I am concerned with the legality of any action, especially after what happened over Iraq, but what is really important is that we understand the consequences of any action and have an exit strategy. It should not be our job to destabilise the country even further, no matter how unacceptable and barbaric the use of chemical weapons is.

The use of those chemicals is a war crime and needs to be punished, but a direct miliary intervention, of whatever nature creates the danger of punishing the wrong people both directly and indirectly over a period of time.

That is why I welcome Nick Clegg's letter to members yesterday in which he makes it clear that this is not Iraq. He says that any case for international action must be taken to the UN in an effort to achieve as great an international consensus as possible. He adds that we must wait until we hear from the weapons inspectors:

All sides agree, the murder of innocent men, women and children through the use of chemical weapons is a war crime and a crime against humanity. It is a repugnant crime and a flagrant abuse of international law.

It is important that we try to do everything we can to ensure international and cross party consensus.

That is why we have listened to EU countries and the Arab League, why we are taking this to the UN and why we are ensuring the House of Commons has the final say before any direct British involvement – one vote tomorrow, and another one if and when we are asked to participate directly.

As we consider action, I am clear, we must only consider measures which are legal, which are proportionate, which have as much international backing as possible and which are specific to stopping the use of chemical weapons. These are weapons which are indiscriminate in their killing and have been prohibited under international law for generations.

Any action must take the country with it. That means that we must have done all we can to find a peaceful solution first. We are clearly not at that point yet. That is why it is right that we do not rush into military action.

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

"I have a dream" 28th August 1963

Tuesday, August 27, 2013

The caring sharing Lib Dem Chief Whip

On Politics Home, Paul Waugh refers to an interview with the Liberal Democrats MP for Cardiff Central and party whip, Jenny Willott in which she recounts her experience as a new mother in the House of Commons. 

The Ad Lib magazine article to which he refers suggests that the Liberal Democrats Chief Whip, Alistair Carmichael may be a bit more hands-on than previously thought:

"When Toby was six months old, Carmichael was looking after him in the Whips' Office while Willott was in the House of Commons chamber. Carmichael was halfway through changing the baby's nappy when the Permanent Secretary for the Whips' operation at Number 9 Downing Street walked in. "Alistair was kneeling on the floor, changing Toby's nappy and he said that the look on the man's face said 'Oh my God, I just knew the Lib Dems were going to be like this!' I don't think there are many Chief Whips who would be so hands-on."

Thank goodness I was never put in that position when I was the Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Group whip.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Patronising first time voters

Today's report by the Institute for Public Policy Research recommending that we introduce compulsory first-time voting for young people is the most patronising I have seen for a long time.

The Institute suggest that such a measure could overcome the current apathy among young voters and tackle the “inequality” in turnout rates which means older, wealthier people in society have more influence over politics. In my view it is more likely to lead to widespread civil disobedience by young people, and I would not blame them.

I do not agree with compulsory voting. I do think that everybody should vote and that those who do not have to live with the consequences of decisions by other people, however forcing anybody to participate in the democratic process seems to me to be a contradiction in terms.

Compulsory voting is an admission of failure on the part of politicians. It is our job to give people a reason to vote. That turnout has been falling in recent years is an indication of how bad we are at that job. To focus a measure forcing people to vote on just one section of the population is a sign of desperation. It treats them as second class citizens, with lesser rights than others.

If we want young people to vote then we have to go out and inspire them to do so. Education is key, but at the end of the day most people only start to think about exercising their democratic rights when they take on the responsibility of a home, a job or a family. In other words when it becomes directly relevant to them. No amount of coercion is going to change that.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

Most hated building?

The Independent reports that six architectural firms will be on the edge of their seat on Friday as they wait to hear whether their building has won the 2013 Carbuncle Cup, the award bestowed on Britain's ugliest building.

The favourite for architecture's wooden spoon is apparently Castle Mill housing at Port Meadow, Oxford. The paper says that the Frankham Consultancy Group-designed complex for Oxford University graduates has been nominated more times than any other building in the cup's history after being erected on a beauty spot, much to local people's fury.

Other contenders include the Redcar Beacon, also known as the Vertical Pier, and the Porth Eirias Watersports Centre in Colwyn Bay, Wales, known not-so-affectionately as "the dumpster" by locals.
There are three London buildings in the mix. These are the UCL student housing in Islington, a Premier Inn at Waterloo and the Avant Garde Tower in Bethnal Green.

Is the Porth Eirias Watersports Centre really the ugliest building in Wales?  Personally I have never been there so I am not in a position to judge. These things are subjective anyway. Other views welcome.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

First World problems

As if we did not have enough to worry about the Telegraph produces an article on problems besetting those of us who are privileged enough to live in what is known on Twitter as the First World, somewhere not racked with the war, famine, human rights abuses and disease that much of the rest of the World has to put up with.

A sense of perspective is needed to those complaining about Pimms not being sufficiently chilled, the cleaner taking a day off and the glare of the sun affecting the screen of our laptops, phones or tablets. But then the whole Twitter hashtag is meant to be ironic, parodying and berating those who do not know how lucky they are to only have small inconveniences to worry about.

The paper says that sagging designer clothing, the area we live in being too nice for a corner shop which sells cheap wine and having to stand up to reach for a cup on the coffee table are also on the list:

Another area of 'first world problems' includes motoring – with problems such as the car's leather seats becoming too hot in the summer – and too cold in the winter.

The car stereo not being MP3 compatible is also listed as a problem as is needing a second family car, but not having room for it on the driveway.

A spokesman for paid survey website, OnePoll, which carried out the study, said: "Sometimes we forget just how good we've got it.

"While we enjoy a lifestyle much more fortunate than some parts of the world, we still find time to moan about those more trivial problems during everyday life.

"Of course it's frustrating that our earphones get tangled, or that some shops only sell cheap wine when you want to splash out a bit.

"But when these moments occur, we should take a second and reflect on what aspects of our life aren't so problematic".


Friday, August 23, 2013

A monster that must not be allowed to grow out of control

The Telegraph reports on a new initiative by the Policy Exchange think tank, who are determined to build on their idea of Police Commissioners by expanding their remit and their powers.

They have called for called for a significant expansion of the commissioners’ role to oversee the fire and ambulance services, prisons and probation. They also suggest that the current cap on the “police precept” should be abolished, with PCCs able to charge an extra sum to pay for alcohol and drug treatment, prison places, electronic tagging schemes and mental health care.

This is not the sort of decentralisation that Britain needs, not least because it would involve a reversal of devolution in Wales and Scotland and the creation of an all-powerful figurehead with little or no checks and balances on his or her actions.

The point is that there are already elected bodies who could, given the powers, deliver this sort of co-ordination and joined up thinking at a local level. Why reinvent the wheel again by feeding the monstrous office of police commissioner, when the same outcomes can be achieved in a more democratic, accountable and transparent way by empowering local councils, setting up a properly federal system of government or just making sensible provision for devolved nations?

Concentrating powers into the hands of one individual with few checks and balances leaves the system open to abuse. As Labour Assembly Member, Mike Hedges argues into today's Western Mail on the subject of elected Mayors, in recent years the British political system has become more obsessed with the world of American politics, where the likes of directly elected mayors are the norm and personality takes over from policies as the focus in elections:

Just because something works well in one country doesn’t mean that it would work well here in Wales, and from my experience the politics of governments and local authorities is far too complex for us to put our faith entirely in one individual.

At a time when people throughout Wales are concerned about the quality, reliability and sustainability of local services delivered by local councils, I seriously doubt that local authority governance change is high on the list of anyone’s priorities.

In my opinion, directly elected mayors are nothing more than expensive “white elephants” that achieve nothing that cannot be achieved by the current structure.

We need to stop obsessing about gimmicks and start concentrating on making the system work better and in a more accountable way.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Labour to embrace coalition benefit cuts

Nobody in the Liberal Democrats is comfortable with the benefit cuts that are taking place at a UK level, and most of us recognise that mistakes have been made, not least in failing to exempt disabled adults from changes to housing benefit for spare bedrooms.

What does grate however is Labour politicians' sanctimonious public opposition to these changes whilst failing to acknowledge that they initiated many of them, would have done the same if they had won in 2010 and will not reverse the reforms.

Thank goodness therefore for Liam Byrne, who according to the Guardian, at least acknowledges that Labour are going to have to embrace many of Iain Duncan Snith's reforms, even if they are not in the same format as present:

Byrne's speech, titled Fiscal Discipline in Social Security, suggested the party is gearing up to accept many of the coalition's schemes to cut spending on benefits.

Labour has already signalled its intention to cap overall benefit spending, end winter fuel payments for the richest pensioners, tighten the rules on some benefits for foreign workers and maintain restrictions on child benefit for wealthier families.

Miliband has said the coalition's welfare cuts will be a "starting point" that cannot be reversed without savings elsewhere, but promised an approach to benefits that will restore the "dignity of work".

However, even Liam Byrne has had to make some concessions to the refuseniks. If it really was that easy to cut the benefit bill by massively increasing welfare to work schemes, does he not think that the Coalition Goverment would have already done it?

The problem with such schemes is that whoever runs them and no matter how well designed they are, they just end up providing subsidised employment for six months before the vast majority of participants go back onto benefits.

We need to create real jobs and real enterprise, something that the Coalition needs to up its game on. At least the brightening economic outlook gives us a small glimmer of hope that progress can be made in that direction.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

ASA ruling on irresponsible measles jab website is welcome

The BBC reports that a clinic selling separate measles, mumps and rubella vaccines has been told to remove "misleading" claims from its website implying a link between the MMR jab and autism.

They say that the ruling by the Advertising Standards Authority came after complaints were made about the Cheshire-based Children's Immunisation Centre during the measles outbreak centred on Swansea. The ASA decided that the clinic's language "could have caused fear and distress":

The Children's Immunisation Centre offered single vaccines to parents, running a clinic in Swansea and others in England.

In its response to the ASA, the centre said it offered a safe alternative for parents who needed to have their children protected from childhood diseases but did not wish to undergo government or NHS programmes such as the MMR vaccine.

It also argued its website information did not constitute advertising.

But the ASA said because the centre "promoted non-government recommended vaccination and because the overall context of the website focused on their claim that a single MMR vaccination was linked with autism, we considered the language used could have caused fear and distress without justifiable reason and we concluded the website was irresponsible".

Three complainants, including a GP, challenged whether the centre's 100% safety claim could be substantiated, while two said the advert was irresponsible and could cause fear and distress because it appeared during the measles outbreak in south Wales.

The ASA ruled that the website breached regulations because it advertised prescription-only medicines.

The misinformation on this website was raised by me a number of times with Ministers in the Assembly. I am delighted that they have finally been told to take down the incorrect assertions.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

'Blairite cuckoo' lays into Miliband

A bit late to the party, I know,  but this piece by Dan Hodges in Sunday's Telegraph is worth a second look.

Mr. Hodges is described by the paper as a Blairite cuckoo in the Miliband nest. They say he has worked for the Labour Party, the GMB trade union and managed numerous independent political campaigns and that he writes about Labour with tribal loyalty and without reservation.  What are we to make therefore of this hatchet job?

Dan Hodges says that the People’s Party is scattering its marbles to the winds:

Its poll lead is crumbling. Surveys show that Ed Miliband is viewed as the new Nick Clegg, but without the gravitas and charisma. Fred Goodwin enjoys greater public trust on the economy than his Treasury team.

Some Labour activists and commentators seem stunned by all this panic. They point out that we are still two years from an election, that the cuts are biting and that the Tory brand remains contaminated. But for seasoned Labourologists, there is nothing surprising here. We are just witnessing another of the party’s regular collisions with the British people.

Seriously, what did Labour think was going to happen? That Ed Miliband’s brand of metropolitan liberalism would take the working people of England by storm? That pubs and supermarkets would echo to the excited chatter of people debating the merits of “The New Politics” and “One Nation Britain”? That in the midst of a recession caused by excess borrowing and debt, the voters yearned for a champion who would safeguard the livelihoods of those on benefits by whacking even more borrowing and debt on to the credit card?

It’s time for Labour to face an unpalatable fact. All those people who told the pollsters they couldn’t see Miliband as prime minister were telling the truth.

Labour’s leader is broken. The public have made their minds up about him, and they won’t be changing them this side of an election. It’s not a matter of more time, or getting to know him better, or him shouting louder, or listening harder. He has joined the ranks of those politicians that voters look at and think: “Nah, hasn’t got it”.

Labour has got to stop trying to fix Ed Miliband. They’re not going to win the next election because of him. Instead, they have to figure out how they can win despite him.

He goes on to suggest that the shadow cabinet  have to stop trying to work through Miliband, and start working around him. They also have to start saying “no” to him. He proposes a new golden rule for Ed Miliband: “The Coco Chanel strategy”, less is more, though he would prefer none at all is more but accepts that total invisibility is impractical.

He wants Ed Miliband’s appearances be kept to a bare minimum. Unless he has something new to say, he should say nothing at all. And he goes on to say that Labour should seriously consider whether to allow him to participate in the election debates:

With the interminable campaign run-in commencing, Labour strategists must adopt a Blitz mentality: “Is Ed’s journey really necessary?” More often than not, the answer will be negative.

You get the impression that Hodges does not rate the Labour leader, one iota.  He concludes:

There is still – barely – time to arrest it. If Miliband can step back, and allow his party to step up, there’s an outside chance Labour can still win. If the next election is a choice between Miliband and David Cameron, he will lose. If it is a fight between the Labour Party and the Conservative Party, he may yet prevail. Which presents Ed Miliband with a paradox: that his one chance of being prime minister is to make the British people forget that he may one day be their prime minister.

You cannot get any more damning than that.

Monday, August 19, 2013

An abuse of process by the UK authorities?

The Guardian reports on the extraordinary events at Heathrow yesterday when for almost nine hours, the UK authorities detained the partner of the Guardian journalist who has written a series of stories revealing mass surveillance programmes by the US National Security Agency as he passed through London's Heathrow airport on his way home to Rio de Janeiro.

The paper says that David Miranda, who lives with Glenn Greenwald, was returning from a trip to Berlin when he was stopped by officers at 8.30am and informed that he was to be questioned under schedule 7 of the Terrorism Act 2000. The controversial law, which applies only at airports, ports and border areas, allows officers to stop, search, question and detain individuals:

The 28-year-old was held for nine hours, the maximum the law allows before officers must release or formally arrest the individual. According to official figures, most examinations under schedule 7 – over 97% – last under an hour, and only one in 2,000 people detained are kept for more than six hours.

Miranda was then released without charge, but officials confiscated electronics equipment including his mobile phone, laptop, camera, memory sticks, DVDs and games consoles.

Greenwald himself has written about the incident here. He says that the stated purpose of the Terrorism Act, as the name suggests, is to question people about terrorism. He adds that the UK Government claims the detention power is used "to determine whether that person is or has been involved in the commission, preparation or instigation of acts of terrorism.":

But they obviously had zero suspicion that David was associated with a terrorist organization or involved in any terrorist plot. Instead, they spent their time interrogating him about the NSA reporting which Laura Poitras, the Guardian and I are doing, as well the content of the electronic products he was carrying.

He concludes: Before letting him go, they seized numerous possessions of his, including his laptop, his cellphone, various video game consoles, DVDs, USB sticks, and other materials. They did not say when they would return any of it, or if they would.

This is obviously a rather profound escalation of their attacks on the news-gathering process and journalism. It's bad enough to prosecute and imprison sources. It's worse still to imprison journalists who report the truth. But to start detaining the family members and loved ones of journalists is simply despotic. Even the Mafia had ethical rules against targeting the family members of people they feel threatened by. But the UK puppets and their owners in the US national security state obviously are unconstrained by even those minimal scruples.

If the UK and US governments believe that tactics like this are going to deter or intimidate us in any way from continuing to report aggressively on what these documents reveal, they are beyond deluded. If anything, it will have only the opposite effect: to embolden us even further. Beyond that, every time the US and UK governments show their true character to the world - when they prevent the Bolivian President's plane from flying safely home, when they threaten journalists with prosecution, when they engage in behavior like what they did today - all they do is helpfully underscore why it's so dangerous to allow them to exercise vast, unchecked spying power in the dark.

If the facts as set out by the Guardian are correct, this appears to be an unjustified abuse of power and an attack on freedom of expression. The relevant minister should explain the actions of his or her officials.

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Getting into bed with Cameron

Political parties selling access to their leaders, cabinet members and other influential policy makers is not new, however the Tories have taken matters to a new low with their menu of lobbying prices for this years party conference.

The Independent reports that amongst the treats that can be purchased at the conference, lobbyists can pay £1,750 to leave a message on David Cameron's pillow.

On each day of the conference companies or lobbying firms will be able to pay to have their “message or promotional item” placed on the bed of the 350 most senior Tories staying in the official conference hotel. They can also pay to get messages printed on the Tories’ key cards. And because it is a party political conference and not a government occasion it does not count as declarable lobbying:

Among other offers is access to the official VIP lounge where “the Cabinet, Government Ministers and senior Party Officials” go to “relax or grab a quick snack”. For £20,000 plus VAT company executives or lobbyists can buy “access to lounge” with “complimentary passes”. They can also brand the lounge with their logo.

Companies who pay to have a stall at the conference are guaranteed pictures with cabinet ministers that are taken by the party and then given to them on a CD. As the disclosure rules covering the lobbying of ministers have tightened up in recent years, the attraction of party conferences as an opportunity to get discreet access to power has increased. Last year just 38 per cent of those who attended the Conservative conference were actually members – slightly more than the 36 per cent who were described as “Commercial/Charity/Exhibitors”.

And in a wonderful example of chutzpah the Tories are even selling access to the people who have done most to expose the influence of lobbying on politicians: journalists.

One package available to companies is “media zone sponsorship”. For £15,000 this gives sponsors access to the media zone where journalists work with branding in the panels above their heads. In recent years the major party conferences have turned into big money-making operations. Each party aims to raise at least £1m from the event through sponsorships, attendance fees and even a cut of bar sales.

The Tories are not alone in their resourcefulness. Apparently, the Liberal Democrats are selling poster spots in the conference washrooms for £1,000 for 10 sites, while £10,000 will buy your name on the lanyards that every delegate must wear around their necks. Labour are also selling access to Ed Miliband at their “conference dinner”.

You could not make it up.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Politicians and the internet

The problem with the internet is that it can magnify mistakes and human frailties out of all proportion and bring the world crashing down on your head, sometimes in tragic circumstances.

Over at the Guardian Comment is free site, Caroline Criado-Perez examines this phenomenon and warns politicians in particular that they should not tamper with things they do not understand for fear of making matters worse. She says that it is not the internet that is the problem, it is the people using it:

There is a problem when politicians attempt to pronounce on the workings of the internet; too many of them don't or won't get it, probably through a mixture of generational and cultural disconnect. It is a foolish blind spot to cultivate, given that a tweet from the White House that combined a dog and Mean Girls got 23,426 retweets and universal approval just the other day – and how often does a politician manage that? Even the Ed Balls meme (if you're not on Twitter don't even try to understand this), initially laced with schadenfreude, has culminated with people who originally disliked Balls feeling almost affectionate towards him.

But when politicians get the internet wrong, the internet can be ruthless. Sarkozy posts a photo on Facebook claiming to have been at the fall of the Berlin Wall? Mary Macleod claims to have single-handedly ensured a victory for women on banknotes? No, the internet isn't having that – and so these politicians face the kind of swift justice only the internet can deliver: a ruthless lampooning via the medium of Photoshop. As Sarkozy was muscled into the moon landings, so Mary Macleod found herself celebrated as the architect of the Normandy landings, joining John Terry at the cup final and, in a particularly meta evolution of the mini-meme, taking credit for herself taking credit for banknotes.

Of course, there's nothing new about satire: it's as old as politics. But the internet is peculiarly adapted to deftly pricking pomposity. This is partly because nothing dies online, meaning your past indiscretions are never yesterday's news, wrapped round the proverbial fish and chips. They are always out there in the ether, just waiting for the moment you decide to claim you created the internet. (Not that that one was ever going to fly for Al Gore.)

Perhaps more significant however, is the internet's sheer speed. A piece of information can travel round the world in the time it takes to hit "post". When it comes to politicians trying to shape narratives to suit themselves, this speed is disruptive beyond Hogarth's wildest imaginings.

She concludes that too many politicians still don't understand the internet. They don't understand its power, and they don't understand its limitations:

No one would claim that the internet creates democracy, merely that it gives it a super-charged shot of adrenaline. So why think the internet creates misogyny, hatred or, indeed, the sort of toxic bullying we have read about this week? These are the hallmarks of humanity, and if we want to combat them, we need societal solutions. And the sooner politicians wake up to this fact, the sooner we can return to the original purpose of the internet: cat gifs and Sarkozy photoshopped on to the moon.

This is a lesson that David Cameron and those in all parties who have jumped on this particular bandwagon, need to take note of.

Friday, August 16, 2013

The real face of UKIP?

There was an interesting development in the last few days on the UKIP front when it transpired that two former Conservative MPs, Rod Richards and Neil Hamilton, who had been considered by some to be certainties for selection to represent their new party in next year's European Elections, had failed to be selected.

It was a sign perhaps that their membership was asserting itself, something that occasionally happens in more mature political parties. Their problem however, is that the membership more often puts its collective foot in it than it does sensible things like reject leadership favourites.

Incidents like this one, reported in the Telegraph are cropping up more and more often. In this case it is the party's Treasurer who has expressed the view that Women's failure to beat men at chess, bridge and poker means that companies should not be forced to give them seats on boards:

Stuart Wheeler, the party's treasurer, said that women were "absolutely nowhere" when they compete with men in sports where they are not physically disadvantaged.

His comments were immediately condemned as "disingenuous" and sexist by other delegates at a debate on "gender quotas" in London last night.

It comes after Godfrey Bloom, a Ukip MEP, suggested that Britain should not be giving aid to countries in "bongo bongo" land.

Mr Wheeler said: “I would just like to challenge the idea that it is necessary to have a lot of women or a particular number on a board.

"Business is very, very competitive and you should take the performance of women in another competitive area, which is sport where [men] have no strength advantage.

“Chess, bridge, poker – women come absolutely nowhere. I think that just has to be borne in mind.”

With friends like that, why do UKIP need enemies?

Thursday, August 15, 2013

A matter of etiquette

As a member of the Welsh Assembly I am very used to working within the rules of debate. In fact there are several booklets kept by the Presiding Officer's chair containing all the rulings made by holders of that post since 1999, including what is and what is not acceptable language.

I was interested therefore in this article in the Telegraph outlining some of the traditions and rules of the Houses of Parliament. Some of these are fairly modern, others date back to another age, so much so that one wonders why they continue with them.

Chief amongst these is astonishing fact that MPs are being supplied with snuff at taxpayers’ expense. The paper says that the powdered tobacco, which is traditionally taken through the nose a “pinch” at a time, is kept by a doorkeeper in a wooden snuffbox with a silver-plated lid at the threshold to the Commons chamber:

A background paper on the customs and traditions of Parliament, published by the House of Commons Library, said snuff was the only form of tobacco allowed in the vicinity of the Commons, where smoking has been banned for more than 300 years.

“Snuff is provided, in recent years at public expense, for Members and Officers of the House, at the doorkeepers’ box at the entrance to the Chamber,” the document stated.

Although the briefing said that “very few members take snuff nowadays”, a handful of MPs are believed to have continued to use the supply.

According to a freedom of information request, published on whatdotheyknow.com, the Commons pays about £6 for a tin of snuff about once every two years. The tobacco is bought from Parliamentary officials’ “petty cash”.

Apparently, this perk was disclosed in a background briefing, provided to MPs “in support of their parliamentary duties” last week:

The document also details how MPs must handle relations with each other inside and outside Parliament and the rules which must be observed during debates.

Commons Speakers have banned the use of words deemed “unparliamentary”, which have included “blackguard”, “coward”, “guttersnipe”, “rat”, “stoolpigeon” and “traitor”

Certain activities are also deemed to be out of order during debates, such as carrying briefcases and reading newspapers, magazines or letters. Mobile phones and other electronic devices must be set to silent mode in the Commons.

Apart from the occasional sip of water “to ease the voice”, eating and drinking are not permitted. The document noted that this was “in contrast to what must have happened in previous centuries, when visitors observed Members sucking oranges and cracking nuts”.

At the end of each sitting, when the House “rises”, two doorkeepers in the Commons simultaneously shout “Who goes home?”

This is believed to date back to the time when members would join together in bands to cross the “dangerous unlit fields” between Westminster and the City of London, or to share a ferryboat homewards on the Thames.

Contrary to popular belief, dogs are “not generally allowed” in the Commons, unless they are guide dogs. There is “no truth” in the claims that King Charles Spaniels are exempt from the ban, the paper warned.

Parliamentary dress codes have changed substantially over the centuries. Tall hats were once essential and would often be left on a seat in order to reserve a member's place, on the grounds that the wearer was certain to return because he could not contemplate leaving without it.

The custom led some MPs to bring two hats to Parliament with them in order to ensure that they could reserve a seat without needing to remain in the Palace.

Men were required to remove their hats before speaking during a debate and are still not permitted to address the House whilst wearing a hat, although women are exempt from this rule.

During the daily procession of the Commons Speaker through the Palace of Westminster to the chamber, a police officer will shout "Hats off strangers" as an instruction to members of the public to remove their headwear.

It is little wonder that some members think they have gone back in time on entering the House of Comnmons.

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Trade Unions are in charge

The publication of donations to political parties for the second quarter of this year is as enlightening as ever, not least for the lady who left £520,000 to the Government of the day. The money was split 80-20 between the Tories and the Liberal Democrats.

The Telegraph though focusses on the money received by the Labour Party, three quarters of which has come from the Trade Unions. Labour was given £2.4million by the unions between April and June this year. The Unite union gave £772,195, GMB gave £485,830 and Unison £458,080.

This starkly illustrates how dependent Labour are on the unions and what Ed Miliband risks by promoting reform. The question is of course, what do the Union barons get for their money? It is a question for which Labour need to provide a convincing answer.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Falling living standards are a problem of Labour’s making

Over at Liberal Democrat Voice Nick Thornsby makes some very important points about Labour's latest claims on falling living standards.

Labour’s shadow financial secretary to the Treasury has pointed out that by 2015, official forecasts show working people will have lost an average of £6,660. The reality though is slightly different:

Of course, this is a serious issue. Times have been incredibly tough for a very large number of people over the past few years. But falling living standards are a symptom of economic problems, which of course preceded the coalition. The fall in living standards since 2008 serves primarily to highlight just how disastrous Labour’s economic record is, not only having failed to “abolish boom and bust” but doing the very reverse by engineering one of the biggest booms and consequently biggest busts in the developed world.

And how much worse would things would have been had it not been for the stabilising effect of the coalition’s balanced programme of deficit reduction combined with monetary activism, both of which have kept interest rates at record lows? It’s easy to forget that even small increases in interest rates bump up mortgage payments significantly.

And thanks to the Lib Dems, those on the lowest incomes are keeping significantly more of the money they earn. Combined with other measures such as freezes to council tax and fuel duty, the coalition has actually done a lot to help those trying to make ends meet.

Whoever was in power now would have been faced with falling living standards — recall former Governor of the Bank of England Sir Mervyn King’s warning before the 2010 election — but the problem is one largely of Labour’s making thanks to their reckless economic policy. The coalition might not (yet) have been able to reverse the trend, but they have done a number of things to help. However, only a sustained and sustainable economic recovery will deliver a turnaround in living standards – so today’s further good news on that front has to be welcomed.

This is going to be the big debate in the run-up to the 2015 General Election. It is as well therefore that we get our facts right.

Monday, August 12, 2013

Car crash Bryant

The New Statesman is pretty scathing today about the Chris Bryant car-crash interview on Radio 4 this morning. Apparently, the shadow immigration minister sent out advance briefings of a speech he was delivering today only for it to be discovered that it was wildly inaccurate. So much so that Mr. Bryant ended up rebutting his own accusations during the course of the interview.

The preview of the speech in yesterday's Telegraph suggested that Bryant would criticise Tesco for moving its distribution centre to Kent and telling staff that "they could only move to the new centre if they took a cut in pay. The result? A large percentage of the staff at the new centre are from Eastern bloc." When Evan Davis noted that Tesco had responded by pointing out that no such distribution centre exists, a flustered Bryant replied: "I don't know where Kent came into it, it was always Essex...I don't know how the word Kent got into it" before falling back on the defence that he hadn't "said anything yet" and that it was not "all that fruitful" to focus on specifics.

But the backtracking continued as Bryant claimed that his attack on "unscrupulous employers whose only interest seems to be finding labour as cheaply as possible" did not refer to Tesco and Next. They were, he said, "good employers" who "often try to go the extra mile to find good local workers" all but disowning the criticisms of both companies that appeared in the Telegraph. For instance, he was quoted as saying of Next: "Look at Next PLC, who last year brought 500 Polish workers to work in their South Elmsall [West Yorkshire] warehouse for their summer sale and another 300 this summer.

"They were recruited in Poland and charged £50 to find them accommodation. The advantage to Next? They get to avoid Agency Workers Regulations which apply after a candidate has been employed for over 12 weeks, so Polish temps end up considerably cheaper than the local workforce which includes many former Next employees."

What I don't understand is what Bryant was trying to say. Obviously, he has been talking to a lot of people and has heard many tales, most of which on past form are inaccurate. But instead of establishing the facts and asking the question as to why employers have to rely on migrant labour, he went onto the offensive.

If there really is a problem on the scale Bryant alleges, and I don't believe that there is then we need to know why it is that local people are not taking up these jobs. Is it a matter of training, work ethic, perceived inadequate remuneration or all three? Surely the real issue he should be focussing on is illegal immigration and trafficking?

And given that the migrant workers Bryant refers to come from within the European Union, is he advocating withdrawal? It is little wonder that the Secretary of State for Wales tweeted this morning that Labour's policy on immigration was more coherent when they were silent.

Sunday, August 11, 2013

A summer of silence

Today's Observer argues that Labour's virtual silence over the long summer recess is losing it support. More importantly, it shows that the party is devoid of ideas and fresh thinking:

This weekend, the shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, admitted that Labour needed to "speak louder … put our cards on the table." Today's Opinium/Observer poll shows Labour dropping three percentage points from two weeks ago to 36%, taking its lead over the Tories to only seven points. Some senior figures in the party suggest that Labour's silence for much of the summer is symptomatic of a lack of resources and forward planning – the email sent to shadow ministers in July asked for ideas, not necessarily fully worked-out ones, by the end of the next day. More worrying still, others say the lack of response to that rather panicky email suggests a party devoid of fresh thinking.

Michael Meacher MP, a minister for the environment under Tony Blair, is not necessarily of that mind. He is a firm supporter of Miliband, voted for him over his brother David in the leadership election three years ago, and believes in him. But his frustration at a lack of counter-narrative to the Tory message of austerity, in particular, is widely shared within the Labour ranks. "I would like the Labour party to speak out more strongly about the positive alternative," Meacher told the Observer. "Maybe it will when the manifesto comes to be published, but there is, I think, a lack of wider discussion and a bit of a void."

The main opposition party is faltering, without any clear leadership. It is no wonder that complaints about Ed Miliband are growing.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Killing badgers

By way of endorsement I have set out a press release from the Badger Trust in full below:

The Prime Minister and his friends in the cattle industry are busy trying to brainwash the public about killing badgers. ‘Pilot’ culls are due to begin before the end of the year and there is an increasing barrage of propaganda to soften up public opinion with outrageous and unsubstantiated claims about bovine tuberculosis (bTB) and its impact.

David Williams, Chairman of the Badger Trust, said: “Mr Cameron told BBC’s Radio 4 that there could be '...appalling consequences for badgers' if the culls did not go ahead. The Trust says it beggars belief that he is forgetting the horrific reality of the slaughter he is backing. More than 100,000 badgers, the vast majority disease free, will be slaughtered or maimed. Nothing could be more appalling than that”.

The PM also said the Government could spend "another billion pounds" dealing with the consequences of bovine TB if culls were not carried out, but killing the animals would have only a marginal effect in the long run. But with an eventual benefit of only 12-16 per cent at best the compensation bill will be barely affected. New restrictions introduced this year at the insistence of the European Commission are likely to have a real and lasting effect. They are similar to the successful Area Eradication Scheme of the immediate post war years which did not include any assaults on wildlife.

Mr Williams added: “Mr Cameron boasts that the Coalition had the political courage to help the countryside, whereas culling will help no one other than those who wish to kill any wildlife at will anywhere.

“Successive governments should have called the cattle industry to heel 20 years ago when it was resisting pre-movement restrictions, cattle movement monitoring and more frequent testing. In the meantime the number of cattle slaughtered was rising from about 1,000 a year on average to almost 38,000 last year. This tragic outcome followed 20 years of stability with various local badger culling schemes making no difference, and even now the new but long overdue cattle-based policies are not being given time to have an impact before the killing".

The pre-cull smokescreen has recently included, in the Daily Telegraph:

• June 2: a farmer in Gloucestershire tearful about losing cattle for which he is compensated, a member of the industry that kills prematurely ten times as many cattle for diseases other than bTB;

• June 2: the British Veterinary Association saying the only weapon Britain has against bTB is killing badgers, repeating the myth that no other country has controlled the disease without killing wildlife – forgetting the UK itself which did just that from 1950 to 1990;

• July 28: overblown tales of terror (one farmer) in Derbyshire, where the county council has decided not to allow culling on its land;

Those who see badger killing as a cheap shortcut or even as a salve to their discomfiture at being rebuffed in the past are, like the lady in Hamlet’s play, protesting too much.

This cull is getting out of hand and it is time somebody stepped in to restrain the Prime Minister and others who are gung ho for it.

Friday, August 09, 2013

Labour caught out on zero hour contracts

Go figure! After going public in a big way in opposition to zero hours contracts, including a number of questions and interventions in the Welsh Assembly, Labour have been caught out again.

The Financial Times reports that Labour-run councils across the UK are among the many local authorities using zero-hours contracts as they aim to cut staffing costs in response to Whitehall’s austerity drive.

The paper says that six Labour-controlled councils in London, Tower Hamlets, Brent, Ealing, Merton, Hounslow and Newham, use workers on contracts with no guaranteed hours, while Labour-run Doncaster estimates it has 300 people working under such arrangements:

While private sector employers have been singled out for heavy use of contracts with no guaranteed hours, the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development has said zero-hours contracts are more prevalent among public sector employers.

“A higher proportion of public sector employers use these contracts than the private sector,” said Mark Beatson, chief economist at the CIPD, which this week claimed that up to 1m workers in the UK could be on contracts with no guaranteed hours.

That suggests more than 200,000 people working in a variety of public sector jobs – from care home workers to further-education college lecturers – could be employed on such contracts. The business department, which is conducting a review into zero-hours contracts, said it did not have data on the prevalence of zero-hours working within the public sector.

The article points out that Labour has been careful not to condemn zero-hours contracts outright, with Chris Leslie, shadow Treasury secretary, saying the party wanted to take an “evidence-based approach” to the issue. But the practice is deeply unpopular with many Labour MPs and union supporters. Andy Burnham, shadow health secretary, has denounced the practice and called on Labour to ban such contracts if the party wins the next election.

That is all very well but the vehemence with which many Labour politicians have gone at this issue leave many of them open to a charge of hupocrisy given then facts. Once more Labour have been caught out in pure oppositionism.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

Breaking the consensus

Whatever one might think of the Welsh Tories' new policy announcement that they want to divide up children at the age of 14 into academic and vocational streams, they certainly made an impact. They might also have started a debate.

After all, no matter how this is characterised it is not a return to Grammar Schools and they have ruled out reintroducing the eleven plus.

How unfortunate therefore that today's Western Mail reveals that elements of the new policy have their origins in a party focus group session:

Results of the focus group have been leaked to WalesOnline and showed little support in Wales for the policy of “free schools” being pursued by the UK Government in England.

Asked what they thought about free schools, funded by the state but not under local authority control, only 28% supported them in Wales, with 41% saying they opposed them and the rest saying they either didn’t know or didn’t wish to comment.

In the UK as a whole there was a different picture, with 45% supporting free schools, 23% opposing them and the rest either saying they didn’t know or didn’t wish to comment.

By contrast, attitudes towards grammar schools were roughly similar in Wales and the UK as a whole. Asked “Do you think grammar schools should be reintroduced?”, 45% in Wales wanted them reintroduced and 17% did not. In the UK the respective figures were 43% and 20%.

The Tories might have had more credibility if they had been able to demonstrate a better considered policy-making process instead of reverting to spin doctors for their ideas.

Wednesday, August 07, 2013

Pressure builds on Ed Miliband

Evidence that the Labour Party under Ed Miliband's leadership is growing ever more fractious is growing following an article by Swansea West MP, Geraint Davies which argues that his leader needs to provide a “compelling case” to the electorate on why the country would be better off under Labour and come up with a more effective response to Conservative attacks.

According to the Western Mail,  Mr. Davies believes that Labour are not getting their message across:

 “The party’s challenge is to provide a compelling case as to why Britain would be better off with Labour.

“Firstly, the problem is that the electorate doesn’t yet see a clear choice between the parties on cuts vs growth. Secondly, the Tories have been relentless in asserting that Labour messed up the economy.

“Not rebutting this charge makes us look like a shamefaced schoolboy admitting responsibility by omission. And if we don’t rebut the accusation, it will simply amplify as the election approaches.”

The Swansea West MP added: “Labour needs to set out a vision of a stronger Britain that provides the economic confidence to invest and consume to stimulate jobs and growth.

“The Conservatives have been busy trying to recreate the political choices of the 1980s – between an ’all heart and no mind’ Labour which would tax and spend Britain into bankruptcy vs the hard-nosed business sense of the Tories making tough choices in the nation’s interests.

“Labour needs to talk the talk of UK plc – boosting the UK’s productive capacity by linking industry, universities and councils.

“We need a sharper focus on the growing export opportunities to China, India, Brazil and Russia. We must invest in homes and transport, use public procurement as an engine to grow small and medium-sized firms.”

Mr Davies said next year’s European election campaign would offer the opportunity to put policies on growth and jobs “centre stage”.

He added: “We need to continue a journey towards jobs and growth, not to be diverted into a cul-de-sac of more cuts.”

Geraint's problem is that the those at the top of the Labour hierarchy have correctly assessed that the approach of denying the deficit and trying to absolve themselves of responsibility for the economic mess we are in, is not convincing the swing voters that they need to win the next election.

Outright opposition to cuts, which Ed Balls has now embraced may have some resonance in South Wales but it is not working in middle England.

Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Cable to act on zero hours contracts

The BBC reports on concerns by Business Secretary, Vince Cable that there is "some exploitation" of staff on zero hour contracts which give no guarantees of shifts or work patterns.

He was speaking after the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development found up to 4% of the UK workforce were on such contracts following a survey of 1,000 firms:

"I think at one end of the market there is some exploitation taking place," said Mr Cable.

However, he pointed out that in many cases the level of flexibility offered by the contracts suited employees. "It can work for the worker as well as the employer," he told the BBC.

Mr Cable has been leading a review on the issue for the government since June and will decide in September whether to hold a formal consultation on specific proposals.

The fact that the Government is looking at this issue is welcome, though there is a need to retain some flexibility. Let's hope they don't take too long over it.

Monday, August 05, 2013

Give us the evidence on plain packaging and minimum pricing

This morning's Western Mail reports that Wales' Health Minister is investigating whether Wales could go it alone on major public health issues such as plain cigarette packaging and a minimum price for alcohol. His action comes after the UK Government refused to proceed with these measures, preferring instead to get more evidence as to their efficacy.

As somebody who has never smoked and is virtually teetotal I am always wary of pontificating on these issues if I can help it. However, it strikes me that if we are going to proceed down a legislative route we should at least have some evidence to prove that what we are proposing to do will meet the objectives set for it.

I have set out at some lengths on this blog my scepticism on minimum pricing, the same applies to plain packaging for cigarettes. Let us see the evidence that adopting such a measure will make a positive contribution to the public health agenda.

I have an open mind, it is up to advocates to prove their case.

Sunday, August 04, 2013

Cannabis found among Newport street pot plants

A late entry to story of the week comes from the BBC who report that Council officials in the City of Newport, South Wales are trying to discover who planted cannabis in flower pots put out to brighten up the city centre.

They say that more than 20 of the illegal plants were discovered nestling amongst begonias and petunias in the street flower displays, but by the time police were told and went to examine the specimens they had already been harvested:

"I had never seen cannabis growing in the wild before so it was crazy to see it," said local businessman Dean Beddis, who made the discovery.

"It's actually rather a beautiful plant and stood out wonderfully. But they have gone now. I don't know who took them."

The leafy pot plants were growing in open view of passers-by on some of the city's busiest streets.

Newport councillor Rhys Hutchings, also a member of the band Goldie Lookin Chain, said he thought local teenagers were to blame.

"It's either kids or the Newport underworld community - I'm pretty sure it's not Alan Titchmarsh," he joked.

The Council are checking CCTV coverage to try and identify the culprits and have notified the police. However, as the police spokesperson says, unless they actually have the plants they do not know if they are even cannabis.

Speaking out against fracking

The Telegraph reports that another row has broken out within the coalition, however for once this split has not taken place on party lines.

They say that Tim Farron, the Liberal Democrats’ president, has said he is “greatly worried” by the Government’s “dash for shale gas”. His views clash strongly with those of Ed Davey, the Energy Secretary and a fellow Liberal Democrat.

The paper believes that Tim's comments suggest that rank-and-file Liberal Democrats could increase pressure to rein in fracking, restricting the potential that senior ministers such as George Osborne see for it to help revive the British economy.

IGas, one firm hoping to exploit Britain’s shale gas reserves, estimates that there may be 170trillion cubic ft of gas in the areas of the north of England where it is licensed to explore.

The company estimates that fracking could create up to 40,000 jobs over 20 years.

However, opposition to the process on environmental grounds has become increasingly vocal. A protest near the West Sussex village of Balcombe is into its 11th day, and has already led to more than 30 arrests.

Residents are concerned about issues such as possible contamination of their water supplies and the increase in traffic on their roads. A poll published by villagers found that 85 per cent opposed fracking at the nearby site.

It is certainly the case that grassroots Liberal Democrats are far more sceptical than our Ministers about this method of extraction. A number of Welsh Liberal Democrats Assembly Members for example have been active in their communities and in the Senedd in demanding a precautionary approach to extraction applications. That concern is replicated amongst activists and elected councillors across the UK.

For once Tim Farron is speaking for many in the party. Ed Davey and others would do well to listen.

Saturday, August 03, 2013

Telecoms companies passing details to GCHQ

Yesterday's Guardian reports that some of the world's leading telecoms firms, including BT and Vodafone, are secretly collaborating with Britain's spy agency GCHQ, and are passing on details of their customers' phone calls, email messages and Facebook entries.

They say that BT, Vodafone Cable, and the American firm Verizon Business, together with four other smaller providers, have given GCHQ secret unlimited access to their network of undersea cables. The cables carry much of the world's phone calls and internet traffic:

On Friday Germany's Süddeutsche newspaper published the most highly sensitive aspect of this operation – the names of the commercial companies working secretly with GCHQ, and giving the agency access to their customers' private communications. The paper said it had seen a copy of an internal GCHQ powerpoint presentation from 2009 discussing Tempora.

The document identified for the first time which telecoms companies are working with GCHQ's "special source" team. It gives top secret codenames for each firm, with BT ("Remedy"), Verizon Business ("Dacron"), and Vodafone Cable ("Gerontic"). The other firms include Global Crossing ("Pinnage"), Level 3 ("Little"), Viatel ("Vitreous") and Interoute ("Streetcar"). The companies refused to comment on any specifics relating to Tempora, but several noted they were obliged to comply with UK and EU law.

The revelations are likely to dismay GCHQ and Downing Street, who are fearful that BT and the other firms will suffer a backlash from customers furious that their private data and intimate emails have been secretly passed to a government spy agency. In June a source with knowledge of intelligence said the companies had no choice but to co-operate in this operation. They are forbidden from revealing the existence of warrants compelling them to allow GCHQ access to the cables.

Together, these seven companies operate a huge share of the high-capacity undersea fibre-optic cables that make up the backbone of the internet's architecture. GCHQ's mass tapping operation has been built up over the past five years by attaching intercept probes to the transatlantic cables where they land on British shores. GCHQ's station in Bude, north Cornwall, plays a role. The cables carry data to western Europe from telephone exchanges and internet servers in north America. This allows GCHQ and NSA analysts to search vast amounts of data on the activity of millions of internet users. Metadata – the sites users visit, whom they email, and similar information – is stored for up to 30 days, while the content of communications is typically stored for three days.

GCHQ has the ability to tap cables carrying both internet data and phone calls. By last year GCHQ was handling 600m "telephone events" each day, had tapped more than 200 fibre-optic cables and was able to process data from at least 46 of them at a time.

Each of the cables carries data at a rate of 10 gigabits per second, so the tapped cables had the capacity, in theory, to deliver more than 21 petabytes a day – equivalent to sending all the information in all the books in the British Library 192 times every 24 hours.

This operation is carried out under clandestine agreements with the seven companies, described in one document as "intercept partners". The companies are paid for logistical and technical assistance.

The identity of the companies allowing GCHQ to tap their cables was regarded as extremely sensitive within the agency. Though the Tempora programme itself was classified as top secret, the identities of the cable companies was even more secret, referred to as "exceptionally controlled information", with the company names replaced with the codewords, such as "GERONTIC", "REMEDY" and "PINNAGE".

However, some documents made it clear which codenames referred to which companies. GCHQ also assigned the firms "sensitive relationship teams". One document warns that if the names emerged it could cause "high-level political fallout".

Germans have been enraged by the revelations of spying by the National Security Agency and GCHQ after it emerged that both agencies were hoovering up German data as well. On Friday the Süddeutsche said it was now clear that private telecoms firms were far more deeply complicit in US-UK spying activities than had been previously thought.

The source familiar with intelligence maintained in June that GCHQ was "not looking at every piece of straw" but was sifting a "vast haystack of data" for what he called "needles".

He added: "If you had the impression we are reading millions of emails, we are not. There is no intention in this whole programme to use it for looking at UK domestic traffic – British people talking to each other." The source said analysts used four criteria for determining what was examined: security, terror, organised crime and Britain's economic wellbeing."The vast majority of the data is discarded without being looked at … we simply don't have the resources."

Nonetheless, the agency repeatedly referred to plans to expand this collection ability still further in the future.

Once it is collected, analysts are able to search the information for emails, online chats and browsing histories using an interface called XKeyscore, uncovered in the Guardian on Wednesday. By May 2012, 300 analysts from GCHQ and 250 NSA analysts had direct access to search and sift through the data collected under the Tempora program.

Documents seen by the Guardian suggest some telecoms companies allowed GCHQ to access cables which they did not themselves own or operate, but only operated a landing station for. Such practices could raise alarm among other cable providers who do not co-operate with GCHQ programmes that their facilities are being used by the intelligence agency

What is not clear is the extent to which these companies are voluntarily co-operating with this operation and to what extent they have been coerced. Nevertheless, although sources say that GCHQ is not listening to everything, it is clear that any use of telecommunications is not secure. Always assume you are being listened to.


Friday, August 02, 2013

Miliband continues to take unfriendly fire from his own party

Following on from yesterday's column by Dan Hodges in the Daily Telegraph reported here, yet more Labour insiders have started to queue up to have a pop at their leader.

Today it is George Mudie, the Labour MP for Leeds East, who according to today's Telegraph jumped in to accuse Ed Miliband of being too "young" and has been failing to "set the agenda", leaving MPs unsure what Labour stands for:

In a series of coruscating comments, George Mudie, MP for Leeds East and a former Government minister, described his party as "slightly confused" under Mr Miliband's leadership.

Speaking to the BBC's World at One, he said he is "deeply worried" about the direction of Labour as the party does not seem to be "energetic" enough.

“One of Ed’s problems really is that he’s young, and, of course, the way he came to power – the problem with his brother, the fact that the trade unions had a major say and I still think he’s trying to find himself," Mr Mudie said.

“I have difficulty knowing what we stand for now… I think, often, at the moment, the government are setting the agenda, making the weather and we're responding to it. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown never did that.

“I may have been a critic at times of, certainly Tony, and on occasions Gordon, but they made the weather, they set the agenda and they even set it in opposition. We're not setting any agenda, we're responding to the Tories.

“I remember before we won, ‘92, the five years to ’97, this place was bubbling, we were energetic, we were at them, we thought we had all the answers. We're not at them and we're slightly hesitant and we're slightly confused and I deeply worry about that.”

With friends like that..........

Thursday, August 01, 2013

More trouble for Ed Miliband

Yesterday's Telegraph has a fascinating article on the problems besetting Ed Miliband. However, it is not from one of the usual suspects but written by the consummate Labour insider, Dan Hodges.

Drawing comparisons with Three Days of the Condor, Mr. Hodges says that in contrast to the Robert Redford character, Ed Miliband has few friends within the Parliamentary Party. Indeed he cannot think of a leader who has seemed so politically isolated at this stage of the electoral cycle:

 A popular refrain among Labour commentators is “Ed doesn’t have outriders”. But in truth, Labour’s leader doesn’t even have anyone prepared to shoe his horse, or sell him a saddle. Peter Hain and John Denham, two of his key lieutenants, have left the shadow cabinet. A third, Sadiq Khan, is eyeing the London mayoralty. Chuka Umunna, a founding member of Team Ed, is subtly developing an independent profile of his own.

"Ed doesn’t have allies”, one shadow cabinet member told me, “he has courtiers. Staffers jockeying for position, all telling each other, 'you’ve got to tell him x or y’. But none of them has the guts to actually go and tell him x or y themselves”.

This failure to build a base within his shadow cabinet, or the wider PLP, means Miliband has had to look further afield for his support. He has courted Labour’s activist base, paid his respects to the trade union general secretaries and built good links with the Labour blogosphere. But in doing so he has gravitated inexorably Leftwards, engaging with his movement, rather than the wider electorate.

Over time this process morphed, more by accident than design, into the “35 per cent strategy”. Essentially, it involved using Left-of-centre messaging to build a coalition of core Labour voters, ex-Lib Dems and first-time voters. This in turn would provide an electoral floor of 35 per cent of the national vote, enough to guarantee Miliband and Labour became the largest party at the next general election.

And yet even this strategy is starting to come apart at the seams. Dan Hidges says that Labour’s disastrous positioning on three key issues ,welfare, Europe and the econom, has given David Cameron and his campaign guru Lynton Crosby the opening they’ve been waiting for:

Since the turn of the year, Labour has been successfully defined as the party that wants to grab the nation’s credit card and hand it to the nearest benefits scrounger. Simultaneously, Miliband’s inexplicable paralysis over an EU referendum has provided the Prime Minister with sufficient breathing space to placate his own rebels.

The result of all this is that winning 35 per cent of the vote in two years’ time now looks to be at the top end of Labour expectations. The double-digit poll leads have shrunk to an average of 6 per cent, compared with 15 points for Tony Blair and David Cameron as they prepared for the transition from opposition to government. Amazing as it may seem, given the omni-shambles embracing his administration 12 months ago, the next election is becoming Mr Cameron’s to lose.

He says that Ed Miliband’s problem is that he is now in danger of becoming a bigger embarrassment to the Left of his party than to the Right. The Labour leader has been pushing the agenda the Left wanted him to push, opposing cuts to welfare and proposing additional spending as an alternative to austerity. But it is that agenda that is slowly but surely being rejected by the British people.

Mr. Hodges says that the Left is being confronted with a choice. Blame the product or blame the salesman. In his view it will inevitably opt for the latter.

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