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Friday, April 30, 2010

Postal voting made simples

London Zoo has got in on the act by using its resident Meerkats to remind people to get their postal votes in on time. They gave the eleven meerkats who live in the Zoo’s Animal Adventure exhibit their very own red postbox so they can get involved in the election.

The postbox was there to stimulate the meerkats natural curiosity, as unusual objects are always worth investigating and the group will love having the chance to be nosey.

Zookeeper Robert Harland said: “Meerkats all work for the good of the group and often make decisions together so they will probably all vote for the same party.”

And let's face it they are far cuter than any of the politicians actually seeking our votes on Thursday.

The long journey of John Marek

Nobody can ever accuse Eleanor Burnham of keeping a low profile but she has exceeded herself this week by persuading former left wing Independent Deputy Presiding Officer and defector to the Tories, John Marek to put a Liberal Democrat banner on his building in the centre of Wrexham.

The Western Mail says that when a complaint was made to the Assembly authorities suggesting that Eleanor could be breaching rules that forbid the display of party political material in office space paid for out of public funds, Dr Marek confirmed that the wall had nothing to do with her but was entirely his responsibility:

Yesterday Dr Marek said: “The complaint was made by Labour, which is a nasty party. I was approached by them [the Lib Dems] some time ago and agreed to let them display the banner.

“Later, the Conservatives asked me if they could put up posters on the wall, but I told them I had already promised the space to the Liberal Democrats.

“The Conservatives could put up a poster on the chimney, but it’s 120ft high and they would need a steeplejack.”

Asked about rumours that he had considered joining the Lib Dems himself, he said: “The Conservatives asked me to join and I did.< “I don’t know what I would have done if the Lib Dems had asked me. “I agree with a lot of their policies like proportional representation and getting out of Iraq.”

Looks like we missed a trick in not asking John Marek to join us. Maybe there is still time.

Ieuan Air takes off again

Plaid Cymru Leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones has finally got his faltering campaign air service off the ground again after the previous operator, contracted to fly politicians and businessmen between Anglesey and Cardiff, went bust.

Highland Airways had been paid £800,000 in subsidy to operate the service but still were not able to make it pay. In addition the Welsh Government were paying the local council £400,000 a year to operate Anglesey Airport, the civilian terminal at RAF Valley built to cater for North-South flights to Cardiff Airport.

The new operator is Manx2. They will be commencing operations on 10th May. As a result the Deputy First Minister will find it much easier to get to work each week, not having to share the four hour train journey with other travellers.

Welsh Liberal Democrats have been strongly opposed to this air service arguing that it is not environmentally friendly and that the subsidy would be better used in improving north-south rail links. They believe that Ieuan Air does not serve the ordinary people of North-West Wales. It is certainly no use to all the people of North-East Wales. Whilst in Wrexham, people’s feelings are that it is nothing to do with them and it takes money off the rail service.

There is no indication as yet how much subsidy will be paid to Manx2 but no doubt that will be revealed in due course.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Those pesky live microphones

There have been many gaffs on live microphone in the past and today's papers list some of them, though I am not sure that George Bush's 'Yo, Blair' ranks up there with his successors claim that a concerned Labour voter was a 'bigoted woman'.

We are all human of course and we have all at some time said something in private that leaked out leading to an apology, but Gordon Brown's gaff has more far-reaching consequences.

Firstly, it seems to reinforce the image that he has been trying to shed of somebody who behaves differently behind closed doors to his public persona. It also reveals somebody who appears to be often insecure about himself and his actions, not always a bad thing as it at least shows that he is a worrier and a thinker.

More importantly though the gaff undermines Labour's own narrative. The elector Gordon insulted had genuine concerns about immigration that the Prime Minister seemed to assuage, but his subsequent labelling of those views as bigoted reflected on millions of voters who have similar concerns.

For a party that has carefully written its manifesto to play to this demographic by talking really tough on immigration it was a disaster. It said that the Prime Minister does not believe his own rhetoric and that must be a problem for Labour.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Answering the critics

As the Liberal Democrats rise in the polls everybody and their dog is out to misrepresent and attack us. So here is a response to some of the things that we have been accused of:

The Liberal Democrats WILL NOT SCRAP CHILD BENEFIT. This accusation is not true.

The Liberal Democrats WILL NOT SCRAP TAX CREDITS. We are focussing benefit on the families who really need it by changing the arrangements for relatively higher earners. Combined with our tax changes, no one currently on tax credits will be worse off - indeed at the very least they will be £155 per year better off.

The Liberal Democrats WILL NOT SCRAP THE HEALTH IN PREGNANCY GRANT. This accusation is also not true.

The Liberal Democrats WILL SCRAP THE CHILD TRUST FUND (BABY BONDS. The money freed up by doing this is helping us to cut school class sizes. Baby Bonds are completely different from Child Benefit. Baby Bonds were introduced by Labour in 2002. The Government contributes £250 when a child is born and another £250 at age 7. For people on low incomes the amount is £500. Given the economic circumstances we do not believe the Government can afford this, we will scrap Baby Bonds but will not touch past contributions.

Tories losing the gay vote

Today's Independent reports that the Conservative Party's efforts to reach out to gay voters has suffered a fresh set-back after a Conservative election candidate described homosexuality as "not normal". The party immediately denounced Philip Lardner's comments as "deeply offensive and unacceptable", suspended him from the party and disowned his candidacy.

However, as the report points out this is the third embarrassing row over the party's attitude towards homosexuality to hit the Conservative campaign and there are now signs that Tory support is sliding within the gay community:

A survey for pinknews.co.uk suggested that support for the Conservatives among the LGBT (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender) community had collapsed over the last year. It found 58 per cent of LGBT voters said they intend to vote Liberal Democrat next week, compared with 21 per cent for Labour and just 9 per cent for the Tories. A similar survey ahead of last year's European elections found 39 per cent planned to vote Tory.

Almost half (49 per cent) said they wanted Nick Clegg to become Prime Minister, with 20 per cent preferring Gordon Brown and 19 per cent David Cameron

Other incidents highlighted by the paper include the apology by Chris Grayling, the shadow Home Secretary, over comments in which he said that people who ran bed and breakfasts in their homes should "have the right" to turn away gay couples and also comments by Julian Lewis, the shadow Defence Minister. He said that the age of consent for homosexuals should not have been lowered to 16 because it put teenage boys at "serious physical risk". The party distanced itself from Mr Lewis's comments, but decided not to take action against him.

All-in-all the new look nurtured by the Conservatives appears to have been significantly derailed by their own candidates.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

The very unsocial David Cameron

David Cameron claims in this Guardian interview today that he is the "most pro-BBC Conservative leader there's ever been". He added however that the corporation needs to cut back and "focus on what matters most". I do not think I am alone in seeing a contradiction in those words.

It is not difficult to be the "most pro-BBC Conservative Leader" on the basis of that party's previous record in government, but you cannot do so whilst at the same time seeking to dictate how the corporation should be run. After all, the whole point of having an independent publicly funded broadcaster is that they are able to get on with the job without government meddling.

I was more interested though in the Tory leader's remarks at the end of the piece on social media. The Guardian says that Cameron remains to be convinced by social networking sites such as Twitter: "I'm not on Facebook, I don't tweet. Social media, I don't really get. Politically I know it's a great opportunity; personally, I don't want to be 'poked' or whatever it is."

He sounds like an old fuddy-duddy. No doubt there are many questions about the value of social media sites but the fact is that they exist and are used and enjoyed by millions of people. Do the Tories really want to project their leader as out of touch with a whole section of the population?

It is little wonder that Nick Clegg is securing so much support from amongst the 18 to 45 age group whilst Cameron flounders.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Discussing policy the Labour way

Opening today's South Wales Evening Post at 7.30am this morning (I know, don't ask) I was taken by a single paragraph story on page two in which the Labour Party are accusing the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats of abandoning an agreement to tackle the BBC on their failure to focus on policy in their coverage of the General Election.

Fortunately, Liberal Democrat Voice has the full story here together with a blistering riposte to Labour's presumption:

We have discussed your proposal, however, we do not think that it is appropriate for political parties to seek to dictate the nature of political coverage to broadcasters. We are pleased that because we have set out our policy priorities clearly in our manifesto and included detailed costings, broadcasters and others have been able to analyse our policy and subject it to proper scrutiny and discussion. It might assist coverage if other parties followed suit. We would of course welcome further focus on policy given our clear message, focused priorities and detailed costings.

Labour should be careful what they wish for.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rows, backlash and assumptions - the media take stock

The expected onslaught against the Liberal Democrats in the Sunday papers has largely failed to happen. Instead, many have put aside the vituperation of Wednesday and Thursday to take stock of the campaign.

This does not mean that there are no juicy insights. The Sunday Telegraph for example, rather predictably turns its sights onto Labour with a story about civil war within the party as they slump in the polls:

As recriminations over Labour's performance grow, with signs that the party has changed its strategy and in future will encourage Mr Brown to meet more "ordinary" voters, Ms Harman, the party's deputy leader, has told cabinet colleagues of her humiliation at the hands of Lord Mandelson, who is running the party's campaign.

It came as senior Labour figures met to devise their response to the Conservatives' plans to offer married couples a tax deduction worth up to £150 a year through a transferable allowance.

A Labour Party spokesman refused to be drawn on the disagreement last night. However, a senior source said: "Harriet said she made a suggestion – only for Peter to tell her to shut up and that he didn't want to hear from her again. She has been virtually invisible ever since."

The Independent on Sunday provides an interesting narrative of what lay behind the vitriolic headlines seeking to smear Clegg and the Liberal Democrats:

A vivid insight into their mindset was offered by David Yelland, former editor of The Sun, who wrote last week of how the paper boycotted the Liberal Democrat's conference every year "for fear of encouraging them". Although a fifth of the country has consistently supported the party, The Sun had a policy of pretending it did not exist. Yelland went on to describe a "great game" played by editors with the other two parties: "The trick is to ally yourself with the winner and win influence or at least the ear of the prime minister." This time, The Sun has very publicly allied itself with Cameron. No wonder Rebekah Brooks and James Murdoch are in a bad mood.

By last Sunday, no doubt in part because Clegg was dominating the news and comment agenda, his poll standing was off the traditional scale. The Mail on Sunday actually had the Lib Dems ahead of both other parties – for the first time, as it put it, in 104 years.

But a furious backlash was beginning and, according to the Lib Dems, it was encouraged and possibly even co-ordinated by the Tory campaign team. They allege that George Osborne summoned right-wing political reporters to briefings last Monday about responding to the Clegg surge.

Whatever the truth of that charge, what followed, building up to the day of the second debate, was pinch-yourself amazing. Like children in a tantrum, reporters and commentators reached for every movable object and hurled it at Clegg and his party.

The Observer though takes a more considered approach to the implications of the Liberal Democrats' surge in the polls and offers some suggestions as to why the backlash fell on stoney ground:

The shared mistake of the increasingly unpopular duopolists was to carry on assuming that power would continue to alternate between the two of them. Labour has had a death-bed conversion to a minimalist version of electoral reform when it could have and should have embraced change from a position of strength in its first term. The Tories went into this election believing that they could secure unfettered power on a minority of the vote simply by repeating that Gordon Brown is rubbish. They believed that fairly minimal modernisation of themselves combined with simplistic slogans about change would restore them to their previous pomp. They took it for granted that David Cameron just had to turn up at the TV debates to win them. These encounters between the leaders have crystallised something that was already apparent before the election had begun: the Tories never clinched it with the country. David Cameron sounds persuasive to those who are already basically persuaded that they are going to vote Conservative. He struggles to net the unconverted. In fact, since the campaign began, he has lost more floating voters than he has gained.

The Tories are paying for coming to this election with a sense of entitlement to power. Labour, too, was arrogantly complacent, odd though that may seem when we are talking about a party with a very unpopular leader who has presided over the worst recession since 1945. Most of Labour's senior ranks expected to lose, but they still assumed that they were entitled to ownership of progressive Britain and could demand its votes for Labour if only on the uninspiring grounds that this would limit the size of a Tory victory. Gordon Brown has found it hard to conceal his bewilderment that he is having to debate with a Lib Dem, never mind that the Lib Dem should be pushing him into third place.

The Conservatives, for all the superficial modernity of their marketing, are staging an essentially traditional form of gridded campaign and finding, just like their friends in the Tory press, that the old playbooks no longer work. The opinion polls gyrate from day to day, but one message from them is clear and consistent. At some collective, unconscious level, the nation has decided that it does not trust either Labour or the Tories to clean up politics if one of them is allowed to govern alone. Nor does it trust either of them to take sole responsibility for the economy, taxation and public services.

With a week and a half to go there is everything to play for. I have never known a General Election like it and would not want to even to begin to predict what will happen next.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

The Welsh Government plan for broadband


Who would play you in the film of your life?

This morning's Guardian Weekend magazine has one of those questionaires in which a series of politicians are asked impertinent questions and give answers which they hope will make them look human.

They have collated the best answers by question so that we are able to compare and contrast. Personally, I enjoyed the answers to the question 'Who would play you in the film of your life?':

Yvette Cooper - Jodie Foster
Alistair Darling - Clark Gable
Andy Burnham - the bloke who plays Kevin Webster on Corrie
Caroline Lucas - Samantha Morton
Chris Huhne - George Clooney
David Milliband - Tim Henman
Peter Hain - Leonardo DiCaprio
Vince Cable - Anthony Hopkins
John Denham - I am sometimes mistaken for John Nettles, Inspector Barnaby of Midsomer Murders.

A truly eclectic choice made more bizarre by the fact that the Chancellor of the Exchequer chose someone who died in 1960, whilst the Foreign Secretary opted for somebody who is not even an actor.

Friday, April 23, 2010

It wuz the Sun wot censored it

This morning's Independent reports that The Sun newspaper failed to publish a YouGov poll showing that voters fear a Liberal Democrat government less than a Conservative or Labour one:

YouGov also found that if people thought Mr Clegg's party had a significant chance of winning the election, it would win 49 per cent of the votes, with the Tories winning 25 per cent and Labour just 19 per cent. One in four people Labour and one in six Tory supporters say they would switch to the Liberal Democrats in these circumstances. The party would be ahead among both men and women, in every age and social group, and in every region. On a uniform swing across Britain, that would give the Liberal Democrats 548 MPs, Labour 41 and the Tories 25.

The Liberal Democrats hope the long-standing argument that supporting them would be a "wasted vote" is breaking down following the surge in support for them in the past week. However, even the most optimistic Liberal Democrats do not expect to win the election.

Despite this the newspaper failed to publish the figures, which clearly did not suit their own agenda. No surprise there really.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Hating it

The BBC report that the BNP are being threatened by legal action by the makers of Marmite so as to stop them from using a jar of the spread in a party broadcast.

They say that it appears that the BNP is trying to tap into Marmite's "love it or hate it" advertising slogan:

Unilever said in a statement: "Neither Marmite nor any other Unilever brand are aligned to any political party.

"We are currently initiating injunction proceedings against the BNP to remove the Marmite jar from the online broadcast and prevent them from using it in future."

In the broadcast, a jar of Marmite appears in the top left hand corner of the screen as BNP leader Nick Griffin addresses the camera.

Considering that they are seeking to rebrand their party in this way, it is even more puzzling as to why they have sought to hide their true identity on ballot papers. In Swansea and Gower the BNP candidates have stooped as low as to describe themselves as 'Support our troops bring them home', which is apparently a registered name for the BNP. That is not a description that will go down well with many service families who will resent their loved ones being hijacked by this racist organisation.

The Daily Mail, Nick Clegg and the Nazis

The anticipated establishment backlash against the Liberal Democrats has been visited on us with a vengeance today with a series of smears against Nick Clegg that defy belief. By far the most exceptional of these is the Daily Mail's, who claim that the Liberal Democrat leader has made a 'Nazi' slur on Britain.

The Daily Mail of course should be the last paper to make such claims as Wikipedia makes clear:

On 10 July 1933, Rothermere wrote an editorial titled "Youth Triumphant" in support of Adolf Hitler, this was subsequently used as propaganda by the Nazis.[22] In early 1934, Rothermere and the Mail were editorially sympathetic to Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists.[23] Rothermere wrote an article entitled "Hurrah for the Blackshirts", in January 1934, praising Mosley for his "sound, commonsense, Conservative doctrine".[24] During the great abdication crisis of 1936, the Daily Mail supported the King, but was only joined by the Daily Express, Evening Standard and Evening News.[25]

Rothermere was a friend and supporter of both Benito Mussolini and Adolf Hitler, which influenced the Mail's political stance towards them up to 1939.[26][27] Rothermere visited and corresponded with Hitler. On 1 October 1938, Rothermere sent Hitler a telegram in support of Germany's invasion of the Sudetenland, and expressing the hope that 'Adolf the Great' would become a popular figure in Britain. However, this was tempered by an awareness of the military threat from the resurgent Germany, of which he warned J.C. Davidson. Rothermere had an executive plane built by the Bristol Aeroplane Company which, with a speed of 307 mph, was faster than any fighter. In 1935, this plane was presented to the RAF on behalf of the Daily Mail where it became the Bristol Blenheim bomber.[28]

In 1937, the Mail's chief war correspondent, George Ward Price, to whom Mussolini once wrote in support of him and the newspaper, published a book, I Know These Dictators, in defence of Hitler and Mussolini. Evelyn Waugh was sent as a reporter for the Mail to cover the anticipated Italian invasion of Ethiopia.

In 1938, as persecution of the Jews in Europe escalated, the Mail objected to their seeking asylum in Britain. “The way stateless Jews from Germany are pouring in from every port of this country is becoming an outrage. The number of aliens entering the country through the back door is­ a problem to which the Daily Mail has repeatedly pointed.”

Rothermere and the Mail supported Neville Chamberlain's policy of appeasement, particularly during the events leading up to the Munich Agreement. In 2005, the British Foreign Office disclosed previously secret letters from Rothermere addressed to Hitler from the summer of 1939, in which he congratulated the German leader on his annexation of Czechoslovakia, urged him to invade Romania, and called Hitler's work "great and superhuman".

Perhaps they might show a better understanding of their own history before brandishing such headlines again.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Liberal Democrats on the right side of the argument

As we head into the second Leaders' debate there are two interesting items on the news that shows that on some of our most controversial policies the Liberal Democrats are on the right side of the argument.

First up is the IMF report, which recommends that banks and financial institutions should pay a bank levy and a further tax on profits and pay.

As Vince Cable says: “The IMF’s report confirms what the Liberal Democrats have long been arguing – that a banking levy should be introduced.

“Many of the banks are still unwilling to acknowledge the massive debt they owe the taxpayer and that they are still underwritten by our money.

“The Liberal Democrats understand that the old way of banking simply cannot continue and this is a view shared by the IMF.

“If we are to create a stable banking system, we must ensure that taxpayers are not expected to underwrite the risks of reckless casino banking, and that pay and bonuses within banks do not reward irresponsible behaviour.”

Secondly, there is the assertion by four former senior military commanders that our nuclear deterrent may not be value for money. They say:

It is to be welcomed that all the leading political parties are committed to conducting a comprehensive strategic defence review after the election. This clearly must follow a detailed evaluation of the threats that this country faces today and in the future.

However, it is of deep concern that the question of the Trident replacement programme is at present excluded from this process. With an estimated lifetime cost of more than £80 billion, replacing Trident will be one of the most expensive weapons programmes this country has seen. Going ahead will clearly have long-term consequences for the military and the defence equipment budget that need to be carefully examined.

Given the present economic climate, in which the defence budget faces the prospect of worrying cuts, and that we have already an estimated hole in the defence equipment budget of some £35 billion, it is crucial that a review is fully costed and looks critically at all significant planned defence spending.

Their position exactly reflects that of the Liberal Democrats: Any genuinely comprehensive review needs to weigh up all of these issues and answer the question: “Is the UK’s security best served by going ahead with business as usual; reducing our nuclear arsenal; adjusting our nuclear posture or eliminating our nuclear weapons?

Should the review determine that there is still a need for a nuclear deterrent, a number of options may be more affordable than a like-for-like replacement of the Trident system, which has been described as a “Rolls-Royce” solution. The state of the public finances requires each of these options to be carefully evaluated, alongside like-for-like replacement and disarmament.

Those endorsements should give the public even more confidence in the efficacy of the Liberal Democrat programme for government.

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Spam e-mail of the day

First rule of spam e-mails must be to get your spelling and grammar right:

Due to grastic increase on online fraud, HSBC Bank Plc has developed a new security system. this is the highly renouned security system wich is linked with your registered phone numbers with us. our system automatically calls your registred numbers when you attempt to make payments. this is to ensure that only you have access to your online banking.

A Parallel Universe

I have my own review of the last week of the General Election campaign up on Wales Home

Working peers

Today's Guardian says that two of the prominent businessmen who helped lead the charge against Labour's rise in national insurance have been nominated to become working peers by the Conservative party.

Simon Wolfson and Anthony Bamford were among the high-profile signatories to a letter supporting the Tory proposal to scrap the increase – a move that left Labour flatfooted and gave the Tories an early advantage at the start of the general election campaign.

The peerage nominations have been accepted by the appointments commission and will be announced imminently. But the disclosure is bound to raise questions over the party's continued interest in appointing prominent donors and supporters as working peers.

The paper provides more details of links between the two and the Tory party when it points out that Wolfson, who is the chief executive of Next, has donated £238,250 to Conservative central office since January 2006 in seven donations. They also say he has worked closely with the shadow chancellor, George Osborne, in developing the Conservatives' economic policy.

According to the Guardian Sir Anthony Bamford, who is chairman of construction equipment maker JCB, has given the Tories more than £1m over the past five years either in his own name or through the family-controlled firm. They say he has also given money to the shadow cabinet.

So David Cameron is elevating two key party donors to the Lords? The sooner this patronage is scrapped and we have an elected second chamber the better.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Is this the most impressive poster display in the UK?

It seems that there are lights on the tree as well so that the posters can be seen at night.

Luckily it is not on a flight path, though I do not suppose it matters whilst all the planes are grounded.


The real issue of this election

With all attention focussed on the polls and of course, on the volcano ash, today's Independent highlights what is really at stake in this election.

They report on claims by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development, who suggest that more than 500,000 public-sector jobs could be axed in the next five years under a post-election squeeze on spending, which will be far greater than any of the main political parties are admitting.

The organisation's chief economic adviser, Dr John Philpott claims that the jobs cull could lead to a 10 per cent reduction in the 5.8 million public-sector workforce that would "dwarf" anything in the party election manifestos.

He suggests that this is long-term structural change but argues that it does not need to be as painful as it sounds:

"An economy with almost 30 million people in work and in which tens of thousands of jobs are lost and created every year should be able to cope with a period of large-scale public-sector downsizing without this resulting in higher unemployment."

Of course given the size of the public sector in Wales I would suggest that job losses on such a scale would be particularly difficult. That is assuming that Dr. Philpott is correct and that the rate of change is as great as he suggests. The outcome of the election will be crucial in determining how the government responds to this agenda.

Sunday, April 18, 2010

The first election debate in 15 seconds

Time for electoral reform

While we are on the subject of polls it is worth reading this piece by Martin Kettle in the Guardian. He points out that we are in now in a genuine three party election in a sense that has not been true since 1983 (and before that not since the 1920s). He adds that Nick Clegg's remarkable debate success has added more than a third to the Liberal Democrats total in less than 24 hours — 'a transient phenomenon perhaps, but clear proof of an underlying volatility in the electorate.'

However, he also puts his finger on an essential truth that the electoral system does not allow for this sort of three way politics:

However, according to the BBC share of the vote/seats calculator, this poll would have the following, scarcely less extraordinary, outcome. Labour would have 276 seats, the Conservatives 245, the LibDems 100 and others 29. Not just a hung parliament but a very particular sort of hung parliament in which the Liberal Democrats really did hold the balance of power — and in which the small party MPs did not.

Merely to glance at these figures is to see the almost outrageous nature of the result that the first-past-the-post system would deliver. Labour would have lost its overall majority and nearly a quarter of its 2005 36% share of the poll, yet it would be conclusively the largest single party. Gordon Brown, and no one else, would have the clear constitutional mandate to be the first to try to form the next government. Imagine it.

The point Mr. Kettle is making of course is that it would be very difficult in that situation to determine who would have the moral authority to govern. Labour may well be the largest party but they would have come third in the popular vote.

The danger here is that these predictions are based on uniform swings, something that will not happen. Even so the likelihood is that in a genuinely three party contest the outcome will be so distorted that the clamour for electoral reform will be overwhelming, whilst the chance of reform happening will be much greater than for nearly a century.

'Kirsty Williams was right' says Matt Withers

The Wales on Sunday political correspondent, Matt Withers has not always been a fan of the Liberal Democrats. I am therefore delighted to reproduce his Mea Maxima Culpa from this morning's edition:

The party’s leader in Wales, Kirsty Williams, has often said that when the voters got to know Mr Clegg, they’d like him. She was right. (I’ll repeat that for the benefit of those Lib Dems who accuse me of being too harsh on them: Kirsty Williams was right.)

As Matt concludes: It must be fun waking up as a Lib Dem this morning. And I’ve never written that before.

Now I have to get out on the doorsteps because whatever the papers say there is still just under three weeks to go to the election and a lot can change in that time.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

I don't do polls but today I will make an exception

To be honest I am a bit stunned. It has nearly always been the case that the Liberal Democrats improve their poll ratings as people see more of them during a General Election campaign, however the surge in the last few days is unprecedented.

I understand that on the morning of the "Prime Ministers" debate, YouGov already had a poll showing a 4% increase in the Liberal Democrat share on their previous daily poll. Then there was a new ICM for the Sunday Telegraph showing a massive 7% boost for the Lib Dems at 27%, over their previous poll four days earlier. This poll was taken the day before and the day of the debate, with only a small part of the fieldwork done after the debate.

Following the debate The Sun published a poll that showed the Liberal Democrats up eight points on 30%, three points behind the Tories but in second place, a whole two points ahead of Labour.

Now we have a Sunday People poll that actually puts the Liberal Democrats in the lead on 33% with the Conservatives on 27 and Labour on 23. Just in case you think this is a fluke The Mail on Sunday have a poll with the Liberal Democrats on 32%, the Conservatives on 31% and Labour on 28%.

There is still a long way to go and no doubt these poll ratings will change but I cannot help but think that the party has crossed a rubicon. Let us not forget when Nick Clegg said that we needed to move from one in four votes to one in three to get into government our opponents laughed. When we argued that Nick Clegg should take part in the Prime Ministerial debates the others said he could never be Prime Minister.

They are laughing on the other side of their face now and no matter what happens in the next 19 days, they can never argue again that the Liberal Democrats are not major players. Three party politics has arrived and it is here to stay.

Another day another Tory embarrassment

Today's Times reports that Two Tory rising stars fighting marginal seats in David Cameron’s West London backyard face embarrassment over their community projects, lauded by the Tory leader as models for his vision of a “Big Society”.

They say that the Charity Commission has issued guidance to Joanne Cash after concerns were raised about her use of the word “charitable” to describe a social action project run and funded by her Conservative Association:

Ms Cash hopes to become MP for Westminster North, a seat whose constituents include many of the gilded “Notting Hill set” that surround the Conservative leader.

Shaun Bailey, candidate in neighbouring Hammersmith, faces scrutiny from the commission after an independent examiner discovered £16,000 worth of unreceipted expenditure in the charity he runs.

Both are seen as pioneers of Mr Cameron’s plan to rebuild communities through self-help initiatives. The party claims its candidates have begun 150 such projects, although, when contacted, officials could cite only five.

Mr Cameron told a conference last year that these were not “flash-in-the-pan photo opportunities” but about “getting up off your backside”.

Another example of the new 'caring Conservatism taking a wrong turn?

Friday, April 16, 2010

Story of the week - shooting for the Moon

The Glamorgan Gazette comes up with an unusual twist on the MPs expenses story. There has been some unease within the Bridgend Labour Party since Newsnight named their local MP, Madeleine Moon as one of 20 to breach parliamentary rules by not declaring trips to China, Israel and Gibraltar paid for by foreign governments.

As a result she has faced attempts from Labour branches to deselect her as their parliamentary candidate and emergency meetings to discuss her furniture expense claims. She has also suffered criticism in the local press. Now though an unusual white knight has rode to her rescue.

The chief minister of Gibraltar, Peter Caruana, has written to the Gazette to point out that Gibraltar is not a foreign government and to praise Mrs Moon for her efforts:

Writing on official headed paper from his Convent Place offices, Mr Caruana said it was important to “put the perspective of the people of Gibraltar to [Mrs Moon’s] constituents.”

In his letter, Mr Caruana said: “Madeleine Moon has a longstanding parliamentary record of ‘looking out for’ Gibraltar-related issues in the UK Parliament. In the view of the people of Gibraltar, she deserves to be applauded for doing so.”

That should do down well on the Wildmill estate.

No surprise as blue vote is not as green as claimed

This morning's Times reports that the Conservative campaign slogan “vote blue, go green” is being ignored by many of the party’s general election candidates.

The paper says that a survey has found that Tory candidates are much less likely than rivals to favour rapid expansion of renewable energy:

Only 22 per cent of Tory candidates in winnable seats strongly supported Britain’s target — set by the European Union and endorsed by the Conservative leadership — of generating 15 per cent of Britain’s energy from renewable sources by 2020. Labour candidates were more than twice as likely (56 per cent) to express strong support for the target. Almost three quarters (71 per cent) of Liberal Democrat candidates strongly supported the target, according to the survey of 101 election hopefuls from the three main parties.

The survey, carried out by ComRes for RenewableUK, the wind and marine energy trade body, also found that Conservative candidates were much less likely to support wind farms.

Only 7 per cent of the Tory candidates agreed strongly with the statement “expansion of onshore wind [farms] is essential if the UK is to deliver on its renewable energy targets”. The statement was strongly supported by 44 per cent of Labour candidates and 71 per cent of Liberal Democrat candidates. A total of 54 per cent of Conservative hopefuls, but no Labour candidates, disagreed with the statement. Among Liberal Democrats, 14 per cent disagreed.

The Conservative manifesto supports onshore wind farms and seeks to overcome local opposition by pledging that communities that accepted them would keep the additional business rates they generated for six years. The manifesto also says: “Britain is uniquely placed to be the world’s first low-carbon economy: we have the natural resources to generate wind and wave power.”

Is it any wonder that more and more people are seeing through the superficial revamp of the Tory Party by the Notting Hill set? The more we see the more we realise that whatever David Cameron says now, he will not be able to deliver due to a hostile and reactionary Conservative Parliamentary Group.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Liberal Democrat manifesto scores a hit

The Western Mail's Chief Political Reporter has taken an objective and hard-nosed look at all the party's manifestos and found some fault with all of them. His article today however on the Liberal Democrats' offering is worth reading:

Agree with their plans or not, at least the Lib Dems have done what we have a right to expect of all parties aspiring to high office: they’ve set out what they would do in quite precise terms.

Why couldn’t the other parties have done the same?


A tweet too far

Labour Assembly Member, Alun Davies has taken to twitter like a duck to water, however he does get carried away. Sometimes he provides a pithy insight into current events such as this one, at other times he appears to be just pouring out bile for the sake of it.

His latest faux pas however has proved to be a tweet too far and has landed him in hot water in the Welsh press as well as giving the sitting MP for Blaenau Gwent some useful publicity.

The Western Mail has the full story. They report that Alun has had to admit that he has no evidence to back up his suggestion that Dai Davies MP is applying for jobs. The MP himself is a bit more forthright:

“This is sheer, absolute nonsense. It is typical of the black-arts tactics which have ruined the reputation of New Labour. It is straight out of the spin doctor’s handbook of Mandelson and Campbell.

“This sort of gutter politics will backfire on them on May 6 in exactly the way they backfired when New Labour tried to impose their candidates on the people of Blaenau Gwent.

“Let me spell it out for this inexperienced and foolish young man. I was born in Blaenau Gwent. I worked as a senior union shop steward in the steelworks in Blaenau Gwent. I will die representing Blaenau Gwent. And there is no better job than to represent the people of Blaenau Gwent.

“New Labour will try to use any dirty tactic to win our area which remains the jewel in the socialist crown, but yet again they underestimate the people of Blaenau Gwent who loathe this sort of control freakery and gutter politics.”

Maybe Alun should think before he tweets next time. After all we would not want to get the impression that he is using Twitter to start unsubstantiated and negative rumours.

The manifestos - the marketing verdict

It is when a newspaper gets marketing and graphic design experts in to pass their judgement on the political manifestos that you know that political spin has started to eat itself. However, given that all the manifestos have most probably been put together with the aid of such experts I suppose it is fair comment.

The two brought in by the Western Mail, Mike Jordan, a director at Newport-based design agency Bluegg and Jonathan Deacon, of Newport Business School, give an independent verdict on what each of the parties are trying to do and how well they have succeeded. Their comments are illuminating:

Jonathan Deacon - “On the one hand you have Labour, which has an image reminiscent of 1920s art, which is interesting because that is when the last great global recession started. Then you have the Conservative manifesto, which is quite an austere- looking document.”

“Plaid Cymru’s manifesto is the only one that recognises the potential in a type of voter, in that there is clear reference to the female vote. Historically, we know that the female voters are more likely to be floating voters.

“It also features imagery of active, older citizens. The Baby Boom generation is the largest proportion of the British population and the largest proportion of the population likely to vote. The Conservatives and Labour have really missed that market.”

Mike Jordan - said Labour’s style was designed to “reach out directly to the people of Britain by illustrating their perception of modern Britain.”

“The Conservatives chose to opt for a stuffy authoritative look which instantly made me feel cold. The Liberal Democrats appear to be the only party who have stuck to the issues while disguising any use of clever gimmicks or strategy in their delivery while closer to home. Plaid Cymru have gone down the route of enforcing their nationalistic roots by reminding us that face paints can look scary.

“My research into Labour first led me to their short movies that spelt out the key points within their manifesto. This style was instantly appealing and attempted to connect to what I would consider to be the ordinary voter. The rough sketchy illustrations and regional accents felt comfortable and engaging.

“This style followed on to the inner pages of their manifesto document, but was completely bypassed by the hideous front cover that seems to have come straight from a 1930s war propaganda museum. This also appears on the home page of their website and spoils what was turning out to be a friendly approach in delivering their manifesto.

“The Conservatives’ angle was to create the impression that they are putting the people in control. Unfortunately this is done via a style that looks just too official and potentially patronising to many of the working and middle classes.

“In their attempt to inject some life to their document they have introduced illustrated edgy graphics, but these only look out of place as if some sort of afterthought. This has created a document with two contrasting styles; one that seems like an official government publication that would most certainly be dull to read and another that is cool and hip, but slightly irrelevant.”

Mr Jordan said the Liberal Democrats were the only party to have “concentrated on their key points without trying to be too clever in their delivery”.

“This clean and legible layout uses a sans serif typeface throughout and in my opinion demonstrates how a lengthy, text heavy document can be designed with easy reading in mind,” he said.

“I’m also impressed with the use of media on their website and their clever way of informing viewers of the points that mean the most to them.”

Mr Jordan described Plaid’s manifesto as “resembling more a corporate brochure than a document that would shape the fortunes of our country”.

“Although it wasn’t at all offensive, it wasn’t inspiring, nor did it show any determination to really make a difference,” he said.

“As the national party of Wales I would have expected something that truly set the Welsh political mentality apart from their English counterparts. Rather than doing that, they have delivered a booklet that doesn’t attempt to tell a story or sell a personality.”

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Tories score another own goal

ITV correspondent, Gareth Hughes points out on his blog another consequence of the Conservative's decision to veto the Assembly's Housing Legislative Competence Order. It seems that the Tory manifesto published today contains an interesting pledge. They want to:

'Strengthen shared ownership schemes which allow those on low-to-middle incomes to own or part-own their home. We will offer tenants with a record of five years’ good behaviour a 10 per cent equity share in their social rented property, which can be cashed in when they want to move up the housing ladder'

However, as Gareth points out this policy can only apply to England. That is because the
Welsh Government don't have the powers to implement this type of scheme as the Conservatives both in the Palace of Westminster and in the National Assembly decided to reject the Order that would have allowed them to do it.

As Gareth says: we have the invidious postition of the English being able to gain help through shared ownership schemes to access owner occupation, courtersy of Mr Cameron's party. But the Welsh unable to gain access, courtersy of Mr Cameron's party. It will be interesting to see what the Welsh Conservative manifesto says on this point.

It will indeed.

The Tory manifesto - a fresh perspective

Satire is always difficult for a blogging politician, it can so easily be misinterpeted or taken literally, so I will not quote extensively from this piece on the Daily Mash regarding the Conservative's manifesto.

Just to record that the basic supposition that the Tories have published the first ever hard-back copy of the Daily Mail:

Tory deputy chairman, Julian Cook, said: "We thought long and hard about the contents of this manifesto and got absolutely nowhere. Eventually we just phoned up Paul Dacre at the Daily Mail and wrote down everything he said."

Read the rest for yourself.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

We must not become a net exporter of medical talent

I have written a post for the BMA Cymru Wales website about the shortage of doctors in Wales:

The need for new doctors in Wales is one that is not just confined to hospitals. The number of GPs under 45 has dropped considerably in the last ten years, from 951 to 743, while the number aged over 55 has increased from 272 to 450. This means we could expect roughly a quarter of our present GPs to be retiring within the next ten years or so.

Despite this, there has been no real increase in the number of GPs at the younger age of the scale during this period.

Many of those from Wales who choose to study medicine do so outside of Wales. Young people often do not want to stay in the area they have been brought up in and use their student years to explore the world by experiencing new places and people. This is natural and leads to well rounded individuals who are needed by every workforce.

However, what is important is that we do not become a net exporter of medical talent. When someone leaves Wales to study, we need to ensure that they are encouraged to return and that those who come from England to study in Wales are encouraged to remain.

A Liberal Democrat takes charge

It is hardly the most significant fact about the very important devolution of justice and policing to Northern Ireland but it is worth noting that the new Justice Minister, David Ford is not just Leader of the Alliance Party.

David will be in charge of the department with more than 4,000 employees and a budget of nearly £1.5bn. He is the first Northern Ireland Justice minister since Westminster took policing powers away from the old Stormont government in 1972. He is also a longstanding member of the Liberal Democrats.

Some election trivia

The Labour party launched its manifesto and already the cover looks eerily familiar. The Inside Out Swansea website was not slow in producing its own version (left) but I think The Guardian had the real inside story in comparing the cover to that of the Tory manifesto:

From one perspective, this cover calls to mind illustrations found in The Watchtower, the Jehovah Witness house journal, in which perfect 1950s-style families picnic in Elysium fields surrounded by lions and lambs happily lying down with one another.

It's hard, though, not to get the feeling that both parties are sending themselves up. Labour's image of a heroic Soviet-style family, circa 1950, seems to be an in-house joke by someone who enjoys Private Eye's lampoon of Gordon Brown as the Supreme Leader of a half-cock, Soviet-style state. The cover of the Labour manifesto looks for all the world like a kind of run-of-the-socialist-mill poster, promising loyal workers, fecund farms, all-year sunshine and cities that appear like New Jerusalems over far hills crowned with a nationalised halo.

The Tories appear to have opted for a plain blue cover rather similar to the colour of those bags of salt we used to find in crisp packets. The title is pretentious proclaiming 'Invitation to join the Government of Britain' (not the United Kingdom, note), as if they really are going to listen to us and let us dictate their priorities.

It is not as pretentious though as the fact that the Tory manifesto will be on sale in all good (?) bookshops in a hard cover, as if it were high quality literature. I have not read it but I am willing to bet that it does not reach the standards of Dickens or Shakespeare in its use of prose or even in its ability to grip the reader.

I missed Jeremy Paxman interviewing Clegg last night but I understand that he acquitted himself very well. Those waiting to watch Paxman interviewing Brown or Cameron may have to wait though. Apparently, they bottled it.

Equally, those of us in Wales looking forward to Plaid Cymru leader, Ieuan Wyn Jones being quizzed by former Welsh Tory Leader, Rod Richards will also wait in vain. As Freedom Central points out, he bottled out of that interview as well.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Labour's unfair taxes

The Liberal Democrats have published research that shows the amount of tax paid by the poorest has gone up under Labour.

According to their analysis of Treasury figures, the poorest 20% of people are losing more of their income in tax than they did in 1997, while the richest 20% are paying less:

The party's research shows in 1997, the poorest 20% of households had a gross income of £7,300 each and paid £2,760 in tax, meaning they paid 37.8% of their income in tax.

However, the richest 20% of households then had a gross income of £48,720 each and paid £17,200 in tax, so they paid 35.3% of their income in tax.

In contrast, the Lib Dems show that in 2008, the latest year for which data is available, the poorest 20% of households had a gross income of £11,105 each and paid £4,302 in tax, meaning they paid 38.7% of their income in tax, while the richest 20% of households had a gross income of £74,247 each and paid £25,926 in tax, meaning they paid 34.9% of their income in tax.

The Lib Dems say: "In today's prices this means the poorest 20% now pay £107 more tax under Labour than they did when they came to power, while the richest 20% pay £319 less."

These figures make the case for our policy of lifting the personal tax allowance to £10,000. It is the best way to try to correct this injustice and only the Liberal Democrats have a costed policy to deliver it.

Sunday, April 11, 2010

A bit of light relief

Labour revolt over tuition fees

Interesting article in the Sunday Times, who reveal that Labour is facing a mass revolt from its own parliamentary candidates desperate not to lose their seats over impending plans to raise university tuition fees.

They say that nearly 200 candidates, just under a third of those standing, have signed up to a petition organised by the National Union of Students opposing any increase in the current £3,220 tuition fee limit. The Labour rebels are led by six former ministers, a serving government whip and the parliamentary private secretary to David Lammy, the universities minister.

It seems that nearly half the 700 candidates signed up so far are Liberal Democrats, but only 10 have done so from the Conservatives, seen as the party most likely to raise fees. The paper suggests that the revolt in the Labour ranks is largely a reaction to fears that the Liberal Democrats, who oppose any increase in fees, could pick up seats particularly in university cities.

They should have thought about that of course when they introduced tuition fees in the first place.

Not peanuts after all

The BBC report that peanuts are expected to be used as bait to trap badgers as part of a plan to cull them in North Pembrokeshire. The animals are known to like peanuts and they are commonly used to encourage badgers into people's gardens.

However, the cost of carrying out the cull is far from peanuts. A response to a written question I tabled reveals that the Welsh Government will be spending £9.427m on this exercise, even though all the scientific evidence points to the cull being ineffective.

Included in the cost is the provision of extra police officers for the local community for five years. But when I submitted a Freedom of Information request to ask how much the Labour-Plaid Cymru Government are paying Dyfed Powys Police for extra cover I was told it was exempt information. Apparently, they are afraid that even putting this general information into the public domain might aid and abet those seeking to sabaotage the cull.

The Government's argument is entirely unconvincing on this so I have appealed and will take it all the way to the Information Commissioner if necessary. This is public money and the Government needs to be transparent and accountable in the way it spends it.

I have an article on Wales Home

I have written a piece on Funding local government: common problems, radical solutions on the Wales Home website. Read it here.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Two-bit Plaid try and rewrite history again

Nick Clegg was in Cardiff yesterday where he pointed out an essential truth that, as far as this UK General Election goes, Plaid Cymru are an “irrelevant, two-bit” party.

The response from the Nationalists' Ceredigion candidate was not just sad but historically inaccurate. He said: “The truth is that the Liberal Democrats offer about as much real change as the Tories. Plaid has already shown that, in a hung parliament situation, we can make a real difference. But we all know the Liberal Democrats’ history – when they’re facing the prospect of influence in government, they bottle it.”

The truth in fact is that Plaid Cymru will not have enough seats to make a difference, even when combined with the handful the SNP may win and their policies are largely costed on the basis of Alice in Wonderland economics and cannot be afforded. In contrast I expect the Liberal Democrats to increase the number of seats we win and to be in a position to put in place radical policies that look after some of the poorest in our society. These are policies that are part of a costed manifesto and which can be afforded.

As for our history in balanced Parliament situations, not only have we been in government once in Wales but also twice in Scotland. And we would have been part of the current Assembly Government if Plaid Cymru's Leader had not bottled the prospect of becoming First Minister and opted to play second fiddle to Labour instead.

Friday, April 09, 2010

And some are more equal than others

Anybody who thinks that their vote is as good as the next person's may well be disabused of that notion by an article in today's Guardian, which reports on the New Economics Foundation's voter power index. This index ranks every constituency in Britain according to the amount of power each voter has in the election.

The New Economics Foundation points out that in the 2005 election, the majority of voters did not vote for the MP that represents them (over 52%), meaning that over 14 million votes were effectively discarded:

Under the current system, voters in very safe seats have the equivalent of one hundredth of a vote, while voters in the most variable swing seats get the power of up to 1.31 votes each. In other words voters living in the most influential postcodes have over 500 times as much power as those living in the least influential … The average UK voter has 0.25 of a vote.

Their website ranks each of the UK's 650 constituencies according to their power. It also allows users to see how many votes are effectively lost in the first-past-the-post system.

Thus in Aberavon for example each vote is worth 0.009 whilst in Arfon voters cast 1.308 votes and Ceredigion 1.220. In my home constituency of Swansea East my vote has the value of 0.023 whereas in neighbouring Swansea West, somebody going to the ballot box to elect Peter May as the first Liberal Democrat MP for that constituency will be wielding voter power equivalent to 0.293 of a vote.

It is all very bizarre but nevertheless it underlines the unfair and arbitrary nature of our electoral system.

Thursday, April 08, 2010

Gordon Brown is very late to the party

The Prime Minister yesterday promised the earth in constitutional terms in a last minute bid to secure his own re-election. In a speech he offered “most comprehensive programme of constitutional reform for a century”, presumably to stop the flow of votes to the Liberal Democrats.

His plan includes a written constitution, with a commitment to fixed-term parliaments, ending the historic power of the prime minister to choose the timing of future elections, referendums on voting reform for Westminster elections and final reform of the House of Lords.

Other measures would include a ban on MPs working for lobbying companies, giving voters the power to get rid of MPs who are guilty of gross financial misconduct, a right of petition to trigger Commons debates on issues of public concern and a free vote for MPs on lowering the voting age to 16. A number of these proposals have already been voted down by Labour MPs in this Parliament.

This leads one overwhelming question: why now? The answer is pretty obvious but it does not explain why Labour have waited 13 years to get to this point or indeed appear to be conducting a massive and flamboyant u-turn. The result is that what is on offer comes across as naked opportunism rather than principled reform, furthermore, it does not go far enough.

Once again Labour are offering too little, too late.

Wednesday, April 07, 2010

What the papers say - election trivia

Things are hotting up in the media as they seek to drum up some enthusiasm amongst the electorate for the General Election. The Daily Mirror in particular is not letting itself be accused of sitting on the fence as this Kevin Maguire column illustrates:

Millionaire Zac Goldsmith has put me on a Tory leaflet to attack his Lib Dem opponent.

What an indignity! So, to even things up, here’s my view of him for her to use as she sees fit.

“Whatever my ­political differences with Susan Kramer, I admire her integrity. She’s respected in Westminster and works incredibly hard for the people of ­Richmond Park and North Kingston. It would be monstrously unfair if playboy Zac Goldsmith bought the seat with inherited wealth.

“We’re all the poorer if democracy’s purchased by the kid with the offshore trust fund.”

Meanwhile the Independent has set the bar quite high for Liberal Democrat success in Wales. According to their full colour pull-out electoral map of the UK, in addition to Brecon and Radnorship, Cardiff Central, Ceredigion and Montgomeryshre the Welsh Liberal Democrats are apparently also defending Merthyr Tydfil and Rhymney, Cynon Valley and Islwyn. I wonder if anybody has told our candidates.

Tuesday, April 06, 2010

The rise of the Liberal Democrats

As we move into the General Election period proper it is going to become more and more difficult to maintain daily posts on this blog. Nevertheless I will try and in doing so seek to reflect some of the flavour of the campaign from my viewpoint.

Yesterday's Independent was instructive in setting the context for the forthcoming contest. They point out that despite the closely fought contest between Labour and the Conservatives, Nick Clegg's Liberal Democrats are so far resisting the squeeze and look like they will be starting this election on the sort of opinion poll ratings we saw in 2005.

According to a YouGov poll, over half (54 per cent) think Nick is doing well as leader for the first time ever. They say that this apparent Liberal Democrat advance will worry David Cameron:

An eight-point lead over Labour might just be enough to secure the Tories a narrow overall majority if, as several polls suggest, they secure an above-average swing in marginal seats held by Labour. But it will not be sufficient if at the same time the Liberal Democrats manage to fend off the Conservative attack on their key marginal seats.

The key point of course is that this is not about voting for or against the two largest parties. Voters understand that a vote for the Liberal Democrats is the best way of getting Lib Dem policies and of getting Nick Clegg and Vince Cable into government. That is why we are doing so well.

There is all to play for. Bring it on.

Monday, April 05, 2010

Phone tapping allegations pose serious questions for the Met

Today's Guardian suggests that allegations that News of the World journalists hacked the phones of celebrities will not be going away too quickly.

The paper says that police, who investigated the phone-hacking scandal at the News of the World, obtained previously undisclosed telephone records which showed a vast number of public figures had had their voicemail accessed, and then decided not to pursue the evidence. They say that this raises fundamental questions about the behaviour of Scotland Yard, which has claimed repeatedly that it found evidence of "only a handful" of people whose mobile phone messages had been intercepted by the News of the World's private investigator, Glenn Mulcaire:

The paperwork also reveals that police and prosecutors adopted a deliberate strategy to ringfence the evidence which they presented in court in order to suppress the names of particularly prominent victims, including members of the royal family. The existence of this strategy has been omitted from all public statements, including evidence made to the House of Commons media select committee.

In a further blow to the official version of events, the Guardian has discovered that although police and prosecutors named only eight victims in court, material seized by police from Mulcaire and the paper's royal reporter, Clive Goodman, contained 4,332 names or partial names of people in whom the two men had an interest, 2,978 numbers or partial numbers for mobile phones and 30 audio tapes which appear to contain an unspecified number of recordings of voicemail messages.

The revelations increase the prospect of the government ordering a new inquiry into the affair. While Scotland Yard's public position remains that it did all that its resources and the law permitted, some police sources admit privately that they failed to fully investigate the case, that decisions may have been distorted by a fear of upsetting Rupert Murdoch's newspapers, and that it was "unfortunate" that the officer in charge of the inquiry, assistant commissioner Andy Hayman, subsequently left the police to work for News International as a columnist.

As the Guardian points out, any prolongation of this affair could well prove embarrassing for David Cameron and his media adviser, Andy Coulson, who edited the paper at the time of the offences and who says he does not remember any illegal act.

As I pointed out on 28th February one other interested party in this latest development may be Lembit Őpik, who has instructed lawyers to look into the possible unlawful hacking of his mobile phone by the newspaper.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

A video for Chris Grayling

Another civil liberties challenge

This morning's Sunday Times reports that Police are facing the threat of a High Court privacy action over a nationwide network of cameras that is being used to take up to 14m photographs of motorists every day:

The images are being stored daily on a huge “Big Brother” database linked to automatic numberplate recognition (ANPR) technology to track vehicles’ movements:

The records not only include details of car registrations, but often photographs of drivers and front-seat passengers, a police document has revealed.

They are being held on a database in Hendon, north London, for at least two years without drivers’ knowledge or permission.

The paper says that the ANPR network has expanded unchecked by parliament since police first decided to develop a national system in 2006:

It is now linked to more than 10,000 CCTV cameras discreetly placed on motorways, main roads and in petrol stations. It has also been integrated with the cameras originally set up in 2003 to enforce the congestion charge in London.

Software being developed for the system will eventually allow police to track the movements of up to 100m vehicles at any time — more than double the number currently on the road. The database can also be “mined” to track the past movements of specific vehicles.

Police insist the system concentrates on capturing a narrow picture of a car’s number plate. However, internal guidelines produced by the National Policing Improvement Agency show that in some areas ANPR “routinely captures the faces of front-seat occupants”.

At least one organisation is keen to test the basis on which ANPR operates. Like others they want to see proper accountability and safeguards put into place. Shami Chakrabarti, the director of Liberty, the civil rights group, said it planned to launch the first legal challenge to the surveillance system.

“It’s bad enough that images and movements of millions of innocent motorists are being stored for years on end,” she said. “That the police are doing this with no legislative basis shows a contempt for parliament, personal privacy and the law. Yet another bloated database is crying out for legal challenge and we will happily oblige.”


Can Jesus save Gordon Brown?

In what must be the crassest ever appeal for votes Labour List goes over the top today with a post entitled Ten reasons why Jesus might vote Labour.

They list a number of Jesus' teachings and actions, which they believe resonate with Labour values, though in truth a number of other political parties could claim a similar affinity.

What they do not mention however is how Jesus might feel about the illegal invasion of Iraq and the implicit sanctioning of exraordinary rendition and torture. Funny that.

The Tories' mask slips again

The by-now widely reported remarks of the Conservative's Shadow Home Secretary, Chris Grayling that Bed and breakfasts run by Christians should be allowed to turn away gay couples because of their sexuality should come as no surprise to those familiar with the Tory Party's record on equality issues.

However, what is more significant about the remark is the way it sdemonstrates how skin deep Cameron's so-called reforms really are. In effect, the mask has slipped from the cuddly Conservative Party, which the Notting Hill set have so carefully constructed and what has been revealed is that it is dominated by the same old backwoodsmen who have run the party for over a century. Is it true after all that if they win power the Tory right-wing will force Cameron to retreat on most of his liberalish agenda?

What is most shocking about this episode is that a potential Home Secretary can take such a stance in apparent ignorance of the law, a law he voted for. Alix Mortimer sums it up best in another outstanding post:

That is all very well. But what we cannot do is invent some legally and physically nonsensical distinction between B&Bs and hotels in order to bend the rules for a certain group of people. This is the absolute antithesis of good law, and of the principles of liberalism. Either Chris Grayling was effectively calling for a review of the entire purpose of anti-discrimination law, or he is a numpty of zero understanding. There is no middle ground (and the answer, by the way, is (b), because Grayling actually voted in favour of the current position, and there’s just no way a Conservative government is going to try to get elected on a platform of repealing the anti-discrimination laws).

And, for goodness’ sake, we knew these laws existed before, right? Why is everyone reacting as if we’ve just uncovered the most heinous, oppressive instrument of state control yet devised by man? Why all the shrieking about “slavery” and suchlike? I’ll tell you what, I’m all in favour of restoring our civil liberties, and I’m also in favour of easing regulation on small businesses, but my impression is that there are one or two slightly more pertinent places to start those processes? You know, just possibly?

The question for David Cameron now is, can he seriously go to the electorate with this man pencilled in as his potential Home Secretary? Does he have the balls to stand up to the Tory reactionaries and sack Chris Grayling from his Shadow Cabinet?

Saturday, April 03, 2010

A failure of perspective

The website Outside Edges is absolutely right in suggesting that anything I should say or think about the Pope's previous lack of action to deal with child abusers in the Catholic Church will have no impact whatsoever on future church policy. However that does not prevent me noting that the Catholic Church continues to do itself no favours on this issue.

Indeed, it seems that the Vatican has little or no idea of the level of public outrage this affair has generated nor the extent to which they themselves are caught up in the controversy. A further sign of this crass indifference came yesterday when the Pope's personal preacher compared criticism of the Catholic hierarchy over cleric sex abuse with persecution of the Jews.
Apart from the sheer insensitivity of the comparison the Vatican would also do well to remember that there are strong views about their attitude to the holocaust during the Second World War that makes the statement even more inappropriate.

What is needed now is not more self-denial but a clear statement acknowledging in detail how decades of turning a blind eye allowed this child abuse to continue unpunished and the removal from office of those who participated in that cover-up.

What were Labour thinking?

Labour have launched a new poster campaign to commemorate the return of the popular BBC series, Ashes to Ashes in which they depict David Cameron as politically-incorrect copper Gene Hunt, perched on top of the famous Quattro. Labour party officials say that they hope it will remind young voters of the Tory record in the 1980s when youth unemployment hit record heights.

However, the unanimous view of all those who I have seen comment on the poster is that it is a massive own goal. The problem is that the message contradicts the image. If they wanted to portray the 1980s as a time of depression and unemployment then they should have accompanied the slogan with appropriate pictures.

Instead they have used a quasi-romantic figure who most voters can identify with as a man who takes a no-nonsense approach to criminals and anti-social behaviour, delivering the short, sharp shock that many wish was still available to today's police force.

This is a major own-goal by Labour whose message about the economic incompetence of the Tories and their appalling record in government is essentially correct. If anything they have let the Tories off the hook.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Stalemate on housing powers

With the prorogation of Parliament next week almost inevitable it is looking increasingly likely that the Welsh Assembly's bid for law-making powers over affordable housing will bite the dust for the second time of asking.

As the Western Mail points out that is because Labour and the Conservatives are engaged in a game of parliamentary chicken over the fate of the Housing Legislative Competence Order, which has been working its way through Parliament for nearly two years.

The LCO will become part of the parliamentary “wash-up” process, where the Government and opposition decide which pieces of legislation can be nodded through before Parliament is dissolved. Without Tory support the housing plans, which have already had to be re-drafted after a House of Lords committee suggested they may be illegal, could be rejected.

The Conservatives are objecting to a clause in the order which would allow the Welsh Government to suspend the right to buy for council houses in areas of high demand, in order to address localised housing shortages. The party also says it is unhappy with devolving powers relating to gypsy and traveller sites.

This is despite Conservatives voting in the Assembly in favour of a referendum and indicating that they would vote 'yes' to full law making powers, an act that would give the Assembly these housing powers anyway. In the circumstances the only possible conclusion to draw is that the Tories are grandstanding on this issue and that principle has been cast out of the window in favour of making a political point.

That does not mean that Labour are completely blameless in this though. If they were fully committed to giving these powers to the Assembly they could have found the time necessary to have a vote on them in the Houses of Parliament, thus avoiding the wash-up process altogether. It suits their agenda to portray the Tories as blocking these powers but in doing so they betray their own lack of commitment to affordabe housing.

They also show their ignorance of the issues too in the remarks of the Secretary of State for Wales to the Western Mail. Peter Hain suggests that “The right-to-buy section is a minute part of a comprehensive piece of legislation which will only be applied – if at all – in highly restricted circumstances, confined, in all probability, to Gwynedd and Pembrokeshire, where there are particular housing shortages and young people, farm workers and others need to get on the housing ladder."

How does he know? In actual fact there is a bigger crisis in terms of affordable housing at present in cities such as Swansea and Cardiff than in rural areas, though they have their problems too. As I understand it the intention is to allow a temporary suspension of the right to buy in areas of high demand, where a proper housing needs survey and the local housing strategy supports such an intervention. The intention is to allow some stability in the affordable housing stock whilst it is replenished.

However, as I have argued it might be possible to use these powers to prevent newly built social housing being sold for the first 20 years or so of its existence so as to encourage local councils and housing associations to invest in new homes.

And that is the point. It is not for MPs to determine how we might use these powers, it is for the Assembly itself and the Welsh Government to use them in the best interests of Wales. That is a point which has been lost in this stand-off. Wales deserves better than this testosterone-fuelled pettyness.

Making waves

There is a fascinating feature in today's Western Mail in which the history of Cardiff 'Bay' is explored together with a look at its success since the Development Corporation was wound up ten years ago.

The authors identify several several landmark developments including the Mermaid Quay restaurant quarter, St David’s Hotel, which was the first five-star hotel in Wales, the A4232 Butetown Link Road, the £106m Wales Millennium Centre, the adjacent Roald Dahl Plass and the completion of the Senedd on the waterfront which they say have reinforced the area’s role as a pivotal place in the capital.

They also look at the private sector investment into the area as well as forthcoming investments such as a 32-storey five-star hotel and the BBC's drama village in Roath Basin. They might also mention of course the white water rafting centre and the sports village.

They then go and spoil it with a conclusion that they have failed to provide evidence for when they say: 'The Bay is here to stay and that’s not just to the benefit of Cardiff but the rest of Wales.'

If you talk to the rest of Wales you would find the balance of opinion in disagreement with that statement. Cardiff has soaked up huge amounts of both public and private investment on a scale vastly out of proportion to its size, with the result that there is very little left to share out elsewhere.

Although, one can discern clear economic benefits within the City's travel to work area, there is no evidence of similar gains in North, Mid or West Wales for example. In fact political leaders in these regions would argue that they have lost out as a result of Cardiff-centric government.

I can understand two Cardiff-based chartered surveyors wanting to big-up their City but I think we all need to agree that the jury is still out on how much the investment they describe has benefited other parts of Wales, if at all. I think we would also need to see some evidence even that efforts are being made to spread any benefits wider than the immediate South Wales Central region.

Metaphor of the day

Frank Field takes the honours with this description of Tony Blair:

“Blair reminds me of a water spider. It skims across the water, but once it’s gone, you can’t tell that it was ever there,” the Labour MP says ruefully.

“Whenever I met him, I always came away beguiled and convinced that he would do things differently this time. He was brilliant at winning elections, but then did nothing with it. I don’t think he had much idea of how to win the machine.”

He goes on to make equally telling remarks about the Prime Minister:

“I’ve always felt sorry for Gordon – this combination of intelligence and an inability to see the people side of politics.

“Unfortunately, the public have marked their card on him and nothing will change that now. In Opposition, I had a meeting with him and I thought, 'God, this isn’t normal.’ Nothing’s happened to change my view.”

Thursday, April 01, 2010

Prime Minister or pariah?

The Sun has dubbed Gordon Brown as The Invisible Man after a short analysis of 120 campaigning leaflets and letters by their reporters found that 93 per cent of Labour's General Election candidates omitted his photo from their leaflets.

They add that in a clear sign that sitting MPs and new Commons hopefuls believe the Prime Minister is a liability, 86 per cent have no written mention of his name. The bigwigs in the group whose literature was included in the survey includes former-Cabinet minister and Olympics supremo Tessa Jowell, Mr Brown's former spokesman at Number 10, John Woodcock who is Labour's candidate in Barrow-in-Furness, Sadiq Khan, Transport Minister; Gareth Thomas, International Development Minister; Mike O'Brien, Health Minister; Maria Eagle, Equalities Minister; Paul Goggins, Northern Ireland Minister; Dan Norris, Waste and Recycling Minister; Alan Campbell, Crime Reduction Minister, David Kidney, Environment Minister, Claire Ward, Justice Minister; Ian Lucas, Business Minister; Helen Jones and Mark Tami, both government whips.

I am sure that I have seen this story before, or at least something similar to it. If my memory serves then back in 2005 certain newspapers were claiming that Labour candidates were snubbing Tony Blair on their campaign literature in favour of Gordon Brown. How things change.

Having said that it does pay to put this story in context. The Sun is hardly known for being a pro-Labour newspaper. In fact it has come out for the Tories at the next General Election, following which David Cameron's lead in the polls started to slip. Nothing like objective reporting to start the day with.

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