Sunday, September 30, 2007

Gordon and Brenda - A date for Tuesday?

The interesting thing about the Ipsos MORI poll in the Observer today is that the percentage of respondents saying Brown should call an autumn election is 39%. In last Wednesday's YouGov poll this was 29%. Of course, these are polls done by different pollsters. But I wonder whether perhaps there is a growing body of people, after all the speculation, who are saying "Oh, go on then - get it over and done with, Gordon".

I notice that we are repeatedly being told that there won't be an announcement this week - Gordon is going to wait until the Tory conference is over, apparently. So we are told.

Is it the old cynic in me, or does this make me certain that the old blighter will jump in his Rover, Brenda-bound, tomorrow or Tuesday to go for October 25th? (He has to allow 17 working days between going to the Queen to ask her to dissolve parliament and polling day - meaning, by my calculations, he would have to, at the very latest, go up the Mall with the early morning traffic on Tuesday).

This would completely wreck the Tory conference. Just imagine all those MPs having to hurriedly book out of their hotels, forfeiting their payments, and abandoning Cameron to address one of Britain's finest collection of chairs on Wednesday.

I really can't believe that that old political calculating machine, old Brownie, will collate all his various polls, focus groups reports, seaweeds and teabags and come to the conclusion that he will go to the polls on November 1st or that it might be a good option to leave open (Bearing in mind Haloween on Oct 31st, clocks going back on Oct 28th, bad weather, fireworks, particularly bad prospects for Scotland). The last time the UK had a general election after October 25th was 72 years ago in 1935.

And I really do think that Brown is going to have an enormous problem with just saying "ho hum, no election this year" after all this fuss.

By the way, forget everything I have written on this subject up until now!

Tory definition of "family" is disgracefully exclusive

When you are a parent, you pick up words of wisdom from the strangest of sources. There's a Disney film called Lilo and Stitch (above) that gave us much amusement as a family. A cartoon set in Hawaii, it tells the story of a little girl called Lilo who is left orphaned with her adult sister, Nani, after a car crash kills her parents. The two sisters are joined by a strange alien creature who is the product of an illegal genetic experimentation on another planet. After 90 minutes of mayhem, the creature, Stitch, domesticates itself and becomes part of the family with Lilo and Nani.

There is a tear-jerking final sequence when it is explained that families come in all shapes and sizes and that we should cherish the family we have, in this case two orphaned sisters and an alien odd-ball.

This is a film David Cameron could do with watching.

The tax cut for families which he was proposing has now morphed itself into an increase in tax credits, as Vince Cable has highlighted today:

It would appear that the so-called Tory tax cut for families is not a tax cut at all, but an increase in tax credits' a means-tested benefit subject to enormous complexity and problems with mistaken payments.

The problem with this whole thing is the families excluded from the measure. Firstly, single parent families. It is wrong to make generalisations about these families. It is very difficult to find relationship break-ups which are not accompanied by enormous heartache and which do not involve single parents working very hard, under extremely trying circumstances. Secondly, the measure excludes families where the parents have not married. Personally I know of such an example where, quite frankly, most people don't realise the parents aren't married. They are extremely loving and caring parents and have been in partnership for well over 15 years.

But most sadly, the Tory married couples' tax credit increase will exclude families where one parent has tragically died. This will include families of those who die in the service of their country.

The Tory party really is surpassing itself in smug self-righteousness when it is engineering giving away public money and excluding widows bringing up children on their own.

Saturday, September 29, 2007

The lesson of October 1974

I have been taking a little look back at autumn elections since the war.

It's 33 years since the last autumn election. All the intervening general elections have been in May, June or April.

There was an October election in 1964, when the Tories were defeated by Harold Wilson's Labour. There were also October elections in 1959 and 1951. The latter one of that couplet was due to Labour whittling away their thin majority. The election had a 82.6% turnout and resulted in a change to a Conservative government. 1959 had a 78.7% turnout and the Tories held on to power.

The October 1974 general election had a 72.8% turnout and resulted in Harold Wilson's Labour government transforming itself from a minority one to a majority one - just.

The thing about 1974 is that the country had been going through what can be fairly described as its biggest crisis since the war - the The Three Day week with energy shortages, power cuts, television stations closing down at 10pm etc etc. It was "Dunkirk spirit" time. In February 1974, Ted Heath had asked: "Who runs Britain?". The answer came back "Not you, mate" and Harold Wilson, in eight months, brought the country back to a semblance of order.

But the reason for the October election was clear. The country was coming out of a crisis. The government was in a minority of 33. Harold Wilson quite properly, and unavoidably, went to the country for a larger mandate, which he received.

I suppose you could say that the precedent of 1959 supports Brown calling an autumn election which he can expect to win.

The other precedents, particularly 1974, suggest that he will only win if he manages to convince the electorate that he is seeking their mandate in the interests of the country.

I am yet to discover any convincing reason, which is in the interests of the country, for Brown to go to the polls this autumn. There is no crisis. His government has a majority of 60+ and 2.5 years left to run.

If Brown goes for an autumn election he is going to need all his considerable powers of persuasion to convince people that he is not just doing it because he thinks he can win now and might lose later.

Friday, September 28, 2007

PA seemed to have got carried away visa vis this week's by-election results

I have corrected my earlier post as I was misled by this Press Association report.

When I read this week's by-election results on John Hemming's blog, I thought John had maybe posted the wrong results, having already read the PA release! Such was the disparity between the report and reality.

Summary: The PA report said Brown was in turmoil after the Conservatives swept ahead in by-elections key marginal seats:

With results in from eight out of nine of Thursday's council by-elections, Conservatives had snatched back the projected lead. Labour held six seats but, on the basis of results at Portsmouth and Northamptonshire, Tories look on course for a sweeping parliamentary victory at Portsmouth North constituency and a closer one at Corby if there were an early poll.In Dover the 5.5% swing in a Kent County Council contest for Dover Town - which covers more than a quarter of the Commons constituency's electorate - would be enough for Conservatives to take it.

The actual results show:

Portsmouth: Tories up 3.3% but Labour held the seat with a 3.2% increase, four points ahead of the Tories.

Northamptonshire: Labour stonked the seat with a 718 majority. Labour share went down 8.7% but the Tories' share went down also by 2.7%.

Dover: There were three by-elections. The Tories' share went down in two of the seats by 8.2% and 12.6%. The bigger turnout/coverage seat was the town seat where the Tories increased their share by 4.1% but Labour still beat them by 512 votes and were 12 points clear. Count them. 1-2-3-4-5-6-7-8-9-10-11-12!

In Cheshire, the Tories went down by 13.2% in one seat and up by 2.1% in the larger county seat but the LibDems went up by 5.7%.

That's a very mixed picture which certainly does not justify a report saying the Tories are poised to win the relevant parliamentary seats. I suspect it would take someone from the University of Plymouth's politics department to analyse what these results indicate for future parliamentary contests in Corby, Dover and Portsmouth North, but it certainly doesn't look conclusive enough to justify the sweeping predictions of Tory victories in the PA's report.

The Norfolk Blogger and David Rundle mention a Tory press release which seems to have been at the foot of this nonsense.

I thought the PA were meant to be independent and objective? Perhaps they got carried away in the heat of the moment...

The sunrise and sunset times which may give Gordon Brown pause for thought

Recent council by-election results have been interesting.

Last week, Labour romped home in the home of the vital "Worcester woman" with a stonking 17.6% swing.

This week there have been vote share increases for the Tories in Dover (up 4.1%) and Portsmouth North (up 3.3%). But Labour's share also went up - by 3.2% in Portsmouth. There were 8.2% and 12.6% decreases in the Tory vote share in other Dover seats which were contested. In Cheshire they were up 2.1% in one seat but down 13.2% in another. In Corby the Tories were down 2.7%. And I am not entirely sure that a win in Sunderland is likely to put that seat top of the Tories' list. Thanks to John Hemming for his results list. Mark Pack provides an incisive analysis of recent by-elections in key seats here.

Being an old git, I go back to boring things like lighting up times and weather forecasts. These are the things which might feature low on the radar of those three upstarts, Balls, Miliband (E) and Alexander, who are advising Brown on the election timing. Being at that age when the weight of the testosterone in their bodies exceeds the weight of their brain cells, I suspect they are more on the balls of their feet wanting to knock the Tories out for another ten years.

But these things are top of the list with old fogies like me, when considering whether Brown will call an election this year (No, he won't - as I have already said - but then again, I have nothing to lose if I am proved wrong!).

Brown is worried about the SNP bounce, so let us focus on Ochil and South Perthshire constituency. The Labour MP there, Gordon Banks (no relation to the Pele killer shot-saving goalie, I presume) holds a majority of 688 over the SNP from the 2005 election. He is 1.5 percentage points ahead of them. Tight.

So let us consider the Labour activists who will be going out to canvass support in the week up to November 1st, if that is the date on which Brown calls the election.

I have been doing a bit of research on lighting up times in Alloa, which is at the heart of this constituency. I have got the data from the US Naval Observatory site here, using Longtitude/Latitude data from Multimap.

On the Friday before the election, 26th October, those activists will be canvassing in the dark from 17:49hrs. So they will find that many people will not open their doors to them in the evening. Also on that Friday, those activists will start to hear the odd whistle, bang and flash of light. The start of the Bonfire parties in the run-up to November 5th. Another reason for people to keep their doors firmly closed for fear of allowing pets and children to be further frightened by the fireworks.

As they go out canvassing on Monday October 29th, those activists will find that it is even darker in the evening. The sunset will be earlier at 16:42, due to the clocks going back on October 31st.

On the evening of Wednesday 31st October, the day before the election, those Labour activists will find that everytime they knock on a door they will either not receive a reply, or be met with a handful of sweets or, worse still, an earful of swear words ending with the preposition "off". It's Halloween. Best not to bother to try canvassing then.

On the actual election day, November 1st, the sun will not rise until 07:21 hrs, 21 minutes after polls open. Not a great incentive for people to bother to vote on their way to work. And the sun will set at 16:35, discouraging many people from voting after work.

Obviously these vote-discouraging factors may impact the SNP vote as much as the Labour vote, but will Gordon Brown want to gamble on that? And in other constituencies with similarly restricted light situations (most, if not all, of the constituencies in the UK), the Tories will be able to rely on their hefty postal vote share and their electorate with its high proportion of people with heated cars and the ability to vote during the working day.

A point about the weather. In the first week of November last year, the temperature on some days in Scotland barely got up to 4 °C. In Oxfordshire, it went down to -5.2 °C at one point. Again, not ideal conditions for getting the vote out.

Of course, Brown may go for October 25th, even though this seemed to have been fairly authoritatively ruled out earlier in the week, via Nick Robinson. That way, he will avoid Halloween, Guy Fawkes parties and clocks going back. But it will still be dark when most of the canvassing is being done in the evenings, and dark on election day from an early hour.

On October 25th in that weathervane seat of Basildon it will be dark at 17:45hrs. In Portsmouth North it will be dark at 17:53hrs and in Alloa the sunset will be at 17:51hrs. ...Not easy conditions under which to encourage those stubborn voters to venture from their comfy armchairs down to the polling booths.

Thursday, September 27, 2007

Boris - not funny and not clever

It has taken me a while to work out my precise view on Boris Johnson. Trying to pin him down is like trying to pin down a pregnant jellyfish on a ship during a force ten gale.

The moment you say that he is not a very serious politician, the reply comes: “Ah, but he is funny!” Haven’t you got a sense of humour?”

Then you say that he is not very funny and the reply comes “Ah, but he has a very fine intellect.”

So let’s take that second one first. Is he “funny”? Well yes, on “Have I got news for you”, we have all chortled at him. But I think it is worth nailing down why we have laughed at him on that programme. He is no Paul Merton, who is able to reduce everyone to fits of giggles by a quick deadpan one-liner or an extended foray into whimsy. Boris cannot do stand-up, for example. I saw him try at the Brit Awards once. It was embarrassing. What Boris does is to play the incompetent host. Everyone laughs at him because he cocks up everything. He fluffs his lines, he forgets what he is doing, he makes some totally random remark, he sits there with disheveled hair and shambolic suit. Paul Merton and Ian Hislopp say something funny about him, gently taking the rip, and everyone is in stitches. Hilarious. Boris knows the joke is on him but he forges on, undaunted, retaining an internal dignity, if not an outward dignity.

But does that amount to being “funny”? Well, not in the way that Frank Skinner is “funny”, no. Boris is funny in the way that an absent-minded College lecturer is funny as he hilariously messes up using the overhead projector and then makes a self-deprecating remark to the students.

Boris is perhaps “funny” in the sense of the traditional incompetent clown, who tries to ride a wiggly bike and ends up on the floor besides the bits of ex-bike. Even then, I can’t imagine Boris cutting it as a circus clown and I suspect he could take quite a few lessons in comedy from the Chuckle Brothers (those titans of comedy who have now, incidentally, clocked up 20 years on Children’s BBC television).

And there’s the rub. Does the “funny” incompetence of a semi-competent clown qualify Boris to run London?

“Oh no, comes the reply, but he’s got a very fine intellect”.

The jellyfish slips from our grip – for the moment.

OK, let’s look at that "intellect". Yes, Boris has sufficient “intellect” to write very pungent and wide-ranging articles for the “Daily Telegraph”.

But is that “intellect” the necessary kind of “intellect” to run London? Let’s take a couple of examples.

In 2005 when interviewed by the Daily Mirror, in the middle of an election campaign, Boris was asked for his view on drugs. That was reasonable lien of questioning in an election campaign and given that Boris has made a lot of, typically chaotic, statements about drugs.

The reply from this man of “fine intellect” was:

I can't remember what my line on drugs is. What's my line on drugs?

Let’s do “funny” first. That isn’t funny in the sense of someone telling a joke or making a quip. It is funny in the sense that I laughed when I heard it because it was an example of Boris being "the thnking man's idiot". He is supposed to be a politician but when asked a completely innocuous and standard question he falls apart at the seams. I laughed at him. But then people would say – 'oh well, he meant the remark to be funny'. Ah yes. That old smokescreen. Make a cock-up but then say you were being funny to cover your tracks. Boris seems to use that little ruse very often.

Let’s do “intellect” now. So, Boris Johnson, has a “fine intellect” they say. But he doesn’t have sufficient intellect to remember a simple couple of sentences on one of the most prevalent areas of public policy debate - drugs. But there is another point. Look at some Boris Johnson’s past quotes on drugs:

Yes, cannabis is dangerous, but no more than other perfectly legal drugs. It's time for a rethink, and the Tory party - the funkiest, most jiving party on Earth - is where it's happening.

I think I was once given cocaine but I sneezed so it didn't go up my nose. In fact, it may have been icing sugar.

Responding to an Oxford contemporary who said Johnson had never taken drugs, the Tory MP for Henley said: 'This is an outrageous slur...of course I've taken drugs.'

Boris Johnson, the Conservative MP for Henley, said: "I tried it [cocaine] at university and I remember it vividly. It achieved no pharmacological, psychotropic or any other effect on me whatsoever." He added that he had smoked "quite a few spliffs" before he went to university. He said: "It was jolly nice. But apparently it is very different these days. Much stronger. I've become very illiberal about it. I don't want my kids to take drugs."

…So, those quotes reveal a fluid attitude to drugs, expressed in typically colourful language. Fair enough. The Conservative party policy has been changing also and they now call for cannabis to reclassified from Class C to B. It has to be said that the basis for this policy change, an alleged scientific observation on the “changing” strength of cannabis, has been vigorously challenged by scientists, not least by scientific journalist, Ben Goldacre.

The point is that Boris Johnson’s quotes on drugs have been so colourful and fluid, and the Conservative party’s view on drugs has been so flexible, that it is not surprising that Boris found himself unable to “remember” his line on drugs. (Perhaps he was struggling to reconcile his past statements and cross-match them to Conservative policy – a task a bit like playing three dimensional chess in a thunderstorm.) But for someone aiming to be the most powerful directly elected politician in the UK, is it too much to ask that he should steer a simple enough line through the key area of drugs policy so that he has sufficient intellect to remember it?

I would cite another example concerning Boris Johnson’s “intellect”. This morning he took part in, for him, a typically chaotic interview with James Naughtie.

Johnson was asked about his London policy goals. His first response was that he wanted to improve democracy in London, intimating that Ken Livinsgtone rules without sufficient cognisance of the views of the London Boroughs. Fine. But when asked to give an example of what he meant, Johnson resorted to his normal, whimsical claptrap. He said that he had recently passed a row of old Victorian terraced houses in East London which were ear-marked for demolition. That’s terrible, he said. It shouldn’t happen, he implied. Ok then, Naughtie said, what would you do about that? Would you stop that happening? “Er…I would let the boroughs know my opinion that future generations would not appreciate them knocking down such fine buildings”.

So, after saying that he wanted to improve the democratic say of the boroughs over the mayoralty, Johnson cites an example where he, as mayor, would tell the boroughs what to do. Brilliant. What a fine intellect that man has!

When further asked what he would do to achieve one of his main stated aims, to help people onto the housing ladder, Johnson cited the example of housing organizations who offer shared equity. He waxed quite lyrical about this and said he would “help” such schemes. Ah. I see. So no doubt this would mean setting up something like a Mayor’s Housing Commission to look at ways to encourage boroughs to expand shared equity schemes and do things like passing on shared equity rights when a property is sold on, wouldn’t it?

It’s already happening.

Brilliant “intellect” that. I have to give him credit. Say that you would do something that is already happening. Brilliant.

In summary, Boris Johnson is only funny in the role of an incompetent clown and does not have sufficient “intellect” to do basic political tasks, like articulating simple policy statements.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

The biggest swearer of them all?

I’ve presented myself, on behalf of the Liberal Democrats, at the odd doorstep.

Suffice it to say that I can do the various spiels in my sleep. For example, I take great pride in being able to do the residents survey spiel in record time and without pausing for breath:

“Hello/I’m/ calling/on/ behalf/of/ the/lib/ dems/doing/ a/
survey/of/ local/views/ if/you/ are/able/ to/fill/ it/in/
please/leave/ it/hanging/ out/of/ your/letter/ box/and/
we’ll/pick/ it/up/ in/twenty/ minutes”

(It has to be said like that, without pauses – very fast. Otherwise the person breaks in to say that they haven’t got time to do a survey. But if you get to the end of the sentence they realise you are going to leave them in peace and they are all right about it.)

So, I have been able to witness the reactions of a large cross-section of the Great British public, when they are faced with a representative of a political party on their doorstep.

I am happy to report that, by enlarge, the average great British person fluctuates between friendly and pleasantly semi-comatose in this situation. It is very rare to encounter someone angry or even “shirty”.

But I have been able to compile a graded list (below) of the angry/shirty types, starting with the mildest, with an indication of their prevalence in, say, a smallish town of 30,000 inhabitants, together with my normal reaction.

1. The “That’s none of your business” type

The “That’s none of your business” is normally said in an affronted tone, very much along the lines of “Disgusted from Tunbridge Wells”. They normally stamp their little foot as they say it. I smile sweetly and mark these down as “Conservative”. There are probably about 70 of these in an average 30,000 town.

2. The “Not interested – I am Conservative!” type

Again, that response is said in a most affronted tone. Again I smile sweetly and add the remark “Thank you very much indeed for that most valuable information” before turning and leaving. There are normally about 200/30,000 of these.

3. The “Rant Rant Rant pedestrianisation Rant Rant Rant foreigners Rant” type

There is a special column on our sheet for this type. It’s called the “anti” column. They are against us but it is not clear what they are for. I smile very sweetly and nod very earnestly as they pour out their bile and then thank them very much for their views (on one occasion I did lose my patience and told one of these types that they were talking rubbish). About 8/30,000.

4. The mild swearing type.

A “fork” escapes their mouth. Another sweet smile and mark them down as “anti”. About 15/30,000

5. The off the scale swearer

I have only ever met one of these. The exchange went like this (I have converted his swear words into everyday words):

Me: Good evening, Mr xxxxx? I am calling on behalf of the Liberal Democrats doing a survey of local views….”

Resident: You can forking well fork off, I am forking well eating my supper and I am going to forking well tear that up! (points to survey sheet).

Me: (enthusiastically) Well done! (well, I thought that he deserved congratulations for being able to eat his supper and tear up the paper).

Resident: Fork off! Fork you! You punt!

Me: Well done!

Resident: Pish off! Look after the forking foreigners! You’re a forking winker!

Me: (changing tack on entering this, for me, new area of voter/politico discourse, making up new responses) God Bless you! (I don't know why I said this but it just seemed a good way of trumping his anger)

Resident: Fork off!

Me: (now standing on the public pavement) God Bless you!

Resident: Fork off!

Me: God Bless you!

At this point, the resident had belatedly realised that whatever he said, I would stand on the pavement for the rest of the evening saying “God bless you!”. He therefore retreated into his house. I was, fortunately, younger and fitter than him.

I think the incidence of such militant swearers is probably about one in every 150,000 people in the UK. I marked him down as “the antiest of antis” but that was a somewhat insufficient description of the man. To do his reaction justice, I think that a balloon (rather like those balloons which fly about a forty foot above garages sometimes saying “Sale now on”) should be flown above his house saying “Do not call on this man”.

Remember 1970

Despite the hysteria about the latest "Labour 11 points ahead" YouGov poll, I remain convinced that Brown is not stupid enough to call an election this year.

The Labour lead in the polls will diminish with the Tory conference next week (the Tories do conferences very well). And look at what the YouGov poll said about voters' thoughts on a potential election date:

...voters polled by YouGov did not favour an election this year. The Channel 4 News poll asked "when do you think it would it be in Britain's best interests for an election to be held?"

Only 29 per cent said "this autumn". 39 per cent said next year (2008), while nine per cent chose 2009, nine per cent chose 2010, and fifteen per cent said they didn't know.

People don't actually want an election. They don't feel Brown needs a mandate and nor does Brown (speaking on Today earlier this week) feel that he needs a fresh mandate.

So all right, the polls look good for Labour now, but the Great British voter will not take kindly to being roused out of their armchair to go to the polls on a dark, cold, rainy November day for no reason other than that Gordon Brown is ahead in the polls and thinks he can grab a win.

Remember 1970:

After some difficult times in office, Labour's fortunes began to pick up as the general election approached. Prime Minister Harold Wilson was confident of victory but Labour's lead in the opinion polls proved to be shaky. Poor economic figures released just before the election tipped the balance decisively towards the Conservatives. Edward Heath won a surprise victory, landing himself a safe 30-seat majority in the Commons.

In fact, what happened is that Labour led in the polls throughout the campaign, but things "flipped" to the Tories in the last few days.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Election on November 1st?! Do me a favour!

Update: I am extremely grateful to Nick Robinson and the BBC for linking to this post. Well done BBC! I wrote this post on September 25th. Since that time, I have been swept away by election fever, with the best of them. You might be interested in reading some of my subsequent posts on the election subject here.

Nick Robinson says he has it on sound authority that the government will not call an election for October 25th.

So, those still gullible enough to be drawn along by this "snap" election nonsense are now looking at November 1st.

Do me a favour. It's not going to happen. The weather situation will be too risky. It could be snowing, for goodness sake. And even Gordon Brown isn't clever enough to convince people that he is calling them out into the cold and dark to vote, two and a half years early, in the national interest.

The only circumstances under which the British people would "buy" an election in November is if there is some sort of national emergency which requires it.

I have been looking back to photos and weather records for the 1st November in years gone by.

The main risk seems to be heavy rain and, less probably, frost. That means temperatures down to zero - and Brown will ask people to go out in that?! Bear in mind that a large chunk of Labour voters, who work during the day, will have to be encouraged to vote early in the morning or late in the evening when it will be cold and/or dark.

Most of the past 1st Novembers have been mild days but heavy rain seems an almost constant feature. I have shown a few pictures taken on those November 1sts - below.

As an indicator, here's a cheery news clip from 28th October 2002, just a few days before the projected date:

Storms leave thousands without power: Thousands of homes across Cheshire and Staffordshire are still without electricity this morning after the weekend gales brought down power lines. The power supply companies have drafted in extra staff to help with repairs, but say it may take the rest of the day to complete them.

November 1st 2006 had some sharp frosts with temperatures falling to -5.2 degrees centigrade at Benson, Oxfordshire.

November 1st 2005 was mild but with heavy rain.

November 1st 2004 was mild with heavy rain.

November 1st 2003 was mild but with frequent rain and showers, some thundery.

November 1st 2002 was "mild but very wet and windy start to the month as fronts moved northeast across the region. The rain was heavy at times with hill and coastal fog in the southwest."

November 1st 2001 was warm.

1st November 2003 - foggy, but admittedly not a place where you would normally find a polling station! It's Scafell.

November 1st 2005 in Hainault Forest.

November 1st 2006 - nice, but this in the Channel Islands.

November 1st 2004 in Derby - misty

Monday, September 24, 2007

Gordon Brown's first morning listen - Farming Today?

Several Prime Ministers have been reported as avid listeners to Today. It's a fair bet that our early rising current Prime Minister gets up even earlier to listen to Farming Today on a regular basis.

It's bizarre I know, but any assessment of the likelihood of an October election must come down, in great part, to what's happening in the farming world.

There's this new Blue Tongue outbreak. In fact, it's been expected for years. But its carried by midges, most of whom will be killed off by a frost. The BBC are forecasting a couple of frosts later this week. And the Blue Tongue virus cannot replicate below 15 degrees C. It's 18 degrees C throughout most of the UK today.

Brown would need the frost to kill off the midges but the cold weather could also kill off quite a few Labour voters also.

We've just had a sixth outbreak of Foot and Mouth in Surrey. Today comes news of another possible outbreak in Hampshire. That would be the first outbreak outside the Surrey protection zone this year.

So all these agriculatural and metrological factors have to be taken into account by Brown.

I am keeping a close eye on Farmers Weekly Interactive. I registered for it several years ago when I was doing some research. I occasionally get sent mails from them. One mail was screened out by my "Nannynet" filter because the title was "Fantasy Farmer". It turned out that it was a game involving choices like "Do you want a farm with 40 acres of arable versus 20 acres for grazing..." rather than anything else which my overly suspicious Nannynet may have suspected.

Sarah Montague was in good form on Today this morning when interviewing Brown about the election prospects.

She mentioned to Brown that he has only been PM for 90 days. "Do you feel legitimate?" she asked him. It must be the first time a BBC interviewer has asked the Prime Minister - straight out - if he is a bastard. I also noticed that she referred to herself "sitting in the election studio" - such was her excitement. She meant to say "conference studio".

When Brown was on BBC Breakfast TV earlier I noticed that he became remarkably relaxed and smiling when the interviewer went on to the subject of Europe. The Sun frontpage today (above) was mentioned. You don't have to be psychic to work out that Brown would be absolutely delighted to fight an election with Europe at the top of the media and Conservative agenda.
I hope you don't expect me to come up with a "yes" or "no" prediction about the election. There has been so much speculation that Brown is going to look a bit stupid if he doesn't call one. On the other hand, he might look statesmanlike avoiding an unnecessary poll in late autumn.
One thing's for sure. With all this speculation over several months, if there is an election called, you could hardly describe it as a "snap election"...unless you are referring to the snap in the air which there is all too likely to be on October 25th.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

The disturbing claims about UK dairy product prices

About 15 years ago I used to read the Sunday Times regularly. I have sinced switched to the Observer, although I have had cause to shout at that organ in recent months.

The Sunday Times used to run regular articles pointing out that in the UK we paid substantially more on average for food than shoppers in Europe and, particularly, the USA.

I have just spent an hour and £10 trying to search the Sunday Times archive for those articles, with no success. Suffice it to say that supermarket food prices in the UK were about 10% higher than in France and Germany, and about 15% higher than in the USA.

The intimation was, of course, that the domination of the large supermarket retailers produced a market where they could charge more and cream off large profits for building up land banks and more large supermarkets.

My suspicions in this direction were not helped when Sainsbury's in Newbury paid for a multi-storey car park to be moved from one side of a road to another so that they could have their supermarket in a better position and, soon after, they moved to another site anyway. Money seemed no object.

Since the Sunday Times reports we have had a major two-year investigation by the Competition Commission, which, to use the words of the BBC in 2000, "concluded that Britain's shoppers are, by and large, getting a fair deal from their supermarkets, but has identified a few issues that should be resolved by the Office of Fair Trading." The OFT has since set up a Code of Practice for the supermarkets, which it regularly audits.

But it is worth reminding ourselves of some of the Competition Commission findings:

On pricing, it concluded that there were two practices which were operating against the public interest when carried out by the largest multiples

  • selling some frequently purchased products below cost which contributed to a situation where the majority of products were not fully exposed to competitive pressure (Asda, Morrisons, Safeway, Sainsbury and Tesco); and
  • varying prices in different geographical areas in the light of local competition so that again the majority of products were not fully exposed to competitive pressure and competition in the supply of groceries was distorted (Safeway, Sainsbury and Tesco).
On the supply market, The Commission conducted a very thorough inquiry, and found that some of the larger supermarkets had sufficient buyer power that 30 of their practices adversely affected the competitiveness of some of their suppliers and distorted competition in the supply market.

In particular, 27 of these practices were felt to be against the public interest because they gave the five major buying supermarkets (Asda, Safeway, Sainsbury, Somerfield and Tesco) substantial advantages over other, smaller, retailers whose competitiveness was likely to suffer as a result.

Those were some fairly important findings. However, the general view seemed to be that all was reasonably hunky dory in the supermarket world and that the OFT would take care of things relatively straight-forwardly.

However, this week came news which, if it is proved true, is deeply disturbing:

The four big supermarkets and dairies were accused yesterday of illegally colluding to increase the price consumers pay for milk, cheese and butter.

The Office of Fair Trading said it believed the firms broke competition law by fixing the retail price, leading to an estimated cost to consumers of £270m. Asda, Tesco, Sainsbury's and Safeway, now owned by Morrisons, were named by the OFT, as were processors Arla, Dairy Crest, Lactalis McLelland, and The Cheese Company, which is part of Milk Link and Wiseman.

Of course, this all has to be proved and the involved companies strenuously deny the allegations. It will be December before the OFT's findings are clarified.

But the allegations are disturbing for three reasons:

1. They involve the issue of trust. Terry Leahy, boss of Tesco, recently said: "Tesco is the most loved organisation in Britain." He is probably over-egging the pudding a little, but the British shopper does trust the likes of Tesco, Sainsbury, Asda, Morrisons etc. They go to the supermarket every week and their supermarket tends to be a fixed part of their lives. So these allegations potentially undermine that trust.

2. Food is obviously a very basic part of life. The fact that these allegations concern some of the most basic of food staples - milk, cheese and butter - makes them even more fundamental.

3. Farming is a fairly fragile business these days, and has been for decades. I know the refrain "those poor farmers" is so familiar that it has become hackneyed, but it is true that farming is a very financially hazardous business. It is also a lonely business. Suicide rates are high. The mental health charity, Mind, reports:

A recent survey of over 500 farmers, conducted by Farmers weekly, found that one in three farmers feel depressed, while nearly two thirds said they feel more stressed than they did five years ago. Long hours, the BSE crisis, and the collapse of beef, lamb and milk prices have sent rural incomes plummeting. In 1992 over 14,000 people left the agricultural industry.

A more recent report from Fred Attewill in the Guardian says:

Over the past decade the price farmers have been paid for milk has dropped from 24.5p to 18.5p per litre - while the price in the shops has risen by more than 10%. Supermarkets deny profiteering and put the price rises down to factors including tax rises, booming property prices and higher wages faced by all businesses. But many farmers have been unable to survive on the price they have been paid and the number of dairy farms in the UK has crashed from more than 35,000 in 1995 to just 19,011 last year.So these dairy price allegations go to the heart of the crisis in the rural community. We are talking about the livelihoods of many here.

Here's what Chris Huhne has to say on this week's OFT news on dairy prices on Farmers' Weekly Interactive:

Contrary to the claims of the British Retail Consortium, the big supermarkets have been caught red handed charging excessively high prices for dairy products to consumers. The government must now use the full force of competition law to ensure there is no market rigging that will hit either consumers or farmers, who have long complained about the low price they receive for milk.

It is still early days. The OFT claims are still to be proven. However, it seems that my suspicions about the UK supermarkets, formed all those years ago when reading articles in the Sunday Times, are, possibly, about to be proved horribly true.

My first political memories

Thank you to Lynne Featherstone and Nich Starling for tagging me regarding my earliest political memory.

At first I believed that I had, with spooky coincidence, already blogged about what I thought was my first political memory the previous day when I reminisced about seeing John Pardoe speak when I was ten. However, Lynne's recollection about the Cuban missile crisis has made me recall earlier memories.

The Cuban missile crisis made me think "Kennedy" and I remembered being told that Robert Kennedy had been shot on June 5th 1968. I was too young to remember J.F.K being shot.

Then I had a think and recalled an even earlier event. I remember Sir Winston's Churchill's Funeral on 30th January 1965. I remember looking at the television and seeing the cranes in London 's docklands which were lowered to salute Churchill as his coffin was taken by on a boat. A few minutes later I went up to our local bakery and bought some hot, freshly baked bread (funny how these things stick in your mind!).

Later, the Biafran war (1967-70), Harold Wilson with his pipe and a perilous balance of payments situation stand out as items I remember from the TV news. I also remember the day that Princess Marina died (27th August 1968) and when Eisenhower died (28th March 1969).

I will now tag Ed Trelinski (a US blogger with a close interest in UK affairs), Alex Foster (who I met at the Blogger of year awards - still haven't worked out why his blog is called "Niles' Blog"), Millennium Dome, Elephant and James Graham.

My first political memories

Thank you to Lynne Featherstone and Nich Starling for tagging me regarding my earliest political memory.

At first I believed that I had, with spooky coincidence, already blogged about what I thought was my first political memory the previous day when I reminisced about seeing John Pardoe speak when I was ten. However, Lynne's recollection about the Cuban missile crisis has made me recall earlier memories.

The Cuban missile crisis made me think "Kennedy" and I remembered being told that Robert Kennedy had been shot on June 5th 1968. I was too young to remember J.F.K being shot.

Then I had a think and recalled an even earlier event. I remember Sir Winston's Churchill's Funeral on 30th January 1965. I remember looking at the television and seeing the cranes in London 's docklands which were lowered to salute Churchill as his coffin was taken by on a boat. A few minutes later I went up to our local bakery and bought some hot, freshly baked bread (funny how these things stick in your mind!).

Later, the Biafran war (1967-70), Harold Wilson with his pipe and a perilous balance of payments situation stand out as items I remember from the TV news. I also remember the day that Princess Marina died (27th August 1968) and when Eisenhower died (28th March 1969).

I will now tag Ed Trelinski (a US blogger with a close interest in UK affairs), Alex Foster (who I met at the Blogger of year awards - still haven't worked out why his blog is called "Niles' Blog"), Millennium Dome, Elephant and James Graham.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

Will Gordon join George in the footnotes of history?

It's a fair bet that George Canning (left) has occasionally occupied the thoughts of Gordon Brown recently. Mr Canning was, by all accounts, a fine public speaker, a brilliant military strategist and a practical joker. His long record of public service isn't what he is remembered for, however.

Political anoraks with the highest tog rating remember old George because he holds the record as the British prime minister who served for the shortest period - 119 days. He is a footnote in British political history.

The reason why I say it is a fair bet that Gordon Brown has been thinking about George Canning recently is because if Gordon gets wrong his big decision about the election date, then Gordon will join George in the footnotes. If Gordon Brown calls an election for October 25th, and loses, he will have been premier for 120 days - a day longer than George.

But unlike George, who was removed from office by the grim reaper via pneumonia, Gordon will forever be remembered as the shortest serving Prime Minister removed from office by himself.

"Gordon Brown" will join "Eddie the Eagle" as by-words for farcical incompetence in the English language lexicon. ("Did you do any good in the snooker last night, Dave?" "No, mate, I Gordon Browned it, I'm afraid".)

And Gordon won't want that.

So the memory of George Canning, as well as that of Jim Callaghan (British history's "shorty" Labour prime minister) will have been weighing heavily on Gordon's mind. It's all very well talking about one brilliant ICM poll, but general election campaigns can take on a life of their own. Another banking crisis, more continued foot and mouth outbreaks (there was another affected farm announced today), one or two "events, dear boy" and a lucky break for the opposition parties could all sweep Labour from power on October 25th. Or, at least, hobble them with a wafer-thin majority.

Douglas Alexander says Labour have the "cash and organisation" to go the polls in October. That's interesting. A few weeks ago, when I last bothered to check, Labour had a debt of £20 million. The last general election cost them £20 million. So if you assume that a campaign of about half the duration of the last one will cost them about half the amount, that's £10 million needed for an October campaign. Lord Sainsbury has recently given them £2 million and they say that they've had lots of other donations recently. Let's be optimistic for them and assume they have recently slashed their debt to, say, £15 million. So an October poll would leave them back where they were a few months ago - with a debt of £25 million. Their bank managers or loaners seemed just about ready to live with that sort of debt at that time, so one can assume that they will live with a level of £25 million debt again.

So, Labour can just about finance a quick election. (The Tories, however, will probably have more money at their disposal.) But I wouldn't like to be their bank manager. £25 million is quite a debt. But, then again, they will have four years in which to pay it (or a good chunk of it) back before the next election, hopefully (for them).

They're in the realms of knife-edge finances, though. (But then again, I will stop there on the finances subject, before someone shouts "Michael Brown!" at me).

There is another risk with going to the country in October. The great British public, roused from its comfy armchair to walk down to the polling station on a blustery, cold autumnal day might actually come up with this collective thought: "We went down to the polls just two and a half years ago. Why on earth is that Scots-porridge oat Brown forcing us out into the cold, down to the polls so soon?"

It's a good question. There's a good answer. Because Brown is a new prime minister and would like a nice new shiny mandate from you, oh great British voter, thank you very much.

But then the great British voter might just reply: "Yes, but we didn't force Blair to leave office - you did, you collossal numpty", before putting their cross against a candidate from any party except Labour. After all, when you go down to your local pub these days, is your entry impeded as you are pushed back by an almighty gust of wind caused by the assembled populace angrily shouting "Brown must go to the polls now!" ? Of course, not - normal people hardly mention the subject.

Even if Brown wins an October election we will still be left with a lingering question. Why did we use up all that time and money and run all that risk (money markets, temporarily paralysed civil service etc) of an election on October 25th 2007 when, according to our constitution, such as it is, we didn't need to have one until May 5th 2010?

Look at it that way and you find yourself sleep-walking inexorably towards a huge neon sign flashing the words "FIXED TERMS" on it. Local councils have them. The Scottish parliament, the Welsh assembly and the Northern Ireland Assembly have fixed terms. A few old biddies sitting round in a lounge in Philidelphia 220 years ago agreed on fixed terms for those governing our cousins across the pond.

So why the Sam Hill do we still have this refrain of "guess the election date" playing on as an almost constant leitmotif to British politics? It's insane.

One consideration which may be kicking it's way back and forwards through the brain space of our dear Prime Minister may be this. Will the traditional Labour vote hold? Well he might ponder over this. As Ming Campbell called it, "Blue Labour" is lucky to have any of its traditional supporters still voting for it.

Is the Labour party coming together now in Bournemouth one that would be recognised by Keir Hardie, or Harold Wilson or Clement Atlee if they, by some divine happenstance, alighted there? Well, if they bumped into Dennis Skinner or Bob Crowe they would feel at home.

If they bumped into Labour minister Digby, Lord Jones or Labour MP Quentin Davies they might immediately give their excuses and leave, assuming they had mistakenly stumbled in on the Conservative conference.

It's not just the personalities. The conference itself is changing. This will be the last time that the conference will be able to debate and vote on "contemporary motions". There are other changes also in the offing. Gordon Brown enthusiastically advocates those changes in an article in today's Guardian (which is helpfully succeeded with the note "Gordon Brown is the prime minister").

In fact, the gist of Brown's argument is sound. Hand the power to decide policy to all the party members - not just the conference representatives. Very laudable. I am not sure the way he intends to do it is consistent with this aim, however: "A one-member, one-vote ballot every four years on the party programme".

Indeed, if you read Tony Benn's interpretation of the internal party constitutional proposals, it seems Brown is as usual, perhaps, being devious. He is, cynics would suggest, smuggling through a move to silence the conference so that it can't mess up a Blue Labour government by injecting any pink or red into it:

If the new proposals - now endorsed by the NEC and apparently some major trade unions - are accepted, delegates will only be allowed to identify issues they want looked at by the policy forums, and the manifesto that emerges will be put to a referendum of party members to accept or reject in full, with no possibility of amendment. This would complete the New Labour project under which the conference becomes a platform for ministers and a few handpicked delegates - and, of course, a big trade fair. There would be no point in joining the party locally or affiliating as a union in the hope of discussing policy.

But that's Brown's "new politics" for you. Just like Gordon's "Big Tent", where he involves people from other parties just as long as they are the ones likely to wind up their respective parties, Gordon's "Big conversation" will involve any debate as long as Gordon ends up winning it.

Brown says the new conference process will end "resolutions without solutions".

Well, you only need to look at this year's conference agenda, at what is on it, and, more tellingly, what is not on it, to see what Gordon Brown wants to avoid. The Unison union has proposed a "contemporary" motion saying that the equal pay law has not redressed the inequality of women in low paid jobs. It also attacks Hazel Blears' green paper which calls for councils to become "enabling authorities", no longer providing public services themselves. The GMB union criticises the management of state-owned Remploy for creating a "sense of insecurity and trauma, and...the cruellest harassment of already very vulnerable workers".

And look what "contemporary motions" were dropped like hot potatoes from the conference agenda this year: several highly critical of the government's stewardship of the NHS, one criticising British military aid to Columbia, oh, and one slating the government for allowing the US to use the Menwith Hill base in Yorkshire for a new missile system. (What was it Ming said about sneaking "out a short statement on the last day of Parliament signing us up to host America’s Son of Star Wars on British soil?")

So it is quite clear that Brown is attempting to muzzle the Labour party conference. This means more Blue Labour and more injustices and Tory-lite policies like the ones which Ming listed in his speech last Thursday. I can't see traditional Labour voters standing for this for much longer. Many have already stopped voting Labour. I expect more to do so.

So, Gordon Brown cannot completely rest on his laurels. He cannot be entirely confident that, if he goes to the polls on October 25th, he will escape the company of George Canning in the altogether chilly environs of the footnotes of British political history.

Oh, and, by the way, George Canning was a Tory. Very appropriate company for Gordon.

Friday, September 21, 2007

Ming is "it"

As I foresaw, one of the advantages of having a media conference narrative of "leader on last legs", is that when the leader gives a half-way decent speech at the end, the media narrative then, with typical hysteria, turns turtle and majors on "leader rises from dead".

But the media coverage is not all glowing and Ming's speech far exceeded the description "half-way decent".

I always look forward to immersing myself in wall-to-wall media coverage of the LibDems. I was not disappointed as I sat down to the teatime news programmes yesterday. ITV started their coverage of Ming's speech with a huge caption reading: "Ming finds his Zing" (James Gurling seems to have been ahead of them with that one). That gold standard of UK political commentary, Nick Robinson said the speech should "stop the mutterings - for now".

And there's the rub. We had all this after last year's autumn conference speech and after the Ealing/Southall and Sedgefield by-elections. A few weeks of calm, and then it all kicks off again. "Ming too old", "Young Turks vie for position" etc etc.

So why should this time be any different? Why, as the Michael White said this morning, have "tectonic plates shifted"?

For me, it's different because of the sheer comprehensiveness, passion and heart-stopping liberalism of his speech yesterday.

My earliest experience of live politics, as opposed to my grandfather swearing at Harold Wilson or Nasser whenever they came onto the telly, was when I was ten. During the 1970 general election campaign I was able to wonder a few hundred yards down from our house and stand and observe what, in those days, was an endangered species, a genuine Liberal MP. John Pardoe was his name. A big bear of a man with real charisma and passion. He used to stand on top of his landrover with his microphone and bellow out a stump speech. I can't remember what he said. If you asked me a few minutes after he had spoken what he had said, I probably wouldn't have been able to tell you much of what he said. But I knew one thing for sure. This man was "it". He was speaking the truth, he knew what needed to be done in the country, and he expressed it with such down-to-earth and gripping passion that I knew I was a Liberal like him.

Listening to Ming's speech yesterday was a similar experience. Ming is "it".

You just have to take his opening paragraph:

Let me start by asking some questions:
What kind of country is it where the government responds to the threat of climate change by allowing green taxes to fall as carbon emissions rise?
What kind of country is it where the richest in the land pay a lower rate of tax than the people who have to clean their offices?
What kind of country is it where the government halts a criminal investigation into corrupt arms sales to placate commercial interests?
What kind of country is it where the government colludes with the Tories to exempt MPs from freedom of information?
What kind of country is it where the government sneaks out a short statement on the last day of Parliament signing us up to host America’s Son of Star Wars on British soil?
And what kind of country is it where the government leads us into an illegal and disastrous war and then stops people from protesting against it?
Well, I’ll tell you what sort of country it’s not:
It’s not a liberal country.

Well, that's fired me up just on its own. What an awesome list of the wrongs of the past few years of Labour government! It is to the credit of the speechwriters that they stacked the speech with the full set of these sorts of points in a highly organised way. That opening is all the more arresting for the fact that all those six points are the type of thing that is all too easily forgotten in day-to-day media coverage. It demonstrates cutting-edge liberalism that Ming and his team collated that list, and the other points later in the speech.

Ming's scathing critiques of the other two leaders were brilliant. First on Cameron he was stunningly accurate as well as funny:

This year, David Cameron is going back to basics.
Last year the Conservative conference was about health, happiness and the sunshine glinting through the trees.
This year it will be flag, fear – and foreigners.
But why the right-turn?
I’ll tell you why.
Because he’s under pressure.
And without convictions of his own, the Tory leader is buffeted by the beliefs of others.
He’s done a u-turn on grammar schools.
An about turn on identity cards.
And a wrong-turn on human rights.
Margaret Thatcher would have to concede:
He turns if you want him to.
The laddie’s all for turning.
But we’re not for turning – we know exactly what we stand for.

But he was even more skillful in shooting that old fox, Gordon Brown:

Mr Brown is working hard to convince us that there has been real change in Number 10:
That his arrival has somehow wiped the slate clean.
That the last ten years of waste, failure and disappointment are to be forgiven and forgotten
Well, not so fast Gordon.
You spent a decade blaming everything on the previous Conservative government.
But as Chancellor over the last ten years you had unparalleled influence over government.
You could have raised green taxes to tackle climate change.
You could have stopped the ineffective, expensive and unnecessary identity card scheme.
And you could have prevented Tony Blair from embarking on the catastrophe of the Iraq war.
But you didn’t.
This is your legacy, Mr Brown:
The environment degraded.
Civil liberties eroded.
Iraq invaded.
Not to mention the record for which you - and you alone - were responsible as Chancellor.
A smash and grab raid on private pensions.
A steady, disturbing rise in the number of home repossessions.
And a national economic backdrop of £1.3 trillion in personal debt.
With a record like that it’s no wonder that the Prime Minister wants to start afresh.
But it’s a record for which we will ensure that he takes responsibility:
In spite of your claims of change, Mr Brown, not much really has changed.
New Labour remains blue Labour.
And you’re still wrong.
Wrong on nuclear energy.
Wrong on council tax.
Wrong on student fees.
And you are wrong, wrong, wrong on detention without charge.
We don’t need a change of tone in this country:
We need a change of policies.
And you, Gordon Brown, have not delivered.

I think we should all re-read that about once a week. To me, that is a main plank of a general election campaign.

There was one tricky patch in the speech, it should be said. When Ming mentioned the EU referendum he only got subdued applause. When he said: "We would ask the British people the real question – whether they wish to remain in the European Union or not. I will proudly lead the Liberal Democrats at the forefront of that debate." he received no applause at all, even though it sounded as though he wanted some, from the way he said it. Maybe conference were a bit miffed at being told 'he will lead' us in a referendum campaign on EU membership when it has not yet considered what that referendum should consist of, if it is to be any different (some might say) from our manifesto commitment.

But, apart from that, the speech went on as it began. A crie de coeur of liberalism. "A classic liberal speech", as Paddy called it. "Ming Emperor rallies his weary troops" as the Telegraph put it.

So Ming has put the party to bed - for now. He has sounded a "clarion call" (Nick Clegg) in advance of a potential election. But that's not enough.

It's all very well making me happy. It's all very well making most of the "troops" happy and fired up. 'Classic liberal speeches' fire us all up. But they don't necessarily fire the country up. I do believe that we have policies, such as the 16p basic rate of tax, which will sell themselves very well to the electorate. If every voter had a copy of Ming's speech and read it, then we'd be home and dry. Unfortunately that isn't going to happen, of course.

So we have the media issue - how do we get our message across (apart from the obvious Penhaligonesque method of putting it on a bit of paper and sticking it through a letter box)? Unlike David Nikel I am not angry at the likes of Nick Assinder, who wrote a typically petty piece on the conference on BBC Online. Like all journalists, Nick has to write something, and normally gets asked by his superior to write in a certain vein. It's no good getting angry with journalists. They have to put bread on the table at home. We are not going to change the media (except perhaps in a very small, incremental way). And they do us some favours - as we can see today's and yesterday's coverage of Ming's speech.

We have to work with the media rather than constantly belittling them.

Yes, it is a pain in the neck to have this constant "who will succeed Ming?" stuff. But look on the bright side. At least we have some obvious successors to Ming. Where are the obvious successors to David Cameron? There aren't any. Strangely enough, it is a credit to Ming that he has successors waiting. It is the job of any manager to ensure that there is a succession plan for him/herself. Ming has ensured that and has gone out of his way to foster his team of "young turks".

Thursday, September 20, 2007

Great speech from Ming

Quick reaction on the speech. Great. He pressed all the right buttons. A real liberal speech - outlined a real, distinctive position and made clear Brown/Cameron's appalling failings. There was a tricky patch when he mentioned the EU referendum. I think he was particularly strong with his devastating critique of Brown.

Ming's speech really could be offered as a summary to answer the question "what is a liberal?" as well as "what are the LibDems for?"

It was a brilliantly written , comprehensive speech. He showed real passion. I am not just saying that. He was shouting almost at some points and he looked really confident and energetic.

The full text of the speech is here.

Ming's speech - Live blog

11.52 Tim Clement-Jones is "shaking the tin", bless him.

11.59 Dead Liberals are in the spotlight. Chris Rennard announces that John Stuart Mill has been voted the greatest Liberal in history. When you think about it, a bit of a no brainer. (But then again a no brainer surely needs no thinking about....I hate this waiting) Well done to the Millster.

12.06 Chris Rennard looks forward to his 50th LibDem/Liberal conference/assembly in his home city of Liverpool next March.

12.07 The Party Conference broadcast video is being played while the mass ranks move onto the stage to be the backdrop.

12.09 Warm applause for Ming's goal in the video.

12.10 Ming walks into the hall. Elspeth is wearing a plain white suit/coat. Very subdued for her.

12.12 Ming starts with some questions. Climate change response of Labour - green taxes fall. Richest pay lower tax rate than their office cleaners. Criminal investigation into arms sales stopped. Tories trying to exempt MPs from FOI. What kind of country? Government sneaks out "son of Star Wars" announcement on last day of parliament. Illegal disastrous war - stopping protests. What kind of country? Very passionate. It's not a liberal country. That's why LibDems have never been more necessary.

Brilliant start.

12.14 LibDems leading fight against climate change. Examples: Wales, Scotland. Recent green organisations audit where we came top. Policies: green taxes - vision for zero carbon Britain.

12.15 Media critics. Obsessed with Young Turks. (Married one!) I answer to you and not the media. Big applause.

12.16 Thank goodness we can confront difficult issues. Say controversial things. That's real leadership. That's my leadership. We're on the cutting edge of critical issues. "I won't have it any other way".

12.17 Hard choices. Labour. Gordon gets into power and the first thing he does is praises Maggie Thatcher. Maggie, Gordon, Tony, Dave, Ian, Michael....confused? You must be. But I don't want to be like any of them. Big cheer/applause.

12.18 Conservatives. Right turn. No convictions. Cameron buffeted. Grammar schools etc. Wrong turn on human rights.

12.20 He turns if you want him to. The lad is all for turning. Nice one. We're not for turning. Fit for purpose - radical, responsible, Liberal.

12.21 We'll be ready for election. Fight for every vote. To rattle cages.

12.22 Ealing Southall/Sedgefield - hard work -principal challengers to government. Tories pushed into third place. Applause. Mayor of London - three great candidates on shortlist. Sustained applause.

12.23 Boris Johnson. the blondest suicide note in history.

12.24 Age. I will make it an issue. Experience. Judgment. War decisions.

12.25 Tragic folly of Iran war. Ability to trust LibDems if Iran military action proposals from the US come.

12.26 Brown doesn't get off hook - he could have prevented Iraq war, ID cards, lack of green taxes - chancellor for 10 years

12.28 Brown's legacy - we see now. Personal debt. We will ensure he takes responsibility. New Labour remains Blue Labour. Wrong wrong wrong.

12.29 Don't just need change of tone - need change of policy and Brown hasn't delivered. Farmers. Must get farmers back in business asap. Collapse of trust in leading banks. Queues. Underlying of excessive debt/reckless lending has not been addressed - responsibility with Brown.

12.30 Conservatives not fit for purpose. No environment commitments. Agreed with war. Bucketful of policy proposals. Advice from the Vulcan - straight from the bridge of SS Free Enterprise - policies Dave, but not as we know them.

12.32 Tories still don't know what their policies would be. Suffering from identity crisis. Don't know whether to hug or hang hoodies.

12.33 Environment, taxes, Iraq etc - cosy consensus Labour Tory - we alone can break

12.34 That doesn't rule out co-operation. Steel, Ashdown and Kennedy were all proved right when they stood up to Labour/Tories.

12.35 When they try to shout me down - I would not be silenced. The LibDems will never be silenced (rendition, Guantanemo etc). That includes Europe. We must make case. Cameron wants to restrict us to narrow referendum - let's have an honest debate with a real choice. Applause (3 on clapometer). Tricky moment.

12.42 Freedom is indivisible. Racial/sexual/sexual orientation - I stand with those prejudiced against and so too do LibDems - strong applause - tricky moment over.

12.43 You can't be a part time liberal. Faith. Guarantee all religions accept tyranny of none.
Good phrase.

12.44 Listing people he has met. Homeless. Injured soldier. Powerful piece about price of war that should never have been.

12.44 too many forgotten people. Social exclusion. I'm angry. I'm deeply angry. Things have got to change if we want to be one truly united Britain. Big applause. Government must stand for interests of all but vested interests of none.

12.45 Change governance once and for all - throw open the doors of government and let the people in. No more secret arms deals full stop. Fair votes. End of lottery of FPSTP system. Real Freedom of information. Wholly elected house of Lords. Bill of rights. Put the protection of the environment at the heart of constitution - guarantee rights to clean water, air etc

12.46 Our challenge is to extend freedom to everyone. London. Deprivation. Gap between rich and poor is wider than when Labour came to office. Who'd have thought it? Big applause. Social mobility in decline - UK at bottom of UNICEF league table for child well being.

12.48 That's the record of Brown/Labour. Social housing queue. Pensioners struggling. People whose background change their prospects. Education. Proposal for extra money for children who are struggling. Where opportunity is denied, freedom is denied also.

12.50 William Beveridge. Challenges still there. Five giants. We should lead fight for five freedoms.

12.51 Confidence in the law and crime prevention at all time low. Brown increased taxes for less well off. We will close tax loopholes. Cut rate of income tax to lowest for century. Shift tax from income to pollution. Cuts for average families.

12.52 Clean environment. We will fight for the five freedoms. I will lead party into GE with energy, passion...liberalism has never been needed than it is today.

12.55 We alone can break cosy consensus. We only can make people free from fear, climate change. Only we will fight for free, fair and green society. We're not the real alternative - we're the ONLY alternative. Sustained applause.

12.56 Not two against one. But one against two. I joined to change country - that is what we can achieve together.

Lots of applause.

Ming's speech - Live blog

11.52 Tim Clement-Jones is "shaking the tin" bless him.

Ming: 'It's not two on one now, it's one on two'

That was a phrase that Ming repeated several times at the interview last Sunday with the LibDem Blogger of year shortlisters.

It's not two on one, now. It's one on two.

What he means is that instead of the two non-governmental parties opposing the government, we now have just one of the non-governmental parties, the LibDems, opposing both Labour and the Conservatives - what he is calling the "cosy consensus", in his speech this morning.

It is a powerful point. Rather than list off those policies on which Labour and the Tories have agreed on in the last ten years (there are too many), it is easier to list the policies on which they have disagreed.

In the early days, they disagreed on the Minimum Wage. The preponderance of each party's MPs, in a free vote, have disagreed on Hunting with hounds. There have been differences of tone on Europe and immigration - but nothing substantive. On most issues, both parties have fallen in with the other in a game of "Anything you can do, we can do better". A sort of Daily Mail reader bidding war.

So Ming's "It's one on two" and "cosy consensus" phrases are actually a clever distillation of the UK political picture which highlights the injustice of a system which is erring more and more towards what used to be, and perhaps still is, called the "right wing". That's a situation brought sharply into focus with Gordon Brown's cosying up to Margaret Thatcher and subsequent comparisons to George Orwell's Animal Farm:

The creatures outside looked from pig to man, and from man to pig...but already it was too late to say which was which.

As an aside, Ming developed his "one on two" leitmotif in the Sunday interview, saying that "it's one against one - LibDem against Labour in the North and one against one - LibDem against Conservative in the South". He then attempted a further bit of juggling with basic maths but stumbled a bit and got a bit tangled up. He reminded me of a slightly discombobulated Ted Rodgers on the telly programme 3-2-1 (below) when he used to do a little trick with his hand to put up three, then two, then one finger in a very fast sequence. Most of the audience of 3-2-1 were left utterly baffled by the programme, but I have high hopes that this "cosy consensus" and "one against two" theme will be better understood by the public. It might even pass as a rallying call for the LibDems, if we are allowed rallying calls. I suspect we'll have to receive a couple of shots of mogodon to calm us down.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007

What more does Ming have to do? Streak?

We had a Party Conference Broadcast this evening. The title was "Environment Action Now". It had a straight-forward narrative involving the floods in July. Ming appeared against that backdrop. He was in "animated mode". I know, the electrodes had been applied. Ha Ha. But I did find his words and body language reasonably arresting. What more does he have to do? Streak?

It was a nice touch to see Ming playing football with his gandsons at the end. You can watch the broadcast below this post.

Later on the Six O'Clock News, Nick Robinson put viewers' questions to Ming.

Nick started by reading an email question: "Ming Campbell's clearly a smart chap, can he not see that the country will not back a leader they feel sorry for?"

Ming appeared very assured and answered robustly that he had an agenda to take on Climate change, implement a fair tax policy, and improve citizens' rights, which have been whittled away by this government.

Nick said that a party colleague had described him (Ming) as a victim of "barely disguised ageism".

Ming replied that people are concerned about performance, judgement, fairness and experience.

Nick said "You used word "fair" - is it fair to increase the taxes of people earning a combined household income of £67,000?"

Ming answered that the UK average income is £24-25,000 so that people earning £70,000 are on 2.5 times average - "shouldn't they be asked to pay a little more? - If you are going to benefit 90% of the people you can't do it with smoke and mirrors"

Nick ended by asking if Ming faced a big challenge tomorrow.

Ming said that he intended to send LibDems home with a spring in their step and that he offered policies to change the face of Britain.

There's more here.

163 families would not now be grieving if there had been more people like Ming in the Cabinet

I did a quick cut and paste last night about the ICM poll showing Cameron behind Ming and Brown in the popularity stakes. Yes! Ming is more popular than Cameron. So stick that in your pipe, oh detractors, and smoke it!

James quite rightly says that it is the Tories who should now be tearing themselves apart.

Jonathan Freedland in the Guardian concludes that Cameron has not stayed the course of "modernisation" as Blair did for years:

...if Cameron thinks he's done enough modernising so that he can now soothe the Tory heartlands with the old songs on Europe and immigration, he's wrong. To win, he has to be able to hold a line long after the political classes, and especially his own party, have become bored rigid by it.

I have moved on from being bored rigid by the continual "Ming faltering line". The media are just pathetic. First, we got the Guardian blowing a quip totally out of proportion. Then this morning Radio Four majored on "Nick Clegg ready to takeover" or some such of nonsense. It turns out Nick Clegg had a woolly suggestion that he might stand for the leadership if and when there is a vacancy (couched around support for Ming and an attack on his detractors) reluctantly squeezed out of him (I think he had a soft part of his anatomy placed roughly between two bricks) at a fringe meeting which was not even recorded.


So boredom is now being replaced by mild anger, on my part. Anger at the ridiculous, pathetic media pack mentality. I live in hope that Ming will be described as 'Lazarus rising from the dead' after his speech tomorrow. It would be par for the course.

And I have to admit I am still working up to being livid at the smug idiots who make sneering remarks about Ming's age. Humour I can handle. But not the unhumourous, sneering remarks.

Ming is fitter than many men, indeed journalists, half his age. He is mentally agile. He is a life-long liberal. He is wise and authoratitive and he was given the job by an overwhelming majority of the party membership.

To constantly snipe at his age is utterly disgraceful. It is pure, bigotted prejudice. As Ming quite rightly says, if there had been more people his age in Blair's cabinet, we would not have gone to war in Iraq and 163 British families would not now be mourning the loss of a son or daughter. (Imagine 163 crying families sat in front of you.)

Of course, to the smug self-satisfied people who sneer about Ming's age, that is a secondary consideration to making lazy jibes.