Sunday, September 30, 2007


Surely Gordon Can't Resist the Latest Evidence?

After today's poll reported in The Observer, I really can't see Gordon Brown holding back much longer. Its seven point lead is less than other recent polls but conforms with his own private polling; in an election it would deliver a majority of 116. Moreover, not only does the poll reveal 39% favouring a poll this autumn(compared to 31% spring 2008), but on who would make the best prime minister it's: Brown 60%, Dave, 14% and poor old Ming 7%.

And the detail makes even more depressing reading for Cameron as he roams his his Blackpool hotel suite, contemplating his possible end of the week fate: nemesis or renaissance. On which leader is 'most able to deal with the problems of the 21st century' the figures are: 50, 21 and 8; and on 'who understands the problems facing Britain', 49, 16 and 12. And on the issues, Tories have made ground on crime and Iraq but trail Labour on health, education, pensions and the economy. To cap it all a huge 71% say they think Labour would win an election(though nearly half predict a 'small majority').

But the stakes could not be higher: a bigger majority and a mandate until 20012 must seem mouth-watering to Brown, but, following a mere a three month tenure, a hung parliament or a reduced majority would position Brown on a downward trajectory. So how will he jump? The Observer counsels against, while the Sunday Times says 'Go for it, Gordon'. Can we assume Murdoch favours a snap election? Or is the often right leaning paper trying to lure Brown onto the rocks? Whatever, the motives I think Gordon will not be able to resist the evidence which his younger aides and advisers are thrusting in front of him.

I think it's a dangerous road and would urge him to wait, but I supect Gordon will not wish to be accused of cowardice again for avoiding a tough decision, nor, after refusing to scotch the election idea will he want to be accused of indecision. I think he'll go for it. Much still depends on the Tory conference. Brown could wait until Cameron has made his make or break speech on Wednesday or, he could pre-empt it to steal the Etonian's thunder. I suspect the latter.

Saturday, September 29, 2007


Snap Election Depends on Tory Conference Outcome

Martin Kettle delivers a broadside against an early election today. He argues that:

In a mere three months Brown has gone a long way to recreating the New Labour coalition that Blair built and then squandered over Iraq. This week's 11-point YouGov lead was probably momentary. Yet the hegemonic centre ground project is back in business, with the Tories shoved to the right, the Liberal Democrats eclipsed and the left effectively destroyed. Some may call the result a one-party state on Japanese lines. A few may even whisper about fascism. Yet what was unmissable at Bournemouth was that, absent an electoral reform that it would not be in Labour's interests to promote, the party's prospects of a 20-year stretch in government look brighter than ever

However, noting that Brown lacks any genuinely independent political adviser, Kettle urges caution and goes on to condemn the notion of a snap election as perhaps a bit too obviously 'expedient, vain and immoral'; Brown runs the risk of appearing to 'cut and run'. A welcome new political blogger, Wyn Grant, from Warwick University weighs in with his analysis:

My sense is that the British public do not like unnecessary elections. Calling one now could seem opportunistic. These arguments would be somewhat weaker next May. Many people in the Labour Party think that Gordon Brown should cash in on his poll lead while he can. But in some ways I think that the poll lead is a mirage. There is a 'Brown bounce', but the polls are also recording a 'bandwagon' effect. Brown's lead could easily evaporate in a campaign or he could end up with a smaller majority or no majority at all.

But the siren songs of the polls are hard to resist. The Telegraph flags up another huge Labour lead and Peter Riddell in today's Times hardly offers dissuasion in analysing its Populus poll:

Moreover, the poll suggests that Mr Brown has a clear edge over Mr Cameron on key leadership attributes: by 59 to 30 per cent on having what it takes to be a good prime minister, and by 60 to 45 per cent on caring about the problems ordinary people face.

Finally, that excellent site Political Betting suggests that the polls are now too good to pass up and that Gordon will suffer a backlash if he fails to show courage which has failed him in the past when crucial decisions have come up. Whether or not he takes the gamble depends, I suspect, on how the Conservative conference goes. Any overt wobbling, division or gaffes might just tip the balance for Gordon to tilt for that already mentioned ambition of another 20 years in power. Cameron had better hold his nerve in his biggest test to date.

Thursday, September 27, 2007


Whatever happened to that Stalinist Gordon Brown?

I'm wondering, as I'm sure others are too, why the negative images of Brown which abounded in his run-up to entering No.10, have so completely disappeared. Lord Turnbull famously compared him to Stalin, novelist, Robert Harris dubbed him 'Labour's Richard Nixon' and Tom Bower's engrossing biography(Gordon Brown:Prime Minister, 2007) painted a picture of a control freak, power mad, paranoid, bent on feuds and revenge(yes, that's right, a bit like Stalin).

Bower's book shows, fairly conclusively I thought, that Brown had no scruples about, for example:

i) refusing to release Treasury information to Number 10 as a demonstration of his power.
ii)destabilizing meetings with Blair and Cabinets by ostentatiously reading his own documents and ignoring the topic under discussion.
iii)issuing hostile briefings about Blair and anyone seen as a rival for the top job.
iv) holding Blair to ransom over issues like top-up fees.
v) attempting a 'coup' in autumn 2006.
vi) throwing screaming rages with Blair and other ministers if he could not get his own way or felt he had been slighted.

But now he is in Number 10 himself, we see this strong, masterful, low key but serious and committed version of the man, and all achieved without obvious lashings of spin, as was the case with dear old(now forgotten) Tony. Why should this be? I don't know but maybe it's to do with:

1. achieving his goal at long last and achieving some mind of inner peace?
2. the calming effect of a stable married life with children and a loving wife?
3. spin so effective and subtle that we don't even notice it?

Whatever the reasons, we have to be grateful for it. Maybe the faults will emerge with time but at least he is unlikely to go quite so far down the road Nixon or even Stalin pursued once well into his seat of power. Maybe all politicians are embryonic Stalins and, through wishful thinking and naivety we just don't see it? But having met a fair number of them, I can't believe that. It's a mystery I'm sure we'll all seek to unravel as Gordon's progress continues.

Wednesday, September 26, 2007


Brown Struggling to Make the Right Call

Returning to Blighty after some days away in Germany, I find something like a febrile pre-election atmosphere. After Channel Four's 11 point Labour lead yesterday and the Mail's 11 point lead today, many Labour activists are saying, 'Go Gordon Go!'. In yesterday's FT,Philip Stephens agreed the arguments for going now were 'quite strong'. And this is quite a turn up:

A dour Scot replacing the most accomplished of political communicators would struggle mightily, the polls predicted, against Mr Cameron’s rebranded Tories. Now the same polls predict he would be returned to Downing Street with a majority significantly higher than the 60-plus inherited from Mr Blair. Mr Brown has reclaimed for the government that most precious of commodities, the benefit of the doubt.

After considering the options however the advice is that, having worked wonders with his political positioning, Gordon should wait for spring next year. But this is not the advice given by the Business editor of The Times, James Harding, who warns
that it might be 'riskier' to not call that snap election. His case is that economic growth is slowing to 2% in 2008, mortgage payers will face higher charges; and the declining housing market will strangle the 'feel-good' factor. Given the chance of public sector strikes and still higher oil prices. He concludes:

But, the longer Mr Brown waits, the more likely he is to put that reputation for sound economic stewardship at risk. The cautious man would roll the dice now.

So what should he do? According to Ed Balls, his closest adviser he is agonising over his dilemma. The call is so close he seems not to be able to decide. My gut feeling is that Gordon's caution will win in the end. He must be scared, above all else, that he might go down in history not as the great PM he'd like to be, but the shortest ever since Bonar-Law's October till May sojourn back in 1924-5.

The pendulum which swung so benignly in his favour after June and then back to Cameron in August, before hurtling back to him in September, is perhaps a bit too volatile right now to risk his all on that throw of that dice. The other danger, of course, is that, like Jim Callaghan, he might pass up a golden moment to go to the country, as in autumn 1978 to suffer defeat in the following February and 18 years in the wilderness.

Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Thursday, September 20, 2007


Skipper in Bavaria for a Few Days

I won't be staying in 'Mad Ludwig II's' picturesque castle at Fussen(that's him on the left) but I will, I hope, after cabbing it to the airport at this obscenely early hour, shortly be chez my sister Elizabeth (for my annual visit along with my brother) in a lovely little farming village called Ruderatshofen.

Either way, posting is likely to be light to minimal until I return but I may do one or two from within the heart of southern Germany, quite possibly on that subject so dear to my heart: litter. My sister told me on the phone last night that the weather was dry with lots of 'summery' autumn sun expected- won't say no to that after my last week in Stockport.

Wednesday, September 19, 2007


Cameron Disappearing Down the Toilet

Oh Dear! And I thought the Tories had caught up with Gordon's early runaway 'bounce' poll lead. But the ICM poll in today's Guardian throws them back into political no-man's land.

1. Labour, on 40 now lead the Tories(32) by 8 points again with Lib Dems on a much improved 20. In a general election this would deliver 380 seats to Labour.

2. Even worse news for the Tories is that while Brown's approval rating(those who think he's doing a good job minus those who don't) is +35, Cameron's is -8. Even Ming musters -5. These figures are comparable to those suffered by William Hague and IDS at their lowest points.

3. Still worse, if that's possible, are the figures on policy issues. Here they have lost the lead on six issues, with Labour storming back with leads of: 13% on health; 12% on education; 3% law and order and 25% on the economy. Even on asylum and immigration they have a sliver of a lead with 1%. All this suggests a major shift back to Labour as the trusted party of government.

There's even some talk, it seems, of the autumn election idea being dusted down again but with finance and foot and mouth imponderables this is still highly unlikely in my view. But for the Conservative Party, I suspect, that if things do not improve quite quickly,(and let's not pretend that they cannot, given the febrile atmosphere of the last week) Dave could face an enraged 'Tebbitt' faction at his party conference and stormy weather until spring when nemesis might well beckon.

Tuesday, September 18, 2007


Are We Living on Fantasy Island?

Economics is always a slightly dodgy area for me but it seems most of those who know, judge the government to have been too slow off the mark in underwriting Northern Rock's viability; wider questions about Labour's economic competence are now being asked. Director of the Centre for Policy Studies and respected economist,Ruth Lea wrote in the Daily Telegraph yesterday discussing some of the less flattering aspects of Brown's stewardship of the economy since 1997:

1. Public spending too cavalier: Lea accuses brown of squandering the solid position left him by Lamont and Clarke by splurging on unreformed public services without increasing efficiency or output. Tax increases, moreover, have not been sufficient to fund planed expenditure, leading to dangerously high government borrowing(over £30bn last year).

2. UK competitiveness has not advanced during these years; rather the government has relied on immigrant additions to bolster the workforce.

This list can be augmented the likes of Larry Elliott of The Guardian(see his book Fantasy Island):

3. The economy has been built on i)cheap imports from China which have kept inflation low; ii) cheap money which has fuelled a credit boom leading to £1.3 bn indebtedness by consumers; iii) a housing boom which has further assisted the accumulation of debt.

4. Meanwhile the essential action in training and improving competitiveness has been neglected. The balance of payments have gaped monthly and manufacturing declined even further as a proportion of national income.

So where are we now then? Quite possibly we're in a very vulnerable place when sharp increases in interest rates might cause consumers to default, banks to implode and the whole edifice to collapse. Scaremongering? I hope that's all I'm doing, but sometimes the ancient advice from my dear departed Mum about paying your bills, earning your keep and 'never a lender or a borrower be', seem to make sense after all. Living atop a mountain of debt is a bit like living on the edge of a volcano. It is by no means scaremongering to predict that our next ten years economically are going to be a lot more lean and fraught than the last.

Monday, September 17, 2007


Never Mind About all those other things, Clear up the Litter First!

Readers of this blog might be aware of my Meldrewish interest in litter. The pictures above are my own and are taken from the roads close to where I live in Stockport. That litter bin is the only one available on a long stretch of road and the condition in which you see it is its virtual default one. So I was delighted to read an article today on litter situation nationwide.

Litter penalties, we note, have increased by a factor of nearly five since 2003-4, up from 7, 565 to 33,033.

Councillor Paul Bettison, chairman of the Local Government Association’s environment board, said: “People in England drop millions of tonnes of litter every year. It costs the council taxpayer more than £600 million a year to clear up this rubbish...Litter dropping is by far the biggest environmental crime councils have to deal with... Councils are using our new powers to get tough on the minority of people who spoil the local area for the rest of the community. Fines and on-the-spot penalties help make sure council tax is kept down and the environment protected.”

We hear councils are likely to increase fines for litter in the near future but I would like to see more emphasis on educating youngsters not to do it in the first place. Much of our local litter is from kids strolling to school munching on chocolate bars and swigging their(no doubt)additive filled drinks from plastic bottles. The result is a town which is far and away the dirtiest I have ever walked around in this country, or indeed anywhere else in the world. It really is shaming to walk around it with visitors.

The council in Stockport have appointed eight young officers to attack the problem in eight areas of the borough but in our district so far, not much difference can be seen, despite penalties having been handed out. I note that a recent ICM residents' poll in Southwark, said that 'cleaning up the streets should be the council's number one priority'. I wouldn't be surprised if Stockport residents, despite its apparently constant 'excellent' ratings from the Audit Commission, felt exactly the same way; I do so hope the issue is beginning to climb the political agenda.

Sunday, September 16, 2007


Manchester Alcohol Related Crime Figures Show 24 hour Drinking has not Worked

I was not the only person to worry about the 24 hour opening allowed pubs at the end of 2005. I even broached the subject with my local MP, Anne Coffey, but she 'reassured' me all was well because the police had been granted more extensive powers to deal with any possible fallout. Apart from the fact that this approach waits for the crime to be committed, rather than preventing it, I just wondered at the sanity of making booze more freely available in a country suffering an epidemic of binge drinking.

Initial research results suggested nothing had happened to crime figures but, now that sufficient time has passed, we learn that in Manchester alcohol related crime has 'rocketed' since the law was changed. In the 12 months up to December 2005, a month after the 24 hour Licensing Act changes, there were 1,292 offences but in the following 12 months the figure was, 1,741, an almost 50% increase.

80% of hospital visits at the weekend, are 'directly related to alcohol', attests Mr Stuart, a consultant at MRI, adding that cases which used to tail off at 2 or 3 am now continue 'through the night'. In his efforts to appeal to more right-wing voters Gordon Brown has promised a review of the license extensions. It is to be hoped this review is no mere cosmetic exercise and that residential areas, worried by gangs of youngsters, often well below 18, binging in on streets corners and in green open spaces, are fully consulted.

Saturday, September 15, 2007


'Party of Progress' Unity Still a Viable Option

Martin Kettle has provided me with an excuse to use this wonderful picture of CP Scott and his Manchester Guardian colleagues in 1921 with CE Montagu second left back row and LT Hobhouse front row on the right of Scott. Scott saw Labour and Liberals as 'Two divisions of the party of progress', and, together with his two leader writers, thought that their hostility enabled the 'Conservative dog to run away with the bone'. And that, as we now know, was the story of the remaining 79 years of the century.

Kettle suggests the idea is still as relevant now as it was then. Certainly Blair thought so in 1997, the plan being foiled largely by the unexpectedly huge extent of his electoral success. Now, as the margins have shrunk and Labour's mandate given diminished legitimacy by its 35% of the vote back in 2005, the possibility of the 'party of progress' re-emerging either in alliance or via merger is now one of the options: Gordon must surely be mulling them over.

Despite the hostility which many in Labour feel for the Lib Dems, born of street campaign fighting, I can see more pluses than cons to the idea:

1. Essentially, the Liberals have won the central 'progressive' argument over the economy as the last century advanced: once Labour abandoned the abolition of capitalism, the 'revisionism' of Wilson/Callaghan/Healey/Kinnock removed any major difference between the parties.

2. An arrangement with the Lib Dems would drive a stake through the heart of the Conservatives for several decades.

3. The cost of the alliance-reform of the voting system- is the only logical way to go anyway, given that virtually every other voting system in the UK is now proportional: Euro-elections, London mayoral and local government in Scotland and Ulster.

Gordon's promise to 'review' voting systems shortly after his accession to power, suggests he has all these options handily placed on fairly close to the front burners. Expect them to be nudged yet closer if Conservative prospects begin to rally dangerously as the next general election approaches.

Friday, September 14, 2007


So What Kind of a 'Conviction Politician' is Gordon?

I'm sure Brown's staged meeting with Maggie( and God, don't they both look miserable old gits?) was a none too subtle ploy by both parties to de-stablise the Tories and bite a rancorous chunk off Cameron respectively, but the bit which concerns me is his contention that he admires her as a fellow 'conviction politician'. I'm sure no-one would challenge Maggie's claim to such a description- we heard enough of her ranting, strident assertions during the eighties for that. No, the bit I find hard to accept is the inclusion of Gordon in the same category. I've been reading Tom Bower's biography of Brown over the last 10 days or so (I'm a slow reader) and from it, it clearly emerges that:

*Brown was an unreconstructed Old Labourite along with John Smith throughout the eighties and the early nineties: public service funding would be vastly increased, privatisations would be renationalised etc, etc.
* After the traumatic loss in 1992 Brown began, influenced by the American economic model, to re-examine his economic ideas and came to accept, no embrace, the tenets of a genuine market based free enterprise economy.
* Along with Tony Blair, he led the 'modernizer' faction in the Labour Party to create 'New Labour': a centrist political enterprise which entailed convincing voters that 'New Labour' had exorcised every hint of socialism from its beliefs. Brown and Blair began their 'charm offensive' in the City.
*Once in power, Brown embraced many of the Thatcherite instruments including the Private Finance Initiative which has provided such huge benefits to big corporations.

And then we hear, yesterday, that Labour have engaged as advertising agents, none other than the hated Saatchi and Saatchi agency. 'You couldn't make it up' one is tempted to say.

So what kind of 'Conviction politician' are we talking about? Is Gordon still claiming to be a socialist? Probably not, but it would be nice to be told. So is he a New Labour sort of 'conviction' guy? But that would make him identical to the dreaded Blair person, so that can't be so either. So is he a Thatcherite? Clearly not in the sense of cavalier public spending and concern to redistribute wealth. So his convictions cannot be clearly identified, which I rather thought was the basic thing about being such a type of politico. I suspect that the major way in which he resembles Maggie, is an unstoppable thrust to achieve power and hang onto it for as long as possible. But you don't need 'conviction for that, only ambition and ruthlessness.

Thursday, September 13, 2007


Why we Love to Depress Ricky Ponting

Whilst never being all that good at it- apart from being a dab hand at table tennis- I have always loved sport. And last night provided a cornucopia of delight for those of us so often starved of sustenance in the British Isles. I joined the scores of drinkers in my local noisily cheering on the soccer team's 3-0 destruction of the Ruskies, adding a cheer for Scotland's win when it was signalled on the giant screen, not forgetting the famous Welsh victory over Slovakia 5-2.

But the sweetest moment of the evening had occurred earlier when astonishingly, the down and out Zimbabwe cricketers beat the mighty Australians in their 20/20 world cup encounter in Capetown. Seeing Ponting's face as furious as it seems to be in my picture, for some reason induces a feeling of great calm and happiness, like a mega-hit of serotonin in the centre of the brain. Why should this be? It all goes back decades to one's earliest sporting memories when Compton, May and Dexter were the heroes and the titanic struggles were always with the former colonials who swaggered across the oceans to remind us that in this area- not to mention many others- they had a natural superiority. And history proves them right of course.

I recall an Ashes match at Old Trafford in the nineties when we had them four wickets down while one up in the series. Then Steve Waugh strolled to the crease and proceeded calmly to establish that infuriating Antipodean supremacy. We lost that match and later the series. Awful. That is why the battered, cynical, much abused, little group of us in the cricketing tribe erupted with a joy that still brims within when we so, so narrowly shaded the Ashes in 2005. Ditto our misery when we were so dismissively crushed last winter in the return leg and then bombed at the one day world cup in the Caribbean.

Supporting the underdog is a British trait and no dog was further down than 100-1 Zimbabwe against the green capped Galacticos. The Aussies managed only 138 in their 20 overs, restricted by good bowling and tremendous fielding. Then the tiniest power in world cricket took to the field and, though they lost early wickets, the low total was always within sight. The 21 year old keeper, Taylor, playing the match of his life, with his Dad in the crowd, chipped away with singles and the occasional biffed boundary and unbelievably, with a crashing four, the deficit was wiped out and David had triumphed over the unchallenged Goliath force in world cricket.

I now have two fears: first that the awful Mugabwe will claim some indentity with the victory to help validate his vile regime; and that this scarlet dressed pyjama crew will do the same to us when they play us in the same group. And when we play the Australians? Don't ask.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007


Memo from Wanless: Answer to NHS Costs Lies in Healthier Lifestyles

According to Tom Bower's biography of Gordon Brown, Derek Wanless was less than happy when his 2002 report on the NHS was used selectively by the then Chancellor to justify doing nothing to change to the management and financing of the NHS(p379). The fact that he did not commission, as Wanless advised, another report five years hence, suggests Bower was right. So the Kings Fund kindly stepped in to oblige and the result we see all over the papers this morning; predictably, some are scathingly critical, while others more measured.

In today's Society Guardian John Carvel interviews the ex banker and we get closer to what his report is saying. He fears that, whilst the tax based system has done quite well since the injection of £43bn since 2002, the prognosis for the future is not so good. Certainly he thinks money has been spent in a cavalier fashion in terms of pay awards which carried no productivity pay-off, and constant reorganisation has not helped at all, but he praises the reduction of waiting lists and the employment of more doctors and nurses. The key thing seems to be the changing lifestyle of our nation. Frankly, as we are getting older and older we are becoming less healthy through our shocking eating and low exercise habits.

On a 'slow uptake' trajectory in 2002 Wanless projected the NHS would cost taxpayers from £68bn in 2002 to £154bn by 2022-3: a huge increase in percentage of GDP. The slightly odd thing to me is that he still supports the tax based model. It has seemed to me for some time that the French, German and even, in some ways, the Irish systems offer better service and value for money through complementing tax funding with a degree of health insurance.

This does not mean they are like the US system which is so obscenely costly that some 50 million of its citizens are not covered by any health insurance, but it does provide the extra layer of funding which makes the French and German systems at least, superior to the NHS. And if health costs require individuals to change their lifestyles, then some financial incentives in the form of lower health costs would, surely, be no bad thing?

Tuesday, September 11, 2007


Wealthy Families Spawned Industrial Revolution Argues Historian

Fascinating article in Daily Telegraph last week about the origins of the industrial revolution. This explains the work of Scottish Professor Gregory Clark, now at California University. He observes that despite pre-industrial advances in agriculture, boosting crop yields, population could not rise above a certain level because of limited resources kept survival rates of children at a low level: the so-called 'Malthusian Trap'. He argues that high survival rates were only sustained in richer families, concluding that:

wealth, not social status or literacy, was the best predictor of the number of surviving children. Overall, the rich were leaving twice as many children as the poor. Survival of the fittest here meant survival of the richest. He argued that this meant downward social mobility, as the poor failed to reproduce themselves and the rich produced surplus children who were then forced to take over the occupations of the poor.

Thus the children of wealthier families were forced, through the low survival rates of less wealthy families, to 'slide down the social hierarchy to find work, bringing with them bourgeois values' This means that 'today's population is descended from the economic upper classes of the Middle Ages'. Values like hard work, patience and peacefulness permeated society, encouraging the acquisition of skills and literacy. He goes on to add a genetic layer to his thesis suggesting that through the 'middle class' gene pool being handed down:

'people were better mentally equipped to learn about and accept mechanisation. This resulted in a more organised society and more efficient methods of production. So, in the centuries leading up to the Industrial Revolution, man was genetically adapting to the modern world.

Why didn't the revolution start in the much larger populations of Japan or China? Because, says Clark, their elites had only small numbers of children, meaning they failed to generate 'the downward social mobility which lit the blue touch paper to the Industrial Revolution'. Moreover, early English society was unusually stable during these years: 'In most English villages, nothing happened from 1200 to 1800' thus encouraging the 'survival of the richest not the fiercest.' I'm not so sure I buy that 'nothing happened' bit. What about the Black Death, Wars of the Roses and the Civil War? Scarcely 'nothing' I'd suggest, but the argument that its the values and genes of the wealthy stratum of Middle Ages England which has transformed the world, is intriguing, controversial and worthy of consideration.

Monday, September 10, 2007


Unions Need Someone to Lead them from the Wilderness

In the seventies, I recall, many political scientists wrote on trade unions as they wielded the power of the moment; in the eighties, they wrote shelf-fulls of books on Thatcherism and in the nineties it was the EU. These days the unions don't merit much attention, the received wisdom being that they are still at the cleaners where Maggie took them via the Miner's Strike. However, the actions of Bob Crow, of the RMT, has caused unhappy memories of union power to resurface(see picture). Will Hutton perceives Crow as a throwback to the days when left-wing unionists sought to overthrow the whole capitalist system.

Hutton sees a crisis in unionism as the TUC conference convenes. Since 1980 it has lost over 6 million members from 13 down to 6.5. However, the worrying aspect of membership is that while public sector membership has held up, private sector members have not, meaning that the national union movement is now severely lopsided and lacking in credibility. Hutton wonders if they have any clear sense of mission at the current time and warns against Crow's atavistic militancy:

Above all, they have to break away from the idea, beloved by Crow and his fellow awkward squad members, that they remain central players in a live socialist project to transform the ownership and control of capitalism.

Hutton urges unions to pursue the cooperative route with capitalism which has been so successful in Scandinavia and Germany. A weakened movement might find this hard as employers have become used to ignoring unions and marginalising them. It really needs a major figure to emerge to offer genuine leadership towards a new constructive role in our society. The alternative would appear to be further decline and retreat from relevance. Scargill believed he was such a figure- he put up a fight but was wrong. Is Bob Crow a more likely candidate? I really don't think so.

Saturday, September 08, 2007


Are We Too Tough On Our Politicians?

We live in an age of disrespect for politicians. I recall when Richard Dimbleby used to address the prime minister, humbly, as 'Sir'; the decline of deference has changed all that. Taking our cue from interviewers who arrogate to themselves, on our behalf, the right to brow-beat and occasionally abuse, we choose to see them as 'knaves and fools', as Peter Hyman suggests:

Lying, arrogant, aloof, egotistical, obsessive, out of touch, philandering, false, hypocritical, untrustworthy, shameless, freebie-grabbing scoundrels. Those are some of the more polite terms thrown at politicians. And it's taken for granted that "they're only in it for themselves" and "they're all the same". Resignation piled on cynicism too often now passes for political commentary.

He argues that this is at variance with his experience as a Number 10 aide:

The vast majority of politicians I have worked with believe in public service. They are driven by ideals and a desire to serve, rather than by power or any of the very few perks of office.

I tend to agree with this; having interviewed some 40-50 senior politicians in pursuit of my research, I have not found one I would class as a 'wrong un'. In fact British politics is remarkable for the absence of corruption or criminal tendencies; something we should recognise and applaud, rather than erupting with anger and sanctimony whenever some minor infraction is discovered. But should we then, seek to reclaim the deference of the fifties?

Of course not. Estelle Morris tells a tale of a recently elevated Cabinet colleague of whom she enquired: 'What are they really like then?' The reply was: 'The good news is, they're just like us; the bad news is, 'they're just like us': a wonderfully ambiguous but accurate analysis. Just like normal people, politicians are kept on the road of rectitude by rules which we accept as legitimate. Hyman assures us:

Ultimately we are served not by clowns or villains but passionate, hardworking, intelligent, often eccentric, sometimes mistaken individuals. What more do you need for entertaining drama?

History shows that if we allow human beings too much power, they will almost always come to exploit it. So we must remain very much on our guard. But just as we would not think of treating a doctor or a teacher with sneering, abusive scepticism, then so we should treat our politicians with respect and appreciate that they are doing a job at which very few of us would excel or even enjoy.

Friday, September 07, 2007


Yes, it Must be Time for Ming to Go

I'm not sure what old Ming Campbell is doing with all those 'post-it' notes stuck all over him, but if any were written by Danny Finkelstein, I know what's written on them. The Times journalist's column on Thursday pulled no punches whatsoever and it's very hard to say he isn't wrong as the nub of his piece makes explains:

The driving force in British politics is the uselessness of Ming. What makes the gap between the big two parties go up and down is simply the identity of the party to which the Lib Dems and their hopeless leader are losing votes on any given day. Throughout the last Parliament the Lib Dems averaged more than 22 per cent and scored 22.7 per cent on election day. When David Cameron became Tory leader the Liberals fell to 18.3 per cent. And since Gordon Brown became Labour leader they have averaged 16 per cent. In other words, Ming Campbell now presides over a party that has lost 30 per cent of its support.

Why doesn't Ming cut the mustard? He looks and sounds clapped out and voters register it. I remember when Michael Foot was elected leader of Labour I indulged in wishful thinking along the lines of: 'well, maybe people will see this scholarly decent man, compare her with that mad harridan and know deep in their hearts how to vote.' Instead, they saw a feeble old geriatric; nice, maybe, bookish, maybe, but prime minister? You're 'avin a laugh. I begin to agree that the same might be true of poor old Sir Menzies.

Yesterday Mark Oaten replied by suggesting the Lib Dems would need Ming's calm cerebral mind in the wake of a hung parliament. But if their ratings sink much further under Ming, they will not even be able to take their place at that negotiating table. To win attention, it's possible a third party needs a young, dynamic and charismatic leader- someone like Nick Clegg maybe. I remember extolling the virtues of Ming during his campaign to become leader, while wiser heads, like Paul Linford, were rooting for Chris Huhne. How wrong I was. It will be messy to depose Ming, but maybe, as Finkelstein insists, there is no alternative.

Monday, September 03, 2007


Skipper in Lakes For Few Days

Taking advantage of what seems to be politically, a fallow period, and what seems to be sunny weather (now I know that can change quickly), I'm off to Keswick to do some walking in the proximity of Skiddaw- see picture.

Then, all being well, it's down to Stonyhurst College to do a talk to sixth formers on US-UK comparisons. And back for Friday to gear up for the start of term and, I hope, more blogging on British politics.

Sunday, September 02, 2007


More on Fat Cats

Readers of this blog will probably have deduced that I'm a cat lover, hence that 'fat cat' story a few days ago. My own moggie, Tessie, used to be an obese 7 kilos but is now down to a flabby skinned, but much healthier, 5. The excuse for headlining cats again is the article by Simon Jenkins in The Sunday Times.

Those familiar with Sir Simon's journalism will know that this former editor of The Times, is no lefty. But even he has cried 'enough' at currently the outrageous salaries of top executives. Compared to the 2.5% offer to prison officers:

'The heads of Britain’s 100 biggest companies have had 37%, won 28% more last year, 16% the year before and 13% and 23% in the two preceding years, yielding an average pay of £2.8m a head or 20 times the rise in price inflation. Under Labour, these company directors have stretched their remuneration to almost 100 times average earnings, a gap unprecedented since the rise of modern taxation.'

After noting and dismissing various specious defences of such stupendous payments, he quotes JK Galbraith who said they:

'[were] nothing to do with the marketplace but were a heart-warming gift from executives and their friends to each other, a gift that had grown so large as to 'verge on larceny'.'

Jenkins blames greed, of course but also the weakening of trade unions' s market place power, courtesy of Thatcher and the collaboration of Blair. He notes the growing indignation that the richest people in society should be subsidised by taxpayers by virtue of tax havens or non domiciled status and concludes:

'any lobbyist can cobble together special pleading for such antics, but they will not wash for millions of hardworking, tax-paying Britons. Low taxes for all are good, but tax breaks for a privileged few are wrong. The rising tide of wealth should float every boat, not just executive yachts.'

Jenkins does not, however, spell out how such overpayment can be curbed. He (rightly) dismisses statutory curbs, but apart from urging that those threatening to leave the UK for imagined higher salaries elsewhere in the world, should have their bluff called, he offers no practical answer. Having mandatory worker representatives on those incestuous remuneration committees would make a good start is my suggestion.

Saturday, September 01, 2007


Thank God Diana Has Been Laid to Rest

I promise this is the first and the last time my blog will feature Princess Diana; my post is more of a relieved valedictory comment. I heard about her death-yes, like most, I can remember precisely- when I woke up in the small hours on the night concerned and heard Henry Kissinger's rumbling basso profundo on the radio, talking fondly of someone in the past tense. I was shocked, of course, but not as much as by the unbelievable public reaction waiting to burst forth. Since then I have become heartily sick of Diana features, pictures, the perennial Express headlines.

I heard a little of the service, thought the music wonderful and Harry's speech surprisingly confident, unroyal and touching; I have rather thought the older brother to be the more resourceful and interesting, but I see I was wrong. Polly Toynbee writes perceptively today of the event. To those who still believe the conspiracy theory- much loved by Dodi's father and believed, it seems, still by a quarter of us- that it was the 'Royal Family wot done it', she points out that they would have been so much more able to control her alive rather than dead:

How much more easily the monarchy could have handled her were she now a jaded New York Jackie O, fading slightly at the edges, losing her cachet with a string of ever less appropriate suitors, shopping and bitching in toe-curling interviews, forever betrayed by "friends" and therapists. True or not, how easily Buckingham Palace could have made her seem that way, demolishing her with acid briefings, leaking her expense accounts with rumours of unruliness and belittling of the good she did.

Those who called for large screens outside the church for the public to watch, were confounded: only a few hardcore Dianistas turned up to pay obeisance and the Bishop of London urged, (surprisingly, without any pleading note) 'Let it end here'. Ten years is long enough to mourn anyone, let alone this damaged, manipulative uniquely luminous young woman.

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