Wednesday, April 29, 2009


Gordon Should Accept TV Debate Challenge- But he Won't

So Cameron has dared Brown to hold television debates between party leaders in next year's election. This is usually the ploy of the weaker party in such an upcoming event, the reasoning being that the stronger one has no reason to allow an opponent airtime and the assumption of equality that accompanies such a debate. On this occasion it is the stronger candidate who confidently issues the challenge: 'any time, any place, anywhere.'

The tradtional reply from the incumbent in power is that the British system allows many opportunities for party leaders to debate: for example in the Commons and PMQs. This, of course is specious. Only a handful of voters ever see debates in which Prime Minister and Leader of the Opposition clash swords. And PMQs, whilst a confrontation absent from the USA, is a somewhat ritualised confrontation in the UK organised for the benefit of respective party morale and, whilst a fair number might see clips on news bulletins, only small numbers tune in to see the whole weekly event.

A second favourite excuse is that the USA has a presidential system of government where such a head to head is more appropriate but this is not wholly accurate either. Over the years the inception of the 24-7 media and dynamic prime ministers like Thatcher and Blair have seen the British system evolve into something not so very different to a 'presidential' one. A head to head debate would not be inappropriate on these grounds.

So should Gordon accept the challenge? My view has always been that a televised debate between the leaders of the two big parties, would be a real asset to democratic life in Britain. In the US it provides a much viewed opportunity to judge how the two main candidates cope with the pressure and marshall their arguments in response to questions. Televised debates would provide a genuine, democratically reviving draw during our generally dismal, lack lustre election campaigns.

But will Gordon pick up Cameron's gauntlet? No, he won't because: he knows his party is hugely unpopular; he knows it would give Cameron an enhanced chance to reach a wider audience; and he knows, from frequent flayings at PMQs and most recently the Budget debate, that Cameron more than has his measure and would most probably wipe the floor with him. But as the underdog, Brown might be advised to take him on: who knows? his much vaunted intellectual power might finally be displayed and his PMQ nemesis bested? Stranger things have happened and it could be one of the few chances left for Gordon to make any impact at all in a one sided contest.

Thursday, April 23, 2009


Was this Budget Labour's 'Black Wednesday?

I couldn't help feeling that yesterday's budget marked a moment when Brown's Labour government finally failed to avoid culpability in the public mind for the economic crisis. This was not because of the tax hike on high earners- that was one of the few good bits for most voters, nor for the various giveaways.

No, firstly, it was for the extra tax on common consumer goods- alcohol, cigarettes petrol and the like. Secondly it was for the tough cut backs in spending which will begin to bite in a year or so. Thirdly it was for the 3.5% reduction in GDP this year and the over optimistic predictions of recovery; does he really think growth will resume by the end of the year? Fourthly it was for the huge scale of government debt which will not be paid off until 2016 or maybe even later. This was not a budget which warmed the heart or won voters over. But it was the best Darling could do in the circumstances and I thought he managed to negotiate these fearful rapids bravely and with great calmness.

A final reason why the recession might well adhere to Brown was the tremendous shellacking he got from Cameron. His attack on the government was a furious, polemical parliamentary triumph. I received the awful impression that a moment has been reached comparable to 16th September 1992: Black Wednesday. This was a day which ruined the Tory reputation for economic competence and handed it over to Labour. Conservative polls flatlined for the next 14 years, until Cameron was elected. I just hope I'm wrong on this but there was a feeling of the ground shifting in the reaction to the budget.

Ironically Labour had been in favour of joining the ERM and were also culpable, if anyone was, for the debacle on that day. There is a similar irony now in that almost certainly the Conservatives would have pursued a similar path to Brown had they been in power and that whe they win the election next year, as they surely will, they will be the party who will inherit the odium and voter anger as they struggle with debt and where to make those hateed public expenditure cuts.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009


The Advantages of Darling and the Madness of Continuing with Trident

I originally had Darling down as a very sharp cookie, very well presented and intellectually disciplined. Then as he occupied a succession of jobs at Social Security, Work and Pensions, Transport, without visibly disturbing the surface of politics, I began to think he was a mere cypher, an empty vessel. This impression was confiormed when he was made Chancellor- Gordon was always going to have a 'yes' man in charge of his Treasury fiefdom. But Darling has been quite impressive during the crisis I reckon.

Firstly for keeping incredibly cool. To stay still and calm at the centre of the seething cauldron of the banking catastrophe and credit crunch has taken extraordinary sang froid. Secondly, he has stood up to Brown's attempt to borrow yet more money to add to the mountain already borrowed and throw into what may yet prove to be a black hole.

Faced with the budget today I just hope he has the metal to deny Trident its £60 billion replacement. A permanent nuclear sub on patrol has always been a bit of 'great power' hubristic nonsense and, indeed, one wonders whom it is intended to act as a deterrent? Against a great power we would never use it and to deal with smaller powers we surely do not need such an expensive virility symbol as a delivery system, especially when we're virtually broke?

Sunday, April 19, 2009


We Live in the Age of 'Manipulative Populism'

Despite writing for the Daily Mail, Peter Oborne is one of the subtlest and insightful commentators in Fleet St. His excellent Observer piece today dissects what has happened to our highest office. It has to be said that it's is not reassuring from the democratic viewpoint. He recalls that Stanley Baldwin and Clem Attlee were prime ministers who worked through their ministers- who are the people who actually wield the legal power of government- and parliament. It followed that the Chief Whip was the person on whom the PM relied most heavily for support in his political battles.

But no more: the arrival of the 'celebrity prime minister' by which Oborne seems to mean Tony Blair (he doesn't mention Thatcher), has seen the emphasis shift to the chief spin doctor; he expresses this by reference to the eclipse of the fictional Francis Urquart- the epicene villain of Dobbs' House of Cards by the fictional Malcolm Tucker, the foul-mouthed hero-villain of Ianucci's The Thick of It and In the Loop(see picture).

All the same blacks arts are at work; however, the battlefield has changed. Urquhart applied himself to parliament, Tucker bypassed the traditional institutions of the state and was only concerned with the media and its other methods of control: access, favouritism, information and the creation of an elite corps of client journalists.

Oborne recalls Brown's promise to:

He pledged to bring back cabinet government, respect civil service impartiality, restore the primacy of parliament and to abandon the dark political arts at which the team of political assassins around Blair had so excelled.

However, Brown has done none of these things as the past week or so has plainly shown. Oborne's comments on Cameron suggest he does not forsee any real change once the new regime, as it almost certainly will, step up to Number 10 next year. Andy Coulson is his Malcom Tucker and his pedigree does not reassure: former editor of the News of the World, and guilty of authorizing hacking into royal phone conversations. He seems much closer to Cameron than Patrick McLaughlin, his Chief Whip, of whom most people have little knowledge(I admit I had to check if he still did the job).

Oborne also explains that the elevation of Tucker-Campbell-Coulson is due not necessarily to mere media strategies, but to the new nature of the media. It is now so all-encompassing, such a constant and demanding presence that it has become the instrument of a new kind of politics. Parliament is supposed to be the body which ultimately determines policy and decisions but the media is now so powerful it can apply a range of influences: certainly delays, sometimes vetos as well as urge courses of action. Oborne cites the vivid phrase coined by Anthony Barnett to describe this new way in which we are governed: 'manipulative populism'.

Tuesday, April 14, 2009


If MPs Want to Get Rich They Should not have gone into Politics

That a root and branch review of MP’s expenses is overdue is beyond dispute, as the kerfuffle over James Purnell’s food bills have made crystal clear. The central point is that he is within the letter of the regulations but way adrift of what voters think is reasonable recompense.

What is seldom realised is that expenses represent a kind of tacit ‘deal’ between MPs and the whips going back to the late 1960s: they would accept being relatively poorly paid compared with the private sector and overseas comparisons, but they would get generous expenses. So expenses have tended to be seen as a means of ‘levelling up’ and so exploiting every loophole is seen as virtually 'fair game'.

Now when MPs get paid three times the national average wage, this seems to the rest of us-recall half of the workforce receive under £21,000p.a.- to be unjustified. MPs have to realise that if they want to get rich they should not have chosen the very public service of politics.

‘They just don’t get it’ is often used to describe the attitude of MPs to the subject and if anyone doubts this, I would direct them to the brilliant diaries of Chris Mullin, A View from the Foothills. It is peppered with MPs refusing to countenance any reductions in their expenses; the attitude of members of select committees to the suggestion they should fly economy rather than club class is indicative of much which underlies the current ‘crisis'.

After much discussion Edward Leigh reckoned:

‘We weren’t doing ourselves any goo by spending 30 minutes on this subject…We should bear in mind that we were spending millions of pounds of public money. He added that Nick Winterton’s comments [he had argued ‘economy’ would demean status and place MPs alongside the wrong type of people] were pompous and ridiculous…One could almost hear the expulsion of wind as Sir Nicolas visibly deflated’. (p391)

Sunday, April 12, 2009


Will 11th April be Known as 'B' Day in Blogosphere?

I've always been a bit sceptical of the more grandiose claims of the political blogosphere, and of Guido(Paul Staines pictured centre) in particular. I can recall suggesting we could say the 'bloggers have arrived' when a major leak was acquired via a blog rather than a mainstream outlet. Well, Guido, to be fair, has now provided such an event, assisted, it would seem, by the other major UK blogger, Iain Dale.

The resignation of Damian McBride-a former senior civil servant, remember, and not a mere political aide- was a major scalp for Staines. McBride(pictured left) was also very, even dangerously close to Brown and connected not only with the egregious Dolly Draper, but also Gordon's former, somewhat dodgy former spinner, Charlie Whelan. Whatever minor poll recovery Brown has managed courtesy of G20, will have now melted away.

Tim Montgomerie of Conservative Home has called this 'a very big deal' and nobody could argue with that. He argues blogs are outside the 'chumminess' of the mainstream agencies and have 'no sense of trading's a pioneer frontier media'. Precisely how Staines received the emails will remain a mystery, unless the rules about non disclosure of sources are also not applicable to blogs but I doubt that. Can we say the mainstream has been subverted?

On this occasion, most definitely, yes it has. Could it be a sign of a major shift towards the new media? In the US we see the Huffington Post moving up to challenge the big beasts and this is where I wonder if the UK is truly yet in a position to follow suit. The HuffPo seems to be awash with cash and employs over 60 people- including seven reporters- some of them senior figures recently sacked from the mainstream. It is in a position to move from comment to reporting and once this move is completed the mainstream will be on the way out. But it should be remembered that the New York Times employs over a 1000 journalists.

When it, and other blogs manage to do this then a step change in the media will have occurred. We're still quite a way from that, I suspect on both sides of the Atlantic but the US will be ther first to do it.. Guido and Dale still seem to be one man bands and it's not clear if their blogging provides any substantial income stream. But 11th April 2009 certainly provides a major landmark in the UK's transition from mainstream to cyberspace in UK political communication.

Thursday, April 09, 2009


Gordon Struggles with the End Game

In June 1993 Norman Lamont garnished his resignation speech with a cruel quip that Major's government gave the 'impression of being in office but not in power'. It was true than and is true now of Gordon Brown's administration. A good analysis by Bagehot in The Economist, takes this analysis deeper, coming to the same mordant conclusion. In the wake of the G20, Gordon Brown, ears ringing from Obama's extravagant praise, seemed in one way to be at the height of his power: he had convened a summit which addressed the world's most desperate concerns and seemed to be in receipt of the world's gratitude.

He exercises powers, the envy of leftwing politicians everywhere: nationalising banks, controlling finance, straddling both the executive and the legislature and directing local government as well as the public services. But, whilst occupying this pinnacle, he also barely runs his country. The reason? Virtually everyone knows he's not going to be there for long. Once this realisation dawns power drains away from British prime ministers with astonishing rapidity. The civil service is impatiently waiting for new instructions.

If not as eagerly awaited as Tony Blair's speeches in the run up to 1997, Cameron's are still seen as the shape of things to come. Ministers have given up in many cases and the bigger beasts are already positioning for the time whhen Gordon is removed around this time next year. Bagehot discerns also that the press has the 'smell' of government blood in its nostrils as it sadistically stalks Jacqui Smith over her expenses excesses.

Even the Governor of the Bank of England's Governor and his once inviolate fiefdom of th Treasury now dare to challenge his desire to extend our borrowing yet further. Like a doomed boxer, way behind on points, it is sad to observe him struggling through the last few rounds. Labour's only hope now, I fear, is to minimize the scale of defeat to ensure the trail back into power is not too long- it still might not be a landslide. But I am struck by the question which always arises during the dog days of am doomed government: was it really worth all that manoeuvring, back stabbing and raging, Gordon, to end up like this?

Tuesday, April 07, 2009


Betting must be on a British 'Scrappage' System in the Budget

After the news today that new car sales have fallen by nearly a third year on year, I'd say the chances are the budget will announce a 'scrappage' scheme for the UK. Scrappage? It's a system whereby the government subsidises consumers by a grand or more to encourage them to buy a new car; it's a bit like sweetening part-exchange deals. The aim of the scheme is to stimulate the ailing car industry which employs so many thousands both directly and indirectly.

Will it work? Well, it's been adopted by Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Austria, Portugal, Greece and Romania where upwards of a 1000 euros have been given to each 'new for old' consumer. In the first four countries mentioned car sales have risen with varying degrees of sharpness this spring; in Germany the increase has been over 25% year on year. So it works, everyone else seems to be doing it; I reckon Alistair is just bound to find it in his bare cupboard when he announces his budget in a couple of weeks time.

Given that the government claws back VAT from such sales, the overall cost is not prohibitive when the potential welfare costs of unemployment are also weighed in the balance. 80% of German consumers have ended up buying small cars so the green objections might not be so influential. But the whole nature of the scheme prompts the question: 'why did give so many billions to the undeserving banks when some people-notably Simon Jenkins- were calling for time limited cash vouchers to be given directly to low income consumers, thus ensuring an instant stimulus?'

Saturday, April 04, 2009


Gordon's Stint as 'Chancellor to the World' Has Won his Place in History

Well, my expectations of the G20 summit had been scaled down so low I thought it would be merely a statement of empty rhetorical platitudes. I was wrong and it has to be allowed that Brown has achieved something of a remarkable coup. Blair will be remembered in history for being Bush's obsequious henchman in the Iraq War, but now Gordon will be forever associated with a brave attempt to salvage the world's economy from disaster.

Firstly, assembling this mega-gathering of world chief executives was something only Obama, of the visitors, could have pulled of. To do this he had to jet around the world like Tony Blair at his most manic but he got them here, largely because it was him doing the convening.

Secondly, the agreement reached was much more than rhetoric. The international 'fiscal stimulus' did not transpire- stymied by France and Geremany among others who feel enough money has been borrowed for this purpose already. Also the 'green agenda' was not addressed, which is regretable but it was always going to slide down the agenda with so many politicians representing societies rather more anxious about jobs and living standards.

i) The $1.1 trillion to the IMF to assist mainly the developing countries was a substantial hand-out which they could not have realistically have expected.

ii) The Financial Stability Board-designed to apply detailed monitoring of the international economic system and solve its problems- was also a hopeful new sign that the world has recognised the need for some management of the globalized economy.

iii)Another aspect of this was the agreement to control hjedge funds and apply sanctions to tax haven which refused to comply with new international standards on such matters as transparency.

It's true that this was no Bretton Woods, no fundamental reform of capitalism and one wonders how severe a future crisis will have to be for this to be thought necessary. But for a two day world summit, this was a major success. We learn today that Brown is desperate to capitalise on his success and is busy instructing ministers how this might be done. My instinct is that all this has come as too little and too late to save Gordon politically, but the excellent Larry Elliott yesterday suggested otherwise:

But the immediate outlook is improving. The economy is still contracting but the pace of decline is flattening out, and growth is likely to resume, albeit weakly, by the end of the year. If the economy is picking up, Brown thinks he is in with a fighting chance, because voters will be faced with a choice between an experienced prime minister who was brave enough to take the tough decisions and a wet-behind-the-ears Opposition leader who wasn't. He could be right.

Wednesday, April 01, 2009


Why not Ban Chewing Gum in our Cities?

Regular readers of this blog will know this topic encroaches on one of my hobby horses: the despoiling of our urban streets with sundry litter and noxious items like flattened chewing gum. In the UK virtually every square foot of pavement in towns and cities contain unsightly black, white or brown patches of spat out chewing gum from users who could not care less. An article on Monday gave the bad and the good news.

Bad News:
i) it costs between 10p and 30p to remove each flattened piece.
ii)it takes 17 weeks to remove gum from ther length of Oxford St and only 10 days for it to be covered again.
iii)local authorities each spend up to £200,000 a year on trying to clear gum and none seem to succeed as far as I can see, least of all my native Stockport and nearby Manchester.
iv) since the invention of the stuff we have managed to send astronauts into space and transplant new organs into failing bodies, but unable to discover a chemical which would dissolve the insoluble base from which gum is made. One wonders, why not?

Good News:

A new biogdegradeable chewing gum has been invented:

Chicza Rainforest Gum is manufactured in Mexico by Consorcio Chiclero - a consortium of 56 co-operatives employing some 2,000 chicleros (gum farmers) and their families. The workers extract natural gum from the sap of the chicle tree, which is then used to make the product.Unlike conventional chewing gum, which contains petrochemicals, the organic chewing gum does not stick to clothing or pavements. And once disposed of, it will crumble to dust in about six weeks, dissolving harmlessly in water or being absorbed into the soil. Chicza comes in lime, mint and spearmint flavours, and is going on sale at Waitrose for £1.39 a packet.

Personally I hate the stuff, but I'd love to think Alex Ferguson and other famous chewers would make a point of using the new non anti-social variety. Until the new stuff becomes generally available and used, why not ban the stuff as in Singapore and Venice?

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