Monday, September 28, 2009


Compass Have Worrying Analysis

(Yes, I know my illustration is absurdly literal, but it was all I could think of)The leftish think tank, Compass, produced a scary headline on the eve of the conference: if Cameron wins, this could mean oblivion for Labour.
Many of us have been thinking this way and that's why so many of us have been wondering if a new leader, even at this stage might minimise the damage to a mere generation instead of maybe two or three. It seems the planned coup, bruited by Martin Kettle of The Guardian and others, has been postponed through lack of interest.

So we are left to contemplate our fate, heartened just a sliver by Mandelson's barnstorming speech to conference today. Would I accept him as PM? You bet I would. He maybe is not very trustworthy or likeable but he is obviously shrewd, capable, committed to Labour and seems to have developed, astonishingly, as a compelling political communicator. Compass reckon Cameron will seek to destroy Labour by constitutional means; one direct and the other indirect. The latter will be the rousing of the Scottish to accept independence if the Tories get in. At present 34% of them would back it and 53% oppose but if the Tories get in an additional 34% would favour casting off into the North Atlantic to declare independence. That would probably swing it and Labour would lose its 45 Scottish seats.

In addition, according to Compass Cameron plans to reduce the number of MPs by 65, predicting:

that Tory plans to cut the number of Westminster seats by 65 will hit Labour hardest of all the main parties because the biggest reduction will be in areas which have seen population flight, including Labour strongholds in Wales and the industrial heartlands.

Compass calls for a 'game changer' of a ploy, suggesting it might be a referendum on voting reform which, because Cameron would oppose it, would show him up as reactionary.

"A referendum moves the party from zero chance of the Tories not losing next May to striking distance of a hung parliament and Labour being the biggest single party. The decision could decide not just Labour's future for one or two parliaments, not even for a generation, but for ever.".

Nick Robinson tonight on the news predicted Gordon had bold things to suggest in his speech tomorrow. It would be nice to think he's capable of something as imaginative and transforming as voting reform, but you'll have to excuse my jaded cynicism. But my fingers are crossed nevertheless.

Friday, September 25, 2009


Why Hang On to the Premiership Gordon?

It often seems quixotic to me that politicians queue up to be prime minister. All the insoluble problems end up on your desk, you work 18 hours a day and still you make negilible progress. Take Gordon for example. He hopes to relieve the pressure of a 17point poll deficit as conference looms by seeking to star in New York.

But while his UN speech goes down OK, back home it's the fact that Obama ignored five entreaties from Number 10 for some face time which grabs the attention. And all the time he's there, Baroness Scotland, his Attorney General, is twisting in the wind of her mistaken employment an illegal immigrant. And the political arithmetic is encouraging his erstwhile backbench supporters to turn their minds again to their majorities and the next election, sitting ominously on the horizon.

After Martin Kettle's recent article predicting a plot likely to reach its culmination in 12th October, comes Seamus Milne suggesting similar things. He quotes a 'senior minister' on Labour's unpopularity:

"A third is about the government's old age, a third is about Gordon, and a third is because the Tories appear smiley and electable. But the electorate hasn't yet clocked the price they will pay for voting Conservative and the colossal loss it would mean in terms of what they take for granted in public services and their daily lives."

On Wednesday Charles Clarke, someone Brown should have kept inside the tent, delivered another withering attack on his leader, concluding he ought to step aside now while his dignity is still a fact. 'Most people think a new leader would be worth 5%' according to a Cabinet member, writes Milne, 'which would take us into hung parliament territory.' But there is no guarantee this premium would materialise, nor is there the necessary condition: a 'frontrunner'. But Milne suggests one might think of stepping forward, given that the likes of Miliband and Johnson would stand more of a chance before an election rather than after.

I agree with Milne that Labour MPs should look to themselves as well as Brown for blame for their plight. But I'm doubtful he is right over the alleged coup being plotted. Each time one wobbles down the runway and fails to take off, MPs have said, 'well, he's got to improve his game or next time he's history'. With only seven months to go there is no time left for a next time.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009


Tobacco Industry's Pathetic Ploy to Prevent Sale Displays

Smokers, led by the artist David Hockney, claim to be a persecuted minority and when, waiting in Munich airport last night I saw some sitting,m miserably, in a sealed 'smoking unit' in the middle of the departure area, I began to see how they might feel this to be the case. But I'm not especially worried. As an exsmoker, I know how hard it is to give up but as someone who did so for financial reasons when a student with a young family, I know certain imperatives cannot be ignored. So I'm in favour of ghoulish notices and pictures on cigarette packets and also in concealing displays of them in shops. Soon cigarettes will become like pornography: an 'under the counter' commodity, with a taint of shame attached.

The piece by Deborah Arnott today demolishes the tobacco trade's assertion that the equipment to conceal such disp[lays will cost taders up to £5000. The real cost is closer to £120. The essence of her case lies in the two paragraphs below:

Smoking is an addiction of childhood, not an adult choice. The tobacco industry needs to recruit over 100,000 new smokers every year in this country – largely children and young people – to replace those who die or quit. The tobacco industry in its own documents admits that the pack and retail displays of the pack are a major promotional tool now that advertising is prohibited, calling the pack "the communication life-blood of the firm … the silent salesman".

Two-thirds of smokers take up the habit before they reach 18, and half of all smokers will die from their addiction. In Iceland, the first jurisdiction to pass legislation to put tobacco out of sight in 2001, the number of young smokers fell significantly, and laws have now been successfully implemented in nearly all Canadian provinces and Ireland too.

Friday, September 18, 2009


Skipper In Dresden for a few days

Every autumn, since my mother died in 1991, my brother and sister and I meet up in Germany (where she lives) for a few days. This year we've chosen Dresden as our location. I'll be interested to see how well it's been restored.

Thursday, September 17, 2009


SOCA Chief a 'Generalist' where a Specialist Needed?

I was amused by the spat between MPs on the Home Affairs Committee and Sir Ian Andrews, the £430m a year head of the Serious Organised Crime Agency(SOCA). True to the White Hall 'generalist' doctrine that a 'sound and able man'(preferably with a degree in classics) will run anything, he is no excopper. By no means, Instead he has been a Defence mandarin, heading up the MOD's Estate Agancy while knowing bugger all about estate management and the same departments's research and evaluation agency without being en engineer or a scientist.

When accused of being a 'Sir Humphrey' he replied that the special thing he brought to the party was 'leadership skills'. Hmm. In France senior civil servants are often specialists in law or economics and the so-called 'enarchs' are reckoned to be a cut or two above our Oxbridge amateurs. The debate will rumble on but how has SOCA been doing? Well, it'sa been heavily criticised for being ineffective and expensive. Is there a moral there somewhere?

Tuesday, September 15, 2009


On Investing or Cutting

Osborne is already claiming victory over Gordon's volte face on 'cuts'; it now appears we'll have them either from left or right, or, indeed, if Vince Cable has his way, the centre as well. Cuts are inevitable it would seem, yet I wonder precisely why. Because we have so much debt? Well,according to Will Hutton our level of debt is nothing out of the ordinary. Cameron complains at the 80% of GDP indebtedness but:

From 1750 to 1870, Britain won wars, assembled an astonishing navy, built an empire and launched the Industrial Revolution to become the envy of Europe, yet the national debt was consistently above 80% of GDP. Nobody cared. High national debt was a precondition for winning two world wars in the 20th century. Periods when the over-riding preoccupation has been lowering the national debt have coincided with industrial, economic and strategic decline. So it will again.

Furthermore, as Julian Le Grand pointed out on radio 4 yesterday, other countries, like Japan and Germany have higher levels of debt than us and are not suffering nervous breakdowns over it. Again, I'm like the rest of the country, baffled. We are told we need to inject money, to invest, to revive the economy, yet another school of opinion says 'No, no! don't invest, save save!'

This provokes the reaction from the former group: 'Oh my God! You'll crush the fragile flower of recovery, just beginning to break through the surface of the recession.' to which the latter group scream:'But if we don't install a programme of cuts the international bond market will refuse to lend us any more money, except at even more extortionate rates!'

I suspect, both sides of the argument are exaggerated and that, as before we'll muddle our way through it as we always seem to. It was interesting though that the first definitive staement of Brown's new line on expenditure should have been spelt out by Mandelson. I suspect, Number 10 have recognised- especially since that damning poll in the ST, revealing half of respondents thinking nearly anyone could do a better job than Gordon-that the PM is now a liability and are pushing out the silver tongued 'Deputy PM', Mandelson, to deliver the messages. Given that he has never been especially convincing at such a function, this smacks just a litle of desperation.

Sunday, September 13, 2009


'The Vulture Four' Would Have Been a Better Name

It seems almost futile to get all worked up about greedy, avaricious, venal businessmen, but the devious activities of the Phoenix Four somehow makes it inevitable. These four entrpeneurs arrived like knights on white chargers to save the sole remaining UK mass car producer but the government should really have spotted the rust on ther armour and the broken down nature of their steeds. These four cowboys, with a record mostly of failure behind them were able to buy MG Rover for £10 and then milk the interest free £1bn loan from BMW to their own advantage.

Given the size of the loan they set out to milk, and their undoubted cupidity, it is surprising they did not end up with over the £42m estimate they are alleged to have made out of their various manoeuvres and scams. One of the most egregious ploys was the £1.6m paid in consultancy fees to Nick Stephenson's(one of the Four) girlfriend, Dr Li. Their brand name, 'Phoenix', a mythical bird which grew anew from its own ashes, was the cruellest of sick jokes: the 'Vulture Four' would have been more appropriate.

The Observer today notes that such behaviour by the Four:

accused in a report last week of plundering their company for personal gain, were simply pursuing to their logical conclusion certain habits of British capitalism: avoid paying tax; maximise short-term personal gain; hide poor performance in a web of technical complexity; seek exorbitant remuneration while avoiding personal accountability for risky ventures; care nothing for the wider social or economic consequences of one's actions.

To expedite their plan to milk the company dry were, 'a host of tax and share transactions, subsidies and consultancy fees that appear to show no discernible intent to improve MG Rover's core business.' The Four have hit back by accusing a typical 'New Labour witch-hunt'. Peter Mandeslon, who was keen to see these hit and run merchants arraigned in court, concluded these evasions were mere evidence of their guilt. On its own his views might not mean a great deal, but Ken Clarke on radio 4 yesterday weighed in with very similar comments. Such a consensus ensures they will occupy the same part of the public consciousness as Sir Fred Goodwin; the life cycle of a phoenix was supposed to be 500 years.

It would be only justice if unions representing those made unemployed, took up a civil action against the Four. True, the report, made no criticism of government bungling, took four years to compilke and cost £16m, enough to pay each unemployed worker £2500. But the money skimmed off by the Four would near enough treble that sum.

Friday, September 11, 2009


Labour Surrendering Policy Initiative on 'Localism' to Tories

It rather worries me, as a lifelong Labour voter, when I find myself agreeing with a Conservative idea, especially when one of its progenitors is the loathsome Daniel Hannan. Along with Douglas Carswell(see linked article), he proposes a major devolution of power for local government, he suggests counties and cities should have the same powers as the Scottish parliament and replace VAT with a local sales tax which would finance the local stratum anew. The argument is that local governmnent is much more efficient than central administration and that local people know what they want rather more accurately than Whitehall's 'malevolent quill drivers'. Moreover, with government closer to the people, this would help rebuild trust.

I have long supported such a move and believed that government should be much more local than it is with a much bigger proportion of funding for services raised locally. Simon Jenkins has also banged this drum and today invokes the localism of Scandinavia where so many services were devolved in the 1980s to the local level with great success:

'Denmark's localised health service is amoung the most popular in Europe.'

Jenkins points out that instead of moving towards localism our systems, even the devolved Celtic fringe ones, have been accruing more power to the centre and accelerating the decline of trust.

Labour used to be the party which colonised urban local government last century but now it stands bereft of power locally and seems set to repeat the trick centrally as well. It's depressing to see the Tories move in to suggest radical new ideas in an area which properly Labour should be addressing.

Wednesday, September 09, 2009


'Business as Usual' in World of Finance a Disgrace to Democratic Government

Don't know about you, but I've been gradually been getting furious about the 'business as usual' return to normal in the financial world. Reading George Monbiot's article yesterday managed to escalate my mood to something approaching 'incensed'. In the imediate aftermath of the meltdown there seemed a universal resolve to curb the bonus culture, break up banks 'too big to fail' and prevent trade in derivatives from returning as a hostage to fortune for all our futures. Perhaps Monbiot is over-reacting a little in blaming so much on Gordon Brown but there does seem to be a fair degree of culpability.

In 2004 he told an audience of bankers that "in budget after budget I want us to do even more to encourage the risk takers". In 2007 he boasted that the City's success was the result of the government "enhancing a risk-based regulatory approach, as we did in resisting pressure for a British Sarbannes-Oxley after Enron and Worldcom".

At the G20 meeting last Saturday in London, moves to reduce bonuses were effectively curtailed. Brown and Darling had already scuppered the Sarkozy-Merkel initiative to apply a cap to bonuses. It was as if their City advisers had said to them:

'You have to realise the bottom line is that the world of finance is fuelled by greed. Unless you allow traders and top bankers to earn more money than they can possibly spend in their lifetimes, the system just won't work and all our finance talent will bugger off somewhere else.'

The result is that City bonuses this year will probably top £4bn. Monbiot commets:

Nothing has been learned, because governments are not prepared to teach them a lesson. The only firm response to the crisis so far has been to give our money to the people who caused it... But, timid as they might be, all the proposals put forward so far have been dismissed out of hand by a government terrified of confronting the City's misbegotten might.

And, at the end of the day, one wonders what the City actually does that is socially useful? Monbiot reckons the much vaunted tax take from its activities amounts to a mere £12.4bn per year in corporation tax from an actual liability of £1.2 trillion because of clever tax avoidance. Most of what the City does anyway is effectively to gamble with existing money; it does not create wealth in the way manufacturing does for example. Most voters are appalled at how the major beneficiaries from the recent implosion of international finance have proved to be the very perpetrators of that disaster. I never thought I'd say this, after the seventies, but it really is enough to make one look again at the prescriptions of the revolutionary socialists.

Monday, September 07, 2009


Is Another Coup Attempt Against Gordon Really Possible?

Martin Kettle's piece last Friday offered us some autumn entertainment. Like you I daresay, I had assumed challenges to Gordon Brown's leadership had been finally seen off by the failure of the June plotters to subvert the reshuffle which successfully bribed some of the chief contenders either with retention (Miliband) or promotion(Johnson). Kettle tells us to hang on a minute, because yet another coup is being plotted; and he seems to know the plotters.

He suggests 12th October could be the date when the knives, sharpened since they proved so blunt in June, will be plunged into the Prime Minister. What do the conspirators say?

Their core case is familiar. Brown is a bad and failed leader. Indecisive. Cautious. Doesn't know what he believes in. Always calculating, often badly. Unable to inspire. The polls are worse than they have ever been and nothing Brown does seems able to change them. Labour now faces not just a conventional defeat but a historic wipeout. A new and better leader, elected after a proper contest and an overdue strategic debate, can turn a new page, would allow Labour to be heard, could re-energise the core vote and keep the losses to a minimum, enabling Labour to stay in the game.

So, according to Kettle, what has changed? In a word, timing. In June Mandelson convinced the party that any new leader would arrive with an unavoidable requirement to hold a general election polls said Labour would lose disastrously. Now it is possible to argue the next election is so close anyway, no anticipation is necessary. Moreover, if Ireland accept the re-run referendum on the Lisbon Treaty, the danger would be pre-empted that a newly elected Cameron might subject the treaty to a referendum with predictable attendant convulsions.

Kettle thinks Brown will survive the annual loyalty-fest of the conference but will become vulnerable in its aftermath. Do the 'plotters' exist? Kettle seems sure they do and indeed, I wonder if they do, the popular and interesting John Cruddas might be an emerging challenger, after his recent attack on Brown's 'defeatism'. I would love to see Gordon depart but we have had so many Grand Old Duke of York marches to the top of the hill of a coup that I'm fairly sure this one, if it ever materialises, will prove yet another pathetic anti-climax.

Thursday, September 03, 2009


Brown's Lack of Bottle

Those familiar with Tom Bower's biography of Brown will be aware of the question marks raised over his decisiveness, or as Michael White calls it 'courage'. In 1978 he bottled out of taking on George Robertson in the Hamilton byelection; in 1994 he declined to fight Tony Blair for the party leadership; in 2007 he backed off the snap elction some were urging on him; and now he has dithered over declaring a clear position on the release of al Megrahi to return home to Libya.

Usually his dithering has been put down to tactical manouevring or party unity but some have always supected that, whilst Blair did not lack for boldness, Gordon hedges his bets and shuns open conflict. Thus he used his influence to avoid the kind of contest in 2007 which could have given him legitimacy he still lack as prime minister. This time it's probably connected with a desire to stand by and let the SNP suffer the storm of criticism without any distraction from him.

Interestingly another decision has arisen on which Brown has to take a position: whether to participate in a televised debate during the next election campaign. Sky News has signed up Cameron and Clegg and says it will leave an empty chair if Gordon spurns the offer. Mandelson has already suggested Brown would have no problem dealing with Cameron but I'd be surprised if someone who has been so regularly trounced at PMQs will expose himself to such risk. Usually it's the incumbent who refuses to give an opponent airtime but, as with 1997 when Blair refused to grant one to Major, the pretender is favourite and Gordon has every need to risk a situation in which he can make up some ground. Will he take it? My money would be against it.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009


Conservatives Have Never Felt They Needed an Ideology

Conservatives have never had a coherent ideology; in fact they have been proud to have eschewed such hostages to fortune. Instead they have cleverly- or wisely depending on your position- adapted their beliefs to what seemed expedient at any particular time in the winning or maintenance of power. Recently Bagehot in The Economist, observed how the party has been scrabbling about trying to suggest it has 'found' an ideology. So we have seen a brief flirtation with US social psychologists' Nudge approach to persuading people to act in a desired way rather than using coercion of some kind.

Then we had the flirtation with Red Toryism, inspired by the theologist Philip Blond which looks to attend to the needs of the poor and 'remoralise the market'. After a few enthusiastic articles in the quality press, delighted to have something interesting to write about for once, things have gone very quiet on that front.

The most recent -ism advanced by Mr Osborne and others is “progressive conservatism”. This purports to be more than just a bid to irk Labour by pinching one of its favourite adjectives, promising to realise “progressive ends by conservative means”. Examples of it in action are said to include plans to devolve power to local councils and to use the internet a lot. Mr Osborne also adduces proposed reforms to health care and schools which, he claims, would both improve provision and save cash.

Bagehot goes on however to question whether voters worry too much about ideas; it's more a concern of the party leaders themselves who maybe want to impress journalists with their intellectual bona fides. As long as the Tories can fulfill the general impression they give they can sort out the economy, most voters will buy whatever they choose to say they believe in. Bagehot points out that Mrs T. merely aserted her own beliefs and only retrospectively validated them by fitting them in with Hayek, Friedman and the like. I suspect it will soon be back to the traditional Conservative ploy of asserting a few Daily Mail prejudices, keeping quiet about the detail and avoiding any mistakes until next spring: by now it's theirs to lose anyway.

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