Thursday, 28 February 2008

Harry - Did the BBC lie to us?

According to the MoD, Harry has been in Afghanistan for 10 weeks - which (according to my maths) means he went before Christmas).

Now, I can't remember what the BBC and other news organisations said when covering the Royals going to church at Christmas, but I'd be interested to know what they said, if anything, about Harry not being there.

As I understand it, the news organisations knew that he had gone but accepted the request not to report this.

Fair enough to many people's minds. But I bet the public wouldn't be so understanding if they thought that had been positively lied to.

Harry - would you have published? (Meme)

Just a thought, but how many British bloggers would have published the news about Harry serving in Afghanistan as Matt Drudge did?

We're not party to the agreement apparently concluded with the UK-based press not to publish until he returned from active service or the D-notice if there was one. So would we have held the line?

Clearly there will be different answers to that question for different bloggers. But for my part I have to confess it's a difficult one. I suppose I could cop out and say that it's not the sort of topic I cover and so I wouldn't have done so for that reason. But on a deeper basis I believe absolutely in freedom of speech and the freedom of the press and so I can see no reason why the news should not be made public. It's clearly a matter of public interest, not simply from a prurient interest but because any person who joins the armed forces should be treated equally, even if they are a Royal. Full marks to Harry on that score. He made it known that he desparately wanted to go to Iraq when his unit went and I presume he held the same view on this posting. He clearly has not asked for special treatment and earns my respect for that. I'm a republican in that I don't believe that people should earn a special position purely because of birth. (I don't think the royals should be lined up against a wall).

On the other hand, it is a fact of life that public knowledge of his presence in Afghanistan would increase the risk to him and to others serving with him. So would my desire to see freedom of the press outweigh my concern for the safety of another human being.

Clearly there will be those who believe we should not be in Afghanistan at all but I don't think anyone seriously wishes to see our troops killed in order to further that point.

After all the um-ming and ah-ing I'm probably going to conclude that I wouldn't have posted the news myself. But I wouldn't condemn anyone who did (Is that woolly liberal enough for you?)

I'm going to turn this into a meme because I am genuinely interested to know the views of others. So I tag my friend Alex Wilcock (who will write longer, but more cogently), Iain, Guido, the Burbler and James Graham

Wednesday, 27 February 2008

Dons back to winning ways

Being in London yesterday gave me the chance to watch the mighty AFC Wimbledon in action. My friend Paul was away and so I was doing photos of the match against play-off chasing Margate.

The Dons managed to hold out for the first ten minutes during which Margate missed two open goals and had a third shot bravely saved by keeper James Pullen.

All the scoring came in the second half with Wimbledon scoring through the excellent Romone Rose and a winner from captain Jason Goodliffe who complained that he missed seeing the ball crossing the line as he was flattened by the keeper. Still, he made up for it with the celebration.

It's five months since I've seen a home game and so there were a number of players on show who I haven't seen before, but the core of the side remains the same - a credit to manager Terry Brown who has not been tempted to jettison good players who have simply gone through a bad spell. For once my man of the match was the one chosen by the sponsors. Tony Finn had a magnificent game and is surely one of the best wingers in non-League football.

Pics: Marcus Gayle plants a smacker on Jason Googdliffe after he scores the winner; Man of the Match Tony Finn in action; Romone Rose after scoring the first goal

Paddick in Islington

All go yesterday as Brian Paddick made a series of visits in Islington. One of the big campaigns there relates to the proposal by the Government to close several local Post Offices. Among them the Essex Road Crown Post Office which seems to be very weel used by local people. The logic behind some of the proposed closures completely defeats me.

Brian also met up with local police officers for a chat. The Met seem to be interpreting the rules about photos differently in different areas. Yesterday they sent along a press officer to make sure that I wasn't taking pics of officers. I can understand their worries - clearly it is difficult when one of the candidates is a former colleague - but I wish they would be consistent both in their treatment of us and their treatment of Brian as opposed to the other candidates.

Apparently, one of Brian's former duties was to direct the traffic on the Seven Sisters Road when the traffic lights broke down (which was fairly often). He was very keen to re-create the image for posterity yesterday. Luckily, the phasing on the lights (which were working) gave him the chance to do so safely!

We also made a visit to a housing estate in Islington. Brian was shown the difference between the blocks built under the previous Labour administration (which are already having to be torn down) and the new blocks being built by the Lib Dem controlled council. It is saying something that any Council is able to build new social housing these days - so well done to Islington for finding a way of meeting the pressing need.

Pics: Brian with Islington Council Deputy Leader Lucy Watt and GLA Candidate Merel Ece outside the threatened Essex Road Post Office; Brian re-creating his traffic directing days; Brian with demolition workers outside an old Labour built block which is being knocked down

Sunday, 24 February 2008

Photos from Mozambique

Meeting the President

A workshop session featuring delegates from Tunisia, Burkina Faso and the Democratic Republic of Congo

Senegalese Minister Mamadou Lamine Ba speaking to the press after meeting the Mozambique President

The flag of the meeting

The closing Press Conference

Our hotel, the Holiday Inn in Maputo

Raul Castro is a reformer

There is an old joke about liberals marching on Parliament chanting

"What do we want? Gradual Change! When do we want it? In due course!"

Well I think the decision by the Cuban Communist Party to adopt Raul Castro to replace his brother Fidel fulfils that wish. In the 16 months that he has already held the effective reins of office, Raul Castro has introduced a number of significant changes that have set Cuba on a path towards a more enlightened regime. It's not democracy and the rule of law by any means but it is a welcome start.

There are, I suspect, many people like me who hate the idea of the totalitarian regime such as the Cuban one, but also have a secret (or perhaps not so secret) admiration for the way that this tiny impoverished state has thumbed its nose at the USA for so long. We would like to see the Fidel regime replaced and the Cuban people freed, but we don't want the island to become yet another haven for US cruise ships and drug cartels.

So the prospect of a continuing gradual change is perhaps the right one. Raul may be almost as old as his brother, but he has shown a marked difference of approach and the choice of the 78 year old Machado Ventura as Vice President may not be the slap in the face for the next generation that it is perceived as being. It just may be that Raul is not yet ready to annoint a chosen successor and wants the possible candidates to show him what they are made of first. Just as in the USA, we can be sure that the current Vice President is not the one who will take the top job next.

Mozambique - was it worth it?

It's clearly not a cheap operation to organise a conference such as the one I've just got back from, but in my mind it was well worth it:

- I know from the feedback forms and conversations with most of the participants after the end of the session that they got lots out of it. Lots of the feedback forms praised me (which is, of course, nice) but also talked about the bonds they have made with their fellow participants from different countries. We were able to put people from different ends of the continent in touch with each other - especially where they share a common problem - so that they can keep in touch about their means for addressing the issue.

- For the smaller parties, it was fantastic to be able to chat at length with the likes of Minister Lamine Ba from Senegal and David Pierre from the Seychelles National Party - one of whom is in power and the other gets 46% of the vote. It goes to show that a Liberal Party can make it in Africa and to carry on campaigning even when they might only have received 3% or so at the last election. In case anyone doubts the true Liberalism of, for instance, the PDS in Senegal, have a look at the party's website (warning - it is in French).

- It got a lot of good publicity for our hosts, the PDD of Mozambique. They deserved praise from us for all their hard work and it was nice to be able to catch up again with my friend Joachim de Castello who is the General Secretary of the Party. But more than this, as President Guebuza said during our meeting with him, Maputo became the capital of African Liberalism. We got lots of favourable press and tv coverage which gets both the cause of liberalism and the policies of the PDD more coverage in a country which reporters without borders classifies as not necessarily the strongest free press in the world.

Saturday, 23 February 2008

Another Iain Dale copycat blog

Following the shameless Iain Dale copycatting from yesterday, here's another - a list of my TV appearances.

There were a few TV cameras present during our meeting with the President yesterdaym but we thought no more about it. Then, when we were out in Maputo for dinner last night there was a TV in the corner of the restaurant. One of my dinner companions suddenly pointed at the TV and said 'That's us!'. And indeed there we were, meeting with the President.

I don't know what passes for a standard item on Mozambiquan TV News, but we were on for at least 5 minutes.

And no, we didn't get a discount on dinner.

Leaving Mozambique

It's been a fascinating trip to Mozambique. I've got to check out of the hotel in half an hour before the trip back via Lisbon.

The event was a workshop and Assembly of the Africa Liberal Network, an alliance of parties from around the continent. They range from the PDS, the Senegalese Government (and we had Minister Mamadou Lamine Ba from the party) as well as parties such as the SNP from the Seychelles who get 46% of the vote yet still come second there. There are also developing parties such as our hosts the PDD and ANADER from Congo.

The role of the Lib Dems is to support the Network by helping them to come together. All the main parties in the UK work through the Westminster Foundation for Democracy to assist the development of democracy and parties around the world. This is one of the ways we choose to provide support. So I was facilitating a workshop presenting ideas from the UK covering party structure, campaigning and policy development. Obviously we cannot and do not want to dictate what should be done but we encourage the different parties to share their own experiences and build support groups with each other. Having a Government Minister from a successful Liberal Party there helps enormously with this!

The final day was an assembly meeting of the Network to discuss future business and to prepare the Network to make an impact at the next meeting of Liberal International in Belfast in May.

A word to travellers - both intrepid and otherwise. Mozambique is a fabulous country with great weather and superb beaches. There is tons of incredible seafood and fine hotels. Can't recommend it highly enough. Regrettably we didn't get enought time to go outside the capital but I understand there are also good safaris to be had.

I've got loads of pics which I'll post when I get home

Friday, 22 February 2008

Eat your heart out Iain Dale

Iain Dale recently posted claiming to be the first to post a blog from the Oval Office of the White House. Well, I've gone one better (ok, sort of).

This post is coming to you from the Office of the President of Mozambique - Armando Guebuza. And the President is in the room meeting with the members of the African Liberal Network.

More soon...

Tuesday, 19 February 2008

Offline for a while

I'm off to Mozambique for a short trip to take part in a workshop organised by the African Liberal Network and the Friedrich Neumann Foundation.

We've got about 32 representatives from a dozen or more different countries attending so it promises to be interesting.

Will blog updates if I can find a plug adaptor that works - apparently different parts of Mozambique use three different sorts of plug - one of which is almost unique to the country.

Monday, 18 February 2008

Explain this one...

So the Government is pressing ahead with new nuclear power stations on the basis of a need for energy independence - ie for the UK to be able to meet all of its energy needs and not have to rely on foreign states (oh, ok - on Russian gas).

At the same time, the UK Government is cosying up to China and various other countries of dubious morality who just happen to have very large sovereign wealth funds - state run investment arms which are busy buying up large parts of the UK's Blue Chip companies.

So on the one hand we could not possibly be in a position to have to rely on Russian gas to fuel our power stations...

... but on the other it is absolutely fine and dandy for the Chinese Government (say) buy a controlling stake in E.On, for the Saudis to buy half of BAE and for Libya to invest in BP.

First Kosovo - next Scotland?

Listening to David Milliband trying to explain why Kosovo is a unique situation, not a precedent, was fairly excruciating. The fact is that the decision by the UK, USA, France, Germany and Italy (oh, and Afghanistan) to recognise the UDI will be taken as the go ahead by a number of secessionist movements around the world. I've been thinking about two of them in particular:

Republica Serpska. For those who don't know, when Bosnia Herzegovina emerged from the first stage of the break up of the former Yugoslavia and the subsequent war, it retained its former provincial borders. And so it contains a large number of Bosniacs (Bosnian Muslims) a significant minority of Bosnian Croats (who live mainly in the part known as Herzegovina) and the Bosnian Serbs. These last are mainly based in the South and East of the country.

On the ground, the former province of Bosnia is divided into two sections - the part with the Bosniacs and Bosnian Croats and a separate entity known as Republica Serpska where all the Serbs live. RS is incredibly poor having not seen any of the investment that has gone into Bosnia proper. The leaders are still accused of sheltering a number of war criminals (a charge levelled with some justification) and the whole place operates with an air of unreality.

But the similarities to Kosovo are striking - this is a state within a state whose ethnically different population seek separation from the main part of the country to which they officially belong. So will Milliband et al now recognise their right to secede or will they give convincing reasons why Kosovo really is unique?

The second such quandry is Scotland. Now, I don't think that there is a majority in favour of independence but it is clearly a viable question to put. After all, a secessionist party has won the most recent election and seeks to hold a referendum on full blown independence. A referendum which Gordon Brown opposes. Where is the consistency in that position then? Let me be clear - I think that anyone (including the PM) should be able to campaign as vociferously as they wish against independence for Scotland. I would do so if I lived there. However, if, like Gordon Brown, you have just spoken up for the right of Kosovo to declare UDI, then you don't have a leg to stand on in denying the right of Scots to at least have a vote on the issue and to become independent if the majority so wish.

Sunday, 17 February 2008

Kosovo - an unviable state

Others have welcomed the announcement by the Parliament in Pristina of 'independence' for Kosovo. I don't. I fear hugely for the state and worry that it will necessitate an even more lengthy engagement for UK and other international troops as well as significant cash injections.

I cannot pretend to have very many answers, but at least allow me to pose the questions that come to mind:

In welcoming UDI, what thought did Bush and Brown give to the rights of the remaining ethnic Serbs in the province? Yes, they are a minority, but they are a significant number and the region does have a history of large ethnic groups trying to squash smaller ones. You may well point out that the Serbs were the ones who did quite a lot of this in the 90s but that does not mean that they can be trampled on now.

How can an independent Kosovo be viable. It has a very weak economy and few exports of note. It was a drain on the resources of Serbia and Yugoslavia before that. Are we, the western taxpayers, expected to subsidise UDI?

What further plans do the leaders in Pristina have? Not a few commentators worry that there is a movement to become a part of Albania proper.

Kosovo was a part of Serbia for a very lengthy period. Within the borders are a large number of historic Serb monuments - mostly dating from the middle ages. What access will Serbs (both Kosovar Serbs and Serbians) have to these and what protection will be offered them?

Why have Bush, Brown et al so fervently welcomed this announcement. Promise me that it wasn't simply a way of getting at Putin. And if it was a matter of principle, what about Euskadi (the Basque Country), Northern Cyprus, the Russian provinces and so on ad infinitum? Can someone please define self-determination please.

And finally, can anyone who supports this UDI please point to viable non-nationalisitic politics in Kosovo. For years parties have divided on the fault line of independence. Have the Western powers who encouraged this move looked at who is now going to be running the state and what their deeper politics are? (Clue: they ain't pretty)

Friday, 15 February 2008

Binge drinking the Tesco way

Sam Coates on the Times blog says that anyone trying to fathom the Competition Commission's report on Supermarkets should 'follow the money'. He highlights the amount spent by Tesco on the party conferences as an example.

I was reading Public Affairs News recently in which there was an interview with a former Tesco lobbyist who, after a spell working I think for BAA, was now joining Asda Wal-Mart. He described the activities by lobbyists at party conferences as disgraceful with PA professionals falling out of bars at 11pm or even noon.

But what do Tesco spend their money on at conference - sponsoring receptions for the great and the good. Obviously the lobbyists want to make sure their firm's money is being spent well.

Only in Cornwall

See story

Government neglect for armed forces on the front-line

I've just driven back home from my week in London and, as is my wont, listened to a mix of 5 Live and Radio 4 on the way. One of the interviews on PM was with Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth who was being asked about the soldier who died in Afghanistan because (in the Coroner's words) of an appalling failure by the British Government to supply basic kit needed by the soldiers there.

The Minister said two things which really galled me. He was determined to concentrate on the fact that soldiers in theatre now have enough equipment. Well excuse me, but the real issue here is the failure by the Government to supply enough kit for the six years we have already been in Afghanistan. I'm very glad that he claims that no more soldiers will die because of lack of night vision goggles and heavy machine guns, but please could you explain how on earth the Government could send British soldiers to war for 6 years without such things.

Secondly he claimed that the soldier's death, in June 2006, came only a short while after we had started operating in Helmand Province and therefore we were still gearing up and finding out what sort of situations we needed equipment to deal with. He refused to acknowledge that the UK had been fighting in Afghanistan (albeit in a different part) since 2001. So let's look at what equipment was missing.
- Night vision goggles - so according to Mr Ainsworth it didn't get dark in Kabul and the need for these could not have been foreseen.
- Mountings to allow heavy machine guns to be fitted to vehicles. Clearly soldiers were expected to carry and fire the weapons in their hands - Rambo style. (they weight 120 pounds or so)
- Miniguns (hand held machine guns) presumably because they had the heavy machine guns already to occupy their hands.

Whatever the rights or wrongs of any war, a Government has a duty to ensure that the soldiers it sends into battle are fully and properly equipped to the best of the nation's ability. It is, of course, a fact of war that soldiers sometimes die. But for lives to be lost because of a Government failure is a tragedy to which Mr Ainsworth and his colleagues appear to be in denial.

Thursday, 14 February 2008

Lib Dems are the most attractive party - official!

The good people of Sky have conducted a poll to find the most attractive MPs. The result? Five Lib Dems make it to the top ten.

Well done to Jenny Willot, Julia Goldsworthy, Nick Clegg, Lynne Featherstone and Jo Swinson.

All I can ask is... where was Teather?

Tuesday, 12 February 2008

The dilemma of Gam£ 39 - solved!

I've come up with a solution to the issue of Game 39. That's the crazy scheme from the Premier League for each of its clubs to play an extra game in some foreign clime as a means of building the fabric of the game around the world.

So far the US and Far East authorities have poured cold water on the idea and it looks like it might be dead in the water.

Well, in the spirit of Bob Hope, I propose that the extra games are played in the countries that most need a boost of pure westernisation - Iraq and Afghanistan. Think about it... We can entertain our troops who are denied footie for six months solid as well as promoting the western values of greed and commercial sponsorship.

Even Didier Drogba might learn the difference between his form of hurt and real suffering.

Hillary might not make it to Ohio

By all accounts Hillary Clinton is now staking it all on the states of Ohio and Texas whose primaries are on March 4th.

Clearly both are important states with lots of delegates and whoever wins them will be a big step closer to the nomination. But can Hillary afford to wait for these states? Since the score draw on Super Tuesday, Obama has swept the board, winning in Louisiana, Nebraska, Washington and Maine. Before March 4th, there will be today's contests in DC, Maryland and Virginia, as well as Hawaii and Wisconsin next Tuesday. The serious talk is that Obama will win all 10 of these contests.

Now I know that the race cannot technically be won between now and March 4th, but if you are looking at momentum then a clean sweep for Obama can only have one outcome - desolation for Clinton.

Who was the last person to ignore so-called small states and gamble everything on key contests some way in the future? Step backwards Rudy Guiliani.

The US opinion polls may well be saying that it is a dead heat but the betting market tells a different story. A campaign which fires its manager and decides to adopt a high risk make or break strategy seems to be already to be toast.

Monday, 11 February 2008

More All Blacks pics

Adrian at the All Blacks has posted more of my pictures of the Bees game on the club website. Do browse.

The live(s) of a jobbing snapper

Much of my work as a photographer involves versions on a theme. I specialise in working for political organisations either with a capital or a small p. So campaign events, conferences and individual candidate portfolios are nothing new for me. Each undoubtedly presents a challenge because I need to make sure my photos are never seen as being run of the mill, but I usually have a good idea of what will make the key image and I can position myself and advise my clients accordingly. So last week I was in Twickenham to take pictures of Brian Paddick with Police, meeting with young people and in the Polish deli. None of these were specifically set up as photo ops. They were all visits where Brian wanted to learn more about the lives and work of those he met and to get across the message of what he could do differently as a Liberal Democrat mayor. My task therefore is to get the great shot but to stay on the sidelines as much as possible. Much of the challenge is to find an interesting angle such as the one of Simon Hughes at last year's LGA conference (right)

This week presents two fairly unique challenges. Yesterday I was just outside London to take pictures of the 25th wedding anniversary of a friend. This sort of event again demands a reportage style. As with weddings, the photographer should never (in my opinion) be the centre of attention. I might ask people if they mind me taking their photo, but I don't want to interrupt a day which is designed to be (and was!) a fun social gathering for family and friends. I think I got the balance right with a great range of photos of most of the people there and just a few set up shots of the family themselves. Forgive me for not posting the pictures here but, I'm sure you will understand, it was a private event and the pictures are for their use only.

It did mean that I got to try out a new piece of kit (photographers love gadgets and there are always new things on the market). This was a fairly inexpensive items as these things go. It's a flash diffuser that looks like a miniature soft box and attaches directly to a common or garden flash gun with velcro. It softens the light, cuts the chance of red eye (I only got a single shot with that problem in the whole shoot) and provides a consistent level of lighting across a wide plane. Of course it also cuts the power of the flash gun and looks quite ungainly when attached but I was massively impressed by it. The cost was only about £25 from The Flash Centre in Bloomsbury.

Thursday sees another challenge. A friend has asked me to take marketing pictures of his garage which repairs vans and lorries. He warns me that it is big, dark and oily! So I've brought all the lighting I have and I'll spend the day experimenting to get the right shots. I think I have a special trick up my sleeve and may end up with a 1600cc Mini Cooper flash unit.

In between times, this week will be taken up with training work for Parli-training, a company I've been working for on a freelance basis for a while. I'm discussing policy making tomorrow and then speechwriting on Wednesday (I used to be part of Paddy Ashdown's team when he was Leader of the Lib Dems) and then on Friday I'm working with a group of press officers on how the political parties campaign in general elections.

Saturday, 9 February 2008

All Blacks climb off the bottom

Cornish All Blacks climbed off the foot of the League One table with a well deserved victory over fellow strugglers Pertemps Bees. Although it ended up three tries a piece, the All Blacks converted each of theirs and added a Jon Fabian penalty to ensure the win and deny the Bees a losing bonus point.

Although Matt Jess scored a couple of tries, my man of the match was hooker Neil Clarke who made ground on every single carry.

Sweetest moment of the day was seeing the losing team in Tescos just now buying beer for the way home. They managed to pick a (young female) cashier who just happened to be a Lanson fan and who gently rubbed it in.

Oh, and I managed to get myself ticked off by the ref for questioning a decision by a touch judge. Whoops.

So the All Blacks are still undefeated in 2008, no longer at the bottom of the league and have previous victims London Welsh away next week.

Pics (top to bottom): Neil Clarke makes another run; Matt Jess scores the first of his two tries; Teh svelte figure of newly platinum Ryan Westren; Steve Pape; Sam Alford looks shocked to see Wayne Reed auditioning for his role at Scrum Half.

Say No to Game 39

An update to an earlier post of mine. The Football Supporters Federation have lanched a campaign agianst the ridiculous plans for an extra game for each premiership team to be played around the world.

I've signed up. Please do so too.

Dear Network Rail...

There are many gripes that we all have with Network Rail, but commuters in South West London are asking for answers to the empty platforms at Waterloo Station that used to be used by Eurostar but are now redundant since the company moved its operations to St Pancras.

The iconic architacture of the platforms remains, and the track and signalling is (as far as we know) still operation and still linked up to all the other lines. Yet while these platforms lie unused, trains back up outside the station every morning and evening and passengers suffer delay after delay to their journeys.

I don't think anyone would claim that simply by using these platforms all the problems of Waterloo would be solved, but it would surely be a start.

One of the leading lights of the campaign to open up these disused platforms is Stephen Knight, Lib Dem GLA candidate for South West London, who yesterday took Brian Paddick, the Lib Dem Mayoral candidate to see for himself.

Paddick in Twickenham

By some estimates, there are more than 250,000 Poles and other people from the EU accession countries living in London at the moment. All of them could be entitled to vote in May's elections to the GLA. Of course, most of them won't be registered to vote because either they have not yet taken the decision to stay in the UK and so they have no interest in the elections or they haven't got a clue that they are entitled to vote.

But it is undoubtedly a huge constituency of people who could have an enormous impact if enthused to vote (not that all are likely to vote for a single candidate, of course). Particularly as only around a third of those registered will bother to vote at all.

London has a history of large scale immigration. When I was a governor of a primary school in SE London, we had more than 30 different first languages represented. Most of the children in our part of London came from West Africa but there were increasing numbers of Eastern Europeans as well.

Yesterday, Lib Dem Mayoral Candidate Brian Paddick was out and around Twickenham. One of the stops he made was to a Polish deli that has been going for just over a year. They survive thanks to a large(ish) local Polish expat community and locals who have found the service and range of products to their liking. What helps is that wholesalers have started carrying lines of Polish products.

Brian also met up with local MP Vince Cable and the Deputy Leader of the local Council Stephen Knight for a visit to Twickenham Police Station. Brian used to come to Twickenham when he was the Police Officer in charge of organising policing for rugby matches. Of course, Twickenham is one of the parts of London with lower crime rates but the issue is still of concern to many local residents. One of the groups most often blamed are young people. Many older residents see groups of young people as a threat, even when they are doing nothing criminal or anti-social. Brian visited the excellent Heatham House youth centre in the middle of Twickenham which is part of Richamnd Council's response to this perceived problem. As well as touring the facilities, Brian was able to chat with the young people present about how they viewed the way they were treated by the Police, by the Council and by older residents.

Thursday, 7 February 2008

Why the Premier League is nuts

First we had the increase in ticket prices.

Then we had the demand that season ticket holders buy cup matches as well even before they know where the matches will be played.

Now the Premier League club owners have decided that it would be a jolly wheeze to play matches around the world. Not exhibition or pre-season games. Nor is this the proposal for a mid-winter break which happily coincides with pointless 'tournaments' in the far east. Nope, this is the idea that each Premier League club will play an extra match, for points, in a city anywhere in the world that has bid most for the right to host it.

So expect to see Liverpool vs Newcastle in Singapore and Fulham vs Bolton in... well, probably Fulham or Bolton actually. (And the idea that the biggest clubs will be seeded to avoid each other is gerrymandering at its worst).

This is horribly, horribly wrong for a huge number of reasons but I'll settle on two for now. First, think of the poor fans. There are plenty who are proud of the fact that they have not missed a single game, home or away, for a number of seasons. They put up with exhorbitant prices and the soul being ripped out of the game for the love of their team. Now they will feel honour bound to trek off to Shanghai for yet another match.

Second, this is the first step towards franchising. We are not the US. Over there, the system is different. Teams were set up as franchises of the league and can be bought and sold and moved around the country. And they are.

But football clubs in the UK are organisations with their heart and soul based in their local communities. It may be less apparent with the big Premiership teams who sell more replica shirts in Thailand than they do in their own city, but even so, they are part and parcel of their city. Newcastle United is Newcastle. St James' Park is in the middle of the city and every night countless thousands of geordies will be wearing the black and white stripes on nights out as well as to the game itself. If you allow the club owners to go after the money then it won't be one extra game being played overseas but we will see 'city partnerships' and more and more matches will be played at alternate venues. Hello to the global football league, kindly donated by English fans.

You simply cannot import the US franchising system to UK football. Yet that is what they propose to do. The owners, a growing number of whom are American in any case, believe that when they buy the team they should have the right to do with it whatever they want. Sod the fans and sod the good of the game. The bottom line is all. So the nurturing of new and homegrown talent goes and along with it the fortunes of the England team. The ability of local fans to come and enjoy the game disappears with rising ticket prices. They are replaced by the prawn sandwich brigade and bang goes the atmosphere.

Don't forget, we have already had one English league team franchised off. The owner of Wimbledon did a shady deal with Walmart which involved shifting the club 60 miles away all so that there could be yet another out of town superstore. Sod the fans. The result - the club fell two divisions and got less people through their gates than a new club set up by the self same fans some five divisions lower.

So not only do I think that franchising is wrong in principle, but I also think it won't work.
Instead, every club should be forced to have a fan rep on the board. If they want to go as far as Brentford and Chesterfield and be completely fan owned, then brilliant. But at least let's recognise that fans are one aspect that make our game what it is.

I actually raised this subject at a Lib Dem conference many moons ago. I was told by many people that it should not be the business of politicians to get involved in sport. Apart from the obvious hypocrisy of those politicians who happily pose for pictures with successes like Beckham and the World Cup winning England rugby team, I ask - why the hell shouldn't it be. I don't think sports clubs are mere businesses. They are involved in local communities from top to bottom and we need to recognise that fact and start acting to save our beautiful game.

Dem race - nobody can win

Remember how I said that McCain had already won the Republican race because the maths meant neither of the others (this was before Romney pulled out) could catch him?

Well the maths in the Democratic race means that neither Obama nor Clinton can win on the basis of the remaining primaries and caucuses. Why? Well, according to the Washington Post:
"There are 3,253 pledged delegates, those doled out based on actual voting in primaries and caucuses. And you need 2,025 to win the nomination. To date, about 55% of those 3,253 delegates have been pledged in the voting process -- with Clinton and Obamb roughly splitting them at about 900 delegates a piece. That means there are now only about 1,400 delegates left up for grabs in the remaining states and territories voting.

"So, do the math. If they both have about 900 pledged delegates so far, they need to win more than 1,100 of the remaining 1,400 delegates to win the nomination through actual voting.

"Ain't gonna happen, barring a stunning scandal or some new crazy revelation. So, they'll keep fighting this thing out, each accumulating their chunk of delegates, one of them holding a slight edge and bothing finishing the voting process with 1,600 or so delegates. And then the super delegates decide this thing. That's the math."
Hmm. So how is it going to work. Well, the superdelegates will get to decide things at the convention. Briefly, superdelegates are a mix of senior elected officials like senators, governors and past presidents and party hacks. There are about 800 in total and so far 300 have declared, favouring Hillary by about 2-1.

Superdelegates sit with their states in the convention but are not tied in any way as to how they vote. They can even change their mind at the last minute.

The theory goes that Clinton - being the party time-server - has the superdelegates in the bag. But equally, how would the party look if the wishes of the majority of elected delegates was ignored by the superdelegates. So Obama can still win, but he needs to beat Clinton as decisively as possible in the remaining contestsn and carry the momentum into the convention. He'll be battling as hard as possible for every delegate because he knows that if Clinton is leading going into the convention (or if Obama is only ahead by a few) then the superdelegates will find it easy to back the establishment candidate.

For more, there is a superb Youtube explanation from talking points memo

McCain's running mate decision

Iain Dale visits the subject of McCain's running mate to agree with Simon Heffer that it won't be Mike Huckabee. Iain points out that, at 72, McCain is after someone who could reasonably take over within 4 years and says that Huckabee is just not that person.

I agree that this is what McCain wants. The trouble is that I think that Huckabee is becoming just too powerful a figure to ignore. Consider McCain's position. He is unpopular with the God brigade because he is perceived as weak on abortion and gay marriage. He doesn't play well in the South and he is viewed as weak on immigration. So the whole spectrum of the right are arrayed against him. As I said before, if Obama is the Democratic candidate then the GOP could face problems in traditional red states. McCain needs a good solid bible belt southerner to shore up his position. The trouble is that there just aren't that many credible candidates around. What Huckabee has going for him is that he hs proven he can win in these states and that he was brave enough to put his head above the parapet and compete. On Super Tuesday, Huckabee won 5 states and was second in a further 3. He is a force to be reckoned with even if he cannot win.

Life will be a heck of a lot easier for McCain if Huckabee 'does a Dean'. Howard Dean, you will recall, came from nowhere to national prominence in New Hampshire four years ago and looked to be cedntre stage for good until his incredible 'scream' speech. McCain must be desparate that Huckabee blows up in the same way so that he can be safely ignored.

Unless that happens, McCain will be forced to give serious consideration to adopting Huckabee as his running mate. Much as he doesn't want that to happen, we are talking realpolitik here.

Wednesday, 6 February 2008

Dem race: It'll all end in court

If the current polls are anything to go by then we're going to go down to the wire in the Democratic race. We might not get to the political anorak's fantasy of a brokered convention (see the West Wing series seven for details), but we could easily get to a point where the invalidation of the Michigan and Florida primaries will be all important.

A reminder - the state Dems in each of these two states decided to bring forward their primaries in order to secure a bit more attention. The Democratic National Committee objected and insisted they stuck to the original timetable. The states persisted and so the DNC decided to withdraw the right of those primaries to elected convention delegates. The DNC also told the candidates not to campaign there.

Clinton, through some chicanery, managed to get herself on the ballot in Michigan when all the other candidates were not - so she ran against 'Undecided' and, not surprisingly, won fairly easily (about 55-45 if memory serves).

In Florida, all the names were on the ballot but candidates were barred from campaigning. Clinton again sailed close to the wind by announcing that she would visit the state to make a victory speech after polls closed. The clearly got a lot of airplay in Florida. In the end she also won there.

Rough calculations suggest that, with the proportional sharing of delegates in the Democratic primaries, Clinton would stand to make a net gain of 53 delegates over Obama if the results were allowed to count. Whilst the Supreme Court has declared that parties can decide the rules as they see fit, there is nothing to stop a desparate Clinton from giving the courts a go in the hope of forcing a climb down (or at least a compromise).

Alternatively, she could wait until the Convention committees are decided. The candidate ahead on number of delegates gets to decide all sorts of matters and it may be that a Clinton controlled committee could decide to seat the Michigan and Florida delegations after all.

The DNC is highly unlikely to want to wait to see who pulls the strings in this manner and so may attempt to head things off. They have three options:

1. Stick to their guns and say that Michigan and Florida delegations will not be seated. The upside is that they are playing by the rules and being consistent. The downside is how this will play int the respective states. Could the Dems really hope to win those states in November if they have snubbed them in this way now?

2. They could cave and allow the delegations in - either splitting the delegates equally between those candidates in the race at the time or according to how people voted at the time. The upside of this is it avoids a Clinton court case. The down side is that it is like Obama would object (especially in the latter scenario). I mean, how could Clinton be given a load of delegates for a contest where she was the only name on the ballot?

3. The compromise is the do-over. Hold the primary contests (or, more likely, caucuses) towards the end of the primary season. By that stage they really could make all the difference.
Hat-tip to Marc Ambinder for his analysis.

McCain Wins

John McCain's people are busy telling everybody that their man has already won the GOP nomination.

According to the completely excellent politicalwire:
"It's virtually impossible for Romney or Huckabee to be the nominee just based on the arithmetic."

-- McCain adviser Charlie Black, quoted by NBC News, noting that McCain has 775 delegates, Romney had 284 and Huckabee has 205.

Added Black: "It takes 1,191 to clinch the nomination. There are 963 left to be chosen, so Romney or Huckabee would have to have all of them -- all of them -- to get to 1,191. Now you can't do that because a majority of those 963 are chosen in proportional primaries, which means you'd have to get 100% if the vote to get them all."
There's plenty of dosh over at Betfair at 5,6, and 7%. It means tying your money up until September, but should be worthwhile for those with high liquidity.

Also today, McCain pulled out of the meeting with Gordon Brown scheduled for this Friday. Which makes life just that bit easier for David Cameron who was failing to get a meeting of his own with the Republican nominee.

More women MPs

If you think that the Lib Dem policy on getting more women MPs is a bit wishy-washy then contrast it with Gordon Brown's latest idea. At PMQs he has just been asked what he plans to do on the matter. His answer? Put up a statue to the suffragettes.

Brown to deal with wind problem

At PMQs just now, Labour MP Chris Mole asked about the objections that the Ministry of Defence make to new wind farms on the basis that they interfere with radar. Gordon Brown said that the Government is going to have to deal with the problems. I'll read the transcript in due course to see if I can glean whether he means that the Government will tell the MoD to cope with wind farms or whether they will just have to site wind farms elsewhere. But this brings up an big issue here in Cornwall.

Cornwall is in the face of the bulk of the on-coming weather and the high ground here is some of the continually windiest countryside in the UK. So we are the natural place for a load of wind farms. We already have quite a few (too many in some peoples' opinions). Now there is a big plan to site a big wind farm on top of the china clay spoil heaps north of St Austell. If you aren't familiar with Cornwall, it's where the Eden Project is. The area is dominated by massive hills made out of the spoil from the china clay works. The sides are grassed over and do gradually blend in over time, but they are still a very dominant presence. And the perfect site for a big wind farm. Except that Newquay Airport has always objected saying that a new wind farm would interfere with their radar.

So if Brown is really going to tell airports (both civilian and military) to learn to live with wind farms then it would be very good news for Cornwall.

Alex Salmond knows what he is doing

Just occasionally you come across a politician from another party who knows what he is doing. Sitting 300 miles away as I do, Alex Salmond seems to be one of them. He has managed to lead a minority government in the Scottish Parliament for nine months that has not collapsed under the weight of its own acrimony. Indeed, it spent the first few weeks taking all the popular decisions and gaining huge kudos.
Now it is crunch time with his budget and he has threatened to force a new election if he doesn't get it through. I have a sneaking suspicion that he would quite like such an election. Let's be clear, he would also quite like to win the budget vote.
But if he doesn't, would he really like to have to bring back a weakened budget and labour on knowing that the opposition parties have the taste of his blood?
A fresh election would allow him to cash in on the strong performance over the first nine months. He could quite accurately say that the other parties never gave him the chance to govern. He couldn't win an overall majority under the AMS system, but he could force one of the smaller parties to enter a formal coalition with him.

Nice to see the Telegraph so up to date with their photo library

Look at the picture in this story and see if you can guess how old it is.

And the real winner of Super Tuesday is...

Step forward Mike Huckabee. No, really. He went into yesterday's polling as the third candidate in a two-horse race and came out of it as the man who controls the South.
Of course he isn't going to be in the Oval Office next year. But he is now firmly positioned as the running mate for McCain - who even said some nice things about him in his speech last night. By taking a slew of Southern states - yes, all of the bible belt - he exceeded the predictions that he was only going to take his home state of Arkansas. Why is this important for McCain? For two reasons. First it means that there are still three candidates in the race. Mitt Romney's hope for a mano-a-mano showdown with McCain isn't going to happen for a while at least. Second, because McCain needs to be competitive in the South come the general election. These 'red' states are usually a lock for the GOP. But there is one thing that could upset the applecart - Barack Obama as the Dem nominee. If he could encourage black voters to come out for him then it puts these states in play for the first time in a long while. If McCain takes on Huckabee then it solidifies his shaky Christian right values and locks down these South once again.
Sticking with the Republicans, Romney had a really bad night. His victory in Massachussetts is only remarkable because McCain made a Guiliani-like gaffe and chose to campaign there rather than California. In the end, Romney held his home state quite comfortably in what became a good news story for him. Other than that, very little positive to report.
For the Dems, Obama failed to make a huge breakthrough, but won far more states than Clinton. However, he didn't make the grade in California, Massachussetts or New Jersey. (So wherever he had a big endorsement - Kerry and Kennedy in Mass, Mrs Arnie in Calif - he failed). Logically, he should be crowing about last night. He has at least got the 'little mo' and has loads of cash to splurge. But the media have fouled it up for him by suggesting that last night could have been the big one (they were even suggesting that New York could be in play). And the supporters email I got from his team overnight is comparatively downbeat.
In failing to win a couple of states they thought he might have, Obama seems to have lost some ground. On the other hand, he and Clinton seem to be getting a bit more lovey-dovey in their speeches. Clinton now appears to want him as her running mate to beat McCain. I don't see him being so keen and vice versa clearly wouldn't work.
And if Huckabee was the big winner. The big losers must be the pollsters. They made a hash of so many states that they are in danger of becoming a laughing stock. I have a big aversion to polls (although I read them avidly, of course) and got in trouble once for daring to suggest that a single poll might not have been the most accurate reflection of what was going to happen. I'll have a rant at some point on the subject.
It all happens again in three days time. The Dems hit Washington, Nebraska and Louisiana and the GOP goes to Louisiana and Kansas. Guys, it's over to you.
Image courtesy of Fox.

Tuesday, 5 February 2008

Shrove Tuesday sees the small town of St Columb celebrate the ancient sport of hurling. It's not exactly as our Irish friends would understand the sport... To start with, there are virtually no rules, other than some laid down when the sport began in the 1500's. Two teams - town and country - compete to manoeuvre a ball weighing just over a pound to their target goal post - a granite monument around a mile away from the centre of town. Comprising as it does the whole of the parish of St Columb, this constitutes the largest 'pitch' for any ball game in the world.
How the players get the ball from town to the goal varies. The ball is often thrown ('dealt') from player to player and, when forward progress is halted, a mss brawl ('ruck') develops with players attempting to wrestle the ball free.
As a consequence of a game involving a solid ball (sterling silver encasing an apple wood core - I had that in a pub quiz recently!) and mass street brawls, the local shops and houses take precautions and board up their windows for the occasion.
Not that it's all hurly burly. The large number of spectators are catered for by frequent breaks in play for the ball to be passed around and admired. It is said (when is it ever not in such ancient events) that touching the ball brings good luck and dunking it in a maiden's glass will mean she is pregnant before the end of the year. I suspect that, with all the hands that the ball goes through, she is more likely to be ill before the end of the night. And whether the young ladies of St Columb need an excuse for being pregnant is another matter entirely (I'll get in lots of trouble for that one).
The players also contrive to prolong the game for around an hour. At present the town team is much in the ascendency and they could have won in about 10 minutes. But they saw fit to run the ball up and down the street for a while (with frequent breaks for rucks) first.
It is also said that hurling is a good chance to sort out any differences you may have with your neighbours. All you need to do is toss the ball to them and then pile in.

Photos (top to bottom): The parish church of St Columb; Boarding up in anticipation; last year's winner Scott Bennett with the ball; ready for the off; a break in play gives a chance of a youngster to see the ball; an unconventional way of rucking; one of the many rucks; the ball is hurled in the air; Shrove Tuesday at 4.30pm is not the time to be driving through St Columb! play stops outside a pub named after the event for a youngster to see the ball.

Lanson give Blackheath (and the NFL) a stomping

What a difference a year makes. Last season, in Division 2, the All Blacks had a tough time against sides like Blackheath. Now it just seems all too easy. The 61-15 win was every bit as comprehensive as it sounds. If this were football then a cup match between a side rooted to the bottom of the Premiership and one in the play off spots of the Championship would be considered a fair bet for your pools coupons. The pundits might not even think of it as too much of an upset if the lower league side won. But in rugby the league you play in is everything and Saturday's result just proves how much the All Blacks have improved.
With ten tries virtually everyone got in on the act, but I'll single out Sam Alford's first as the best. The scrum half spotted the gap and went for it. I don't think he could believe it when, forty yards later, he was still running untouched.
Saturday was also remarkable for the appearance of one Dhani Jones - superstar linebacker for the Cincinnatti Bengals NFL franchise who is currently touring the world making a documentary for US TV. The concept is that he gives lots of different sports a go. So he called up Blackheath (one of the oldest rugby clubs in the world) and asked if he could play. They said yes (could you imagine a football side doing that?) and promised him 10 minutes at the end of the game.
To be fair to the lad, he had only had a couple of training sessions and so he fitted in quite well. His job in the NFL is tackling. Unless it's by accident, he doesn't touch the ball. So reports from training about his performance had him tackling high, blocking (not allowed here) and not having a clue what to do when he got hold of the ball.
But he made one crunching tackle in midfield and played fairly well at flanker although at each set piece his team mates had to tell him what his role was.
Apparently he was a great bloke to have around and he couldn't quite believe the physical demands on a rugby player. Above all - well done to Blackheath for taking him on.
Still unbeaten in '08!

Pics (top to bottom): Sam Alford burst through for his first try; Wayne Reed gets tackled (slightly) high; Dhani Jones; Jones does his job in the lineout. All pictures are copyright Alex Folkes/ Any unauthorised use is prohibited and will be followed up.

Bugs and B*ggers (again)

Well obviously this story was going to run...
The 'prison intelligence oficer' involved claims to have been forced to do the bugging by the Met. That gives the lie to any notion that they didn't know who Sadiq Khan was.
And apparently officials at the Home Office knew fairly early on in the piece but didn't bother to tell the politicians.
IF all that is true (and we have so many rogue elements involved in this story that it is a huge caveat), then clearly the politicians are off the hook. But the Wilson Doctrine (about not bugging MPs) is fairly well known and so the Home Office people must be for the high jump.
And what of Sir Ian and the Met. Well, I'm sure I'm not alone in thinking (as I said last night) that a lot of this sort of stuff goes on. But if you do something naughty and get caught then I'm sorry but you have to go.
Somebody call Chris Mullin.
Them's the rules.

Monday, 4 February 2008

As Forrest Gump might have said...

Lembit is as Lembit does.

Keith Vaz = Idiot

Keith Vaz, chairman of the Commons Home Affairs Select Committee has apparently been touring the interview studios telling anyone who will listen that fellow Labour MP Sadiq Khan was not the one being bugged. Er... Keith, wake up. Any conversation (whether or not it is bugged) requires more than a single participant. It may well be that Babar Ahmad was the target of the surveillance operation but the conversation that was bugged was one between him and his MP. Presumably the Police knew the identity of the second person because the discussion took place in jail and Mr Khan would have had to sign in.

Bugs and b*ggers

Guido points out that Sadiq Khan happily voted for ID cards but now complains that being bugged is an invasion of his privacy.
But what of MPs and their supposed immunity from eavesdropping.
Supposedly, MPs conversations are sacrosanct. But hands up if you truly believe that since the Wilson doctrine was adopted in the 60s there have been no illicit taps or tapes on radical (or even fairly conventional) MPs.
What makes this different is that somehow the tap became known about. How the Tories knew this sort of thing was going on has yet to be fully explained. But clearly they had an inkling and wrote to Gordon Brown about it. He promptly mislaid the letter...
To my mind, MPs do deserve to have some sort of immunity. Thye do a huge range of very sensitive work and need to have the trust of their constituents in doing it. So they should have rights similar to lawyers in terms of confidentiality. But I doubt very much that you will get too many members of the general public to agree with that statement at the moment. Why? Because it implies special privileges for MPs and Conways, Hain and Wintertons have shafted MPs in the public esteem stakes for a while...

Obama to win big?

According to the latest polls, Barack Obama is set to win big tomorrow. Rumour has it he may even win California and Missouri - two states said to have been in the bag for Hillary just a short while ago. In the great scheme of things it doesn't matter who wins in the Democrat races - only how big they win (eh?). That's because the delegates to the Party convention are distributed proportionately. So if Obama wins by just a couple of percent, he will end up with only a single delegate more than Clinton. But it's all about the Big Mo - momentum and perception. All is the other way around in the Republican race where winning is all (there's a lesson in there about right wing psyche, but I can't be bothered to go there for now.
So get your ass over to Betfair where you can still get a decent price about Obama in California and Missouri. If you want free money (but not a lot of it) then take the 1.06 about him winning his home state of Illinois. Think about it - 6% return for an overnight investment. For a genuine gamble, try Obama to win New Jersey - 15/8 is a great price.
I'll be wearing my Obama t-shirt tomorrow...

Dead to the world...

... watched Super Bowl last night to 3am. Worth it to see such a fantastic defensive performance by the Giants and a brilliant come back winning drive.