Friday, 29 August 2008

Darling waves the white flag

The Chancellor has used an interview with the Guardian tomorrow (BBC link here) to do say what all the rest of us have known for some time. The economy in the UK is screwed and everybody blames Labour for it.

So it's goodbye to the line that 'it's a world downturn, started in the States and the UK will escape the worst thanks to the magnificent skills of the Dear Leader'.

First of all we had the growth figures which showed that the US grew 3.3% last year whilst the UK stayed still (hat-tip Guido). Now we have Darling's admission. And there are not too many weasel words here. According to Darling the downturn will be 'more profound and long lasting' than most people (in the Government) had feared.

He even went as far as to admit that voters were 'pissed off' with Labour's handling of the economy.

So, after all these months and years in which Labour has been spinning a message along the lines of 'whatever else is wrong, at least we've built a strong economy', now we get the truth and the white flag that goes with it.

The challenge for the Liberal Democrats is to capitalise on this admission and voter's distrust of Labour over the economy. The Conservatives are too timid to talk about tax cuts. Cameron says he needs to wait to see the books - at which point he will announce that we're all doomed but at least he is on hand to steer us out of the mess.

So it falls to the Lib Dems to say it like it is - that Labour has invested billions in public services - as we wanted - but that they have mishandled how it was spent. Now that things are tight we need to maintain public services but give a break to those who are struggling. Let's abandon the Brownian bureacracy of tax credits and other administrative nightmares. Instead, let's look to give a tax cut to ordinary people - targeted at those who need it most.

The other parties will say that our figures don't add up. I'm sure they will, but, to be frank, I don't care. No-one expects us to be governing on our own after the election. What they want from the Lib Dems is a credible (if not figure perfect) policy and a promise that we will stick to our principles and use whatever leverage we have to argue for lower taxes and more sensible spending on services.

Thursday, 28 August 2008

Yay - I'm number 29

Thank you to all who voted for me - I've come in at 29 on Iain Dale's list of the top 50 Lib Dem blogs.

Sights set on posting more regularly and interestingly to catch up on the likes of the Burbler...

Aaron Sorkin hits Facebook

Apologies for the fact that this will only appeal to computer using political junkies, but hey, you are reading this blog aren't you...

Aaron Sorkin, the man who created the West Wing and the much under-rated Studio 60, is now on Facebook and he's writing a movie about it.

His Facebook page is worth reading simply for the movie geek joke at the end.

Wednesday, 27 August 2008

To Bath - or not

Both my teams are in Bath for big matches at the weekend.

Having won their first five games of the season in Conference South, AFC Wimbledon will travel to Bath City on Saturday for a challenging away fixture.

And the Cornish All Blacks will be at the Rec to take on a Bath United side (basically a mixture of Bath Rugby's first team and academy) in their final pre-season match.

Both kick off at 3pm.

So which am I going to go to?

Actually neither. I will instead be taking photos at the wedding of Stephen Kearney, the Lib Dem candidate in Henley, to his partner Julia Ohlsen.

Monday, 25 August 2008

Fisherman Nick

Nick Clegg was down in Cornwall again on Friday to see the problems facing local fishermen and to meet a young couple who are struggling to be able to afford to live in the village which is their home and where they work.

First off was Newquay harbour to meet fishermen and talk to them about the problems they face. Chief among these is the mountain of forms that need to be filled in the whole time. But they are also concerned with the lack of young people now entering the industry. In the past a fisherman could get a grant that covered 25% of the cost of a new boat and a loan for a further 25%. This not only helped young people into the business, but also helped the boat building firms. Now these young people can't get the same sort of financial help and, even if they can afford a boat, the cost of a fishing licence is almost as much as the boat itself.

So we don't see so many fishermen and the industries surrounding them face collapse as well. Nobody is reporting that there are too few fish in the sea and, if stocks dwindle, then it is not in the interests of inshore fishermen to destroy their livelihoods by over-fishing.

After their discussion, Nick headed out with lobster and crab fisherman Philip Trebilcock. Nick happily lent a hand hauling in the pots and checking that the catch was legal size (at least with crustaceans anything undersized can be thrown back to grow some more rather than dead).

Then it was off to St Agnes to meet a young couple who are struggling to be able to afford to live in the village where they grew up. With a combined income of around £20,000, they cannot afford a mortgage on a house when properties in the village seel for at least £250,000. They have tried renting but most landlords can get more in the summer from tourists and so there are only winter lets available in their price range. So they are living with their parents and desparate to move.

Nick also met with some local developers who have just started building new houses on the edge of St Agnes. These will be shared equity homes but with an upper limit that means that residents cannot buy the whole of the property and so the housing association can ensure that they remain in the affordable sector for people with a local connection.

Finally, Nick went to Truro to appear on the Laurence Reed programme on Radio Cornwall. Apparently Laurence is listened to by 30% of the entire radio listenership in the county. Nick fielded questions from listeners on subjects such as red diesel for farmers, wind farms, the problems of the County Council and dualling the A30.

Pics: Nick chats with Philip Trebilcock on board his boat; Nick at work on the boat; Nick chats to local fisherman Geoff Brown; Nick meets a young couple struggling to afford to stay in St Agnes despite having full-time jobs; Nick and local ppc Terrye Teverson chat with developers building new affordable homes in St Agnes; Nick with Laurence Reed of BBC Radio Cornwall

Dons on top

The wonderful AFC Wimbledon are currently sitting top of the Blue Square Conference South having won their first five games in the league after promotion last season.


Oh Kate!

We were round at my brother's house for supper last night and watched the programme on plastic surgery - Super Botox Me - on Channel 4. The presenter (Kate Spicer) is the daughter of a good friend of my mother ans she has known Kate since she was 15 or so.

So as Kate (now 39ish) had needles stuck into every part of her face and laser treatment that gave her the sort of panda eyes a child might draw when only given the red crayon, my mother would exclaim 'Oh Kate!' every three minutes or so before reminding us that Kate had always had bags under her eyes and it was not a matter of age.

I thought the programme as a whole was very amusing. It convinced me that non-invasive beauty treatments really don't achieve that much in terms of looks, but Kate seemed to feel it made a real difference so they clearly had some effect on her state of mind at least. If that's what you are after then feel free to hand over your hard earned cash.

Friday, 15 August 2008

Lies, Damn Lies and Interactive crime mapping

James Graham helpfully points out the Met Police's new online toy - interactive crime mapping for the whole of London except the City.

A quick play has led me to the conclusion that I don't trust it an inch. There is the caveat that it seems only to be presenting information on robbery, burglary and vehicle crime from June this year. One might think that these are the sort of offences that people are most concerned about. But, given the extreme nature of some of the crime in London, I wonder how truthful a picture this is.

Take two places I lived whilst I was in London. We are talking about a time two years ago and another a year ago.

In one location you would be hugely fearful about going out at night. My fiance was threatened with rape on one occasion and with assault on another. I was the victim of an attempted mugging twice, we witnessed numerous violent incidents and we eventually left after somebody helpfully set fire to our house (at which point our landlord emigrated with our deposit and owing us various other monies - something else that is not recorded in these figures).

The Met Police's rating for this area (at both ward and sub-ward level) - Average.

After being burnt out, we moved to an area about three miles away but totally different in atmosphere. Here you felt safe (well, as safe as possible in London) walking the streets at night. There were plenty of people on the streets in the evenings making use of the bars, gastro-pub and eating places. During a year in this place none of us ever experienced anything worrying and we didn't see anything on the street.

You can guess where this is going. At both ward and sub-ward level this area was classed as High crime.

As with school league tables, I am sure that the information on these maps is true, I just don't think it presents an accurate picture.

Is this why A-Level grades keep rising?

When I took my school exams we didn't do coursework. It was a case of all or nothing written papers in the school sports hall at the end of fifth and upper sixth form. If you didn't do very well then there was the option of re-taking in January, or even the following May, but those re-takes would be the entire exam, not just a single paper.

Nowadays things have changed. A-Levels are split into AS and A2 sections and there is a large amount of coursework in both GCSEs and at A-Level. There are differences of opinion as to whether these are a good thing.

However, one change that I think is less positive is the chance of students to re-take individual modules up to three times during the period of the course in order to bump up their grade. Students who take a module in the first term of the first year of study (out of two) can re-take that module in the May, the following January and the following May if they want to. Later modules can be re-taken less, but I think you get the point.

A student who gains an A-grade for every module first time round will emerge with the same ultimate mark as a student who has re-taken section after section bumping their score up from a C, to a B and finally to an A. Whilst I applaud their determination, I don't think they could be said to have done as well as the student who got all the As first time.

So is this the reason why A-Levels grades keep rising? Certainly it seems likely to be part of the reason. Whilst I am all in favour of students being able to re-take exams, maybe during the two years of the course, it should be clear to universities and employers how they got those grades to enable a fair judgement of what the results really mean.

Thursday, 14 August 2008

Bones - what's not in the summary

Yep - the summary of the Bones Commission report has been published and it's good that it has. But I understand that many of the most controversial sections are yet to surface. My worry is that more and more details (or half truths) will leak out and it may derail the minds of many at conference.

So what's not in the public domain yet?

Well, Bones proposes that a Fundraising Committee be set up - which is good.

As has already been mentioned in various places, it is proposed that the Federal Executive be replaced by a chief officers committee - which seems to me quite good in principle. But some of the people on this committee worry me. It will include the Chair of the Westminster and Holyrood Parliamentary Parties and of the Welsh Assembly Group and Matthew Hannay from the Leader's Office (among a few others). Now I like Matthew a lot, but to be honest, I don't really think he should become one of the most powerful people in the running of our Party simply because of his position in the Clegg Office. And I worry that the balance of the group will be skewed towards MPs/MSPs/AMs. I know that the current great and good might not be the right mix either, but this doesn't seem to me to be the right remedy.

Bones also suggests that target seat status should become the remit of the regional parties. I'm horrified by that proposal. I worry that target seat status will start to become conferred on the basis of factors other than winability - buggins turn, the gender or ethnicity of the PPC and geographical spread are all bad reasons to choose which seats to pin our hopes on. I believe that Chris Rennard and the Cowley Street team, taking into account all relevant factors and many years of experience, are better placed to make a decision which is so crucial to our electoral fortunes.

I am led to believe that the members of the FE were asked to accept the report even though they themselves were not allowed to read it.

As Paul Walter has said, a report that is kept under wraps for so long becomes deeply concerning. I believe that the full report needs to be published now so that a proper debate can be held on it at conference. Many of the changes would, after all, require conference approval (the existence and remit of the FE is a constitutional matter and so could only be dealt with by conference, whatever the FE itself said).

Disclaimer: I believe that what I have said above is correct. However, it is based on conversations with many different people and so I am prepared to stand corrected.

Alex Wilcock's masturbatory challenge

My friend Alex W has challenged Lib Dem bloggers to suggest their favourite posts from their own blogs to assist the process of the Blog of the Year awards.

Not that I think I can beat the likes of the elephant, James Schneider (for excellent foreign coverage) or Mr Bonkers, but here goes.

Well there's this one about going one better than Iain Dale
This one about Nick's preparations for PMQs
This one about the budget (with guest appearance by my mother in law)
And finally, this one about working with fringe parties - middle east style.

Am a bit worried that all of these come from ages ago.

Monday, 11 August 2008

What do you do with a privatised monopoly that is out of control?

I am old enough to remember back in the 80's that the Liberal Party (as then was) went through some contortions in deciding how to deal with the Thatcher privatisations.

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but one way of deciding what to support and what to oppose is to look at whether you are simply turning a public monopoly into a private one. In such cases there is a case to be made for saying that there can be little benefit in privatisation. After all, the basis of capitalism is that greed is good and if there are excess profits to be made from the hapless citizen for a product that they cannot do without then a private company will go all out for those excess profits.

In such cases where a genuine market could be created then privatisation can certainly bring benefits (albeit, with the need for a strong regulator to watch out for price fixing).

So, in simply terms, privatising airports good, privatising water bad.

The latest round of water company business plans has shown up just how terrible a privatised monopoly can be. Here in the South West we have 30% of the coastline and about 3% of the population. We also have a tourist industry that relies on clean beaches for business. So, even if we did not have environmental sensibilities to start with, we have a business need for clean coasts.

A difficult job seems to my mind to have been done extraordinarily badly by South West Water. It's not as if they pay vast amounts to their shareholders or to their bosses in bonuses, but they still manage to provide a fairly terrible service at the highest possible cost to customers.

The latest round of price rise bids are a good exemplar. Welsh Water (a company which also has a good deal of coastline to deal with) are pledging to increase bills by inflation only. Other companies are asking for permission to raise prices by between 0.7% and 3% above the level of inclation. You would have hoped that companies might have been pledging to cut bills about now having been able to increase prices for more than 15 years in a row, but inflation level rises between 2010 and 2015 seem fair enough.

And then we heard the figures from South West Water. They want to raise prices for those of us with water meters by about 12% as well as the rate of inflation. If you do not have a water meter then the price rise will be 40% above the rate of inflation. Average bills will hit around £1000.

SWW claim that after that point they hope to be able to ease back on price rises.

I cannot think of this as anything other than a disgrace. It is certainly the case that the privatisation of water was handled badly in the first place. There should have been extra investment by the Government in treatment facilities to put the South West on an even footing with the rest of the UK.

However, this cannot be an excuse for the ludicrous mismanagement by South West Water. The time has come when the Government must say enough is enough. Unless SWW can find a way of delivering a high quality service, including the pledged investment, with average bills rising by no more than the rate of inflation, then the time has come for the Government to strip them of their right to fleece local people in this manner each and every year.

If this rise is allowed to go ahead then many people in Cornwall will be having to pay more than one in every ten pounds of their income in water charges.

Enough really is enough.

Tuesday, 5 August 2008

The Watford case - Cameron's failings

I am very glad that Ian Oakley has pleaded guilty to his criminal actions in support of his Conservative campaign in Watford. It is, perhaps, the first decent thing that he has done. The unbelievable level of abuse and criminal activity beggars belief in a major party. Full praise to Sal and the Lib Dems who have worked closely with the Police and never stooped to replying in kind. I am very sorry that some Tories (just some, but enough) just don't seem to get it - that this was far, far beyond the bounds of anything that might be considered politics.

My particular sympathy goes to the Lib Dems who suffered having anonymous letters and leaflets delivered to their neighbours accusing them of being paedophiles. Full marks to the Police for their actions to state publicly that this was not the case, but it must have been a very tough time.

I was in Watford during the last General and remember the beginnings of some of this hate campaign. I am disappointed that the actions from this far back do not seem to have been covered by the court case. I do not wish to imply guilt but it is clear that either Mr Oakley has not admitted to everything he did (but having asked for 68 other offences to be taken into consideration, I don't see what he would have to lose by admitting to more if he had done them), or other people were guilty of things and these still need to be cleared up.

I was again in Watford for a visit by Ming Campbell a couple of years ago. Mr Oakley and a large number of other Tories tried to disrupt the visit. So far, common enough - if regretable. But their actions that day went well beyond what might be considered fair game. Their yelling and screaming was massively abusive and had no place in our politics. They constantly tried to disrupt every media interview and were obnoxious beyond belief.

After that visit, Ming wrote to David Cameron asking him to take action about Watford Tories. Unfortunately, Cameron ducked that opportunity to investigate and simply replied that such behaviour was what party leaders should expect.

Of course, I do not believe that Cameron either knew about or condoned the illegal acts that Oakley has confessed to. But his fellow party leader wrote to him about behaviour that was clearly beyond the pale and which deserved to be looked into.

I genuinely believe that, if Cameron had taken that chance to look into Watford Tories, then he might have discovered that all was not right and some of what has happened since might (stress might) have been avoided.

I say again - David Cameron was not responsible for these illegal acts. But his slapdash attitude to genuine concerns expressed to him did him no favours. For all that Oakley is no longer a member of the Conservatives, he did what he did to further the Conservative cause and that needs to be remembered.

Perhaps it is time for a bit more care and control Mr Cameron.

Monday, 4 August 2008

Women hate Miliband, Men hate Harriet

The detailed figures of the weekend's ICM poll have been posted by Mike Smithson on Political Betting. Mike targets the fact that Harriet Harman has very strong support amongst women. And bears....

What Mike appears not to notice is the massive dislike that men have for Harman and, perhaps more important, the intense diversity between the way the genders view Miliband. The Foreign Secretary polls 28% among men when asked who they would most like to see replace Brown, but just 13% among women. That 28% figure is the strongest showing of all the subsets shown. But Jack Straw polls stronger over all because his 25% male support only drops a point among women.

What is it that women hate about Miliband. I presume it's the geekiness. But ideas please.

For all that people go on about Harman's winning of the Deputy Leadership - and it was a very great achievement - I really can't see the massed ranks of the Labour membership and unions letting her loose on the country as a whole. Particularly the MPs who hold a third of the votes. They've met her, after all.

Miliband only polls a point less than Harman among women but a whopping 24 higher among men. Put those figures together and I really cannot see Harman winning.

Tories launch the war against Nuts

The Conservatives have obviously decided that young (and not quite so young) men are not their target audience. Michael Gove is set to claim that magazines such as Nuts and Zoo encourage 'instant-hit hedonism' and relationship breakdown.

I always thought that these magazines were pretty much the embodiment of Thatcherism. They spell out a freedom loving, do what you want agenda that sits perfectly happily, in my view, with the Conservatives of the 80s.

Of course, there has to be some psephology behind this move by Gove. Not only is he reaching out to his base of older, more traditional, voters, but he is courting the female vote assidulously. It's very difficult to win an election without winning the women's vote.

Then again, maybe this is the long awaited follow up to David Cameron's 'I am the judge of what is right and wrong' speech delivered to the Local Government Association last month.

Friday, 1 August 2008

Balls is Labour's best Leader

I've always had a lot of respect for Ed Balls. I think that the way he has established himself in the schools portfolio has been commanding, not allowing David Laws the sniff of a chance to embarrass the Government's bold reform plans.

In particular, I would single out his fantastic leadership over the SATS marking issue. I think that this has firmly marked him out as the best possible replacement for the PM if he is forced out of office...

OK, ok. I'll stop pretending. It's just that with Ed Balls in charge of Labour, they would fall behind the Lib Dems in the polls according to the Telegraph.