Friday, 28 November 2008

The Leaky Cauldron (with apologies to J K Rowling)

Damian Green has made it clear that he thinks that it is the business of opposition MPs to publicise information that the Government tries to sit on.

The Government (and the Police) clearly think that it isn't.

But the Goverment is, of course, not so lily white on this issue. Much has been made of the fact that lots of the Pre-Budget Report was leaked to the media before the Chancellor made his statement to the Commons. Some may have been put out there by the famed Treasury Mole, but it is quite clear that other information was leaked by, or with the tacit consent of Ministers themselves. Surely this is sensitive information which should not be in the public domain until the proper time. Has anyone asked the Police to look into this?

And what about the media. They could be said to be complicit in the leaking process because they receive much of the information and gleefully publish it.

Without a hint of irony, this BBC story contains the words
The BBC understands that a junior Home Office official was suspended from duty 10 days ago over a number of leaks and the matter was referred to police. He was arrested but not charged.
'the BBC understands' - that sounds to me like it came from an off the record briefing - a leak.

And what about this story?

Downing Street sources say there will almost certainly be some discussion of the pre-Budget report, and ministers will finalise the detail of their next legislative programme, which the Queen will set out before Parliament on Wednesday.

There will also be an update from Foreign Office Minister Lord Malloch-Brown on the situation in the Democratic Republic of Congo, which he has just returned from.

Ooh - looks to me like someone disclosed the Cabinet's agenda to the press. Surely a leak inquiry will be held.

Thursday, 27 November 2008

Why anti-terrorism police?

Why was it that up to nine police from the anti-terrorism unit were used to arrest Damian Green? Is he really thought to have been committing terrorist acts or was it Brownian Labour edging ever closer to the tactics of a certain Soviet leader of the middle of the last century?

First Iceland, now a Tory MP. Next thing you know they'll be carting off Felicity Kendall.

Tory MP Damian Green arrested

This breaking story has been getting Westminster excited this evening. It started as a rumour that SOMETHING had happened and then resolved itself to the story that has appeared best in the Telegraph.

It appears that Mr Green has been arrested on suspicion of being involved with the leaking of sensitive documents from the Home Office - he is Shadow Immigration Minister and has embarrassed the Government recently with revelations. It is suspected that he is somehow linked to the civil servant arrested about 10 days ago - the assumption being leaker and leakee.

The Conservatives will claim that if Mr Green is simply raising matters of public concern - particularly matters that the Government was seeking to hide or inappropriate behaviour by the Home Office - then this is his job. And, with a few caveats, I agree. Providing it is not damaging national security and on the assumption that he was not paying whoever leaked the documents or extorting them in some way (and absolutely no suggestion of this has come to my ears) then so be it. It is the job of the opposition to raise questions about Government policy - particularly any malfeasance.

Hide behind the sofa time

As an 11 year old, I should never have been allowed to watch the 1981 version of this.

Mind you, I suspect that nobody over that age would have found the waddling plants remotely frightening.

But I'm looking forward to it being back on.

Political Haircuts

Watching Gordon Brown on BBC News just now I notice that he has had a trim.

Meanwhile, Lib Dem Leader Nick Clegg has had a fairly drastic haircut. Gone is the Hugh Grant floppy look and in has come a much shorter style.

Dare I say, it makes him look older and more serious?

Over to you Dave...

Sajj Karim among Britons caught in Mumbai terror attacks

According to the BBC, British MEP Sajj Karim is among the Britons who escaped from the Taj Hotel in Mumbai.

British MEP Sajjad Karim, who spent the night barricaded in the basement of the Taj Mahal Palace hotel, tells BBC World News TV that guests had fled one gunmen at the hotel's entrance only to be confronted by another at the back. "He had quite a large machine gun in his hand and simply pointed it towards the crowd and started to use it. Pure instinct takes over. As soon as the first shots were fired, I saw a few people go down and I, along with everyone else, turned and fled," he says. Mr Karim says the streets of central Mumbai are now "incredibly quiet".

Woolies

I bought my first ever record in Woolies. It was by the Thomson Twins.

MFI fails to rate so high in my childhood recollections

Monday, 24 November 2008

PBR - it's just a bit crap isn't it

Funny how the Pre Budget Report seems to have overtaken the Budget itself in importance in the political calendar. Is this because of timing - autumn being a more feral political season?

Or is it because the traditions of purdah don't apply to the PBR and so the Chancellor can get away with leaking whole chunks of what he is going to announce.

Or perhaps it is just that it is treated as a statement and so there is much less time for speeches and for opposition comment.

Anyway, the meat and drink of the statement seems to be dividing political opinion purely along party lines. George Osborne in particular ramped up the rhetoric as though this was the beginning of the election campaign. I suppose the Tories are deliberately behaving as though it is. They believe (probably with good reason) that the later the election is, the worse the economy will be and so the better they will do. Brown might be tempted to cut and run if things look good in the spring (as I argued here before). Alternatively, he will hang on and just hope that his plans actually start to bear fruit.

They won't. Particularly if this is anything to go by.

The usual Brownian mish mash of tax credits for 'hard working families' are in there but the major plank is the cut in VAT. As many have said before, and many more will say in the future - just how many businesses will go around cutting prices by pennies? Not so many - particularly at the cheaper end of the market.

For the genuinely poorest there will be little respite. Food and so on is not subject to VAT. Most places are already so desperate for custom that they are knocking 20% off in pre-Crimbo sales. They won't use the VAT cut to trim any more off.

For the middle incomes there is also little. They may spend a little more in the shops as a result of this, but it's hardly enough to start compensating them for the higher credit card bills or negative equity.

The top earners, of course, will be hit hardest by the tax hikes - 45p tax for the richest 1%.

But all of us - including all firms - will also have to stump up with the ludicrous rise in NI comntributions. NI is a form of income tax and corporation tax rolled into one. It is the worst possible tax rate to change if you want people to be richer.

There is apparently a public sector spending splurge coming. But it is coming from a standing start in almost all cases and so will take ages to get off the ground. Building lots of new social housing is welcome, but it will still need planning permission, tendering and so on and so the houses are not likely to start coming on stream for three years and the Polish builders won't see any more work for a year or so.

I'm glad to see the Tories pointing out some of the more obvious flaws in the plan, but they really haven't said what they would do instead. Perhaps doing nothing is better than this, but I think they need something more than their plan to give incentives to employers to ditch long-standing workers and take on the long-term unemployed.

The Lib Dems, from what I've read, have stuck to their guns and said that income tax cuts should be the priority - starting at the lowest end and for good, not just for 13 months. I would have preferred a cut in NI (for both employers and workers), but this is almost there. Let's allow people to keep a little more of the money they earn and allow them to save it or spend it as they think best for themselves. Brown's package seems to be based on the notion that only spenders gain (and even then only if they spend on the right things and in the right places). Under the Lib Dems every worker would be a winner.

Only 77% male - perhaps it's time to rename this blog?

According to the amusement de jour, this blog is 77% likely to be written by a male. Could they not have got a bit more of a clue from the name?

Saturday, 22 November 2008

Introducing: The Lembit Opik Pitta Heater

Was driving to do some photos at Exeter races yesterday (tough life ;-p) when I heard an episode of the Radio 4 Comedy Fags, Mags and Bags. It's a sit com based in an Indian run corner shop.

Yesterday included a plot about the upwardly mobile son inventing his own version of the George Foreman Grill. He created the Lembit Opik Pitta Heater - 'because Lembit Opik is not just a Liberal Democrat, he's Everyman (and he's deceptively tall).'

Utterly brilliant.

I urge you to listen again

Tuesday, 18 November 2008

Carry on Charles

I'm not a monarchist. I once proposed a motion on the abolition of the monarchy at conference. But I'm fully in favour of Prince Charles being able to say whatever the heck he wants (subject to the normal constraints of the law, natch).

I really cannot see why Lord Taverne wants to muzzle Charles (and has been pontificating across to airwaves to this effect).

From my republican point of view, if Charles is busy spouting off left and right then people will agree or disagree with him as they see fit. But the more that they do so, the more Charles comes across as just another bloke with a view. No longer will he - either as heir or monarch - be seen as any more special than that bloke at the bar who can't shut up about bin collections.

Even monarchists should be happy. Why do they want a figurehead who is so remote that they never appear to have a view on anything. I can understand an individual decision to remain silent - as our current monarch appears to have made. But why should this be forced upon her heir? Especially as he is renowned for his outspoken-ness.

Monarchy purdah is a new invention in any case. In previous centuries citizens have known exactly what their rulers have thought about just about ever key topic. Perhaps the move towards a representative democracy has changed matters but let's not try to make Charles something he isn't.

Been busy...

It's been a busy week in Lanson Boy's life. I was up in Cambridge on Saturday to watch the mighty Cornish All blacks defeat one of the strongest teams in League Two with a last minute try and conversion.

Being Cambridge, I also had the chance to stay with my randmother and meet up with two cousins who were in town at the time.

Then it was off to Kent to do a couple of days photography with PPCs and county candidates - first of all in Shepway and then in Canterbury. It was great to meet up with Neil and with Guy, our excellent PPCs for the two seats. It was also good to see the hard work that is going into the county campaign there. The Lib Dems have not done so well in Kent recently but I think that it is almost certain that we will make huge gains on our six county seats in June.

This week will now involve catching up although I plan to be in London on Thursday for the gurkha event. Stay tuned for pics...

Pics - Jon Brandling Harris in action for the Cornish All Blacks against Cambridge; Catherine Bearder and Guy Voizey in Whitstable harbour; Shepway

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

I thought the Tories were meant to be the low tax party

There's a danger that, come the end of the day, it will be the Tories who are being least adventurous in their plans for cutting taxes in order to help beat the recession. That, to me at least seems a bit against the grain.

First we have the Lib Dems who have plans to cut up to £20bn and target these tax cuts at low to middle income earners and pay for it by closing tax loopholes for the rich.

Now we have the Tories who are restricting their promises to cutting NI payments for employers who take on people who have been jobless for more than 3 months.

I suspect that, in about an hour's time, we will get the usual blizzard of credit system proposals from Labour which will benefit some of the lowest earners, particularly families, but cost more in paperwork than they manage to give out to real people.

Let's look at the Tory proposals for a moment. They seem perfectly worthy to me. But just so very, well, timid. They almost seem like something that Gordon would propose. Tories don't do this sort of fiddling about at the edges. They do big bold gestures. Except now they haven't.

I think that when it comes to public understanding, the Tory proposals are going to seem very small beer indeed.

Sunday, 9 November 2008

But Dale is also an arse...

Despite what I said below, Iain Dale is being a bit of an arse in his post about prisoners voting rights. Quite apart from the pointless mischaracterisation of Lib Dem policy (he seems to imply that the Lib Dems want the judges to force prisoner voting rights on the UK), he seems to be oblivious of the concept of how a democracy works.

First - any democracy needs to have a judiciary whose role is to make sure that the constitution is complied with. In the US that job is much easier because there is a written constitution and a strict separation of powers which sets out the duty of the judiciary to overrule the other two branches of government where they believe that the law is unjust. But even in the UK, there is a place for judges who are prepared to say that the system is unfair. The Courts did so recently when they said that gurkhas who had served the UK should have the right to stay in the country.

So for Dale to say that judges making law is a bad thing is to misunderstand the way democracy works. Where Parliament is unfair, it is the job of judges to act.

Now I am happy to accept that many people think that prisoner voting is a bad thing. But I disagree with them. I believe that the task of prisons is to rehabilitate prisoners. If we strip them of their voting rights then we send them (yet another) message that they are not part of society. I believe that allowing prisoners the right to vote (by post for the constituency they were living in before sentencing) could be beneficial for rehabilitation. Almost half the countries of Europe allow prisoners to vote and I have seen how it works in practice when I was an election observer in Ukraine. With small modifications (prisoners had no choice about when to vote - only whether), prisoner voting works in even the newest democracies and in person.

I do believe that judges should have the right to strip prisoners of their right to vote as an extra punishment. Personally, I would only do so for people who had committed electoral fraud. But I accept that this is a matter worthy of debate.

Dale is not engaging in debate but using the subject as a means of beating up Euro judges. And that is why he is being an arse.

Iain Dale is right...

Dale is right that it is ridiculous to cheapen the concept of democracy by having celebrities sitting in our legislatures simply because of how many photos they have in Hello!

(And Mark Pack is also right that it is stupid to give people lottery tickets for voting. We need to make voting something people actually want to do.)

Friday, 7 November 2008

Politicians 1 Punters 0 (and why Brown will call the election soon)

Political Betting identified a massive split between the politicians and the punters over who would win Glenrothes. The politicians mainly believed that Brown had turned things around and could pull it off. The punters felt that the Nats would walk it. Of course the politicians were right and Labour secured a massive majority. Even Guido is having second thoughts about 'Jonah' Brown.

What is also interesting to note tho is that the political commentators also got it spectacularly wrong. They were all (at least, according to Politics Home) calling Glenrothes for the SNP.

I have a strong aversion to the so-called expertise of the broadcast political editors in particular. I don't think that an ability to buy lunch for someone who then gives you a couple of tidbits on a no-names basis is a particularly worthwhile skill. They aren't reading the runes at all, simply repeating what others tell them. And, with a couple of honourable exceptions, there is a herd mentality among the whole of the Westminster media. Once a thought develops then the papers and TV all run with it no matter the evidence to the contrary. And all too often they are wrong (and even when they are right it is because they have pushed the story).

So they got their comeuppance with Glenrothes (not that they will admit it. Heck, most probably won't even notice).

And what does this mean for the timing of the General Election? Brown has to give serious thought now to calling the election early. Of course he is still behind in the polls but look at the evidence:

- Cameron still has high approval ratings but all on the basis of sounding good. He still has no policies because policies take time to develop. If an election were called now then I suspect that the Tory manifesto might be full of holes and certainly not everyone would yet be singing from the same hymnsheet. Plenty of splits for Mandelson to exploit;
- The economy is going to hell in a handbasket, but it won't get any better between now and the last moment for calling the election. At the moment Brown is riding high on his plan to save the world. Pretty soon people will start to realise that the plan was not all that magnificent; hasn't helped their pockets at all and wasn't even his to start off with.
- He's actually enjoying himself;
- The Obama effect. For all that Cameron is the new, inexperienced one, the UK public will see Obama as a Democrat as more akin to Labour and McCain as a Republican as more akin to the Tories;
- The Tories are falling apart over stupid little thing like George Osborne and Caroline Spelman. (Ok, 'falling apart' is too strong, perhaps 'occasionally forgetting to concentrate on the big stuff' is about the right level).

It's not a given, of course, and Brown still has to contend with an election in winter, but it is my guess that he will think in one of two ways. Either he will be arrogant enough to think he really is this good and can turn anything round and can afford to wait, or he will realise that this is a happy coincidence, that things will go down hill again and to seize the moment.

And what Brown will have to do above all else is to keep a lid on his own Party bickerings. He has squashed Miliband (D) and is under no real threat at the moment, but he needs to keep Mandelson in the back room where he does good and not all over the front pages. He needs to hide the useless ones and (dare I say it) adopt a Lib Dem image. We only ever get two or three people on the media (because they don't know who anyone else is), perhaps Brown should seek to make sure that only he and a couple of the other (public approved) ministers ever make it onto TV.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

The return of 'brisk'

Old election hacks like me remember the days when news reports on polling day would only ever describe turnout in two ways. It would either be 'brisk' or steady'. Regrettably, nowadays we also have to resort to the word 'slow'.

But it is good to see that the Times at least is upholding the old traditions.

via Darrell G

Wednesday, 5 November 2008

Bloody BBC

For all that Auntie is the nation's favourite, I've got to add my voice to those, including Iain Dale and Mark Pack on LDV, who have criticised their coverage of the US elections last night.

I don't disagree with the decision to send so many staff over for the coverage. I think that it was justified given the importance of the US, the historic nature of the election due to Obama's candidacy and the excitement about the result. In fact, I think that the BBC should be putting more effort (not quite as much as this, but significantly more than they do at the moment) into covering the elections of our other major partners - France, Germany, Japan and so on. People accuse the UK of being too US-minded. I think the understanding that comes from following elections, and in particular the debates over policy, informs the UK public about those countries and increases both their understanding and their sympathies.

But what a disaster the coverage was. Jeremy Vine couldn't remember how to get his screen to work and at times ended up prodding wildly at it. He had clearly got a crib sheet to tell him where to press when he wanted to highlight a particular county on the map but the insight we gained was minimal. He never explained why we should see this little bit of Ohio as being more significant than that little bit of Ohio. As ever, the BBC demanded 45 second segments and so we never got into the meat of it.

The studio guests were largely terrible. Larry the psephologist was ok, but most of the others had so little to add as to be a waste of space. Christopher Hitchens and John Bolton both made me want to throw stuff at the TV but as it was my brother's new 32 inch plasma I restrained myself. But at least they said something vaguely interesting and better than the blandness of most of the others.

The outside broadcasts were the worst. What is the BBC fascination with talking to ordinary people? You never hear from enough of them to make it worthwhile as a scientific poll and, because they are not Brits, we have little chance of feeling empathy for them. Better to stick with experts on the ground. But even these were strictly mediocre. It was good to hear Jesse Jackson - I presume the US networks wouldn't touch him - but most of the rest were so 'toe the line' partisan as to be not worthwhile. I don't want to hear that the Chair of the Bumfuck, Oklahoma Democratic Party thinks that Obama is great - I think I could have guessed that this would be their view. And it is historic that the US has elected its first non-white President. But we learn nothing from hearing endless African-American (or indeed white) voters simply telling us that it is so. We need more depth than that.

The bloggers were so useless and uninteresting as to provide a chance to go and get another beer. There are many great US bloggers out there and I'm guessing that they weren't all (if any?) taken up by the US networks. Why couldn't the BBC find a couple who knew how to string a sentence together and had something to say. Even if they represented fairly singular points of view they would have added something. I don't have a clue what the two bottle blondes were supposed to be doing. Were they meant to be giving their own opinions or reporting what others were saying. We certainly never knew from the 20 seconds an hour each was given to speak.

I felt it was fair enough for much of the concentration to be on what an Obama Presidency will be like once it became clear he would win - even before he got 270. Some people were using these discussions to accuse the BBC of bias. But various reporters were embarrassingly over the top well before that. I heard Richard Bacon on 5Live watching Obama vote and the screams he emitted when the guy's car came within 15 feet of him would have done a 60's Beatle fan proud. Get a grip man - you're supposed to be a professional.

And the producers should be shot. Not just for the failure to link properly - and that was bad enough. But it was always going to be the case that the first couple of hours would need filler discussions. So where was the in depth discussion of how the Electoral College system works. Better to do something once and well than take 20 seconds explaining it badly every hour. What about the fact that the US is a two party system. Let's discuss why the third party candidates are a sideshow this time (and also about the time Ross Perot wasn't) and what the two party system means for the way the election works.

And, fundamentally, let's have proper discussions about what each result means and a proper debate between people from each camp. Interrupt if there is genuinely something useful or new to say, but otherwise why not let a debate or segment run on for 5-10 minutes. You've got the tickers to keep people up to speed on the nuts and bolts of what has already happened.

I was lucky enough to have my laptop with me while watching and kept up to date with Dale's live chat (and thus what the different networks were saying) and with the Betfair markets (although I wasn't betting). These provided blessed relief from the most inane segments of Auntie.

The whole 'calling' thing was the subject of much debate on Dale. The BBC took the difficult decision to go with what ABC said (or AP and one other network) and I think, on balance, that was fair enough. It would have got a tad confusing if they had simply taken what the first network said about any state and there was no way they could justify seeking to put in the infrastructure to call for themselves. But they managed to foul up royally with the whole Fox/Ohio thing. They mentioned that Fox had called the state for Obama but failed to note that this was a mistake and Fox immediately retracted. Instead they simply kept schtum until the state was actually called for Obama some 20 minutes later - clearly they just made the assumption that it would come good in the end. Isn't that a form of misinformation of the kind that the BBC are supposed to be stamping out?

Side note - I await the first politician or commentator to bemoan the fact that in the UK we don't have 3 hour queues outside polling stations, isn't it terrible etc etc. Well if you cut the number of polling stations in half and have 25+ contests on the ballot we might well do so!