Tuesday, 26 May 2009

BBC rips up fairness

The BBC seems to have decided that the expenses scandal means that they are no longer bound by pesky laws like the Representation of the People Act.

BBC Breakfast has just run a 7 minute puff piece for Esther Rantzen, the TV personality (BBC, natch) who has announced that she will be running against disgraced Labour MP Margaret Moran in Luton South.

This may not be during the campaign period of the general election, but the law still applies - broadcast media have to give balanced coverage to all declared candidates. Are the BBC going to give 7 minute prime time interviews on BBC Breakfast with patsy questions to the declared Lib Dem and Tory candidates and to Ms Moran herself? I don't think they are. But if I was Qurban Hussein (the local Lib Dem candidate) I would be booking my slot on the sofa.

Tuesday, 19 May 2009

What really did for the Speaker

Michael Martin is on his feet at the moment announcing he is standing down.

Perhaps the final nail in the coffin of Mr Martin is the news that the Met Police have decided not to investigate the leak of MPs expenses details to the Telegraph. Given that Mr Speaker Martin had given such emphasis to this 'crime', the Met's decision (which would have been communicated to him before being made public) would have holed him below the waterline.

PS - George Foulkes is absolutely no relation!

Monday, 18 May 2009

Mr Speaker blows it

Michael Martin has just finished his statement - which merely announced a meeting of the Party Leaders - and the points of order which followed - which were mainly attacks on him.

The predicted announcement about his retirement never came. When pushed, he simply said that it was not a matter for today. Maybe it's not something for the Commons to discuss, but a briefing to the media at about the same time could have been expected.

Many would not have liked it, but an announcement that Mr Martin is to retire at the next election would probably have had enough support to save his skin for the time being. By not announcing it despite the build up, he has lost this chance and I would expect the pressures on him to go now to mount further.

What is Mr Martin's big plan - simply to get the Party Leaders round a table to discuss things. Mr Speaker claimed that such a meeting hadn't happened before. He seems to have forgotten the Prime Minister's inititative which ended up with Nick Clegg storming out owing to the intransigence of the PM. I can't see how adding the minor parties and Mr Speaker himself to the mix is going to help matters.

Mr Speaker said that Sir Christopher Kelly would report in early July and that events would move on from then - but presumably not until after the recess. If he really thinks that the expenses issue will fade into the background he is deluded. The Telegraph has another 500 or so MPs to go.

In the meantime, has asked MPs not to submit expense claims. Really, that was his answer.

So we moved on to points of order and MP after MP queued up to say it was time for him to go. Only Stuart Bell and Bob Spink seemed to argue for him to stay. I couldn't hear what Patrick Cormack said, but the Speaker didn't respond to him and gave him a withering glance afterwards.

Many MPs asked when the motion of no confidence would be debated. Mr Speaker said that it could only be debated as a substantive motion. Asked how that could come about, he said only if the Government whips chose to put it on the order paper for debate. Many MPs derided this, but it clearly puts the onus on the Government to act. If the focus for the expenses debacle is to become the Speaker and his actions (as appears to be the case) then will the Government listen to the public and allow the debate that so many want?

But the overall impression from today's little session is that Mr Speaker has completely blown it. The pressure was on him and he retreated behind the shield of Parliamentary procedure.

Vince for Speaker - another dastardly Tory plot

Iain Dale suggests that, at this time of scandal, the House of Commons needs someone with integrity to act as its figurehead and suggests that it might be time to cast party preference aside and choose Vince Cable to be the new Speaker (as and when Michael Martin quits).

I'm sure Iain proposes this with the best of intentions, but it does seem to me that, if it happened, it would suit the Conservatives very well indeed.

At a stroke the Lib Dem's top points scorer would be taken off the field of play. No longer would the 'man who predicted the downturn' be able to predict anything at all - for Speakers are required to maintain neutrality. Vince may have landed many blows against the Government, but he is also a threat to the Tories and has outperformed George Osborne for many months now. If the media want an opposition speaker on any economics issue then it is Vince they turn to, not George. If I were a Tory strategist then I would be leading the charge for the Vince for Speaker cause.

But I'm sure Iain proposed this because he thinks Vince would be a good Speaker. And if this is the case then it deserves consideration.

I have no doubt that Vince would make a fine Speaker and the public would respect him. But I'm not entirely sure that it is his longed for job, nor that he would be happy in the role. Speakers must be neutral and cannot speak up about any political issue - however expert they are. Unless we are to completely redefine the role then I cannot see the likes of Vince being up for it. And even if he did, once he got the expenses thing sorted, where would the fun be. Sitting in a big chair shouting 'Order, Order' is not the passion of any sane human being over the age of 8.

As Millennium suggests instead - perhaps it should be Norman Baker who takes the role.

Saturday, 16 May 2009

UKIP has it in the bag

Quite honestly I think that we should all give up now.

Expenses hypocrisy - local fall out

I spent a full day campaigning yesterday and was delighted to have Party President Ros Scott along for part of the day. With the expenses affair now at its peak, it was instructive to see what people were saying on the doorsteps.

First of all, it seems everyone knows about the scandal. No surprise I would think to anyone reading this blog, but there are some things which fascinate the politerati and never reach those who are not interested in politics. This, clearly, is different.

Next observation. Question Time last Thursday will have had its best audience figures ever. Virtually everyone I spoke to said they had seen it.

So everybody hates all politicians?

Thankfully no. I suspect that even completely untainted MPs will be having a hard time of it at the moment. But people I talked to were happy to differentiate between MPs and councillors/council candidates.

At least one voter said they were voting UKIP as a protest against sleaze. Perhaps they were heeding Tebbit's call. Clearly they knew nothing about Tom Wise. But there was little point in protesting to them. When politicians are in such a hole, complaining that one of our opponents is worse than us is not a winning gambit.

Another reason to be cheerful is that many people said that they would still vote regardless. After all - if they don't vote, they say they cannot complain. That said, I'm suspecting that counters are not going to be faced with too many over-stuffed ballot boxes.

Wednesday, 13 May 2009

Expenses Hypocrisy - Lib Dem edition

And so the Telegraph got round to the Lib Dems today. I think Lib Dem Voice, and particularly Alix Mortimer, did a fine job of sorting the wheat from the chaff.

So what is the result?

Chris Huhne - Claimed for a couple of things he probably shouldn't. Comparatively small scale. Hope he pays the money back.

Lembit Opik - er.. Silly prat for trying to claim a court summons (or whatever it technically was) but very small beer.

Alan Reid - Has a constituency the size of half of Europe and most of it takes longer to get to than a plane to Moscow. It is no wonder that he sometimes has to stay in hotels on the remote islands. And the innuendo is just stupid.

Norman Baker - How could anyone think that Norman Baker is sleazy? The fact that he wrote a couple of letters asking if some items could be claimed (and one of those appears to have been tongue in cheek) does not merit his inclusion in the Telegraph.

Ming Campbell - about the biggest loser. Seems to have misjudged the public mood on what constitutes basic and what a luxury but is saved by the fact that the flat is rented and therefore whilst the furnishings might be OTT, he will not be making a profit on them. But, at a time when the Speaker is under fire and clearly on the way out (whether at the election or before), has Ming done his chances of getting the job irreparable harm?

Julia Goldsworthy - Could she have got slightly cheaper furnishings? Yes. Were they of the 'moat clearing' level of extravagance? Not at all. She paid for much of what she bought herself (and did not claim it back) and her reason for moving was entirely valid.

Andrew George - Here the Telegraph made a major blunder. Andrew's flat buying was a bit complex, but that does not make it sleazy in any way. It seems he had clearly thought through precisely this problem and took steps to avoid any insinuations.

Nick Clegg - Silly billy for claiming a private mobile phone call. But hardly the worst mistake in the world. As Alix suggests, because he is leader he should be held to a higher standard. But has reclaimed his image with strong radio and TV performances and a workable plan for solving the sleaze.

Perhaps, as Paul Walter suggests, all MPs should adopt the David Penhaligon solution to London living?

On balance, I still think the Telegraph has done well for itself in buying the expenses disc. It has generated six front page scoops in a row and led every news bulletin for a week. And there is more to come. But I think they have tried to over egg the pudding. I'm able to rip to shreds many of the Lib Dem stories through my own knowledge and reading the likes of LDV. I have no doubt that people closely involved with the personalities in other parties will have been able to do the same. Equally, I have no doubt that there are some very sleazy things going on there including 'flipping' and claiming for things that have no place in a second home*, but the Telegraph crusade is coming apart a little through the inclusion of the likes of Andrew George, Norman Baker and Alan Reid - and Gordon Brown. If only they had just stuck to the big stuff.

*The additional costs allowance is meant to be only for necessary second home expenditure. I understand that, for a variety of reasons, some MPs will have the second home in their constituency whilst most are in London. But wherever it is, a second home is meant to be functional, not grand. A second home should not have a moat.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Expenses hypocrisy (Pienaar edition)

Not surprisingly, the BBC is going big on the cabinet's expenses revelations published in today's Telegraph. 5 Live's Chief Political Correspondent John Pienaar was coming over all high and mighty about the subject.

But isn't this the same John Pienaar who, when at Lib Dem Spring Conference in Liverpool last year, was offered a space in a free courtesy bus that was just departing to make the trip between the conference hotel and the auditorium in favour of hailing a cab and, no doubt, charging the exense to us, the license fee payers?

Imagine if the press had seen a Lib Dem MP reject a free ride and instead hail a cab which arrived at the same destination within a minute of the free ride. It might only be a couple of quid, but the principle is the point.

I don't condone the outrageous behaviour that it appears many MPs are getting up to, but surely all those who are paid out of the public purse (and the license fee is a form of taxation) should have to live up to the same standards.

Hat-tip Guido

Thursday, 7 May 2009

Where are Labour?

I've just seen a list of the candidates for the Cornwall and the big news is...

there isn't a single Labour candidate in the whole of the North Cornwall constituency.

To me that's quite incredible. I know that this is not one of Labour's strong areas - even in Cornwall this is their weakest seat. But to fail to find a single candidate for Council in the whole of the constituency really does beggar belief. Are they really so run down and dispirited that they couldn't find one person to go out onto the doorsteps and find ten signatures - or were they just too scared of what the voters would say to them.

On a more parochial note, the election in Launceston Central is going to save paper - we've only got two candidates (myself and a Conservative) and so the ballot papers will be very short.

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Dear Michael White - freedom of movement shouldn't be 'a laugh'

The Home Secretary has published a list of people who she says are barred from coming to the UK because their presence here is likely to provoke violence or hatred.

On that list is American radio host ('shock jock') Michael Savage. Quite how Smith and her officials singled him out to appear on a list with hate-mongering skinheads, islamist fundamentalists and so on is beyond me. I've never listened to his show, but I doubt very much that he is advocating riots in the streets or violence against any section of the community and he protests that he does not.

So why ban him? His ideas are pretty obnoxious - he believes that autism is make believe in 99% of cases, he hates liberals and foreigners and so on - but so what. Just because you have idiot thoughts shouldn't mean you should be banned from speaking them unless they actively inspire violence. Here is where Savage differs from the Phelps clan. Fred Phelps and his daughter (as memorably seen in a recent Louis Theroux documentary) picket soldiers funerals saying that the death is good because it is God's revenge on America for homosexuality. Such behaviour, if he did it here, is almost certain to inspire violence. Even in these cases it is better to punish any breaches of the law here than to ban entry to the UK in my view.

In a blog on the Guardian website, 'Sir' Michael White seems to find this situation quite funny. He says:

"the funny bit is the sound of a rich American media type who gets handsomely
paid to hand it out squealing like a stuck pig when someone duffs him back."


Some of us don't think that the denial of civil liberties, even for American idiots, is a funny matter.

Tell you what Michael. Next time you are completely desperate to go to the loo and you are in a public place, someone should hold you back so you can't get to a toilet. Then would you find it funny?

Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Brown undone by nazi links

Another sign of the Labour Government falling apart is this picture from the Prime Minister's visit to a school today. Notice the red, black and white logos behind him?

I know these are probably illustrating a class project about Nazi Germany, but any advance team worth their salt would have spotted them when they ran the visit a few days ago - or even when they arrived this morning - and had them removed. Because, whilst no one really thinks GB is a Nazi, they are at the very least distracting.

I was part of the Lib Dem advance team for the 2001 General Election and then part of the Leader's team in the 2005 election. One of the visits I remember was to West Dorset for a street walkabout. The culmination was to be a soap box stump speech in front of the historic and picturesque town hall. Unfortunately, someone had set the soap box up in the wrong place and all the press microphones were already placed around it so there was no time to move. The background was a shop with a big sign saying 'SECOND HAND GOODS' - hardly what we wanted as the backdrop for the leader. So at the last minute we had to find the tallest Lib Dems we could, equip them all with those huge orange diamonds, and get them to hold them at arms length up high for the duration of the speech so that they were between the cameras and the offending sign. Sore arms but reputations (just about) saved.

Just for the record, I wasn't the one who put the box in the wrong place.
Photo by Getty used with acknowledgements

Post Office closures - it was the County Council wot done it

The fascinating page-turner that is the local Tory manifesto gets better and better.

As mentioned before, they have no policies in there, simply a promise to do things better than anyone else. Where they do say something, it is the very definition of woolly and seems to be more than ably covered by the Lib Dem guarantees.

However, they have also produced an attack document claiming to point out all that the incumbent Lib Dem administration has done wrong. As is ever the case with these things, it is so heavily footnoted and technical that I doubt anyone will really read it.

But there is a gem buried near the end. Under the heading 'Post Office closures' it details the proposals to close a large number of branches in Cornwall as well as many branches in places like Devon, South Essex, South Hertfordshire and Buckinghamshire. Apparently more branches in Cornwall ended up being closed than were closed in the other places. The clear implication is that it is the fault of the Lib Dem led Cornwall County Council.

Not sure how this can be.

Post Offices are run by a Government owned company and the Council has no say over which branches open or close. Clearly the Tories think that having a Tory council in other places helped (not sure why it's just South Essex and South Herts though. What happened in the north of these counties?).

Anyone would think that the local Lib Dems here sat on our hands whilst the Post Office closure programme went through. Not so.

  • Dan Rogerson and I (as well as many others) leafleted the whole of Launceston to whip up support for saving Newport Post Office and the services in surrounding villages.
  • We got the Post Office head honchos to come to a series of public meetings to hear from local residents why they valued their offices.
  • We pointed out that the Post Office case was fatally flawed and
  • we formally responded to the review.

All across North Cornwall (and all across Cornwall) Liberal Democrats made the case for saving their local post offices. That we were not successful was not for lack of effort. It was due to Post Office Ltd's blinkered criteria and faulty research.

And another thing, the Conservatives are not exactly blameless in the Post Office closing stakes. Before being booted out of office in '97, they closed more than 3500 branches across the country including many in Cornwall. Shame they forgot to mention that.

Monday, 4 May 2009

I've found a Tory policy!

Further to my last post, it appears I was wrong. The Conservatives (or at least a senior figure in the party) have made a definite commitment. Unfortunately, it is a commitment that will hurt many thousands of poorer people.

David Davis, until recently a shadow cabinet member and a leading figure in the Party, has said that winter heating payments to older people are 'a gimmick' and should be abolished to save money. He also wants to abolish free TV licences for over 75s.

Writing for the Financial Times, Mr Davis said that the Government should cut excessive spending in order to save money in the recession. I couldn't agree more that the Government should be looking to spend wisely and cut waste. But the targets chosen by Mr Davis seem excessively harsh on a particular section of society.

Mr Davis says he wants to give some money back to the poorest pensioners, but there are many hundreds of thousands, particularly those who only have a small income in addition to the basic state pension, who will lose out massively.

I have yet to hear David Cameron or any other front bench Tory disown these comments. Are we to assume they are being taken seriously by the Conservative Party? Here in Cornwall, what will local Tory candidates be saying to pensioners whose votes they are soliciting? Will they be admitting that they could be cutting many hundreds of pounds from their income each year?

Tories admit they have nothing to offer Cornwall

The Conservatives launched their manifesto for the Cornish elections on Saturday and admitted that they have nothing to offer the county.

Amid a lot of bluster about wanting to run the Council on a 'businesslike basis', their leader, Cllr Currie said it is impossible to make specific strategic plans until they are able to fully appreciate the state of the county finances.

Cllr Currie said:

"Conservatives believe the change to a unitary authority must be managed professionally, with a businesslike approach and with consideration for the local communities across the county."

I couldn't agree more that we need to involve local communities in decision making. But which party has the better record of doing so - the Conseraties or the Lib Dems who have already set up Community Network Areas and in councils across the country have devolved powers to local communities. Our manifesto makes it clear that we believe many council decisions can be taken away from Truro and many powers devolved to town and parish councils.

But we also know that the change to unitary status will save around £17m a year. With the current financial climate we cannot go on a wild spending spree and it would be wrong to do so, but we can afford to make the promises we have included in our manifesto including cutting council tax in real terms, more investment in adult social services, 10p first hour parking, more PCSOs and so on.

What are the Tories offering? None of this. In effect, they are sayhing vote for us because we are Conservatives. I know that people lampoon David Cameron for having no policies, but this is taking things to extreme.

Friday, 1 May 2009

Lib Dems launch 10p first hour parking campaign

Launceston Lib Dems have launched our campaign for 10p first hour car parking in the town. We believe that such a scheme will help local businesses and revitalise the town centre.

The campaign is part of the wider Cornwall Liberal Democrat pledge to introduce 10p first hour parking in all towns in the County following the hugely successful pilot in Lib Dem run Caradon.

Local shops and businesses are suffering during the recession in Launceston as everywhere else. There are a number of empty properties at the moment including the former Deli Paradiso and Briggs Shoe Shop which closed recently and the former flower shop on the corner of Church Street and the High Street which has been boarded up for some time.

As a smaller town, Launceston is also in danger of losing some of its bank branches. We need to help people to visit these branches to keep them open.

Introducing a 10p first hour car parking scheme in at least one of the town centre car parks will help to encourage shoppers to pop into town rather than going to one of the out of town stores where parking is free. Being able to visit the bank, do your shopping and visit a local market - all for 10p parking - would make a big difference to our town centre.

We would need to ask local people and businesses which car park they would favour for such a scheme and we need to make sure that sufficient parking is available for longer term parkers such as those who work in the town. But we are confident that 10p first hour parking will be a winner for Launceston.

Ideally we would like to have better public transport so that people would not need to use their cars to visit the town centre. But we know that this ideal is a long way off and that, for many people, a car is the only way to reach the town centre.

Any shortfall in revenue as a result of cheaper first hour parking would be made up by a combination of the savings achieved from moving to a unitary council (estimated as more than £65 million over the first four years) and higher charges for longer stay users of the chosen car park. Again, we would want to consult local people before we moved ahead.