Monday, May 31, 2010
Lawsless politics is good for no one
The loss of David Laws is a blow. The government however is bigger than one person. Depending on the outcome of the Standards Committee investigation, it is likely he will return. A person of his capabilities cannot be kept down for long.
Having been through the media meat grinder about my own sexuality (in which the Labour party played the homophobia card) I can understand what David Laws is going through in terms of his own private life. He will emerge a stronger person.
Lawsless politics is good for no one. The lawless confrontational politics of the old style is something the Telegraph, the Tory Right and Tribal Labour want to return to. Those who support the new cooperatives, partnership approach to government need to fight all the harder now to ensure the new politics is the winner.
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Friday, May 28, 2010
Labour drops to 3rd in Thirsk and Malton election
To be honest, this is the election that happened without most of us noticing. I wrote one article about it for the Northern Democrat (circulation covers North Yorkshire so some coverage was needed). With Lib Dem attention on forming the Coalition government, the intensive pressure to go to help in the constituency, normal when a Parliamentary by-election is taking place, just did not happen this time. So the result of the Lib Dems' gaining a good swing and moving into second place demonstrates genuine local support for the Lib Dems. Labour, desperate to believe that every Lib Dem voter will march into the Labour camp following the decision to form a coalition government with the Conservatives, will need to ponder on why the opposite happened.
I know of only 2 council by-elections since the general election and both were good for the Lib Dems (holds in Camden and Truro with increased shares of the vote). Whilst these are too few to give an overall picture, it suggests that at the moment at least, the Coalition and the decision of the Lib Dems to enter it, are receiving general approval from Lib Dem supporters.
Thursday, May 27, 2010
For this MP, history began on 6th May
Blaydon MP David Anderson looks like he falls into the latter category. His column in our regional newspaper, The Journal, today ignores much of what happened under his own Labour government up to 6th May. It's almost as if the claims he, the Labour party and Labour ministers made before polling day never happened. Now, to be fair to Mr Anderson, and indeed all politicians, events can often dictate a need to change direction or policy. As part of the Coalition agreement, we have had to make some compromises, just as the Conservatives have. We have had to accept that the cuts we all knew have to be made (remember Alistair Darling was claiming before polling day that cuts will have to be "more severe than under Mrs Thatcher") have had to be brought forward. Frankly the likelihood of early cuts was always high regardless of who won the election. However, we have won the major concession that the tax system needs to be radically rebalanced so that the burden of tax should be shifted away from the income of low and middle earners.
Having fought the election on a Labour platform which stated that cuts would eventually have to be made, Mr Anderson (in common with so many in Labour) now appears to be arguing against the whole concept of cuts. Having spent much of his article attacking what he saw as the consequences of cuts, he then goes on to confuse everyone by accepting that cuts are needed. He can't bring himself to use the C-word however. Instead, he says, "I accept the longer-term health of our economy requires reducing our deficit..." (ie we need cuts).
Mr Anderson then goes on to attack the whole concept of raising the tax threshhold to £10,000. Mr Anderson was one of the Labour MPs who warned that Gordon Brown's decision to scrap the 10p income tax rate, announced in the 2007 budget, would hit people on low incomes hard. It's a pity that Mr Anderson himself, having attacked the tax increase on low earners, then went on to vote for it in 2008. It's even more of a pity now that Mr Anderson is arguing against lifting more low earners out of tax. So much for all his posturing about helping "the working class".
Mr Anderson then went on to attack the Coalition over increasing VAT. It will be a month yet before we know whether or not VAT will be increased but it was never ruled out by any party (including Labour) before polling day. Mr Anderson's attack is remarkable however because he himself called for a rise in VAT last year.
So, for Mr Anderson, and I suspect many on Labour's benches who are now in opposition and loving the freedom to posture without responsibility, his own call for VAT to go up, his own concerns about the increased tax burden on low earners and his own party's admission that cuts will have to be made are now buried in the land that time (or at least Labour) forgot. For an awful lot of people in the Labour party, History started on 6th May. Anything before that has been obliterated from their collective "socialist" memory.
Wednesday, May 26, 2010
I went to Sian and Alan's wedding on Saturday afternoon in Llandudno and did the photos as requested. I think they were happy enough with the results. Saturday also saw me squeeze in some filming abd photography on the Menai Bridge - this is one of the great historic suspension bridges in Britain and is well worth a visit if you are ever in North Wales. It was opened to traffic in 1826 and was a great wonder of its day.
Monday saw me return home to a pile of council papers I read for the cabinet meeting on Tuesday morning which was considering the closure of two schools (Marley Hill and Sacred Heart) in my ward. Falling pupil numbers and the age of the schools has lead to great difficulties in sustaining their future. It looks now that many (though not all) of the parents of children at Marley Hill will send their children to Washingwell School in Whickham. Washingwell also has surplus places but the transfer of children from Marley Hill may help to secure its future. No perfect solution has offered itself and unfortunately the process of deciding the future shape and investment in the schools in Whickham itself has been extended by a year. This adds to uncertainty, a point I made at cabinet.
Today, I had 4 meetings, starting with planning committee at 10am. I'm not on planning and was not speaking on any applications but I went along to support my colleague, Cllr Peter Craig.
The second meeting was Corporate Vitality Advisory Group which looked at plans to extend the use of petitions. All councils are now required to draw up plans to allow residents to petition for debates at council or to require officers to answer for decisions taken in front of scrutiny committees. I made the point that it should not just be officers who are required to answer to a scrutiny committee. Council cabinet members should also be called to answer for decisions taken.
Councils will also be required to set up an on-line petition function, similar to the Downing St site's petition system. It should be interesting to see how this turns out in practice but it is something I am keen to see go ahead.
My 3rd meeting today was a seminar hate crime. Then came the new experience for me - attending a chair and vice-chair briefing meeting. Last week I became vice chair of the Corporate Vitality Overview and Scrutiny Committee. We seemed to range over quite a few issues that will come up at the first meeting of the committee in June. I will, no doubt, keep you in touch with progress ater the committee has been held.
Friday, May 21, 2010
The Eagle has flown the nest
Michael is a very recent arrival on the council. He was first elected 2 years ago so I know little of him. (He is Labour - you have to be Labour in Gateshead if you want to be mayor.) So good luck to him. I don't know whether or not he reads my blog but plenty Labour councillors in Gateshead do (though they often deny it!) and I am sure they will pass on my best wishes to him.
Anyway, I have a weekend of filming on location in North Wales coming up. I am on the train heading there now. I also have to go to a friend's wedding. I don't do wedding photos, but I have made an exception this time. The wedding is in Llandudno.
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Thursday, May 20, 2010
A crowded field in the Labour leadership stakes
Whether all 6 will survive the nomination process is yet to be seen. My assumption is the Milibands and Balls will get through to the final. Andy Burnham always seems to look like a startled bunny caught in the headlights of an on coming vehicle. However, he has successfully smoothed his way from being an ultra-Blairite to being a largely unknown Brownite. He could be the joker in the pack.
Diane Abbott said she put herself forward because she wanted to avoid a contest in which all the candidates "look the same". That's a reasonable point but not sufficient on its own. What matters is content and at the moment each candidate has repeated what the others have said. Perhaps Diane Abbott needs to avoid sounding the same as well as looking the same if she is to succeed.
I think however her sofa chats with Michael Portillo are likely to be her undoing. I can't see her being taken seriously.
Anyway, we now have 4 months of Labour leadership contenders looking and sounding the same until one of them emerges as leader. Oh what fun!
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Privatising Royal Mail
The Lib Dem policy agreed in March 2006 (I wrote the paper on it with Norman Lamb as I was still working in the Policy Unit at the time) allowed for the sale of half the shares to the private sector, a quarter to remain in government hands and a quarter to be put in trust for the benefit of the workers. The business would be run along the John Lewis Partnership model. As the business would be in the private sector, with the government as a minority shareholder, the company would have access to private investment currently denied it by its status as a publicly owned company (no publicly owned company can borrow without the approval of the government who has to guarantee the loan). A private sector company can borrow and use its assets and future cash flow to guarantee the loan.
Royal Mail has been starved of the major investment it needs to fend off competition from other private sector mail providers which are gaining market share because Royal Mail often lacks the modern machinery to compete effectively. Royal Mail needs to be put on a similar footing as the other private sector providers of mail services. A privatised Royal Mail would be able to go to the private sector and raise the money for investment that the government has denied it.
Regulation will still be needed to ensure the Universal Service Delivery continues. Action will be needed to ensure the pension deficit is reduced. And the Post Office network needs to be removed from Royal Mail, thus freeing the network to deal with other parcel and mail providers and to move into new areas of business, therefore generating new forms of income for Post Offices.
Assuming Vince puts into operation something close to the plans passed 4 years ago, we will have a model of mutuality, worker involvement and profit sharing that we could apply to other areas, such as the banks, once they have recovered, been restructured and returned to the private and mutual sector. Exciting times ahead.
Meeting the Mayor at Sacred Heart School
The weather was sunny so some classes took place outdoors.
John specifically asked for this one to go on the blog!
Wednesday, May 19, 2010
Next edition of Northern Democrat now published
Northern Democrat No 51 May 10
Tuesday, May 18, 2010
Promoted to vice chair of scrutiny
Meanwhile, I've had some interesting discussions with constituents whilst out and about in my village. Whilst walking back from the allotment this morning, one constituent said to me he thought Nick Clegg had done very well in getting so many policies agreed by the coalition. Another constituent told me yesterday, "Nick Clegg should be Prime Minister, not deputy!"
Sunday, May 16, 2010
Not attending special conference
I would dearly have loved to be there but I need to use my time back home to catch up on my work which was sadly neglected during the election campaign.
Friday, May 14, 2010
A Labour u-turn
The improvements that fixed term politics bring are recognised across parties. That's why it was in the Labour manifesto. It seems bizarre therefore that Labour MPs are now attacking the concept of fixed term parliaments. Is this Labour's first post election u-turn?
And just a word about votes of confidence and getting rid of governments. The 55% vote is what is needed to dissolve the Commons and have an election. A simple majority will still be enough in a vote of confidence to vote out the government. What those proposing a vote of a no confidence vote will have to demonstrate is that there is an alternative government that can be put together from the existing Parliament.
Fix terms are a familiar concept within Britain anyway. They exist in all the existing devolved assemblies and in all councils. People accept that. Labour should stick by their manifesto commitment.
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2nd video to reach 150,000 viewings on YouTube
(BTW, my most viewed video is "Inside a Former Soviet, Secret Submarine Base" which I shot in the Crimea on the Black Sea: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ylag1L_p48I. It has 156,000 viewings.)
Thursday, May 13, 2010
My instincts were wrong
Before polling day, my instincts would have told me that the Conservative talk of change and new politics was all talk to capitalize on the mood of the nation. I thought they were only interested in the old politics of majority government and that they were hiding it under a veneer of pro-change spin.
It would have been easy for Cameron to refuse to make an offer and then rule as a minority government for a few months during which time there would have been uncertainty in the markets and a growing clamour by the people of Britain for a strong government with a majority. Another election later this year or early next year would have been the result and the Conservatives almost certainly would have romped through to a large majority. They could have pointed to the indecisiveness of the previous months and the economic chaos as a living example, as they saw it, of the consequences of change to the way voting is conducted. The chances are, the Lib Dems would have been crushed. And Labour would probably have been crushed again as well as people stampede for the safety of a Conservative majority.
The Conservatives instead chose to discard the advantage they had of completely undermining the Lib Dems, and instead made an offer that saw them move a massive distance into the centre ground to form a liberal (with a small “L”) government. The concessions offered to us have been enormous. And most importantly, they have given us an opportunity to show that coalition, the almost inevitable outcome of a fairer voting system as preached by ourselves, can work.
The concessions offered to the Lib Dems have been staggering: a fairer tax system, replacement of the Lords, more powers to the devolved nations, a referendum on AV, scrapping ID cards, kicking inheritance tax plans into the long grass, fixed term parliaments and so on. This is serious stuff. The Conservative leadership at least has moved significantly, but not just on policy. It is on outlook as well. Instead of viewing coalition, pluralism and co-operation across parties as a vile disease that needs to be stamped out, they have accepted it as the basis for government. I simply am staggered at what has been achieved.
There will be those who say I am looking at this through rose-tinted spectacles. My response to them is look again at what Cameron and his Conservative team has done. They have abandoned the opportunity of a majority, single party government that would have come their way within the next 12 months and have opted for something completely different. Conservative grassroots may feel angry as their culture has been one of single party governments but the Conservative leadership have now shackled themselves to a new system which, if it fails, will mean they have failed as well. I believe there is now a genuine willingness to make this work at the top of both coalition parties. And I think we now have a major opportunity to show to the country that the new politics of co-operation in government can work.
Compare that to the Labour position. They offered very little in the talks the Lib Dems held with them. It seems that Labour had the view that all they had to do was demand the Lib Dems accept the Labour manifesto. No joint programme, no compromises, no accepting of the other side’s views and aims. It seems Labour went into the negotiations with some of the negotiators at best only half-hearted about the prospect of a deal. I always felt the prospect of a deal with Labour was an outside chance anyway. It was right to explore it but too many of the Labour side wanted nothing to do with it. The reactionaries on the Labour backbenches would have destroyed any Lib Dem/Labour coalition in no time at all. Whilst some such as Mandelson and (until Monday) Brown wanted to cling on til the last moment in the hope that something could be put together, too many Labour MPs want to be in opposition. We will need to remind people of that when Labour shouts their inevitable claim that the Lib Dems put the Conservatives into office.
The very limited likelihood of a Lib Dem/Labour deal makes it all the more remarkable that the Conservatives were prepared to offer so much to form a coalition. They knew that we had virtually no where else to go. In a sense, our negotiating position was not as strong at it sometimes seemed. And it brings me again to the conclusion that the Conservatives at the top have made a genuine shift that I never previously thought they would make. Whilst it may leave many Conservative grassroots wondering why they ever bothered, Cameron can take considerable credit for what he has done.
Tuesday, May 11, 2010
We have to seal the deal with the Conservatives
Even if a Lib Dem/Labour coalition were to come about, it would face considerable difficulties from within Labour's ranks. Some in the Labour leadership may talk of a "Progressive Alliance", but there are plenty in the Labour party would do not carry the "Progressive" tag with ease. Many of them will not support voting reform and will be tempted to abstain or vote against as a way of bringing down the coalition. They would prefer the comfort of opposition, especially with difficult spending decisions needing to be made.
So, the only show in town that will give our country a secure government with some opportunity of winning reform is a Lib Dem/Conservative coalition. Nick and the Parliamentary Party need to seal the deal and do it today.
Sunday, May 09, 2010
The only show in town
So we have to deal with the hand that the country has dealt us. A Lib Dem/Conservative Coalition will be uncomfortable but it will be a government with a sustainable majority that will give us an administration that will last a full Parliament. As a party that supports a proportional voting system that will give us Parliaments where Coalitions are the norm, we have to show the people of the country that coalitions are workable. There is a duty therefore on our party to make this work. If we fail to do so, what does that say to the British people about bringing in a system that will mean negotiations between parties after every election? If we get this to work now, we will undermine many of the arguments put forward by opponents of proportional representation that we will end up with governmental paralysis that lacks leadership.
So, we should be looking to form a coalition and hammer out a deal for a four year Parliament with the Conservatives. The current negotiations are taking time but that suggests to me that progress is being made. Agreeing a 4 year agenda for a government is not something that can be done in a space of a half hour meeting over a cup of coffee and cakes. The aims should be to cut the deficit, get the economy moving, reform the tax system and clean up the mess that is the political system. Clearly there are going to be major sticking points about fair votes. It may be that both sides need to compromise. Maybe the Tories will have to accept a referendum on PR but are free to campaign against it. Maybe, we accept that full PR can’t be achieved. Maybe we accept alternative vote for most large, rural seats and 2 member constituencies elected by single transferable vote in urban areas.
The voting system is not the only part of the political system that needs reform. The House of Lords, Commons procedures, the role of local government, party funding, they all need repair and reform. The Tories have made some useful noises on these in recent times so an overall reform package may be possible.
It may be that the negotiations between Lib Dems and Conservatives don’t reach agreement. It may be that both sides go their separate ways. It may be that the Lib Dems have to open negotiations with Labour. I don’t however think such an arrangement will last. If we don’t sort out an agreement with the Conservatives, we will be facing a general election in the near future. That’s hardly what any of us want.
One final point: the talk in the media is that Brown is offering immediate legislation on PR to entice the Lib Dems into a coalition. We should be cautious about this. Brown, I have no doubt, has made the offer in good faith, even if he is just a recent convert to a very, very limited form of electoral reform. Yet, there are many in the Labour party who are totally opposed to any change to the voting system. I can’t imagine old style Labour in the North East rushing to back reform. Given the knife edge nature that would characterize a Lib Dem/Labour coalition, an attempt to reform the voting system could fall victim to Labour backbench reactionaries. All they need to do is abstain for defeat to occur.
Wednesday, May 05, 2010
Northern Democrat April 2010 edition
Northern Democrat No 50 Apr 10
The final countdown
There we saw (and heard) a Labour loudspeaker car. The last time I used a loudspeaker in an election was back in the 90s. I am now of the opinion that they are a complete waste of time and manpower. Firstly, people often can't here them through their double glazing and din of the tv. Secondly, people who do hear them are not always impressed by being disturbed.
Quite what Labour thought would be the benefit of using them on a Wednesday afternoon is beyond me. It's not as if people are voting today. At a push I could reluctantly believe there was a place for loudspeakers through the day on polling day but even then I would rather put the resources into more effective forms of communication. Nevertheless, I have no problem with Labour ploughing time, effort, money and manpower into such an ineffective form of campaigning.
One final point: I stopped to listen to the loudspeaker messages and couldn't work out what was said. The in a way sums up Labour.
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Tuesday, May 04, 2010
Labour presses the panic button in Blaydon
The reality is that the Conservatives have virtually given up here and Labour are in a mad panic. The Lib Dems were 5500 behind Labour last time. The 2005 result was Labour on 20,000, Lib Dems on 14,500 and Conservatives on 3000. If it is neck and neck, it's between Lib Dems and Labour in Blaydon.
What we know however is that Labour are desperate for the Conservatives to do well here. And if that means Labour talking up the Conservative vote, they won't shy away from doing it.
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Monday, May 03, 2010
Seen in Blaydon
I have lived through too many false dawns to get too excited about the result before it is declared. Nevertheless, this has been the most interesting and unpredictable general election in which I have been involved. Here in Blaydon it will be close, regardless of whether Labour wins or loses to the Lib Dems. About the only thing that is predictable is the Conservatives will not win here. There is no UKIP candidate this time so my expectation is that much of their vote (4% last time) will go to the Conservatives. Since the Conservatives start in 8%, this is not going to put them into the lead. Quite what impact the appearance of a BNP candidate will have is difficult to say. Some say it will impact more on Labour. Others that it will take votes of those unhappy with the current system who would otherwise vote Lib Dem as the mainstream party least identified with the current system. No doubt certain regular readers of this blog will post up some comments on their own thoughts.
Anyway, I go into the final stages of this campaign both locally and nationally with a feeling that we could be on the verge of something significant (the optimistic side of me), but also thinking that I will believe it when it happens (the experienced side of me).
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Sunday, May 02, 2010
"Best chance of a gain" - Sunday Times on Blaydon
To win Blaydon, we need a 7% swing. Labour's majority was 5500 last time so it will be a challenge to win here. It is not out of the bounds of probability however that it can be done. The recent YouGov poll in the North East showing a 13% swing from Labour to Lib Dem may be a straw in the wind but the Evening Chronicle prediction on 28th April (based on the YouGov poll) that the Lib Dems could win Blaydon is useful - it also formed the headline in much of our weekend literature.
So, the battle for Blaydon is wide open. Whoever wins, the result will be very close.
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Gameshow hosts and Labour's celebrity leaflet
Anyway, I've been out leafletting today in my own ward, covering a couple of patches where our deliverers are away. We are in the office now and about to head off to a meeting.
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Saturday, May 01, 2010
Stage managed in Sunderland
Meanwhile, Nick ran into trouble in Malvern where his special branch minders rather rapidly removed someone from his presence. And in Essex, Cameron had the spectacle of the BNP protesting about his presence.
As for me, I've spent most of today delivering. It's the big weekend push to try to get the remaining undecideds to come our way. Quite a few people in Blaydon constituency have already voted - we have a high proportion of people on postal votes so in one ward today I was delivering letters to people who vote at polling stations. In my ward a third of people are on postal vote. The battle however continues and with our local newspaper, the Evening Chronicle, reporting that we could win Blaydon, we are leaving no stone unturned as we approach polling day.
And finally, after decades of buying the Guardian, it's nice to know the investment has paid off. Not surprisingly, the Observer has followed its sister paper's lead and is backing the Lib Dems as well. I shall enjoy reading it tomorrow.