Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Happy memories of National Express?

I've been thumbing through the directory for the Liverpool Lib Dem conference. It's much thicker than usual and by my reckoning there has been a significant increase in outside organisations, charities, special interest groups and companies attending this time. I guess being in government brings more interest in conference, as well as just increased security and bag checks at the entrance (I'm looking ahead with dread every time I have to get all my camera equipment through security!)

Anyway, page 26 of the Directory caught my attention. It lists the sponsors of conference. And amongst the list is National Express.

Seasoned readers of this blog may recall my weekly early Monday morning journeys to London and the "Monday Morning Blog" which normally included a stinging rebuke to National Express for having cancelled my train. The company's abandonment of the franchise coincided with my retirement from the weekly commute to London. (Sometimes timings just don't work out as you want them!)

So I suspect I may be visiting National Express in the exhibition area and if they are up for it, to chat to them on camera - I am planning to do another conference video programme for members. Watch this space.

Northern Democrat August edition

Northern Democrat No 53 August 10

The August edition of the Northern Democrat was sent to members over the weekend and is now ready to view of Scribd.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

The discomfort of Government versus the powerlessness of Opposition

I can't help but think that were we not in government, we would be completely ignored now by the media. Had we not formed the Coalition, we would have been savaged for a few weeks for causing instability and then we would have dropped out of the headlines until the autumn when the inevitable general election would be held (and no doubt Labour would have blamed us for an unnecessary election by not going into coalition!)

Whilst the journalistic quality of some newspapers' coverage of the Lib Dems has been rather questionable, in my humble opinion, no news is bad news. We are attacked not for having no influence but because we are in government. People are reminded about that every day by a constant stream of news stories. And whilst some Lib Dem members may be sick of the questionable coverage, we have to remember that negative attacks of the sort we are getting have been the condition all governing parties have to endure. Much of that coverage amounted to non-stories. For example, when Gordon Brown was prime minister, the media constantly reported on rebellions. Whilst some of them were real, others amounted to reports of backbench MPs signing early day motions against something the government was doing. Yet those same backbenchers were all mouth and no action. They trotted through the government lobby like good little children. Rebellion, what rebellion?

Another similar non-story, this time spun by the Ed Miliband Campaign for the Defeat of Brother David, was the Charles Kennedy "defection" to Labour. The moment I saw this, I could see the whole thing was a spin story lapped up by the media as bashing any government party is regarded as fair game. No party hoping to receive a defector leaks the story to the media before the person has made the move. All that does is kill the defection in one fell swoop. Talk of defections by the recipient party happen when that party knows the defection is not happening. No doubt CK's strong denial of these claims will, at most, be one tiny paragraph hidden away on page 17 of the rags that reported the claim in the first place.

Liberal Democrats have for years put up with miniscule media coverage which tended to be of a dismissive tone. The tone is now different. It is much more aggressive from the media. And the media coverage is much much greater in quantity. But, as I said before, we are now in office. I'd much rather have the discomfort of being in government than the powerlessness of opposition.
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Monday, August 16, 2010

The interesting journey of Alan Milburn

It's been a long time since anyone has been able to call Alan Milburn a leading left winger. In the 80s, he was known in Newcastle as the leading light of many left wing and trade union causes. When speaking to others he used the term "Comrade" quite freely. I met him a couple of times when doing Tyne Tees TV local election results programmes in 1990 and 1991. He was candidate for the then Tory held constituency of Darlington. I was Lib Dem candidate for the then (and still) Tory held constituency of Hexham. A generation on and he has grown up into a more centrist politician, via a stint as a Blairite Cabinet member. It has been an interesting journey for him.

Given the febrile state of the Labour party and the hysterical way in which any association with the Lib Dems and the Coalition is pounced on by the "socialist" brethren as "betrayal" likely to lead to the death of all first born, Milburn has clearly taken a courageous decision. Interestingly, for the first time ever, I can admit to welcoming comments made by Sion Simon, former Birmingham Labour MP who said that cross party advice to governments is common in Europe and we shouldn't get hung up about it here in the UK.

It is good to know therefore that not all Labour members have taken leave of their senses and gone completely nuts about the Coalition. Not all are screaming and ranting "collaborator", "quisling" and "betrayal".

Given the posture adopted by the majority in Labour however that policies of the Coalition are, in their eyes, terrible, surely they should welcome the opportunity for one of their own to influence positively those policies for the benefit of the people Labour claim to represent.

My judgement is that the old politics of confrontation failed in the public's view, especially under Gordon Brown. Co-operation and working together are what people want. Labour going apoplectic with rage over one of their own deciding to advise the government on how to improve conditions and life chances for ordinary people leaves people baffled.

Labour's journey back to power will be long and hard and on it they will have to learn that they do not have all the answers to all the problems. Many solutions lie with other parties as well and cooperation is the best way forward to ensure the best outcomes. Labour has not yet learnt that and probably won't for quite some time to come. And frankly in the meantime, far from having solutions and policies themselves, they are offering nothing to address the big issues of the day.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Holiday wreckers back Ed Miliband

I have been forwarded an email sent by the Leadership of the trade union Unite to political levy payers urging them to vote for Ed Miliband to be the new Labour leader. I could not resist the temptation to take a scalpel to it to dissect it!

It opens with the statement, "Who we elect as the next Labour Party Leader matters for the future of our Party and the future of the country." This is a rather arrogant assumption that political levy payers are Labour supporters. Also note the use of "our party" as if somehow a political party is the property of a trade union (though I admit some people can put forward a well argued case that Labour are owned by the unions.)

The email then claims that "the interests of Unite members and our communities are now under fundamental threat." Just what the basis is for their claim of ownership over communities is not clear but what a ridiculous claim to make. We may disagree with political opponents (and sometimes agree with some of what they stand for and are even prepared to work with them to achieve common goals!) but to claim opponents are out simply to destroy communities is purile and frankly lowers the tone of politics to one of crude and outrageously exaggerated claims. I don't think for a moment that Labour are out to destroy communities. I think people in the Labour party generally come into politics to achieve positive ends. Nevertheless, they should grow up and accept that their opponents are trying to achieve positive ends as well.

The Unite email then goes on to state, "The massive package of cuts in public spending will affect us all and risks a further recession. Getting the Labour Leadership issue right is important in fighting these threats. That is why we are asking you to vote for Ed Miliband." I'm scratching my head here. Wasn't Little Brother Ed a member of the last government that claimed there would have to be cuts greater than those under Mrs Thatcher?

The email then claims, "Ed Miliband is a champion of social justice and equality and will break with the free market dogmas of recent years." In other words, vote for Ed Miliband because he is now totally against everything he did in Government.

The next claim is, "Ed Miliband understands the vital role of trade unionism in promoting a better society." (and of course in wrecking people's holidays.)

And then they claim, "Ed Miliband stands for traditional Labour values and has a positive vision for the future, building on his track record of creating “green jobs” when he was in Government."

I'd love to know what is meant by "traditional Labour values". Does that mean he's Old Labour? It's also a pity the email doesn't explain what his "positive vision" happens to be. Perhaps Unite would also like to explain how they square anti private sector comments (ie "free market dogma" with their love of "green jobs" which are presumably in the private sector).

They finish with, "How you vote is of course your decision. Whatever your view, we urge you to make sure you exercise your right to take part in this vital democratic exercise. We hope your choice will be for Ed Miliband." Nice to know that they think the decision on how to vote belongs to the voters!

Anyway, now that the Unite leadership has spent time telling members to vote for Brother Ed to beat Brother David, they will go back to wrecking people's holidays.

The end of the Cold War

Defence Secretary Liam Fox's speech this morning was an excellent explanation as to why Trident replacement should be cancelled. He spoke of the need to adapt to the conditions of the twenty first century and attacked the magnitude of Labour's legacy of unfunded but gigantic defence schemes. Interestingly, he constantly pressed the point about the Cold War being over and weapons of that era no longer being appropriate.

It's a pity that the logic of all this is not being applied to Trident replacement. Submarine launched intercontinental missiles armed with multiple nuclear warheads were the unused weapons of the Cold War. They worked because they never needed to be used. They were an effective balance of mutually assured destruction between two geographically gigantic nations around which the smaller nations grouped. The twenty first century is different. There is no need to maintain a nuclear weapons system that is designed to survive a massive first strike from the other side which can then be used to wipe out the side that launched the first strike. Other than China, the nations known to have the bomb or developing it cannot be conceived as superpowers looking to maintain a dominant world role in the face of another dominant power also seeking to maintain a similar role.

The occasionally stated case that we need a submarine based missile system to target the likes of Iran is spurious at best. Even with nuclear weapons, Iran could not hope to threaten the whole of the rest of the world. At best, they could hope to deliver an amount of physical damage to the rest of the world that would be relatively small. The cost of doing so would be their own complete destruction.

Were Iran to develop nuclear weapons, a submarine based missile based system is an absurdly costly and over-the-top response. The sophistication of modern weaponry which is none nuclear would be sufficient to bring Iran to her knees in a very short space of time (probably aided by her own people horrified that their government has just launched a nuclear strike). If a nuclear weapon system is needed to deter or defend against this (and personally I am not convinced a nuclear system is needed), there are much cheaper options, such as air launched weapons.

The submarine system of the Cold War was developed because each side feared that a first strike from the other side would make land bases such as missile silos and airbases vulnerable in a first strike, making it impossible to retaliate. Submarine systems got around that problem. Given that not even China could dispense such a knockout blow to the rest of the world, submarine systems are an expensive and completely unnecessary weapon system.

So, time for Trident replacement to be cancelled. It's a pity Liam Fox is therefore not pressing the logic of his own arguments.
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Thursday, August 12, 2010

Fly Lemming Airways!

I have just watched the Unite press conference at which this increasingly militant union announced the results of its ballot of BAA workers. So, at a time of austerity, pay restraint and having just come through the worst recession in 70 years, this union opts to go on strike at a particularly important time for the industry (ie the peak of the holiday season). Add to that the impact of the BA strike (by Unite) and the Icelandic ash cloud which grounded the industry for ages earlier this year, and you have a sickly industry that could do without this potential strike. Industrial action at this point will simply damage the industry further. Ultimately, it will mean more job losses. Unite have climbed aboard Lemming Airways.

The turnout was 50%. We have no way of knowing what the views are of those who did not vote. Ultimately it is their own responsibility to ensure they take part in their own democratic processes. But a minority of the workforce able to dictate to the majority by default is a worrying situation. Furthermore, the action of these trade unionists will directly affect the jobs of vastly more people working at airports who are not connected with the dispute. Look at the huge numbers of workers in catering or retail outlets in airports. And then of course there is the disruption to holiday plans of ordinary members of the public. None of these people were consulted or balloted but they stand to lose by the actions of others.

It may now be time to look at threshholds in industrial ballots. Perhaps strike action should only be permitted if say 45% or 50% of all balloted members vote for industrial action as opposed to a simply majority of those returning their ballot papers. This will help to counterbalance what are effectively one sided campaigns within unions during a ballot. A trade union leadership in favour of industrial action will bring out the pro-strike vote. Without a balancing anti-industrial action campaign within the union it is hardly surprising that the turnout is relatively low as those opposing strike action are less likely to vote.

I hope the BAA does not take place but given the bullish attitiude of the union leadership exhibited at their press conference, I am not confident that peace will prevail.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Russian heatwave, Pakistani floods and the price of bread

Here in the UK we may feel that we are unaffected by the Russian heatwave and the Pakistani floods. The reality however is that we will be very much affected. We have got used to relatively cheap food supplies from all over the planet. Western countries have been at the top of the global market food chain and we have got rather used to it. But times are changing and the events in Russia and Pakistan illustrate that and will add to the difficulties we are facing.

Russia is a major exporter of grain. In the post communist world they have become the bread basket of the West (though it is fair to say that the former USSR did sometimes export grain to the West). The extreme weather conditions there will significantly reduce the crop and lead to shortages.

Then drop into the equation both the rise in the world's population and the increase in prosperity of the populous nations of India and China. The outcome is the end of cheap grain supplies for the West. Indeed, the increase in prosperity of India and China even without a population increase would be likely on its own to force up the price of grain on the international markets. As prosperity has risen, people's demands for more expensive, Western diets needing more resources to produce have risen as well. Meat consumption in particular has gone up sharply. Yet meat production is a very inefficient way to produce nutrition and takes up vast amounts of land to grow the grain used as animal feed and to contain the livestock. India until recently was a grain exporting country. Now she is a net importer.

The disaster in Pakistan has wiped out crops putting even more pressure on the world's food supply. The infrastructure that supports agriculture there may be seriously damaged for years to come.

Interestingly, bakery firms in the UK are already warning of price rises to come. These will be in addition to the price rises that came along in 2008, caused by increased demand and crop failures. The point is, global environmental and trading problems have a direct impact on household budgets. Britain needs to look seriously at how food is produced and used. As a nation we need to reduce our consumption of meat. I am not suggesting we all become vegetarians but our diet needs to be mainly vegetarian. And we need to look seriously at increasing our domestic supplies of food.

So there we have it, food for thought.
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Tuesday, August 10, 2010

Rising house prices are not necessarily good for the economy

The announcement today by the Royal Institution of Chartered Surveyors that house prices dropped slightly in July, month on month, has been taken by some as bad news for the economy. My view is that it is constantly rising prices that are bad for the economy and were a significant contributor to the present economic mess. Here's my reasoning.

House prices for years have been over valued because there is a significant shortage of housing and because mortgage lenders, until the credit crunch, lent multiples on income that were unrealistic but ended up fuelling house price inflation. Lending multiples of five times a person's income without the need to provide a deposit simply meant there was more cash swishing around in the system. Without significant increases in the supply of new houses, that extra cash was soaked up in house price rises.

House price inflation had the effect of pricing many lower income families out of the housing market. Former social housing was no longer available as much of it had been sold off without being replaced. In some areas of the country, former council housing was reappearing as holiday homes, blocking access to full time occupation for people needing to live and work in the same area.

Mortgage repayment before the credit crunch ate significantly into people's income. For many it was by a long way their biggest outgoing. If people have to spend large sums on mortgage costs, they had less to spend in other sectors of the economy and especially, less to save for the long term.

Some homeowners were drawn into treating the constant rise in house values as additional income and borrowed against house price inflation to pay for consumer expenditure. Whilst this had a short term beneficial effect on the consumer goods sector of the economy (and also sucked in too many imports), the consequence was the runaway borrowing levels that characterised the last decade. That massive private indebtedness is now a millstone around the neck of the economy.

Realistic pricing of housing means they start to become more affordable for young people, first time buyers and those on more modest incomes. There also needs to be a culture change in Britain towards the reasons for homeownership. Too often the ownership of a home is regarded as the best way to save and build up capital. That has diverted capital investment into already existing bricks and mortar that could have been invested in business and industry instead.

The problems surrounding housing in Britain are part of the structural problem of the economy. We need more housing, and especially we need more rented housing, both public and private. That's not a suggestion that the private sector should buy up more existing properties to rent them out. That will do nothing to address the lack of supply. The private sector needs to be building more homes purely for rent.

Softening of house prices will encourage individual investment in unproductive, existing bricks and mortar to go into new businesses instead. It makes the building of private housing for rent a more realistic option. In the long run this is good for the economy.

Sunday, August 08, 2010

The "traditional Methodist wing" of the Lib Dems?

I am convinced that some political journalists know nowt about political parties and how they operate internally and on the ground. The latest evidence for this is in the Independent on Sunday. It contains yet another allegation that the Coalition is about to blow itself apart, this time because the Lib Dems will hold a conference debate on gay marriage. I have no problem about the press reporting this as something that brings us into conflict with the Tory right. It may well do. The Tebbits will be apoplectic with rage as they sip their G and Ts. But gay issues generally command cross party support now and I can't see the Tory mainstream melting with rage over this. The fact Cameron now supports civil partnerships indicates the direction in which the mainstream is moving.

What I found fascinating about the IoS article was the allegation the plans will cause a split with the "traditional Methodist" liberals. Quite where this mythical group has been conjured up from would be interesting to know. There is no longer a Methodist wing in the Liberals. Maybe 100 years ago the nonconformist religious element of the old Liberal party was something that wielded influence. But that was a century ago. Quite which planet the IoS was on when this article was written is not clear. The sound of barrel bottoms being scraped as the search continued for divisions must have been quite loud in the IoS newsroom when this drivel was written.

So what next from the history-challenged journalists of our national press? Perhaps calls to restore the pension link will upset militant Gladstonians. Or imposing a levy on banks could cause problems with the free trade wing of the party. Or scrapping Trident could create divisions with the Churchillians. All very silly but not as silly as that IoS article.

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I am "bamboozling" Labour councillors

At the last full council meeting in Gateshead, Labour put in a motion about the cancellation of the Building Schools for the Future programme. BSF was launched with a great fanfare by the Labour government with the aim of rebuilding or renovating most secondary schools in the country. And whilst some great school buildings were constructed, the programme turned out to be slow, vastly bureaucratic and schools often came in above the initial price. The end of BSF affected 5 schools in Gateshead.

Labour's motion was all about shaking a fist at the government. It demanded the immediate restoration of BSF. It didn't actually ask for anything that was likely to be granted or was realistic in the circumstances. After all, the government were not likely to implement a complete and immediate u-turn on a high profile issue just because Gateshead Council demanded it in a motion. Our amendment focused on the real world. The government have announced a review of school building plans that have been put on hold to decide which should go ahead. Our amendment called on the Council to influence positively the review in favour of the Gateshead's rebuilding plans. Our amendment was rejected by Labour. The debate highlighted the state of denial in which Labour operates and also demonstrates they are now putting party political interest at the forefront of their actions.

I moved the amendment on behalf of the Lib Dem group. I pointed out, as did our amendment itself, that the previous government had brought forward from 2011 to 2009 capital investment worth £3 billion. This includes £800 million of investment in schools - removed from spending plans for 2011 and spent in 2009 instead as a way of boosting the economy. I also pointed out that the previous government had agreed to cut by nearly two thirds the proportion of GDP spent on public sector capital schemes by 2014. The problem we have, I reminded the members opposite, was that in the run up to the election, Labour continued to make spending promises that were supposed to be financed from a capital budget they had already spent.

Labour however were having none of this. They angrily denounced us and claimed there would be no cuts had Labour won the election. Interestingly, none of them decided to respond directly to what I said, other than Cllr Mick McNestry, who merely claimed I was trying to "bamboozle them with figures." Other than that, he made no attempt to address the issues I raised. And since the figures I gave them were direct quotes from the Budget and Pre Budget reports of the last Labour government, this allegation says more about the ability of Labour to understand what they themselves have done rather than anything about the content of my own speech. It brings me on to the point that Labour are in complete denial about the state of the country's finances and their role in government. All this from a party that claimed just a few months ago that even under them, cuts would be worse than under Mrs Thatcher.

Labour speeches almost all claimed in some form or other that our amendment represented support for cuts. I don't know how many of them had read it but it says explicitly that the council should be pressing the government's review to support the go ahead of Gateshead's school rebuilding plans. As is often the case with Labour, they take the view that if you are not for them, you are against them. However, by the end of the meeting, Labour were the only party on the council to vote against calls to the government to go ahead with school rebuilding in Gateshead.

Labour leader Mick Henry did what he does nearly every time we put forward an amendment: he demanded we withdraw it. He claimed the council needed a united front. So we offered such a united front: after consulting colleagues I suggested we withdraw our amendment and Labour withdraw their motion. We would then be happy to have a joint approach to the government. Whilst I could see many Labour members at least were interested in considering the proposal, Mick Henry rejected it out of hand. He argued that compromise was needed - and the compromise was Lib Dems abandoning their position and voting with Labour. So much for plurality and cross party cooperation. No wonder it was not possible to form a coalition with Labour when their ranks are full of Mick Henrys. Despite this, my message to Labour members is that the offer remains on the table, with or without Mick Henry's agreement.

The debate reminded me of attacks on us by Labour a few years ago when we had the policy of the 1p tax rise for education. Labour made all sorts of claims and allegations that the policy would lead to the end of Western civilisation as we know it, and also alleged incorrectly that we were spending the same money twice. So Labour, you would have thought, would know that magic money pots that keep filling themselves with money of their own accord from which anything can be financed just don't exist in the real world. Having heard what they said in the past about such sources of money, it seems all the more remarkable that they can pretend that money they have already spent on new buildings can be spent a second time on more new buildings.

Under Blair, Labour spent a great deal of time and effort in changing perceptions of the party on the economy, spending and taxation from one or irresponsibility and recklessness to one of responsibility and sensible judgement. An image that was carefully built up over a long period of time has been demolished in a matter of weeks. No one likes cuts, but no one likes an irresponsible party that will flush the economy down the pan.
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Friday, August 06, 2010

The dinosaurs unite against reform

I need to do some catch up as I haven't blogged for a week. I've been involved with lots of mainly non-political activity recently which has taken up quite some time. Anyway, I did notice over the weekend that the GMB union is to bankroll the campaign of reaction against the yes vote in next year's voting reform referendum. I have to say I am not surprised. The GMB has always struck me as something of a dinosaur and it is equally of no surprise that they have teamed up with the Tory right to oppose reform. As I predicted in a blog post a few weeks ago, there will be some strange coalitions forming. Many elements of the Labour movement appear to have no difficulty forming a coalition with the Tory right that has been excluded from power by the creation of the Lib Dem Conservative Coalition.

That leads me on to a message I received from a leading Labour member in the North East in which this person gloated over the prospect of the No vote winning next year. The same person also accused me and the Lib Dems of "betraying communities" in region. It is interesting that these two points were made in the same message. Didn't Labour fight the election on a commitment to the alternative vote, subject to a referendum? We are now putting that into action and this Labour member gloats at the prospect of a Labour policy being defeated. Yet what does this Labour member say to the people who voted Labour because they called for constitutional reform and especially the introduction of AV? Surely they will be feeling betrayed by Labour?

Not all elements of the Labour party are reactionary and hostile to reform. Whichever Miliband wins the leadership will, at least from recent statements, back reform. The general approach of Labour however to voting reform was governed by the need to appear favourable to reform before the election was held. The old system had become indefensible. Labour probably did not go through a genuine reappraisal of the need for reform under Brown. He was looking instead to cling on to power by any means. Quite where Labour wants to go now that Brown has gone is not clear. Assuming Miliband (D or E) wins the leadership, we may get a better picture. Whether either can carry the rest of their party with them is yet to be seen.
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