Thursday, July 31, 2008

More Poll Woes for Labour

The Telegraph has an incredible poll tomorrow. You can see the full results HERE. But here are some highlights - or lowlights if you are Gordon Brown, David Miliband, Jack Straw and especially Ed Balls!

* Conservative 47%, Labour 25%, LibDems 16%
* 15% say GB is up to the job
* 65% say GB is a liability, up from 25% in June 2007
* 44% say Labour's prospects would improve without GB
* 9% say GB "is in touch with people like me"
* With David Miliband as leader Tory lead increases to 23%
* With Jack Straw as leader Tory lead is 21%
* With Ed Balls as leader the Tory lead is 33%, with Labour behind LibDems in third place
* With Tony Blair as leader the Tory lead would be 9%

It doesn't really get much worse than that, does it? Just as well Labour MPs don't read the Daily Telegraph.

Anthony King's analysis is HERE.

The Perks of Being in the Cabinet

Labour MP Eric Joyce appeared on the PM programme this evening and talked about Gordon Brown's management of his cabinet.
There are a number of talented cabinet ministers ... Gordon Brown has sensibly put them into his cabinet ... he's given them a bit of head ... it's holiday time ...

It explains that strange chin business, at any rate.

(Listen again, 31/07/08, 18:25 minutes in)

Guest Blog: Let's Have More Politics in Schools

By Justin P. Kempley

One of the perpetual pledges of politicians is that of “engaging with young people”. It is undoubtedly a problem; shameful voter turnout amongst my own demographic fundamentally questions the value of our representative democracy. I suspect that most people my age can name more Big Brother contestants than they can British politicians. The reason why political participation is so shamefully low amongst younger people is part of a wider political culture that is developing amongst UK youth.

I won’t hide my unusual interest in this subject, as a 17 year old student and a political party member applying for a politics course at university I am most definitely to be seen as an abnormality. However I can see an obvious trend amongst my peers.

To most young people politics is “boring”. This though is inevitable when you don’t know what the rules of the game are. Cricket is boring to those who don’t understand the numerous rules and customs, but fascinating to those who do. The same goes for chess, rugby, opera etc. Some readers of this blog may never watch a television programme such as Big Brother, but if they understood the house dynamics and rules from the start then they might well have been captivated by it.

Young people have lost touch with the detail of the art of politics - a void is easily filled by popular celebrity culture. The proliferation of glossy magazines and tabloid sales in past years demonstrates this. The vast majority of people read, whether or not their journal talks about Gordon Brown or Amy Winehouse or (as it should) both is a different question. It’s a matter of out of sight and out of mind that creates a vicious spiral of disengagement.

I feel that if you want to get more young people like myself involved in politics, you’ve got to give them a basic understanding of what politics is, how it is run and what it does. Every party political promise to “engage” with young people is otherwise wasted. Initiatives to make it easier to vote by text or email are just another layer of wasted electoral funds, when they will likely remain unused or abused. Besides, do we really want anyone to vote if they are so uninformed or uncommitted that the bother of walking to the polling station every year or so is overwhelming?

It’s important to say the solution is not to dumb down electoral politics. Moving the goalposts of the beautifully simple system used in Westminster would be a very shortsighted and frankly an irrational move. Instead we need a political culture, not in the sense of a culture of protecting civil liberties or one political colour or another, but a culture of being interested and informed in politics. This should be done though, not through youth groups or policy think tanks, but the one place that we are a captive audience, schools.

If we could develop a culture in which young children are given doses of politics and current affairs alongside their English and Maths, as well as promoting a sense of civic duty and citizenship we’d invest them with a valuable knowledge of politics for life.

Some schools do now offer an A level or GCSE in politics. I can certainly vouch for the fact that the A level covers the subject in admirable detail. Well taught students will leave with an understanding of our constitution, electoral matters and a grounding of recent political history.

But these are optional and only offered to a small number of fortunate students, arguably at too old an age. It doesn’t need to be in the form of a qualification either. I believe something in the mould of the government secondary school compulsory citizenship course is more what we need. The course itself it frankly poorly thought out, too short and fails to discuss our democracy to an adequate level. However it is a starting point.

My point is though, that representative democracy is built upon informed voters, and informed voters require political knowledge. I look at my peers and it does seem that without a foundation in political education, the political side of our brain never gets going. I certainly don’t think a compulsory politics course is the panacea to our political educational need, or the social problems young people face. However it will at least in part help enrich our political process.


If you would like to write a Guest Blog, just email your article (max 750 words) to me and if I like it, I'll post it.

Bottom Gear

I've just been to the Motor Show at the Excel Centre in docklands. I have to say it was a complete disappointment, not least because Audi didn't have a stand. Nor did BMW, VW or Fiat, or if they did I couldn't find them. The last time I went was eight or nine years ago when it was at the NEC. I remember we spent most of the day looking around the stands. I doubt whether we spent more than ninety minutes at the show today.

Has anyone else been? What did you think?

Royal Visit to Southwold

How lovely to see in the Eastern Daily Press that Prince Charles and Camilla have been to visit Southwold today, the Suffolk town where the PM is holidaying with his family. We're not told if Gordon was out on the streets waving his Union Jack, but it seems that the Royal Couple did hold a meeting with the local Samaritans.

I'll leave you to insert your own tasteless joke about phone calls concerning the death of political careers...

Labour Have Learnt Nothing from History

Sky News is reporting that Labour backbenchers Bob Marshall-Andrews and Geraldine Smith have called on Gordon Brown to sack David Miliband for being duplicitous. You've got to laugh. If Chief Whip Geoff Hoon doesn't restore order soon, the consequences for the Labour Party will be catastrophic. I couldn't believe what I was reading in the papers his morning. What on earth did Brown allies think they would achieve by slagging off Miliband in the way they did?

They should remember the disloyalty and disintegration of the Major government. Those who learn nothing from history and destined to repeat it ... or at least so someone once said.

Guest Blog: Balkan Reality

By M Hristov

I found an old photo recently. Three girls sitting on a lawn in front of a grand country house. It is 1986 and shoulder pads, big hair and coloured tights are all in evidence. The house is my ancestral home and the girls are my sister and two of her friends. They are all at a prestigious international school. The Prince of Orange (Crown Prince of The Netherlands) is a classmate. They are part of a week long house party.

How very Edwardian, you may think. How very 1913 and how extraordinarily old fashioned. Well, yes. How irrelevant to today’s world. 1913 was the year before the Great War, whereas 1986 was the dawn of Francis Fukyama’s “End of History“? The start of the triumph of western liberalism. The beginning of the end for communism. Surely, the girls in the 1986 photo must all have lived happily ever after.

It started well enough. My sister and one of her friends go and stay in the friend’s home town a few months later. They have innocent adventures, such as getting ‘trapped’ in a cable car. They laugh about it. My sister’s friend even suggests that my sister buy property in the home town. How very 1990s and how unlike 1913. The name of the home town? It was Sarajevo.

Now we move forward a few years. My sister’s friend, a totally westernised nominally Muslim girl, has got fed up with running through “snipers alley”, under fire from the hills. She has got herself pregnant by a Serb Doctor and is leaving on an aeroplane to Serbia. She is last heard of in the Serb countryside. Her final telephone call to my sister relates two facts. She is finding it hard to get milk for the baby and the Serbs are resentful of a Muslim girl working in their factory. Then silence. Silence which has never been broken.

My mother is standing in a cemetery in Zagreb. It is near the end of the Serb - Croatian War. She has joined her Croatian friends in the weekly trek to the cemetery. She is consoling them whilst they complain how changed their husbands are, because of fighting at the front. Does my mother think of my sister’s friend to whom she offered sanctuary to so long ago, when the war in Sarajevo started? An offer which was politely refused.

The wars in Yugoslavia are over and I am standing in the hills above my mother-in-law’s country house, about one hour from Sofia, Bulgaria. It is the summer after Clinton and Blair bombed Serbia and Autumn is early that year. A fact that is attributed, by the locals, to the bombing in nearby Serbia. I wonder if my Orthodox in-laws are capable of finding my sister’s friend. Or is it too late?

There is no happy ending to this story, for this is real life. No miraculous discovery and tearful reunion. Just a slow forgetting and a memory jogged by a photo. Ostensibly so different from those photos of country house parties in 1913 but similar in one respect. The horror of war was shortly to affect one member of the group in that photo.

The “End of History” was an illusion shattered long before 9/11. The U.S. had seemed to be in touching distance of it but, in truth, they were no nearer it than any other nation in history.

I am reminded of the final paragraphs in “The Great Gatsby”. That American hero had thought he would capture his great love, Daisy but the narrator sees this quest as the illusion it was fated to be. He writes as follows :-

“And as I sat there brooding on the old, unknown world, I thought of Gatsby’s wonder when he first picked out the green light at the end of Daisy’s dock. He had come a long way to this blue lawn, and his dream must have seemed so close that he could hardly fail to grasp it. He did not know that it was already behind him, somewhere back in that vast obscurity beyond the city, where the dark fields of the republic rolled on under the night.

Gatsby believed in the green light, the orgastic future that year by year recedes before us. It eluded us then, but that’s no matter—to-morrow we will run faster, stretch out our arms farther. . . . And one fine morning——

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”


If you would like to write a guest blog for publication, please do email it to me. Maximum 750 words.

When to Ask Ann Widdecombe to Dance...

There's a cracking Daily Politico today with Ann Widdecombe HERE. She reveals ragtime music gets her up to dance, she is her own best friend, Jeremy Paxman is her favourite interviewer, Nick Robinson is her least favourite and George W Bush is the politician she most admires.

Other recent subjects for the Daily Politico include Johann Hari, Bob Spink, Nick Bourne AM and Stephen Pound. The full archive is HERE.

Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Imagine if Hattie Were PM...

No really. Quentin Letts has the details HERE.

Vote in the July Political Performance Index

Each month I invite you to take part in compiling the Political Performance Index, which gives you the chance to rate how the top 50 politicians in the country performed over the last month.
Please don't just automatically give high marks to the politicians from the party you support - try to be as dispassionate as possible. Obviously I don't pretend that the readership of this blog is representative of the country as a whole - 55% of you vote Tory, after all! So if you are from another party and have a blog, please do link to this survey and encourage your readers to take part. I'd like to get at least 2,000 people taking part each month. You should give marks from 1 to 10 (1 being the worst) for how you rate each politician's performance during the month of July.


Labour PPC: Tories are Right on Green Taxes

Stuart King is Justine Greening's opponent in Putney. He also has a blog. He got in trouble a few months ago, and I suspect he's going to he hauled over the coals again for speaking pure common sense. The trouble is, he's crititised his own party's policy on green taxes and implicity supported the Tory position - not a good idea for a Labour PPC. He says...
People are not against green tax: they are just against politicians trying to squeeze even more money out of them on the pretense that its for the environment. Politicians need to wake up that the public aren't stupid: they can see what are stealth taxes and what are serious, honest attempts to address a particular problem. That's why the congestion charge itself was and remains broadly popular, and why the gas-guzzler surcharge (and the zone extension) was not.

I've argued in earlier posts that incentives are far more effective in dealing with climate change than taxes. I've also made clear my concern that the stampede towards the environmental agenda which we've seen in the past five years would actually do more harm than good to the cause - and we've seen that in the exploitation of green tax for more tax.

Green taxes are good - and honestly applied, they're not unpopular either. We need to start being straight with the public - transparent in their levying, ringfenced in their use, encompassing rewards and incentives as well as taxes and charges, and neutral in the overall level of tax levied as a result. That way politicians will avoid reaping the whirlwind of electoral defeat as they did last week.

What a sensible chap. Why doesn't he just join the Conservatives and have done with it?

Guest Blog: New Labour Should Have Copied Madonna

By Greg Leader Cramer

Nobody likes to see 50 year old ladies writhing around in their leotard but somehow Madonna gets away with it. The reason? She has constantly reinvented herself and made herself seem fresh to each new generation of pop culture consumers. Madonna's experience holds a lesson for New Labour - their failure to renew themselves explains how they find themselves in such a hole.

As the twin hurricanes of globalisation and Thatcherism changed the UK landscape irreversibly in the 1980's, the Labour Party (with Blair and Brown in the vanguard) gradually realised and came to accept that the old Labour vision of state socialism was dead. New Labour was born, twinning a pared down version of social democracy (the idea that governments can control economic and social change and thus harness capitalism for a greater good) with an embrace of the free market. In so doing, Blair and Brown had correctly taken the pulse of a population that was ready for a greater emphasis on public services, paid for through taxation, and a tired Conservative administration was shown the door.

As New Labour has now found out, when you climb onto a bucking bronco, it can be extremely hard to tame and you suffer a high risk of being thrown off. This is what the free market has done to Gordon Brown. The New Labour leadership failed to apply, via state imposed regulation, their own social democratic principles sufficiently to the free market and this has led directly to the personal debt crisis and housing bubble that the UK now finds itself in.

Governing could be said to be about finding a healthy balance between three things: the power of free markets to increase incomes, regulation to rein in the excesses of the free market and a good safety net to catch people when the market fails them. Easy to say but less easy to put into practice. Part of that balancing act involves calibrating levels of taxation and expenditure over an economic cycle, always leaving a sufficient margin of error to allow for the unavoidable shortcomings of economic forecasting.

The architects of New Labour have made three fundamental mistakes. Firstly, they have allowed a perception to fester that the welfare state safety net is over generous. We Brits obsess about fairness and if the system (which our taxes pay for) is being abused or is viewed as unfair then disillusionment is inevitable. Combine that with the belt tightening that accompanies an economic downturn and you have a toxic mix.

Secondly, New Labour has allowed itself no margin for error in its sums. Caught out by a deteriorating economy, government borrowing is already too high at the same time as its receipts are falling. Thirdly, and most importantly, Blair, Brown et al failed to understand that the balance between the three pillars of good governance - free markets, regulation and a safety net - needs to be re-assessed and renewed, not constantly, but from time to time.

Gordon Brown is right to say that is the job of government and its leaders to take difficult decisions that are in the long term interests of the country. The implicit adjunct to this statement is that sometimes those long term decisions are unpopular with a general public necessarily more focused on the short term. Just as Blair and Brown successfully took the pulse of the nation when they created the New Labour project, so Brown - now shorn of his colleague who was so adept at it - has failed to judge how far the popular mood has swung away from the same project.

The idea that a state, using the principles of social democracy, has the tools to cure all the ills that might befall a society, has been taken too far, to the point where the public has become alienated from it. New Labour has run on merrily ahead whilst the general population has has been left behind, preoccupied with fuel and grocery bills. The gap between the two has grown too large to be bridged and, as a consequence, the public have ceased to listen to or even care what ministers are saying.

David Cameron and his colleagues have recognised this and are seeking to fill that gap with their own brand of "Compassionate Conservatism". Whether they fare any better at finding the right balance, over the long term, between the state and the free market, only time will tell.

Greg Leader Cramer is an ex-investment banker turned self-made businessman. Having survived all that, he is currently spending time remaking himself as a political commentator via his blog bemoaning the state of Tottenham Hotspur and running around after his baby daughter.

New Attempt to Regulate Blogs Won't Work

The Telegraph tells us this morning that a new regulatory body is about to be set up to police blogs and social network sites. The Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee will make the recommendation in a report to be published tomorrow. According to the Telegraph...

Under the proposals, the new internet watchdog would operate in a similar way to other industry bodies such as the Press Complaints Commission, which enforces a code of practice for the UK newspaper and magazine industry, covering accuracy, discrimination and intrusion. The watchdog would not have any statutory powers to impose fines but would investigate complaints and most likely publish its decisions in instances when its guidelines have been breached. It is understood that it would also be able to order bloggers and social networking sites such as Bebo and MySpace to take down offensive messages or photographs.

A source who has seen the report said that the committee wanted to give the public "a form of redress" "At the moment consumers don't know where to go if they want to complaint about something they have seen on the internet," the source said. "The absence of any industry body is leading to a great deal of confusion and to widely differing practices.

"The idea is that a self-regulatory body like the Advertising Standards Authority would be set up to make sure that members, including, internet companies and search engines, subscribe to the code and abide by rulings."

I'd be interested in your views on this. In my view, self regulation works perfectly well. If someone makes a complaint to me about an abusive comment - or something I have writen which they believe is incorrect or offensive - I look it up and then decide whether to remove it, amend it or leave it as it is. If people don't agree with my decision they don't come back to my blog. It's a simple, free market, and it works. How on earth would this body seek to regulate avowed swear blogs or attack blogs like Devil's Kitchen?

The truth is that without a statutory base, any regulatory body which is voluntary will be toothless from the start. I cannot conceive that I would sign up to a regulatory code and I doubt many other blogs would. Because in the end, we would all ask: what possible benefit to us could there possibly be?

For You, Prime Minister, Ze War Is Over

The old ones are the best, but this skit on DOWNFALL is the best yet. It depicts Brown in his bunker after Glasgow East. I defy anone to watch it and not have tears rolling down their face by the end of it. For the faint hearted, it has very very strong language, including words I ban on this blog, so be warned.

Hattip Guido.

The Law of David Miliband's Unintended Consequences

Last night I did probably the most bizarre paper review I have ever done on Sky News, alongside a comedian who was 70% deaf. We talked a lot about David Miliband and Stephen likened the picture of him emerging from Number Ten on the front page of the Guardian with Joey Barton emerging from jail...

Miliband's article in The Guardian has provoked much speculation about his motivations. Before you read the rest of this blogpost, pop over to CommentIs Free and read the article for yourself. The Times interprets this article as an overt challenge to Gordon Brown. Many other pundits are also drawing similar conclusions. I'm not so sure.

Some time ago, Miliband announced he would be making a series of speeches this summer on what the Labour Party needed to do to win a fourth election. This article, presumably, is part of that initative.

It's also the article that Gordon Brown needed to write but can't. It articulates a vision for the Labour Party which is missing from Brown's narrative. It also critiques the Conservatives in a way which Brown fails to. If I were a Labour Party member reading this, I'd be thinking that it's a pretty compelling piece. But I genuinely do not believe it has the motives which The Times and others are ascribing to it. Miliband believes in a new kind of politics and sees no reason why he shouldn't articulate it. Possibly naive, but there are worse faults in a politician.

However, the side effects are clear. It keeps the Labour leadership story going for another day or two and gives encouragement - however unintended - to those who are looking to topple Gordon Brown.

But I stick to my prediction. It won't happen.

UPDATE: Curly reckons Mr M has a recognition problem in his own contituency.

UPDATE: I have written an article for CommentIsFree warning David Miliband not to underestimate David Cameron.

UPDATE: Dizzy has an extended piece which predicts a long, painful and slow political death for the Prime Minister...
"The electorate should be, I'd say, prepared to watch a very long, slow and painful death for the next two years. It will be like a Grand National horse falling at the first, breaking a leg, refusing to give up, whilst the stewards have a sudden moment of compassion and refuse to put it out its misery as it limps around Aintree."

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Self Abuse

Will Self writes in today's Evening Standard...
I find the pictures of the Camerons walking hand in hand while on holiday in Cornwall almost pathologically disturbing.

Really. A wholly inappropriate use of the word 'pathologically' I would have thought. This, from someone who is feted by leftie intellectuals as of the great writers of our age (no, don't laugh). Do you know what I find almost pathologically disturbing? People who take hard drugs while on a plane with the Prime Minister.

Now, where did I put that saucer of milk?

Is This Harriet's Moment?

Harriet Harman has all the political finesse of Martine McCutcheon. According to The Times she has told aides: "This is my moment". She then issued a very badly drafted statement denying she had said any such thing. The statement just added further fuel to the already fanning flames.
“In respect of Labour’s defeat in the Glasgow East by-election, I did not tell aides - or any one else - that ’this is my moment’. I was bitterly disappointed by the Glasgow East by-election result in which I campaigned in support of Margaret Curran - a woman who I admire greatly. My ’public protestations of loyalty’ to Gordon Brown are no different to what I have expressed in private. I do not accept ’it is over’.”

Er, best not to start using language like that, Hattie. Careless talk costs Prime Ministers, and I suspect it has caused the odd Southwold sandcastle to be kicked over this afternoon.

I am still of the view that if the Labour Party is about to do what many political journalists tell us it is about to do, that way lies madness. Labour MPs in marginal seats are desperate to hang onto them. I don't blame them. But if they ditch Brown and get someone new, do they really think they can avoid holding a more or less immediate election? If they are not careful they will render themselves unemployed eighteen months before they have to.

But, go right ahead. Make our collective days!

I must say I had thought the media storm on the Labour leadership would have died down by now, But if anything, it has got more virulent. Gordon Brown must be hoping for some big news story to develop, and develop quickly.

UPDATE: For those in the comments who are clearly not into popular culture like wot I am, Martine McCutcheon's number one hit song was called THIS IS MY MOMENT.

UPDATE: A McCutcheon enthusaiast has rightly pointed out that her hit was actually called PERFECT MOMENT. The first line was THIS IS MY MOMENT. Glad we've sorted that out :)

LibDem Donor Is 'On the Run'

The Press Association crime desk is reporting...

An international businessman whose company gave the Liberal Democrats more than £2 million has gone on the run just weeks before going on trial for fraud. Michael Brown, 42, was due to stand trial in September accused of a string of fraud and money laundering offences. But a judge at Southwark Crown Court issued an arrest warrant today after he breached his bail conditions.

This also begs the question as to whether this puts back further the date when we will finally get a verdict by the Electoral Commission on whether Michael Brown's donation to the LibDems was permissible or not. They suspended their inquiry pending Metropolitan Police investigations into Mr Brown's activities nearly two years ago.

Guest Blog; Why Young People Don't Join Political Parties

By Austen Sanders

Is it just me, a touchy 21 year old, or did the recent commemorations of ’68 carry an implicit charge of political apathy aimed at “young people today” - the individuals who, one assumes, grow up to be men on Clapham omnibuses? Such accusations are, I believe, misdirected. Young people are often interested in politics – but not in party-politics.

I’ve just graduated from university and over the last three years, in many a conversation with my friends, I’ve found that even those of us with the keenest interest in politics share this aversion to tribal politics. We’re attracted to the more marginal areas of political life such as think-tanks or the blogoshpere (apologies to all the skilled and influential individuals working in these areas).

Many of the most talented members of the next political generation are not particularly interested in sacrificing sweat and tears, (let alone blood), to party organisations. Either party politics will have to change, or a large measure of skill and enthusiasm will drain out of political life.

Many of these issues were touched on in a report published a fortnight ago by right of centre think-tank Reform and Ipsos MORI, entitled “A New Reality: Government and the IPOD generation”. The IPOD generation, by the way, is what comes after generation x. Members are aged 18-34 and are “insecure, pressurised, over-taxed and debt-ridden”.

Now here I must hold up my hands and admit that my interest in the report stems at least partly from the fact that I’m halfway through a summer internship at Reform, but it does make some valuable points.

I and another intern at Reform recognised ourselves in many of its descriptions. As it says, we “are not focused on ideology and therefore have the reputation of being uninterested in politics”. Without strong ideological beliefs to tie us to any particular party, neither my friend nor myself are particularly attracted to working within party politics.

Even our brief experience working in a think-tank has shown us how much genuine cross-party consensus there is on issues such as academies, but the major parties seem almost dedicated to obscuring these points of constructive agreement out of a fear of blurring their profiles and losing votes. We are enthusiastic about politics, and dislike the dead hand of the party line.

Most of my more politically aware friends from university are not choosing to work for, or even join, parties. Think-tanks provide a far more attractive destination. To someone leaving university, they appear as small and agile organisations in a dynamic sector which gives far more room for genuinely exciting and wide-ranging thought than a party research department. I don’t know if this is actually true, but I do know that that is what it looks like to young people making decisions about their political futures.

Technology has changed the way we see politics. We are very much aware that blogs are the place for the quickest and most exciting political news. We go to the blogs to pick up on election results before the mainstream media reports the official returns, and we can’t get enough of the gossip from blogs like Guido’s (Heat magazine in the corridors of power).

In a way, this shapes our understanding of our relationship with the political process. The blogger, and not the party activist, gives us our point of view. As a result, we identify with the perspective of the slight outsider, commenting on but not fully immersed in party politics.

The challenge for the major parties, and the party system as a whole, is to show the IPOD generation a political process that they are excited about and believe that they can take part in meaningfully. There will always be those who find their way into positions of power but a good number, motivated by the best of ambitions, may otherwise just drift away.

Solutions? I think the IPOD generation demands a political process which recognises the place of consensus within political life. The devolved politics of Scotland and Wales offers, perhaps, a possible vision of a way forward. The place of proportional representation in both electoral systems is no co-incidence.

Of course assumptions must always be challenged and alternatives provided, but the unbending rigidity of adversarial party-politics does not offer a political future the IPOD generation is interested in. Either the political process will change, or even the most passionate young people will turn off and disappear.

Monday, July 28, 2008

Breaking News: Subversiveness Beckons...

I am notified by a correspondent that my blog has now been blocked by the Great Firewall of China. All I can say is, what took them so long?

Guest Blog: Death of the Record Industry

By James Clark

Finally, after 25 years of self-harm, the music industry has succeeded in taking its own life.
Seppuku was finally achieved with news that The British Phonographic Industry (BPI), the music industry’s enforcement arm, is to join with Internet Service Providers (ISPs) in issuing warning letters to thousands of customers whose computers contain illegally downloaded albums and songs.

The industry premise is simple: if you download songs without paying up then the artist and the label which invested in them get nothing, thus you are stealing and hurting the industry. Andy Burnham was straight in to back the move, citing the need to “protect artists”. It’s rubbish though; the real villains are elsewhere.

As a teenager I and everyone I knew would tape music from the radio shows like the late John Peel’s, hoping to hear new things we might like. This was equally illegal (remember those great “Home Taping Is Killing Music” warnings the BPI’s forerunner used to issue?). Did it kill the industry in the 80s and 90s? Not a bit. Artists I came to love at the time: The Cult, Billy Bragg, The Smiths and, as the adverts used to say, many, many more, all came to my attention through tapes like this. Having discovered I liked them I thirsted for more, and I went out and bought their records.

One of those bands whose records I bought after getting a tape from a friend called themselves Pop Will Eat Itself. True prophets from Birmingham, as it turned out. In the 80 and 90s music was about broadcasting yourself. If you were a “goth”, and loved The Cure and The Sisters Of Mercy, you dressed accordingly. Other kids knew your likes, and to some degree your view of the world, your values and what mattered to you just from seeing you.

The music you listened to reflected and reinforced this. It was like belonging to a clan. The same went for metal heads, skinheads, new romantics, grungers, hippies and a thousand other clans.
The commercial spin-off of this was that kids expanded their tastes, and thus spending, as they grew older because their music was rooted in something which grew with them. But the record industry couldn’t help itself. In the 90s it decided that paying money to drunken and difficult bands was a mug’s game, and investing in expensive A&R to find good acts was equally stupid.

Instead it started producing endless dance acts and boy bands. In the short term it worked – a “DJ” needs only some technical kit and a pile of someone else’s records to produce an album. Boy Bands, short on talent, do as they’re told for fear of being sacked. And it sold records, including to a new audience, the newly-financially-empowered under-14s. But when the 14 year olds were 18 year olds they simply stopped buying records altogether. Perhaps the odd Christmas No1, or “Now That’s What I Call Music! 3894”, but nothing else. Why? Because they had no musical identity. S-Club 7 and East17 meant nothing to them after they grew up. The music they listened to as kids didn’t lead them anywhere, or to anything new. The internet is the new John Peel, the new underground scene. It is through building a presence amongst file-sharers, and on social networking sites, that the acts of tomorrow break through from the underground to the commercial mainstream – not because they’re on iTunes, but because kids love the sense of discovery, of finding something others don’t know, of being first.

File-sharing should have been the industry’s salvation. I own dozens of records I came to via file-sharing friends. I suspect 80% of the records I have bought in the last five years can be traced back to file-sharing. Almost all of my friends have done similar things – file-shared to find new things amongst on-line communities of like-minded people, and then bought records as a result.

Sure, one or two people out there will “steal” everything and never part with a penny, but they’re a tiny minority and they have always existed (your friend with the 1,000 self-recorded tapes, remember him?). The industry, and the BPI, though, insist they should be able to deliver dross and expect people to buy it blind. I’m 37, and I’m still buying records and loving new things. I’m already a 20+ year customer for the industry. What of today’s 17-year-olds? There are only so many X-Factor winner albums one can buy in 20 years.

The reality is that the music scene survives, just, beneath this cloying blanket of commercial greed and risk aversion, with the odd band breaking through to the clean air above. Within a decade, though, the industry will be gone as we have known it, and the talent it uncovered, and the lifelong joy it bought people as a result, will have gone with it.

Blues legend says that the great Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a deserted Mississippi crossroads in return for his success. The next Robert Johnson will get there to find the offer rescinded – Satan is gorged on the souls of an entire industry.

A Day in the Life of a Wannabe Beach Bum

Today is one of those days when I look at the weather and think I should be on a beach somewhere.

Instead, I am having a chipped tooth fixed at the dentist, attending a lunch with American journalists and working in a very hot basement office in Westminster with no sunlight. Still, later on I am going to the premiere of CASS, a film about West Ham football hooligans and later, at 11pm I shall be on Radio 5 for a couple of hours, during which time I shall be explaining why Abba were better than the Beatles. It's an odd life, isn't it?

Brown: MP Vote Would Be Madness

Today's Telegraph front page lead will send shivers down the backs of diehard Labour supporters. GIVE US VOTE ON BROWN, MPs TO TELL CABINET. That way lies disaster. Such a vote would be anything but conclusive. The payroll vote, numbering more than 100 MPs, would be duty bound to support Brown but there would be a number of resignations by those whose consciences would not let them vote against him while remaining as part of his team. Even if they were few and far between, the result of any vote is unlikely to be decisive either way. And even if it were, what about the views of ordinary Labour members (as Prescott condescendingly likes to call them) and trade unions? They seem to be ignored at the moment.

The briefings emanating from the Brown bunker have the same sort of 'don't mess with us' mentality as those put about by IDS's last few supporters in October 2003. Some journalists (see George Pascoe-Watson's hilarious Sun editorial today) are happy to parrot them, and even express support for Brown. Others (see Jackie Ashley in today's Guardian) write more in sorrow than anger that Brown is toast, and he'd better realise it.

Anyone making predictions now is a fool. The lie of the land in September may look a tad different.

Sunday, July 27, 2008

Prezza Discovers Blogging

John Prescott once reckoned he didn't know what a blog was. He seems to have rectified that this afternoon by writing an article for LabourHome - unless, of course, he got Hunter Davies to write it for him... Anyway, it pleads for loyalty to Gordon. So far there have been seventeen comments, almost all of which vehemently disagree with him. But the most hilarious comment is the seventeenth, from none other than LabourHome editor Alex Hilton himself...

A lot of what appears in the newspapers about leadership battles and coups and such is down to MPs spending too much time talking to themselves and not enough time listening to people in the wider world.

Many thanks John, please do come back.

This from the man - a selected Labour PPC, let's not forget - who told GMTV viewers on June 1st that Gordon had two weeks to get his act together. I know, I was sitting next to him when he said it.

How Cameron Can Kill the Lisbon Treaty

The Irish Sunday Post carries a long feature today on the options for Ireland in the aftermath of the Lisbon Treaty referendum. The article, by Political Editor Pat Leahy, asserts that the EU need Ireland to hold a second referendum as quickly as possible in order to avoid more trouble further down the road. And the cause of that trouble? The election of a Conservative government in Britain. The Eurocrats need the whole treaty to be ratified by every country because they know that if the process isn't complete before David Cameron becomes PM he will hold a referendum in Britain which would undoubedly result in a no vote. Leahy writes...

According to a number of senior sources in various institutions, there are three deadlines for the ratification of the treaty. Two can be let slide, but the last one can’t.

The first is the European Parliament elections next June. To meet this deadline, a second referendum would have to be held next spring. It’s the preference of many, including the French president, but few expect this deadline to be met.

The second deadline is the appointment of the new European Commission in the autumn of 2009. This is more complicated; under existing rules stipulated in the Nice Treaty, the number of commissioners must be reduced after 2009.

However, some senior sources in Brussels have suggested that this deadline could also slide if all European leaders agreed to it. But that would only happen if there was firm agreement that the third deadline would be met.

By late spring 2010, Britain will have a new government and on current trends, it will be a Conservative administration led by David Cameron.

Cameron and his shadow foreign secretary, William Hague, have been very clear - Hague said it again last week - that if the Lisbon Treaty was not in force if and when the Conservative government takes office, there would be a referendum on the treaty in Britain and the Tories would campaign for a No vote.

The No side would win and the treaty would be dead. This would almost certainly lead to a radical change in European structures. Unwilling to accommodate an increasingly Eurosceptic Britain, and with their hopes of a more unitary voice for the EU in world affairs dashed by the defeat of Lisbon, pro-integration countries would push ahead, leaving Ireland and Britain - and perhaps, sundry eastern and central European countries - in the slow lane.

Aside from being a fundamental alteration to the shape of Europe, this would leave Ireland facing a choice between two of our biggest trading partners, Britain and the EU. Many in Brussels are determined to avoid this threat. But to do so, they either need the treaty in place, or a decision to proceed without Ireland. This is the deadline that they cannot let slide.

As one senior EU official put it: ‘‘A treaty ratified by the UK is worth a lot more now. . . a British Yes is worth more than an Irish No.”

What they haven't bargained for is an election in the UK earlier than June 2010. They look on Gordon Brown's current difficulties with undisguised horror as they know what an early election would mean for the Lisbon Treaty. Death.

Guest Blog: Obama or McCain? Who gets the Vote of the Poor?

By Andrew Mitchell MP

From the tea rooms of the House of Commons to the slums of Nairobi, the Obama versus McCain showdown is the talk of the world. It promises to be the most unpredictable and gripping contest for many years. What will it mean for the poorest people on the planet?

There is now a real prospect that the next leader of the free world will have close relatives who are among its poorest inhabitants. According to a recent CNN report, Barack Obama's Kenyan grandmother and uncle "do not have a television and live in a simple, single-story canary-yellow home several miles from the closest village."

Obama's father was born and raised in the East African nation; after the recent post-election violence, some reporters asked breathlessly 'Can Obama Save Kenya?'. On an emotional visit to his father's homeland in 2006, Obama was greeted by cheering crowds. He took a public HIV test at a remote rural health clinic in an effort to promote AIDS awareness. And the Senator from Illinois has taken a legislative interest in development issues back in Washington: he is piloting the Global Poverty Act through Congress, which would require the President to develop and implement a comprehensive policy to halve extreme global poverty by 2015, and demands measurable benchmarks and timetables to achieve this ambitious goal. If he wins in November, he might just be carrying this through as President.

But there is an elephant in the room whenever the presumptive Democratic candidate discusses development: Trade. During the primaries he followed John Edwards and Hilary Clinton in playing to the protectionist gallery. This is dangerous territory: failure for the Doha Round could fatally undermine the multilateral, rules-based system overseen by the World Trade Organisation that protects poor countries and offers the best route to freer global trade. The deadline is looming for this vital and much-needed agreement.

The voice of reason on trade is that of Republican frontrunner John McCain. He has bravely kept the flag of economic freedom flying, making the unanswerable case that free trade and open markets are the surest route to growth and development. Pointedly ignoring the siren call of protectionism, he promises to "aggressively promote global trade liberalization at the World Trade Organization and expand America's free-trade agreements to friendly nations on every continent."

McCain's views on development are practical and challenging, though perhaps less clearly-defined than Obama's. He has called for the G8 to boot out undemocratic Russia, but embrace the market democracies of India and Brazil. Writing in Foreign Affairs, he pledged to help promote an 'African Renaissance', and to work to eradicate malaria. On Darfur, he says " I fear that the United States is once again repeating the mistakes it made in Bosnia and Rwanda" and promises "my administration will consider the use of all elements of American power to stop the outrageous acts of human destruction". On a more personal level, his website tells us that "in 1993, John McCain and his wife, Cindy, adopted a little girl from Mother Teresa's orphanage in Bangladesh" and that adoption is a policy area of personal interest to him.

Clearly, both of the Presidential hopefuls have thought seriously about how to tackle poverty around the world. This is nothing new: from the post-war Marshall Plan, through JFK's Peace Corps, successive Presidents have recognized that peace and prosperity abroad matter to their citizens at home. Whichever candidate wins in November will face tough challenges on development - to say nothing of the massive military, strategic and environmental questions which so affect the world's poor.

Getting a global trade deal that works for all, winning the fight against disease, rationalizing the US aid programme and ensuring every dollar of hard-earned taxpayer's money achieves the maximum value for the poor: there are battles to be fought and political capital to be expended to get these things done.

As the Presidential race unfolds, in its barrage of pundits and predictions and polls, people in remote villages and urban slums around the world will be watching as closely as the inhabitants of the Washington beltway and the Westminster village. For what happens in November 2008 matters as much to them as it does to us.


Note from Iain: I will be running a series of guest blogs throughout the Summer. If you would like to write an article to appear on the blog (max 750 words) please do email me. I can't guarantee it will be used though!

Tomorrow: James Clark on the death of the British Record Industry

A Front Page Story?

The Mail on Sunday's front page story concerns a "Harrod's Executive" who is being questioned about an alleged sexual assault on a 15 year old schoolgirl. A complaint has been made to Surrey Police, but as the alleged offence was committed in West London, the Met have taken over the inquiry.

I ask myself why this is a front page story.

Is it...

a) The obvious: Paul Dacre's desire to keep bad stories about Gordon Brown off his front page


b) The perhaps not so obvious

Secret Gordon Brown Memo Revealed

I've just been leaked a secret memo in Gordon Brown's own handwriting. Headed "Post Crewe & Nantwich Henley Glasgow East 'To Do' List", it reads...

1. Smash mobile phone
2. Chew fingernails
3. Blame global economy
4. Listen to what people are saying
5. Take difficult decisions
6. Get on with job
7. Er, that's it.

Saturday, July 26, 2008

What Jack Straw Omitted to Say...

You may not have heard of Sadie Smith. She used to write Westmonster but then departed for her own blog Sadie's Tavern. She is possibly the most acidic and most amusing female blogger there is. Today she has a right old go at Nick Robinson HERE for his evaluation of what Jack Straw didn't say.

A Supermarket Tale of Two Norfolk MPs

Norwich North Labour MP Ian Gibson was on the Today Programme this morning bemoaning the fact that he now gets shouted at in supermarkets by angry constituents and it's all Gordon Brown's fault.

Later on this morning, Mid Norfolk Tory MP Keith Simpson was dragooned into shopping by his lady wife at the local Tesco. He was eyeing up a nice bottle on Pinto Grigiot when a rather attractive lady ran up to him and exclaimed: "Ah, just the man I need!" Preparing himself for some political praise, he straightened his back and drew himself up to his full six foot three inches. "Yes," the lady continued, "Would you reach up and get me that bottle on the top shelf, there's a good chap?"

Cue instant deflation, and a gimlet glare from Mrs S.

PM Goes on His Hols...

And the weather forecast for Southwold is overcast with a high likelihood of rain...

You've got to feel sorry for him, haven't you?

I wonder if Tom Watson will be dropping by with a present this year?

Top Ten Blogs Update

Just a quick update on voting in the Top 200 blogs list for the 2008-9 Guide to Political Blogging.

So far, more than fifty blogs from all over the political spectrum have encouraged their readers to vote. They have voted for 443 different blogs. The top 100 is broken down as follows...

Conservative blogs 20
Right Wing blogs 9
Libertarian blogs 6
Labour blogs 16
Left Wing blogs 13
LibDem blogs 8
Media blogs 11
Non Aligned blogs 11
Green blogs 2
Humour blogs 1
Plaid Cymru blogs 1
SNP blogs 1

So if you add them up, there are 35 right of centre blogs and 41 left of centre blogs (if you count LinDems as left of centre). Perhaps the tide is turning...

If you haven't voted yet, send in your top ten blogs, ranked in order to

Another PR Triumph for Gordon

Total Politics Issue 2: Out Now

The second issue of TOTAL POLITICS is now out, and available on newsstands. Sales of the first issue were 50% higher than predicted, so we are quite pleased with that. We have also now negotiated a deal with W H Smith's 500 high street stores so from next month the magazine will be available all over the country. You can read the full magazine in the online E-Zine HERE free of charge. Or you can read these individual articles...

Interview with Morgan Tsvangirai
Interview with Declan Ganley on the Irish No Vote
The Funding Debate in Local Government
In search of the British Chinese Vote
Interview with Scott McLellan & Marc Ginsburg
Tim Shipman on Obama, Cameron & the Political Divide
John Shosky on how to tackle hecklers during a speech
Ben Duckworth takes three MPs to the Duchamp tie shop
If I Were Prime Minister: Chef John Burton Race

If you only read one of these, click on THIS one by former Ambassador Charles Crawford who doles out advice to new Ministers on what they should do on their first day in office. Hilarious and insightful at the same time.

For a full list of stockists for this issue, click HERE. Or to subscribe to the magazine (£35 for 12 issues) click HERE.

Friday, July 25, 2008

Protocol Stuffs Gordon's Chance of Reflective Glory With Obama

In Germany Barack Obama spoke to 100,000 people. In Paris he did a high profile news conference with President Sarkozy. In London he will be pictured shaking hands with Gordon Brown by the Downing Street press conference at breakfast time tomorrow.

Doesn't that just illustrate what is wrong with the Prime Minister's machine? Apparently, because he didn't do a joint press conference with John McCain on a recent visit, he can't be seen to be showing preference to Obama. If I were him I would tell his protocol people to get stuffed and milk it for all it's worth. What's he got to lose?

Never mind, I am sure Tony Blair and David Cameron will oblige, and thereby steal any positive headlines there are to be had.

It never rains on Gordon eh?

Another Chipmunk Fan Comes Out of the Closet

Finally, I have an ally in my fight to defend the nation's favourite chipmunk. This is Charles Moore, writing in this week's Spectator...
Hazel Blears ... is frequently denigrated in the Tory press. I met her for the first time last week, and found her delightful. She is kind and pretty, with the attractive energy that sometimes goes with being small. She is a proper Labour person (which so few of them are). She thinks about how to make life better for the poor and robustly opposes all alliances with any ideology — Islamism being the latest intruder in this country — which would make their life worse.
See, it's not just me. Maybe we should form a support group.

How Good or Bad Are Local Councillors?

Those of you who are interested in local government might like to check out an interview on the Total Politics Local Government Blog with Dr Phyllis Starkey, Labour chairman of the Communities and Local Government Select Committee. She says...
The councils themselves need to change their mindset, and start doing things instead of always using the excuse that they're not permitted to, or that central government doesn't want to, or that they don't have the finance. Councils need to think much more imaginatively themselves.
I had to re-read that when I first read it. It's a strange definition of localism. She also talks about the quality of local councillors.
Clearly the quality is variable, just as the quality of Members of Parliament is. There’s no evidence that the quality of councillors has got worse or better. It’s interesting that even in the 18th century you found commentators railing against the poor quality of local councillors so I think this is a theme - a bit like people complaining that young people are badly behaved. There are some extremely impressive councillors in many different sorts of councils who are operating in innovative ways for their local communities. And there are some very unimpressive councillors. I suppose it’s fair to say you tend to get more of the unimpressive ones in areas where one political party has more or less an uninterrupted hold on the control of the local council.
I totally agree with that analysis. One party fiefdoms seldom result in good government. Anyway, read the rest of the interview HERE.

Competition: What Would Harriet Say?

This superb letter appeared in the Telegraph this morning...

Here on the Continent, the news from home is sometimes a bit patchy. Do I understand that the Government which introduced 24 hour drinking against all advice except that of the drinks industry, is now blaming the drinks industry for selling drinks during these 24 hours?
Steve Astell, The Netherlands

I started wondering how the government might reply, and thought that Harriet Harman would be just the person to draft such a letter to the Telegraph. But she needs some helpo from you, dear readers.

Gordon Brown's Groundhog Day

It is fairly easy to identify those who have gained from the Glasgow East by election...

* Alex Salmond and the SNP for pulling off a triumph most of the so-called experts said wasn't possible.
* Scottish Conservatives for overtaking the LibDems

Some of the losers are pretty obvious too, the main ones being Gordon Brown and the Scottish Labour Party. However, there were two other big losers.

The wheels really seem to have come off the LibDem by election machine. To lose their deposit in a seat where they have been in third place with ten per cent of the vote is quite some achievement. Following on from Henley and Crewe, one is beginning to wonder what has happened to the golden touch of Chris Rennard. Someone on a previous thread put their finger on one of their problems by asking: 'Excuse me, but could you tell me where Nick Clegg is? Has he left politics?' Apart from last week's tax headlines, the LibDems are finding it very difficult to elbow their way into the news headlines. The sooner they get on with recruiting a new Director of Communications the better.

The other big loser from last night's result is the PoliticsHome Insider Panel, which proved again how spectacularly out of touch with the real word the Westminster Bubble is. More than 86 per cent believed a Labour win would happen. I admit that yesterday I joined the herd and voted that way too. I wonder if a similar panel of Scottish political insiders would have voted the same way. I suspect they would have.

Gordon Brown's comments this morning make you feel as if you're living your own political Groundhog Day. "The right man to deal with long term problems ... Blah .... Difficult decisions .... Blah .... Global economic crisis .... Blah... Listen to people's concerns... Blah. " The trouble is, we have heard it all before after Crewe and Henley. If he can't come up with a new line he's in even deeper trouble than we all think. Labour MPs must be tearing their hair out listening to him.

Glasgow Aftermath: How to Read the Runes

There are four things to look out for over the next 24 hours before we can judge how deep the doo-doo is which Gordon Brown is trudging in.

Silence is Golden
Tick off how many Cabinet Ministers appear on the media in support of the Prime Minister. In particular watch out for Jack Straw, Alan Johnson, Geoff Hoon and Alistair Darling. If the likes of Balls, Cooper and the Milibands stay silent, Brown is in real trouble. And if there is a mass appearance before the cameras watch out for the 'message'. They will have all been briefed to put out a single message. I suspect the message will be that it's not about Gordon, we've all got to take the blame. In essence, they will be doing the opposite of 'taking one for the team'. They'll be taking one for Gordon.

Obama Saves
See if the media allows the Obama visit to drown out the terrible news from Glasgow East. It may come a day too late though. If the BBC and Sky lead each news bulletin with Obama, Labour MPs will breathe a sigh of relief.

The Usual Suspects?
Let's see if any Labour MPs break cover. We can expect the usual suspects to call for Gordon's head. Graham Stringer, John McDonnell etc. But if a few MPs in marginal seats who feel threatened decide to come out in the open, then the long march to oblivion may have started.

Alas Poor Warwick...
The media should lay siege to Labour's National Policy Forum tomorrow at Warwick University. These are the arch activists. I will lay bets that various Union leaders and activists will relish their moment in the spotlight, and act accordingly.

Thursday, July 24, 2008

Staying Up For Glasgow East

I will probably regret this, but both senior SNP and Tory sources all reckon the SNP might just pull it off. I'm staying up for this one!

What will it mean for Gordon Brown? Will his meeting tomorrow with Obama be overshadowed by domestic electoral woes? Will Labour MPs have the courage to do anything, and will the supine media again swallow the line that a single by election doesn't really mean anything. Think Eastbourne 1990.

UPDATE 12.30: SNP contacts predicting 1,500 majority.

UPDATE 12.35: Conservatives in Westminster North have seen the election of their candidate, Mehfuz Ahmed, in the Church Street Council By-Election. Church Street has been a Labour stronghold since its creation in 1964 – local residents have never before been represented by a Conservative Councillor. Mehfuz Ahmed’s victory is even more significant given Church Street’s location – it is one of ten electoral wards, and one of only four Labour wards, in the newly redrawn, marginal constituency of Westminster North.

UPDATE 12.45: Conservatives to leapfrog LibDems into 3rd place. LibDems to lose deposit it seems.

UPDATE 1.30: Recount. To stay up, or not to stay up, that is the question.

Great Dilemmas of Our Age: No 94

At midnight tonight do I...

a) Watch coverage of the Glasgow East by election on Sky News
b) Watch West Ham play MLS All Stars on Setanta Sports
c) Go to bed

My SNP friends have been very quiet today. Either they think they are going to lose or they are too busy knocking up. A couple of journalists I talk to reckon they might still pull it off. If they do, I wonder what the consequences will be for our beloved PM. Nothing serious, I hope.

Did Major Conspire to Topple Thatcher?

Contemporary Historian Christopher Thompson has an interesting entry on his Early Modern History blog. He alleges that from the very start of Margaret Thatcher's troubles in the runup to the leadership election, John Major's PPS Graham Bright was determined to get his man on the second ballot. He may have been acting off his own bat... or perhaps not. Here's Chris Thompson's account...
For many years, I worked at the House of Commons in a number of capacities. I was originally based in an office in 2 The Abbey Gardens and later in No.5 Millbank. It was in the first of these that I was consulted (in the preceding week) by the new PPS to the Chancellor of the Exchequer, John Major, about how it would be sensible to vote in the first ballot for the Tory Party's leadership due to be held on Tuesday, 20th November, 1990 so that Major might enter the contest at the next stage. I told him that, to achieve that aim, he should vote for Michael Heseltine in the first ballot. Whether he did so or not, I cannot say. However, the following morning (Wednesday, 21st November) when I got to my desk in Abbey Gardens, I received two messages from Ministers, one from Gillian Shephard and a second from Robert Atkins, urging John Major to stand. I went across to the House and reached his PPS's office next to the Chancellor's in the corridor behind the Speaker's chair just before 9.45 a.m. where I duly reported these messages. While I was there, Rob Hayward and Sir Terence Higgins arrived as did Norman Lamont shortly thereafter. I particularly remember Norman Lamont saying of the Prime Minister, "She's finished." John Major telephoned twice during the half hour or so that I was present to ask what was going on and giving instructions that no canvassing was to be done on his behalf. That did not deter those present from starting to do just that. Heseltine's supporters were doing so as were those of Douglas Hurd. They were not going to be slow off the mark on behalf of John Major. Unfortunately, I then had to return to my desk. All I can say is that the accounts in Anthony Seldon's biography of John Major and, indeed, in the latter's autobiography are not quite correct although whether my testimony will ever be noticed seems rather doubtful.
It is perfectly possible that Bright went on a freelance operation and felt he was serving his boss well by doing so. But there has always been a suspicion that John Major didn't quite act in the whiter than white manner which has hitherto been accepted by historians of the time. Perhaps we shall never know.

Two other bits of Thatcher related news. The video channel has the complete Downing Street Years series and also Tory, Tory Tory on a channel called Tory TV.

Secondly, filming of a new drama of Margaret Thatcher's final days in power has started. Ian McDiarmid, James Fox and Robert Hardy star. The actors, together with Philip Jackson and Kevin McNally, will appear in Margaret as the men "who loved her and those who betrayed her", the BBC said. The press release continues...

McDiarmid, Emperor Palpatine in Star Wars, will play Denis Thatcher; A Passage to India's Fox will portray foreign policy adviser Charles Powell and Hardy, best known for All Creatures Great and Small, will play deputy prime minister Willie Whitelaw.

The drama is being made by the production company behind the recent controversial BBC4 drama The Long Walk to Finchley and focuses on the events of 1990 when the former prime minister lost the backing of her cabinet and was forced to step down. It is being billed by the BBC as an "intimate portrayal of a woman on the brink of ruin". It was confirmed in April that Duncan, who appeared in HBO and BBC Two drama Rome, would portray Thatcher.

Jackson, who appeared in Poirot, will play Thatcher's chief press secretary, Bernard Ingham, while McNally, whose credits include Pirates of the Caribbean, will portray former minister Kenneth Clarke. The Commander's Oliver Cotton will appear as Thatcher's challenger Michael Heseltine.

Other cast members include John Sessions, whose credits include The Good Shepherd, as former foreign secretary Geoffrey Howe; Doctors' Michael Cochrane as MP Alan Clark; Michael Maloney, who starred in the movie Notes on a Scandal, as Thatcher's successor John Major; The Palace's Roy Marsden as firebrand MP Norman Tebbit; Casualty's Nigel Le Vaillant as Thatcher's Conservative predecessor Ted Heath and Rosemary Leach, who appeared in comedy My Family, as the Queen. The drama began filming in London last week.

How Long Before Ireland is Punished?

This graphic shows the richest and poorest countries in Europe measured on GDP per person and buying power. Why is it that I suspect the EU Commission is already drawing up measures to ensure Ireland loses its status as richest EU country (bar Luxemburg)? Just a hunch...

Thank You for the Movie

Yesterday was my partner's birthday, so as a special treat (!), we went to see Mamma Mia (the movie) at the Leicester Square Odeon with a couple of friends. To be honest, having enjoyed the stage version so much, I wasn't expecting much, but I was so wrong. I won't bore you with all the details, but I'd rate this very highly in my list of best movies. It was even camper than the theatre version, and that's saying something. Meryl Streep was tremendous and really belted it out. Pierce Brosnan was, shall we say, a little more disappointing in his vocal abilities, as was Colin Firth. They murdered OUR LAST SUMMER and SOS. It somehow didn't matter though. Highlights were Streep's rendition of SLIPPING THROUGH MY FINGERS and DANCING QUEEN, which is on the Youtube clip below. See if you can spot a little cameo appearance by Benny Andersson in the middle. It got a cheer in the cinema.

This is the only film I have been to where the entire audience sat riveted to their seats right until the very end of the credits. Just as well, there was a further cameo from Bjorn Ulvaeus.

The only downside to the evening was when we came out of the cinema and three of us were ranting about what a brilliant movie it has been. I turned to the fourth member of our little group, who was a bit quieter, and suddenly realised why. When Abba broke up in 1982 he hadn't even been born... I suddenly felt my age!

A Landmark Day for Northern Ireland Politics

I remember bitter debates at Conservative Conference sin the 1990s when Northern Ireland Conservatives were effectively banned from organising in the province. Lawrence Kennedy put some powerful arguments forward and eventually persauded the party to relent. Although electoral success has not been exactly plentiful, circumstances are now ripe, I feel, for an initiative along the lines of the one outlined by David Cameron and Sir Reg Empey in the Telegraph this morning. It's one I hope people of all political persuasions both here and in Northern Ireland can welcome.

If this comes off, for the first time in ages, people in Northern Ireland will be able to take part in voting for a UK government, and see their representatives appointed as UK Ministers. It also reinforces the Conservatives as the Conservative & Unionist Party. I suspect the LibDems may now be encouraged to enter into a closer arrangement with the Alliance Party. Whether Labour will seek to emulate this with an agreement with the SDLP remains to be seen.

Slowly but surely Northern Ireland politics is emerging from their sectarian past. The Tory/UUP deal may even encourage a few Tory minded Catholics to transfer their allegiances. It may not happen overnight, but this move will be seen by many as not only David Cameron, but the UUP opening up a bigger tent.

And who knows, it may even encourage some DUP members who are tired of the antics of the likes of Iris Robinson to transfer their allegiances back to their more moderate colleagues in the UUP. I'm told that her recent remarks put some steel in the UUP, who do not wish to be associated with such extreme views. They also think that Northern Ireland politics was tarnished by the deal the DUP allegedly did with the Government over 42 days.

I am, however, left wondering what the UUP's only current MP thinks of all this. Lady Sylvia Hermon rarely votes with the Tories and mostly supports the government in the division lobby

Two final points. What a great thing it is that these talks have remained a secret for so long. They have been going on since last October and nobody found out. That's in no small part due to the efforts of Tory Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Paterson. He was the instigator of the talks and has kept them going through some difficult times. Owen is much underestimated by many of his colleagues, but he proved in his last job as Shadow Fisheries Minister - and also now - that he is a tenacious and dedicated shadow spokesman who throws himself into whatever job he has. He can be justifably proud of today's achievement, and sounds it in this quote...
This is a great announcement. I believe that the creation of a new political force will attract a surge of support from people in every community who want to see Northern Ireland play its full part in the politics of the United Kingdom. I hope that the people of Northern Ireland will seize on this opportunity and work with us to see their interests better represented at every level of government.

In May 2007, in a Telegraph column, I suggested that David Trimble should be brought into the Shadow Cabinet.

One man with huge experience, personal charm and immense ability is David, now Lord, Trimble. He recently joined the Conservative benches in the Lords and would be a hugely impressive addition to the shadow cabinet. He is only 62, and is very keen to play an active part in politics on the UK mainland. He may not feel ready just yet for a frontbench role, but surely that moment will come before the election.

I now regard the move as almost inevitable. I am told he played a key role in making this announcement happen. If there is a reshuffle in September, I hope he will be given a key role.

PS I was delighted to get a call last night from BBC Radio Ulster, who asked if I would go on their breakfast show to talk about the talks between David Cameron and the UUP about an electoral alliance. They told me they would ring me to go on at 8.20am. Instead the call came at 7.32am when I was still in the land of nod. But a minute later I was broadcasting to the good people of Northern Ireland. I felt that I came across quite badly as my brain hadn't yet switched into top gear, but such is life.

UPDATE: More comment from Mick Fealty, Slugger O'Toole, O'Conall Street. The full statement by Sir Reg Empey and David Cameron is on the Northern Ireland Conservatives website HERE.

Being Giles Coren

Guido has the text of a wonderful ranty email sent by Times columnist Giles Coren to his sub editors HERE. And all because they deleted the word 'a' from the final sentence of his erudite column. Just as well this sort of thing never happens at the Telegraph...

Wednesday, July 23, 2008

LabourHome Gets Cash Boost

Labour blog New Direction is confirming a rumour I heard a week or so ago that the new owner of the New Statesman, Mike Danson, is about to pump money into LabourHome, to try to enable it to rival the success of ConservativeHome.

Interestingly, I understand that LabourHome turned down a rival funding offer from a right of centre source. UPDATE: Guido is naming PoliticsHome...

Contrary to what some left of centre bloggers have been saying (HERE and HERE), I actually welcome this as I think it is healthy for each political viewpoint to have a powerful online presence. Most sensible people on the left recognise that their blogging efforts have not received the same attention as those of us on the right. The advent of blogs like Liberal Conspiracy have liften the profile of the left of centre blogosphere, and despite their unbalanced antipathy towards me personally, I think that can only be a good thing for blogging in general.

The question now is whether LabourHome can live up to Mike Danson's expectations. Jag Singh has the undoubted technical expertise to develop it into a great site, but Danson will surely have questionmarks over the ability of Alex Hilton - a selected Labour Party PPC (yes, I know, I know) - to make the site work editorially in the same way that Tim Montgomerie (who has no electoral ambitions) has made ConHome work. Can he, as editor, be as controversial as he would sometimes need to be? Admittedly, when he was on GMTV with me a few weeks ago he stated that Gordon Brown had only two weeks in office unless he pulled it around, so maybe those fears are ungrounded.

Anyway, I wish them well.

UPDATE: Guidoreckons it's not a cash injection, it's a sale. He speculates that if LabourHome is worth a five figure sum, blogs like his and mine must be worth seven figures. I think not. No one's worth anything without a buyer, and
I am not sure either of us would relish emulating Cristiano Ronaldo and becoming 'slaves'!

The Future of Party Conferences

My post yesterday about the cost if policing party conferences has sparked off quite a debate, with the majority of commenters saying that they are worth the price of the escalating policing costs. Many make the point that if the parties cancelled the conferences for this reason the terrorists would have won. It's a fair point and one I have some sympathy with. However, let's look at the wider issue of what useful purpose party conferences serve nowadays.

A conference is, by definition, a meeting for people to discuss and exchange views. But that's not what party conferences are any longer. Nowadays they have become more akin to party rallies, where like minded people meet to cheer their party leaders. Very little substantive policy decisions are taken at party conferences, regardless of party. The LibDems still have agenda setting powers and discuss minute policy details, but the party leadership does its best to ignore anything uncomfortable which emerges. Their conferences does, it has to be said, still have some meaning. But the conferences of the big two parties are so stage managed, and put on purely as a showcase, that they have little long term meaning. OK, momentous events sometimes happen at party conferences, (witness the ascent of David Cameron at the expense of David Davis) but it is rarely to the advantage of the party concerned. All the travelling media is interested in is seeking out splits, disloyalty and drunken antics. They operate as a herd and once they have decided the conference is tanking, there's no going back.

The only part of most party conferences worth attending is the fringe. Here there can be genuine sparky debate, but again the media is always on the lookout for a negative story. Some leading politicians have given up speaking at fringe meetings because they reckon whatever they say, desperate journalists will jump on any loose language as evidence of a possible leadership bid, or disloyalty to the party leader.

Having said all that, I have attended round twenty Tory Party conferences and several Labour and LibDem conferences too. And I have to say I have enjoyed every one of them*. You meet a lot of different people and it really is a gathering of the tribes. But I still think they they have grown too stage managed and have outlived their usefulness.

Instead of one big party conference each year it would be far better to have two or three regional two day events, spaced throughout the year. They would be party rallies, not full blown conferences, but there would still be opportunities for fringe events and the usual networking and social events. The reason why younger people often cannot attend four day party conferences is because they can't get time off work. If the events ran from Friday afternoon to Sunday lunchtime, a wider range of people would be able to attend. At the moment, all the party conferences are dominated by people who either work in politics, have the time to attend or are ultimate political geeks. Luckily, I qualify on all three counts!

So let's open things up, attract a more diverse range of people and move with the times.

As Mrs Merton would say, let's have a mass debate!

* UPDATE: Actually I take that back. I did not enjoy the 2005 Tory conference at all. Not one little bit!

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Iris Looks Forward to a Trip to Iran

Cartoon by Howard Woodall
Click on the image to enlarge

The Cost of Policing Party Conferences

Tory Police Spokesman David Ruffley has unearthed figures which show the Labour conference costing more than £2 million more to police than the Tory Conference. The figures are £6.5 million and £4.5 million respectively. He wants to know why.

I'm less interested in the disparity, than the fact that the taxpayer is picking up a bill of more than eleven million spondoolicks for policing these exercises in political nosegazing. I have long been sceptical about the future of set-piece four day party conferences, and these figures make me think we should perhaps call time on conferences in the current format.

Ruffley also points out that the cost of policing Labour's Manchester conference has risen by 63% in two years. It would be interesting to know why.

Inside the Obama Campaign HQ

Ever wondered what the inside of a Presidential campaign looks like? Click HERE to see a CBS video of the Barack Obama campaign HQ courtesy of the Total Politics Campaign Blog. Incidentally, I am very excited to be attending the Republican National Convention at the beginning of September.

Kate Hoey Under Attack From Local Labour Party

A kind soul has emailed me the agenda for Thursday night's General Committee Meeting of Vauxhall Labour Party. It looks like there is going to be another attempt to deselect the local MP Kate Hoey.

1. Apologies for absence
2. Minutes of last GC
3. Reports from Kate Hoey MP
4. Reports from CLP Officers
5. Resolutions

Vassall Ward Branch

Vassall Ward calls on Kate Hoey MP to state when she accepted the job with Boris Johnson.

Vassall Ward calls on Kate Hoey MP to stand down as advisor to Boris Johnson and to focus her efforts on the Vauxhall Constituency.

Oval Ward Branch

'This GC asks Kate Hoey MP to produce a strategy for Vauxhall outlining how the MP and the CLP should campaign and fundraise together'

Larkhall Ward Branch

Motion received outside of the time limit

6. AOB

What I wouldn't give to be a fly on the wall.

Dobbo to the Rescue

Just spotted on the Shettleston Road in Glasgow East, none other than Frank Dobson. I think I ought to start a new Top Ten List...

You Know You're Getting Desperate When...

10. You draft Frank Dobson in to persuade people to vote Labour in a Glasgow council estate.

Do continue it...

The Trough Costs You £5.5 Million

According to The Sun the House of Commons Refreshment Department swallowed up £5.5 million of taxpayers' money last year. This represents 43 per cent of its operating costs.

On the face of it, this is odd to say the very least. A public scandal is another way of describing it. The dining rooms are in permanent use, even during recesses. The bars are open with no licencing restrictions. They have an almost captive audience.

One reason for the huge loss is that the bars and restaurants charge ludicrously low prices. It's about time this stopped and the Refreshment Department put its house in order. The trouble is, this department is overseen by a committee of MPs. You can just imagine them all voting to put up prices, can't you? They'd be lynched by their colleagues!

Monday, July 21, 2008

Meet The Most Anti-Gay MP in the House of Commons

Imagine, if you will, that a Conservative or Labour MP had uttered these words in the middle of an official parliamentary committee...

There can be no viler act, apart from homosexuality and sodomy, than sexually abusing innocent children. There must be sufficient confidence that the community has the best possible protection against such perverts, and it is important that there be a mature public debate on the issues, but the security of our citizens must be our overriding priority.

From Hansard
Imagine further, that when asked about those remarks the MP "clarified" them in these terms...

I cannot think of anything more sickening than a child being abused. It is comparable to the act of homosexuality. I think they are all comparable. I feel totally repulsed by both.
The MP in question was not a Conservative or Labour MP, but leading DUP MP Iris Robinson, who also happens to be married to the leader of the DUP and the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Peter Robinson. If Mrs Robinson had been an English MP for one of the main political parties the London based media would have, by now, hung her out to dry. She would also have been disowned by her party.

I did an interview on this for BBC Radio Ulster this morning. Strangely Mrs Robinson did not appear to defend herself, neither did anyone else from the DUP. During the interview Mrs Robinson released a statement to further "clarify" her remarks. Apparently she didn't really mean it. Let me fisk her remarks. My comments in italics.

The remarks in the Grand Committee report do not accurately reflect my views.
Strange you should have been so definitive in your comments then.
While I will be seeking to check the Committee recording, what I clearly intended to say was that child abuse was worse even than homosexuality and sodomy.
Worse EVEN? I should think so seeing as though homosexuality is actually legal in this country.
While I have strong views on homosexual activity based on the Scriptures, it can in no way be equated with child abuse.
Good, we're making progress of sorts.
If that had been the impression I created at the Committee, I would have expected other Committee members to correct me immediately.
They were probably in shock.
At no point have I set out to suggest homosexuality was worse than child sex abuse.
Er, yes you did. Both in the debate and in the Belfast Telegraph this morning. See above.
There can be no comparison between the two. My entire contribution at that Committee meeting was about highlighting the gravity of sex offences and indeed calling for stronger sentences.
Pity you didn't draft your speech more carefully then, isn't it, love?

Whenever I see a statement from a politician which contains the words "What I meant to say..." I can see that they have been leant on. In this case probably over the breakfast table. Mrs Robinson has form on this issue. A few weeks ago she said that homosexuals should receive psychological counselling in order to be cured of their condition. I have to say that it's not me who needs to see a psychiatrist.

It's a free country and I fully defend Mrs Robinson's right to come out with such bigoted, ill judged claptrap. But by doing so she just reinforces existing prejudices among certain people who then feel expressing them in a violent way is somehow acceptable and can be defended because of the "scriptures". Not long ago a gay man in Belfast was beaten to death in a violent, homophobic attack. While I am sure Mrs Robinson, being a good Christian, would never condone any form of homophobic attack, she should not be surprised if her remarks give succour to those who perpetrate them.