Sunday, 27 September 2009

Clegg and co still desperately seeking a purpose.

This week the Liberal Democrats held their conference in Bournemouth, traditionally this is the point at which the rest of the country asks itself just what the party stands for before deciding that is doesn’t matter all that much after all.

Nothing much happened this week to change the general indifference felt by most Britons towards the perennial bridesmaids of the parliamentary system. Party leader Nick Clegg got tangled up over how to justify the calls be made for ‘savage’ cuts to public spending on the eve of the conference with the calls for ‘tax cuts for ordinary people’ paid for by ‘closing tax loopholes for the very rich’ he made from the conference platform.

Treasury spokesman Vince Cable, aka the most trusted man in politics, laid another egg when he announced a ‘mansion tax’ to be imposed on anyone owning a property worth more than £1million, no sooner had the announcement been made than the wheels fell of the whole policy as it was pointed out by the media, conference delegates and pretty much everyone else that the tax would trap countless people of modest means unlucky enough to live in a home that had seen its value rise during the property boom.

The whole conference had hanging over it the distinct air of a party trying desperately hard to appear relevant and dynamic only to be continually tripped up by its inherent amateurishness. All the faults that have been evident in the Liberal Democrat brand for years were again exposed by the cruel light of media scrutiny, lets just tick a few of them off.

Nick Clegg still resembles nothing so much as a man recovering from a successful charisma bypass, there is no coherent vision of what, in the unlikely event of one ever being elected a Lib Dem government would actually do in office apart from trying very hard to be nice to everyone, and as a whole the party seems to lack the confidence and the hunger necessary for a concerted push to improve its standing with a jaded electorate that shows every sign of genuinely being on the lookout for something different after the sleaze and scandals of the past year.

All told the conference could be written off as one big missed opportunity, but to do so would be to miss an important point. The Liberal Democrat conference was, and this may make party managers at the heart of the Labour and Tory party machines throw their hands up in horror like a party of Edwardian spinsters who have had their tea party gate crashed by Piltdown man, was a genuinely democratic event.

The party leadership may have fumbled the ball over cuts in public spending, student loans and the ‘mansion tax’, but unlike their contemporaries in the other two parties the grassroots membership were able to express their opposition through motions moved on the conference floor. That would never, of course, be allowed to happen at a carefully stage managed Labour or Tory conference, something that does both parties a grave disservice.

In his speech from the conference platform Nick Clegg noted the value his party still places on that quaint old thing called democracy, telling a national audience that would mostly never think of voting for his party that through their vote ‘power’ was theirs to ‘give away to whoever you choose’, refreshing sentiments in an age when too often politicians treat the voting public like naughty children rather than equal partners in the democratic process.

The ‘liberal moment’ some commentators predicted might be upon us as voters desert a moribund Labour Party and fail to warm to David Cameron’s Conservatives looks unlikely to arrive any time soon, the party needs a new leader and a lot more grit before it can win the battle to be an effective opposition let alone a government in waiting, and yet it is hard not to warm to Nick Clegg when he promises ‘hope for a different future, a different way of doing things, if we are brave enough to make a fresh start.’

However angry they are over MP’s expenses, the troubles besetting the economy and the general feeling the political class has lost touch with ordinary Britons and the challenges they face the electorate may not yet be ready to turn to the Lib Dems to show them how to make a ‘fresh start’, but they may be by the time of the election after next. The question is will the Liberal Democrats themselves be ready to meet the challenge.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

Any cuts to public services must be made on grounds of principle alone.

At long last the cat is out of the bag, in his speech to the TUC conference on Tuesday Gordon Brown finally used the ‘C’ word, he said that if re-elected a Labour government would: ‘Cut costs, cut inefficiencies, cut unnecessary programmes and cut lower priority budgets.’

All well and good, but the real issue is the size of the cuts that would have to be made by any government after the next election, treasury documents leaked to the press this week suggest a cut of 9.3% over the four years from 2010. The only alternative to this, as suggested by the Institute for Fiscal Studies this week is a huge hike in taxes at the very moment when the economy is starting to take its first faltering steps towards recovery.

An IFS source told the BBC this week that the recession and the banking crisis could put ‘the tightest squeeze on spending on public services since the UK was negotiating its spending plans with the International Monetary Fund in the 1970’s.’

Predictably the Conservatives sought to make political capital out of the government’s embarrassment with shadow chancellor George Osborne saying that Gordon Brown had ‘misled’ parliament over spending cuts and David Cameron accusing him of being the prime mover in a long term ‘cover up’ of the extent by which the public purse strings will have to be tightened.

The Liberal Democrats, in the shape of their economic affairs guru Vince Cable, took a more high minded line criticizing the Tories for trying to make ‘a big political issue’ out of spending cuts that, he said, most people had known were imminent for months.

As sunny Jim Callaghan put it back in the seventies ‘the party’s over’, now we have to face the mess it created in the cold light of a hung over morning and it is not a pretty sight.

Over their twelve years in office Labour have splashed the cash in relation to public services often with the very best of intentions, but little idea of how to bring about the much needed reform of the public sector, matters weren’t helped, of course, by their inability to negotiate with the unions representing public sector workers.

Now the battered and bewildered government led by Gordon Brown must spend its last few months in office contemplating a question that will define political life in the UK for the next decade, what is to be cut and why?

It is, to say the very least, something of a curve ball thrown at a political class that long ago abandoned tricky subjects such as defining what it means to belong to the left or the right for media friendly sound bytes and a cosy seat on the fence.

The method favoured by Mrs Thatcher in the eighties of standing back and letting the markets fix the problem, or not fix it if that suited their mood has been proved a failure. Whole cities have been turned into little more than reservations for the disengaged with a disastrous knock on effect in terms of health problems and spiralling welfare costs, social problems that have become engrained over a generation will take the same length of time to cure and cost billions.

Cuts are an inevitable part of reducing a budget deficit that has been allowed, again for the very best intentioned reasons, to reach levels never before seen in peacetime by a government that is fast running out of time and energy. Whoever wins that next election must make them though from a standpoint of first having decided what services it wishes to preserve and how much pain we will all have to endure in order for it to do so.

Soaring levels of debt, deep social problems and a growing suspicion on the part of the electorate that the political class simply isn’t up to the job of governing the country are returning Britain to the status of the ‘sick man of Europe’ it held in the seventies. The cure will be painful in the extreme, but to work in must take the form of laser surgery not the brutal and often counterproductive butchery practiced by an eighteenth century barber surgeon who knows how to cut well enough, but must rely on trial, and often fatal, error in order to work out where to do so.

Saturday, 12 September 2009

Save our election night.

Well upholstered Tory Chairman Eric Pickles, now there surely is a name made to appear on the marquee outside the theatre on the pier of a run down seaside resort, is not a happy man. He weighed in ( really I must stop it) to criticise the growing numbers of councils believed to be considering moving the counting of the votes for the next general election from Thursday night to the following morning.

The move, claimed to be due to the rising numbers of people using postal votes and the high cost of paying council employees to work until the early hours of the morning counting the votes, mirrors current practice for all European Parliament elections and most local elections.

Employing the sort of rhetoric Seneca would have given his right arm for Mr Pickles said delaying the count until the Friday morning meant the event that defines our democracy would have ‘all the impact of a soggy sparkler on Bonfire Night.’

He isn’t alone in seeking to defend the traditional election night festivities; Jonathan Isaby of Conservativehome has launched a Facebook petition devoted to the issue.

Good luck to them and shame on the Town Hall penny pinchers who want, as usual, to spoil the fun.

Seriously, it may not rank up there with seeing the Grand Canyon or sailing down the Nile, but everyone should attend at least one election count before they die.

As an event it is somewhere between a farce and a thriller with boxes being rushed in from the polling stations and, once the counting is under way people, most of whom you don’t know and may never see again rushing around passing on results from constituencies around the country that have already declared their result. You’re up by five percent, no you’re down by three; your party is set to form the next government, no its out of the game and heading for an embarrassing leadership race before the conference season starts.

The whole thing ends with the candidates, at least in a general election anyway, stepping up onto the podium to make their victory speech or to try and get at least one sentence of their gracious concession onto the local news.

It is all pure theatre and of a decidedly amateur dramatic sort, and all the better for it. Election night, when careers are made or made to founder is one of the few moments when politicians cannot duck making contact with the most important people, the voters. I am on the side of Eric Pickles, Jonathan Isaby, the massed ranks of Facebook and anyone else fighting to save our election night.

Should the BNP appear on Question Time?

This week the BBC confirmed that it may invite BNP leader Nick Griffin onto its popular discussion programme Question Time, which may cause problems for the three main political parties all of whom refuse to share a platform with the far right party.

How does this make you feel? Angry that an oafish man representing a party that shamelessly trades on misery and ignorance has been given a platform on national television? So do I, however, I also find it hard to disagree with the BBC’s chief political adviser Ric Bailey when he points out that the BNP has ‘demonstrated evidence of electoral support at a national level’, meaning that under its own rule our national broadcaster has to treat them with due impartiality.

This is not, necessarily, the disaster it at first appears to be, by refusing to share a platform with the BNP the three mainstream parties are, unwittingly, protecting their most dangerous rival from having its policies exposed to public scrutiny.

Far from excluding the BNP from appearing on national television Labour, the Tories and the Lib Dems should be taking every opportunity to pick their policies apart on national television, exposing them for what they are, racist thugs who neither understand or truly love this country.

Saturday, 5 September 2009

Light bulb ban could leave us all in the dark.

Some day soon I might have to write these weekly notes on the passing parade of English life by candle light, or at least by something that gives a good impression of it.

Why might that be? Because the EU has banned the sale and manufacture of traditional 100 watt light bulbs and decreed that their place must be taken by ecologically friendly compact fluorescent ones instead. A move that could, according to the Energy Saving Trust, cut the amount of electricity used for lighting by up to 80%.

All to the good you might think, and you might go on from there to think that anyone who complains about the change is just a stick in the mud. While the intentions behind the ban are on the side of the angels the way they have been implemented leaves much to be desired.

Take, for example, the health concerns relating to the use of fluorescent lighting, which can have an adverse effect on conditions such as lupus, migraine and epilepsy. Earlier this week David Price of Spectrum, a federation of charities representing people with light sensitive health conditions told the BBC that the government and through it the EU is ‘disregarding’ the concerns of the people fro whom his group speaks and the wider public.

The problem is, for the UK government at least, is that it finds itself caught between the rock of ever tougher environmental legislation being handed down from Brussels and the hard place of dealing with a green lobby that grows ever shriller and more unreasonable by the day, a combination of circumstances that is anathema to common sense.

All sensible people agree now that something has to be done to preserve the planet’s finite resources for future generations, the problem is how to go about doing so. Banning things, be they light bulbs, unnecessary flights or anything else that springs to mind is seldom the answer and almost always the default response of politicians who have been pushed into a corner by single issue lobby groups.

In a few years time the UK may well have a shortage of electricity to power its light bulbs, be they traditional of eco friendly, as an energy gap created by the closure of old nuclear and coal fired power stations and the lack of a sustainable alternative source of power. Government, green lobbyists and the EU have a role to play in helping to find a solution, but before that happens a little common sense must first enter the debate.

It is particularly important the green movement, who are one of the few political forces in the UK untouched by public cynicism about MP’s expenses and broken promises, learns this lesson. The time has come for them to put off the grimly doctrinaire attitudes of student radicalism and with them the hair shirt and embrace a willingness to compromise that creates enough public support to actually get things done.

Is it Dee time for Ross and co to go.

Simon Dee, one time chat show host and, for a brief moment, the epitome of everything that made London swing during the 1960’s died in obscurity last weekend aged 74.

Dee gave his name, so his obituaries told us this week, to a phenomenon referred to by cynical media types as ‘Simon Dee syndrome’, meaning the sad situation when a former celebrity is now only famous for no longer being famous. His brief career and the long littleness that followed can be seen as further confirmation of something that everyone in show business knows but pretends not to know; that fame is transient and that talent is the only guarantee of longevity.

You have to wonder if in the households of Jonathan Ross and Russell Brand, never mind those of the legions of people made fleetingly famous by reality television the announcement of Simon Dee’s demise caused this awkward truth to hit home, followed by the realisation that his sad ending might one day be theirs too. I really rather hope so.