Thursday, 29 October 2009

Brown backs Blair for EU top Job.

He may have done it through teeth so tightly gritted they showered the front row with splinters but Gordon Brown has finally made his support for Tony Blair’s candidacy, should the Lisbon Treaty go through and the job come into existence, to be the first President on the European Union.

Speaking at a press conference in Brussels ahead of a summit meeting of EU leaders he said his predecessor would make an ‘excellent president’ and that concerns amongst European leaders about his involvement in the Iraq war belonged to the past.

The peoples of Europe, he said, ‘want to look forward’ to being in a position where they can ‘shape their own policies.’ As the man who sold capitalism to the Labour Party and a war for oil to the British electorate super salesman Blair is, it would seem, just the man to lead them to that point.

The question hanging in the air, whether or not the Czechs do the decent thing, from the standpoint of Brussels, and sign the Lisbon Treaty is does Europe really want or need a president? Everything about the office seems suggestive of all that is expensive, pompous and remote about the European Union.

From a British perspective another question begs to be answered, do we want to be part of Europe at all? There is a good case to be made for our continued membership and a long list of reasonable doubts regarding its value in a world that has changed immeasurably since the EU was founded, the only thing missing is a rational debate.

The problem is no government since that of Harold Wilson in the mid seventies has had the nerve to ask, David Cameron has made encouraging noises about holding a referendum, but he has to date, been rather vague as to when. The twelfth of never sounds like a likely date.


The strange case of the bureaucrats who listened.

It’s almost like something out of a Bateman cartoon, maybe one showing a throng of people belonging to the chattering classes gawping in horror at, as the caption below tells us ‘The bureaucrat who changed his mind.’

I mean of course the decision by Secretary for Education, Schools and Families Ed Balls, not always a sensitive or particularly sensible man, to review plans to make parents taking part in voluntary activities with children not their own to sign a special register.

The move hasn’t been popular, Sir Roger Singleton, Chair of the Independent Safeguarding Authority told the Guardian ‘I hear phrases like common sense and proportion,’ in relation to the public backlash against the plan, he continues to say ‘I don’t know how you can make sure a person considered is who they say they are’ without some king of screening process.

Quite so Sir Roger, but the process itself is doomed to fail if it is devoid of the common sense and proportion about which you spoke so scathingly. Yes people who have regular contact with children need to the checked but paranoia never protected anybody.

He may be a charmless and overambitious oaf in many respects but by calling for this silly and panic driven plan to be re-examined and hopefully replaced with something more workable Ed Balls is very much on the side of the angels.


Bong! ITN to axe Big Ben.

ITN is to remove Big Ben from the titles of its flagship News at Ten bulletin in an attempt to make the news less London centric. The legendary bongs will be incorporated into a new soundtrack.

Don’t worry though as part of the re-branding process and to ‘retain the heritage that people recognise,’ a spokesman for ITN said, a clock face will be incorporated into the new studio design. Well that’s ok then isn’t it?

Re-branding, if there’s a worse word in the English language I don’t know of it. It’s always used by media types as a short hand for treating the audience like idiots whilst spending shed loads of money.

Here’s a late news item, viewers don’t like familiar formats being messed with and they positively detest being treated like idiots. That’ll be why most of ITV’s bonged off to the BBC years ago.


Saturday, 24 October 2009

The slow suicide of an old and trusted friend.

On the Thursday of this week 42,000 drivers and mail centre workers employed by the Royal Mail went out on strike, a day later they were joined by 80,000 delivery workers, and for two days not a letter was delivered from Land’s End to John O’Groats.

This latest round in the seemingly endless battle between the Royal Mail and its employees resembles nothing so much as another step in the slow suicide of an old and trusted friend. He might have had his leadership abilities questioned, again, at PMQ’s by an opposition that can smell blood in the water but it is hard not to agree with Gordon Brown when he told the BBC ‘This strike is self defeating. It’s essential everyone gets around the table.’

The table in question being in the office of arbitration service ACAS, he, or rather wily Lord Mandelson might get them there, but I doubt it will do any good.

Rather like an exasperated school teacher breaking up a fight in the playground you cannot help feeing the postal strike is a classic case of six of one and half a dozen of the other.

In the blue corner we have a macho management led by Royal Mail Chief Executive Adam Crozier, a man who seems to work on the premise that it is the role of his staff to meekly ask ‘please sir how high?’ whenever he bellows ‘Jump!’ In the red corner we have the CWU, for whom the industrial strife of the seventies and eighties seems never to have happened, all they have to do is call a strike, bring the country to a halt and it will be off to Downing Street for beer and sandwiches.

Caught in the middle, as ever, are the poor bloody workers, people who know from bitter experience that times have changed and the old ways of working for managers and union alike have long ago become obsolete. They provide what is, for all its faults, a truly first rate postal service and they deserve to be better led by both the Royal Mail and their union.

Sadly the job is being done by people who think this strike is how the revolution is going to start, be it the free trade one where the market carries all before it or the one where the workers unite to build a better world; they are wrong. This is how revolutions end, in bitterness, strife and disappointment.

Source :

Not in front of the children.

Have you seen the new television advert put out by the Department of Energy and Climate Change? It cost £6million and uses images of cartoon animals drowning in an epic flood to scare (I mean educate) us about the dangers of climate change.

The Advertising Standards Agency has received 357 complaints from viewers who said their children had been frightened by the advert, which uses a father reading a bedtime story about the horrors of global warming to his child as a framing device.

I don’t know about scaring the children, the wild eyed evangelism of the green lobby on this issue does a good job of scaring most adults.

Undoubtedly Energy and Climate Change minister Joan Ruddock has a point when she says ‘Climate change is not just a problem for generations of people in the future, it affects us and our children owe it to them to take action now.’

Indeed it is and we certainly do have to act, but when we do so we have to be guided by rationality and a willingness to question everything, not the hysterical propaganda put out by a green movement the is in the throes of turning itself into a fundamentalist faith that, like all such faiths, sees reason as a threat.


Storm in a teacup.

What is your favourite type of biscuit? Not, you would think, a particularly tough question, even if it was put to you by Jeremy Paxman rattling the biscuit barrel under your nose.

Nevertheless when mumsnet asked Gordon Brown to name his biccy of choice (twelve times as it turns out, so maybe Paxo was on the job after all) he was unable to give an answer, eventually a spokesman let it be known that our beloved leader likes ‘anything with a bit of chocolate on it’.

The mind boggles at the tortuous round of negotiation, hand wringing and hastily convened focus groups the inmates of the Downing Street bunker must have gone through before arriving at an answer that leaves nobody any the wiser. Bourbons or chocolate digestives; make your mind up man.

The leaders of the two opposition parties had no such problems giving an answer, for the record David Cameron likes organic oatcakes and Nick Clegg prefers either Hobnobs or Rich Tea, how very Liberal Democrat to have two contradictory policies on the same issue. The press haven’t, as yet, asked the oik Griffin what sort of biscuit he likes; mostly because nobody cares.


Friday, 16 October 2009

Dear MP’s- cough up!

As they troop back to Westminster from the champagne and bright lights of the conference season MP’s will find in their In-Tray a letter that may ask them to pay back wrongly claimed expenses.

The letters are a result of an inquiry into MP’s expenses led by former civil servant Sir Thomas Legg held in the wake of the revelations about everything from duck houses and moat cleaning to mars bars and blue movies being charged to the public purse by our elected representatives made in the Daily Telegraph over the summer. All three party leaders have issued instructions to their members to pay up and shut up in the name of not dragging the reputation of the mother of all parliaments any further through the mud.

Things may not, though, go quite so neatly to plan. Many MP’s feel Sir Thomas had overstepped his remit by applying the new rules retrospectively, calling for the repayment of expenses that had been signed off by the fees office up to five years ago.

Sir Stuart Bell, of the influential Commons Members Estimate Committee, to whom Legg will have to submit his report, told the BBC at the start of the week that many MP’s feel ‘Sir Thomas is not staying within the remit, he’s not respecting decisions made by the fees office in accordance with the rules at the time.’

It may be about as popular just now as saying Bankers? Of course they deserve their bonuses, but our embattled MP’s do have a point. Yes the people who made deliberately fraudulent claims should be made to pay the money back and thrown out of parliament, but far from being shameless freeloaders the majority of MP’s do give value for money.

As an example I would site the MP for my own home town in the West Midlands, a man recognised by website ‘They Work For You’ as one of the hardest working MP’s in the commons whine it comes to dealing with cases brought to him by his constituents. No questions at all have been asked about his expenses, but in the court of lazy saloon bar opinion he is judged to be guilty along with the criminal few among his colleagues.

Perhaps we, the permanently outraged British public, should be asking ourselves a few awkward questions.

A large proportion of the MP’s caught with their arm up to the elbow in the cookie jar represented constituencies where one party had a virtual monopoly, if the public took enough of an interest in politics to make no seat safe, the chances of the person representing it becoming complacent and possibly corrupt would be much reduced.

We also have to ask ourselves just what who we want to represent us in parliament. If we want, as is so often claimed on radio talk shows, the job to be done by ‘people like us’, then we will have to pay those people a decent wage and provide them with reasonable expenses. Those expenses should pay for essentials not luxuries and claimants should have to justify every penny they take from the public purse, but there is no way around paying the money out, nor should there be.

The alternative is being governed by a mix of celebrities and people who are rich enough not to need a salary. It won’t work, politics succeeds or fails on whether or not its practitioners can connect with the people they have been elected to represent, whatever talents they may have in other areas I doubt very much whether Jordan or some aristocrat rich enough to think of Devon as his back garden are really up to the job.


Come Dancing? I’d rather we didn’t.

As if they didn’t have more important things to concentrate on at the moment, you know like the recession and climate change turning the poles into a giant slush puppy, the government has decided that we aren’t dancing enough.

Don’t worry though because they’re going to send out teams of ‘dance champions’ to coax us off the sofa and onto the dance floor.

The campaign is fronted by former ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ judge Arlene Phillips, who will be holding a series of ‘dance celebration’ events across the country. Speaking to earlier this week Phillips said: ‘We want to start a revolution to get the nation on their feet and onto the dance floor.’

Ok, so this is all part of an admirable attempt to get the 100,000 people in the UK who don’t exercise enough up and moving around, but I fear it is doomed to failure.

We Britons are just too shy and body conscious, at least when we’re sober anyway, to dance in public. However good the intentions behind this initiative press ganging a few people into giving an exhibition of ‘dad dancing’ in a dreary shopping mall whilst being ignored by passers by will do nothing to change that awkward fact of national character.


Veg and no meat for this spider.

Scientists at Villanova University announced this week that they have discovered the world’s first vegetarian spider.

Bagheera Kiplingi does not use its web to trap or hunt prey and instead feeds on Beltian bodies, a special leaf tip found on acacia plants.

It might be facetious but I have to ask anyway, do you thing vegetarian spiders are as annoying as the human variety? Do they waft about the place in a haze of smugly half starved moral superiority refusing to let anything that hasn’t been sanctified by St Linda McCartney pass their lips? I think we should be told.


Sunday, 11 October 2009

Cameron and the Tories growing confidence.

In his keynote speech to the Conservative Party conference this week David Cameron told the party faithful that an incoming Tory government would be ‘ready to be tested’ by the ‘tough’ times ahead.

In a direct attack on a befuddled Labour government lumbering to the tar pit along a road paved with faction fighting, broken promises and economic chaos he said ‘Don’t you dare lecture us about poverty. You have failed and it falls to the modern Conservative Party to fight for the poorest who you have let down.’

If, or when, if the polls are to be believed, a Conservative government took office he pledged ‘If you’re frightened, we’ll protect you, if you risk your safety to stop a crime, we’ll stand by you, if you risk your life to fight for your country, we will honour you.’

In this, easily the best speech of an otherwise rather dismal conference season the message was clear, society is broken, the economy is struggling and social mobility has stalled; only pone party can turn things around and he was going to lead it back into power after thirteen years in the doldrums. Stirring stuff and, unusually for a speech made by a party leader made to an audience of journalists and party activists it seemed to resonate strongly with the wider electorate.

The responses made by the government and the Liberal Democrats to the speech show why at the moment nobody seems able to land a glove on Mr Cameron.

Liam Byrne, Chief Secretary to the Treasury called Cameron’s speech ‘emotive but deceptive’ and said that it ‘concealed the judgement that he has consistently got it wrong’ when it comes to tackling the recession. Danny Alexander for the Liberal Democrats said there was ‘a huge gulf between the sunny rhetoric of David Cameron and the grim reality of Tory policy’ and claimed that at a time of crisis they had ‘the wrong solutions and the wrong priorities.’

Both the government and the Lib Dems have misread, again, the public mood, by emphasising the tough times ahead and the traditional values needed to cope with them Cameron was giving the voting public what it has been crying out for over the past year; honesty. This stands in sharp contrast to the shrill and mixed messages sent out by the government and the inability of the Liberal Democrats to find a sense of purpose even though the greatest political opportunity the party has had access to for eighty years could be presented to them if the next election produces a hung parliament.

The media has made no better a fist out of challenging the rise and rise of David Cameron and the Notting Hill bunch, the best it seems able to come up with is an endless recycling of the ancient photograph of Cameron and his chums done up in their Bullingdon Club regalia and rumours about his youthful drug use.

There are serious questions to be asked about the Tory renaissance, such as, which is the real David Cameron, the stern defender of the poor or the media friendly Notting hillbilly who wanted to let sunshine win the day a couple of years ago? If he wants to challenge a culture that believes ‘for every problem there is a government solution’ and to fight the ‘steady erosion of responsibility’ that is a consequence of being dependent on the state, does have the will to devolve the power to change their lives and communities to individuals, many of whom are not natural conservatives?

At the moment these and many other questions are going unasked because the media is recalibrating itself to deal with a shift in the balance of power at Westminster and the only other opposition party lacks the stomach for a fight. As for the Labour Party, it looks ever more likely that their last month in office will be eaten up by the first round of a long and bitter fight between the tattered remnants of the New Labour project and the supporters of old style socialism.

With the party conferences out of the way and the leaves turning brown the starting gun for the election has been fired, they may not yet have it in the bag, but for the first time in almost twenty years Britain’s conservatives look like they have the confidence and connection with the public to win.

Friday, 2 October 2009

Has Labour lost it?

The Labour Party has ‘lost the will to live’ and resembles nothing so much as a football team that desperately needs to raise its game to avoid being relegated from the Premiership, said Chancellor Alistair Darling on the eve of the party conference in Brighton this week.

He may well have been speaking figuratively, but his comments still cast a dark shadow over the conference that no amount of brave talk from the podium was able to dispel.

This was the week when the party leadership hoped to inspire the rank and file membership to face what Business Secretary Peter Mandelson called ‘the fight of our lives’, or, more accurately for their political lives as an Ipsos Mori poll conducted on the day Gordon Brown made his keynote speech put Labour in third place on 24% for the first time since 1982. That may have been the intention; the reality was that the conference merely paraded on a very public stage the problems Labour has struggled with for the past two years.

The largest of these problems is the leadership style of Gordon Brown; despite his notorious difficulties with communicating with party and public alike his previous two conference speeches have been successful enough to give his approval ratings a short term boost. In the first he managed to convince starry eyed party activists and cynical media hacks alike that he really did represent a change from the politics of spin and sound bytes, in the second he saw off the challenge to his leadership presented by David Milliband and Harriet Harman.

The lift both speeches provided was, of course, only temporary, in 2007 he flunked calling the general election that would have given him a real mandate to govern and after the 2008 speech came a year of scandals, slip ups and increasingly odd behaviour that overshadowed his expert handling of the financial crisis. This time there was no discernable lift at all and the speech that could have bought the party a little much needed breathing space only served to add to their problems.

Everything that could go wrong did go wrong. Having Brown’s wife Sarah introduce his speech, a big success last year mostly because she seemed to be almost the only un-spun individual in the entire conference hall, fell flat this time round because after a year of being photographed with Michelle Obama and Bono Mrs Brown no longer resembles a wife thrust into the limelight to stand up for her misunderstood husband so much as yet another cynical PR operator trying to work the crowd.

Brown’s delivery also fell flat, his call for party activists to ‘dream big and watch our country soar’, sounded cheesy and unconvincing delivered by a man who had spent much of the week having whether or not he needs anti-depressants to get him through the day debated by the media. The Prime Minister did his cause no favours on the day after his big speech by exhibiting signs of extreme stress when he stormed out of an interview with Sky’s Adam Boulton, for him at least, it seems, the dream long ago turned into a nightmare.

Brown’s speech also demonstrated another problem faced by Labour, too many policies and too little idea of how they might be delivered on before the next election. He announced, amongst a slew of other plans and initiatives, ten hours of free child care for families on ‘modest incomes’, a £1 billion ‘innovation fund’ to help businesses during the recession and, most controversially a plan to house teenage single mothers in shared houses rather than council flats where they would be given support and parenting advice by social services. Few of these announcements were new, how they might be paid for in a time of severe constraints on the public purse was a mystery, but still they came pouring out in the hope that one might catch the public mood and deflect a little of the criticism being heaped upon his beleaguered government.

Traditionally party conferences in the run up to an election are an opportunity for the leadership to stiffen the sinews of their troops ahead of the trials to come; at least they are for parties with a decent shot of winning. For Labour this week was something else, it was an unwelcome confirmation of what they knew all along, the party is exhausted by twelve years in government, bereft of fresh ideas and deeply unhappy within itself. Like a battered heavyweight it may yet claw itself upright using the ropes, but will only be knocked down again.

Symbolic of Labour’s declining fortunes was the decision taken by the Sun newspaper, the in house journal of the UK’s ‘white van men’, to withdraw the support it has given to the party at every election since 1997.

Party veteran Margaret Beckett said the Sun’s change of allegiance was a ‘problem’, but not an ‘insurmountable’ one, union boss Tony Woodley ripped up a copy of the paper on the conference platform and won a standing ovation and, speaking on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme Gordon Brown said ‘In the end we like the support of every newspaper, you’d like to have the support of lots of people that are not giving you support, but it is people that decide elections.’

However brave the tune there no doubt that Gordon Brown et al are still whistling in the dark. The Murdoch press may have less power to influence public opinion that it would like us to believe, but it has a near unswerving accuracy when it comes to reflecting what the public think. As the Sun’s headline ran on Wednesday morning ‘Labour has lost it’. Lost touch with the public mood, lost touch with its core values and, it looks ever more likely, lost the next election.