Sunday, 22 December 2013

2014 Through a cracked crystal ball.

It’s amazing what you can find at a car boot sale, only the other day I came across a genuine crystal ball that rather helpfully showed me what might happen over the next twelve months.


Flushed with success after their Jade Rabbit probe landed on the moon the Chinese announce plans for a new and even more ambitious space project; they want to send a manned mission to orbit Eric Pickles.


In an attempt to prove that he isn’t an out of touch toff David Cameron tells the media he fully understands the challenges facing ordinary voters. Where does one keep the Rembrandt? In the west wing or the south one, it’s a dammed tricky decision; especially when one has several houses and several Rembrandts obviously.


In the space of forty eight hours the Daily Express runs headlines claiming that tomatoes cause cancer, can cure cancer and were implicated in the death of Princess Diana before vanishing into a black hole created by its own absurdity; the Daily Mail blames its demise on the EU, or the 1960’s or something like that.


NASA announces that it has discovered a race of giant hedgehogs living on Mars all of whom are called Duncan; on the same day the Labour Party announce a slate of distinctive new policies that will win them the next election. The public have no trouble at all working out which of the two is an April Fools stunt.


In the wake of the scandals that have rocked it over the past twelve months the BBC decides to apologise for the children’s crusade, the fire of London and more or less everything else that has ever happened and made someone a bit unhappy just to be on the safe side.


Ed Milliband actually says something that is both interesting and engages with the public, sources within the Labour Party rapidly step in to say this is clearly an aberration and that normal, tedious service will be resumed ASAP.


In an attempt to revive their flagging finances the Liberal Democrats launch a new range of party themed products, the doormat with a picture of Nick Clegg on it is an instant bestseller.


The nation’s politicians go on holiday for the whole month, nobody notices apart from the fact that everything seems to work so much more smoothly.


Party conference season gets into full swing with the leaders of all three main parties taking to the podium to say that they and only they will do something so wibbly wobbly visionary and wonderful that even though they don’t actually know what it is yet will be pretty damned amazing.


At the UKIP conference leader Nigel Farage tells delegates he plans to spend the run up to the next election in his secret hideout under an extinct volcano practicing stroking a white cat and saying ‘Ah, Mr Johnson; I’ve been waiting’ in a suitably menacing tone of voice.


George Osborne announces an innovative new plan for tackling the deficit, doing Penny for the Guy, the £1.20 raised will really help; honestly.


Children around the country are encouraged to visit a strange old man in his grotto and tell him what they want for Christmas; nice to see Vince Cable finding a role at last.

Sunday, 8 December 2013

Zac Goldsmith- a genuine maverick with a silver spoon in his mouth.

The government must ‘honour its promise’ to give voters the power to recall their MP if he or she is accused of wrongdoing, so says Tory MP Zac Goldsmith.

Mr Goldsmith put his own Recall Bill to parliament earlier this year and it recently achieved a favourable first reading, sadly his fellow parliamentarians are unlikely to allow it to go much further, in the same way that turkeys seldom offer to help with getting Christmas dinner ready.

Speaking in the Commons this week Mr Goldsmith said that under the proposals put forward by the government an MP could ‘refuse to perform any one of the functions required and still not qualify for recall.’

Were his bill to be adopted a petition with signatures from 20% of the eligible voters in a constituency could trigger the recall process.

What, you might ask, about the possibility of a vexatious recall driven by a constituent with a grudge? A good question and one for which Mr Goldsmith has a perfectly good answer, namely that to trigger a recall would require some 15,000 signatures to be gathered, implying a level of support and organisational ability beyond that of the average malcontent.

Giving voters the right to recall their MP would, he said, ‘go quite a long way to restoring the relationship between people and power.’ The government had, he went on, had ‘made a promise and it needs to honour it’, trying to ‘slip a pretence at recall’ in under the radar would lead to people ‘smelling a rat and it’ll do our reputation even more harm.’

Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg supports recall, but only if it is the commons that decides whether an MP is guilty of wrongdoing, at this point I should probably refer you to my earlier comments about turkeys and Christmas dinner.

In June he told the commons that the Goldsmith plan was not ‘without its problems’ and that what was necessary was to ‘strike a balance, give voters, the public a backstop reassurance that if someone commits serious wrongdoing and they’re not held to account they can be held to account by the public;’ then added ‘equally I think we shouldn’t introduce a proposal which would in effect become a kangaroo court.’

Good old Nick Clegg, firmly astride the fence as ever and still managing to frustrate people on both sides; way to go.

I used to wonder what the point of Zac Goldsmith was, he seemed like to political equivalent of the male nipple, often prominent but nobody really knows what its there for. The he took up the cause of reviving our democracy by giving voters the power to recall a corrupt or inept MP and it all became clear; he is that rarest of things a genuine maverick.

By this I mean man of principle who is willing to say awkward things because he believes them to be right, rather than a charlatan who thinks stirring up controversy will get his name in the papers. There have never been enough people like that in politics and just now they’re pretty much an endangered species.

Perhaps I shouldn’t be surprised, he is, after all, the son of the late billionaire James Goldsmith, a man who was more like a Bond villain than any real person has a right to be and so troublemaking is in his blood. Back in the nineties Goldsmith senior was a huge thorn in the side of the Major government and helped to turn the perennial Tory squabble over Europe into a near existential crisis.

Goldsmith the younger has taken a more positive route; he has recognised that British democracy is slowly expiring due to a mixture of indifference and perceived impotence on the part of the electorate. Granting them the power to recall their MP would indeed give voters a feeling they have a real role to play.

The current perception of members of parliament is that they live lives of gilded seclusion far removed from the gnawing concerns of everyday life. Their seats are mostly safe and even though they have to provide receipts these days the expenses package more than makes up for the, comparatively, low salary they receive.

As with most stereotypes there is more than a grain of truth in this, very few MPs will feel the cold clutch of insecurity that is an all too common experience for their constituents. It would concentrate their minds wonderfully were they to have to worry even a little bit about being recalled.

Recall isn’t, of course, a magic bullet there are still many other problems that need to be addressed. Like a House of Commons that is too male, white and upper middle class to be properly representative and the mad decision by IPSA to recommend MPs get an 11% pay rise after the next election when most of their constituents will be lucky to have seen 1%, if anything, in recent years.

It is a good place to start though and Zac Goldsmith deserves to be praised for being its most vocal supporter.

Monday, 25 November 2013

The last thing Stoke needs is another celebrity MP.

Last week veteran Stoke North MP Joan Walley announced that she will stand down at the next election, setting in train a race to be her successor akin to the recent hunt for a new Dr Who.

Over the next few weeks everyone will be talking about regeneration and at some stage the baddies from Labour’s regional office will trundle onstage waggling their antenna and barking ‘you will obey!’ in a scary monotone.

Several prominent local party members have been suggested as possible contenders including former group leader Joy Garner and ex cabinet member Debra Gratton.

Both are solidly loyal to the party high command, if unlikely to stir up much in the way of excitement amongst local voters.

A more interesting option might be Olwyn Hamer, another former cabinet member and one of the few local Labour councillors to have the talent to be a full time politician.

She is a competent performer in the council chamber and a forceful character with a clear set of political values. Ideal qualifications for a prospective MP you might think, however being on the list as a possible candidate to be a MEP, not to mention the fact that she has sufficient talent and independence of mind not to be cowed by regional office might count against her.

All these rational considerations were thrown to the wind anyway at the end of last week when the Sentinel published an article suggesting that a young woman by the name of Mabel McKeown was ‘hotly tipped’ to be Joan Walley’s replacement.

Who she? Well might you ask.

Ms McKeown is a former aide to Labour Deputy Leader Harriet Harman and an unsuccessful candidate in the Ealing Broadway council London Assembly elections.

She is also the daughter of 1980’s TV star Tracey Ullman and a regional office spokesperson speaking to the Sentinel on Friday described her as a ‘very highly respected political adviser’, who would ‘make an excellent MP one day.’

Possibly so; but not today and not here, I have nothing against Ms McKeown, but the last thing this city needs is to have another celebrity, or in this case I suppose the child of a celebrity, MP foisted upon it.

The situation as it is unfolding has some unfortunate similarities to the events following the retirement of Stoke Central MP Mark Fisher in 2010 and the subsequent ‘parachuting in’ of Tristram Hunt as his successor.

A hugely respected local figure has announced her retirement and almost at once a slate of paper candidates have emerged, possibly to provide a smokescreen for the virtual coronation of the candidate regional office wanted to get the nomination all along.

That might be Mabel McKeown; it might be someone else, anyone who has encountered Labour’s regional office for the midlands knows only too well that they love nothing better than surrounding even the simplest task with more bluffs and double bluffs than you’d find in the plot of a spy novel.

The point is Labour Party members and then voters in Stoke North risk being railroaded into accepting a candidate they didn’t really choose and who, in all probability, has no connection to the area apart from seeing it as a stepping stone.

There are some important differences between now and 2010 and members of the Labour Party in Stoke North need to use them to their advantage.

For a start time is on their side, they are choosing a candidate with more than a year, rather than a few weeks, to go before the next election. There is no need for the selection to be rushed, party members, not paid officials need to set the timetable and to make the decision they want to not the one they’re told to.

They will be aided in this by the fact that unlike in 2010 regional office casts a much less menacing shadow over constituency parties, largely because despite all its other faults the Labour Party under the leadership of Ed Milliband is far less paranoid and authoritarian than it was during Gordon Brown’s tenure.

Over the next few weeks Labour Party members in Stoke North will suddenly discover they have become figures of importance overnight. Their phones will ring off the wall with earnest young men and women seeking their views, their wisdom and, most of all, their endorsement.

They need to recognise they are in a position of strength, they should not be afraid to ask awkward questions of every prospective candidate who crosses their path and to cast their final vote with what they’ve heard in mind.

Selecting the right replacement for Joan Walley matters, perhaps more to the people of Stoke than who wins the general election. This city needs a team of MPs who understand the huge social and economic challenges it faces and have the courage and pragmatism to put addressing those challenges ahead of advancing their own careers.

As an active member of the Green Party I’d like one of those MPs to be one of ours, but know the current voting system doesn’t make that a practical possibility. That’s why I’m hoping Labour Party members in Stoke North make the right decision, if that means upsetting their party leadership so be it.

Thursday, 21 November 2013

Time to put a stake into the outsourcing vampires

A report from the National Audit Office (NAO) has called for more ‘openness’ from ministers regarding the performance of private contractors brought in to deliver services formerly carried out by the government.

A handful of big companies Serco (£1.8bn), Capita (£1.08bn), G4S (£718m) and ATOS (£683m) receive huge payments from government for delivering services and yet face little in the way of sanctions when problems arise. The report calls for them to face fines and possible exclusion from further contracts when they fail to deliver.

It is also critical of the Cabinet Office, saying the official charged with overseeing such contracts have little ‘commercial experience and expertise below senior levels’ and that information held on over forty major service providers is ‘inconsistent and incomplete.’ The big sticking point though is transparency, needed as the report points out ‘to ensure that no-one within the contractor can hide problems.’

The government, the report says, ‘needs to ensure it is in the contractor’s financial interest to focus their control environment more widely on meeting the standards expected of public service.’ Put in the language of you and I, since we’re paying them billions of pounds through our taxes we’d quite like them to be at home to Mr Cock-up a little less often.

Amayas Morse, head of the NAO, told the BBC there was a ‘crisis of confidence’ in public trust in services outsourced to private providers caused by some worrying examples of contractors not appearing to be up to the job. He said that whilst some government departments were ‘quick off the mark’ when it came to identifying and resolving problems there was a ‘clear need to reset the ground rules for both contractors and customers.’

Tim Gash of the Institute for Government said, also speaking to the BBC, that ‘without a more transparent and measured approach to outsourcing high profile failures are likely to multiply.’

In response a Cabinet Office spokesperson told the BBC the government’s commercial reforms had saved taxpayers £3.8billion and that the government knew ‘the civil service lacks commercial capability’ in some areas. There were, the spokesperson said, seeking to ‘address this’ but it was imperative to ‘accelerate change to serve taxpayers more, create better quality public services and to promote growth.’

If you ever needed proof that we are being governed by aliens from the planet Politico who think the world, well the bits of it they visit anyway, smells of fresh paint then look no further than the outsourcing shambles.

The sums of money involved is staggering; as is the level of damage done to vulnerable people and local communities when services they have depended on for years simply fail to work. There is a case to be made that old style public services could, at their occasional worst, be bureaucratic and costly, but is the brave new world of outsourcing everything any better?

Thanks to corporate behemoths like Serco and Capita we have been introduced to incompetence on a truly epic scale. ATOS has turned the reforming of disability benefits into a cruel and unpredictable lottery, Capita have made a dog’s breakfast out of handling asylum claims and have gone on to turn the process of recruiting people to the Territorial Army into a farrago of call centre based confusion, just at the moment when the government has decided to replace most of the army with reservists. Oops!

Then, of course there is G4S, the dunderheads who promised to recruit an army of security staff for the Olympics, only to make such a mess of things the real army had to be called in to help.

If you think antics like this constitute an improvement of public services you need to look up what improvement means and maybe book in to see a shrink.

The NAO is right to call for more transparency in how these companies get and operate their contracts; but that is only half of the story. What the public want and have consistently not been offered because a complacent political elite have sold them to a mob of corporate vampires for a mess of pottage, is public services that are delivered locally and overseen by well informed councillors who are answerable to the electorate.

This is something to remember when your local council, as mine has done, lops twenty million off the city’s budget whilst at the same time throwing the doors open to Count Dracula and his mates.

Remember it too when you go into the booth to cast your vote. If you don’t like public services being sold off give your vote to one of the smaller parties trying to whittle a stake to go through the heart of these corporate monsters instead.

Monday, 4 November 2013

Why I can’t stop worrying and learn to love the CBD.

Auditors Grant Thornton have been critical in their annual letter to the council of its failure to identify the full cost building the new Civic Centre. They expressed concern that the full £48 million cost was not made public earlier, in particular the additional £7.65 million earmarked to outfit the new council offices and the £7.9 million cost of maintaining a presence at the former Civic Centre in Stoke.

The auditors are, according to the letter, details of which were published by the Sentinel, ‘satisfied that the decision to build the CBD is based on a clear economic rationale for the regeneration of the city.’ They added though that were ‘concerned’ that ‘this decision and the identification of the further building costs and ongoing running costs of the CBD scheme have increased financial pressure on the council. We are concerned the full financial costs of the CBD were not identified earlier and members were not able to consider them as part of the overall proposal.’

Also speaking to the Sentinel interim director of financial services for the council Peter Lewis said the authority was ‘committed to being as open as possible about this process and will act on the auditor’s comments.’ Council leader Mohammed Pervez said there was ‘no denying there are huge financial pressures on the council’, but that he was ‘pleased the auditor understood our rationale for the CBD and recognises the review of the number of council buildings is a positive response to concerns of local communities.’

One afternoon last week I caught a bus out of Hanley and, thanks to a traffic jam on Broad Street had an opportunity, perhaps my first real one, to contemplate the size of the CBD, both physically and as a huge political and financial gamble. One that could, were it to go belly up, prove that even though it is multi-coloured rather than white an elephant can still cost a fortune.

Grant Thornton for all their ‘concern’ about the cost of the CBD expressed overall satisfaction with the state of the city’s finances, describing the £56 million of spending cuts made over the past two years as a ‘positive area of performance.’ That’s on then, nothing to worry about, at least not if you’re blowing into town with a calculator to take a look at the books.

Things are rather different if you live out there in cold reality and have seen the services you depend on decimated over the past two years. In that case you probably moved from concern to desperation some time ago.

There is something wrong with the whole CBD project; in fact there are several things wrong with it and we could end up repenting them at our leisure, whether we want to do so or not.

For a start the rationale behind the CBD and its sister project the City Sentral retail development is deeply flawed, it seems to depend mostly on a sort of ‘if you build it they will come’ approach. To be fair they might too, but there are a lot of cities out there hawking office and retail space, in what looks like being a buyer’s market for some time to come turning grand plans into real profits is notoriously tough.

The council has, grudgingly, done the right thing by retaining a presence in Stoke and other towns, but this is not allied to a wider vision for reviving all six towns. Once again they have piled their chips on the square marked Hanley, spun the roulette wheel and are hoping for the best.

Then there is the small matter of the ever rising cost of the project, even if the city wasn’t being battered by massive spending cuts, with equally large social implications attached, this would be a huge debt to hang around the neck of local taxpayers. Large capital projects like the CBD often take years to turn a profit and that it with competent management in place from day one. The fact that nobody seems to have thought that they’d need to budget for fitting out their swanky new offices puts a huge question mark over the ability of the council to deliver.

Most dangerous of all is the lack of transparency, the plan to build the CBD was forced through in the teeth of public opposition and, if the auditors are to be believed, without councillors being given sufficient information to hold the executive to account.

This is no way to take a major decision that could have an impact on the economy of this city that lasts for decades and says much about the complacency and distance form the concerns of local people of the ruling Labour group. The regeneration of our city is an issue of importance for everyone who lives and works here, one that requires people to reach past artificial party differences and work together for the good of all.

That won’t happen so long as the current leader and cabinet remain in place. On this issue Labour have shown a shocking level of contempt for the concerns of local people, they decided what they were going to do first and then consulted with councillors from other parties and the voting public as an afterthought. That is no basis for sustained economic regeneration; it is at best a recipe for stasis; and at worst for total disaster.

The people of this city want and deserve much better which is why in the by-election next week and the full council elections in 2015 they will carry out their own audit of how this council has performed. Their verdict will, I suspect, be far less kindly than the one delivered by Grant Thornton.

Sunday, 27 October 2013

Benefits cap chaos shows up the weakness of the Tories and Labour.

The government’s cap on benefits will struggle to meet its aim to encourage people back into work, so says a report from the Chartered Institute of Housing (CIH) examining how a trial of the policy has worked in the London borough of Haringey.

The CIH report shows that just 10% of people living in the 747 households involved in the trial found work and half had to be given extra funding by the council to make up for money lost.

The report also found that 2300 children were affected by the benefits cap with large families being hit hardest. Researchers said that attitudes to work were changing, but many families still faced huge barriers such as the availability of affordable childcare.

Nearly half the families in Haringey involved in the trial claimed help from the council to pay their rent, switching the cost of housing benefit from national to local government and hiding the true impact of the cap.

Grania Long, chief executive of the CIH told the BBC ‘the government said the benefits cap would save money and encourage people into work, but this report shows it is far from achieving those aims,’ adding that ‘unless ministers commit to increasing support for people looking to get back into work and funding for childcare this could be very dangerous.’

Claire Kober, the leader of Haringey council, also speaking to the BBC, said ‘the government may be making some savings; the real costs are just being passed on to councils already under enormous financial pressure.’

Work and Pensions Minister Mike Penning, speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme refuted the claims made in the report calling it ‘flawed’ and saying the CIH was looking at data from too small an area to draw valid conclusions.

‘We do not recognise this report as providing a sound or reliable picture of the reforms,’ he said.

As if the shambles surrounding the trial of the benefits cap wasn’t enough it was also announced this week that the government was putting on hold plans to move thousands of disabled people off Disability Living Allowance and onto its new Personal Independence Payments in all but four trial areas. Rumours abound that private companies ATOS and Capita are struggling to cope with their workload of existing claims let alone the extra volumes they would have had to deal with had the move gone ahead.

Just another Whitehall farce, a sad but familiar farrago of inept contractors and out of touch ministers. If there is comedy in this though it is of the blackest sort; lives are at risk of being irreparably ruined here.

What does the government propose to do about a problem it has created with its rushed and ill thought out benefits reforms? Nothing; apart from carping that any organisation that highlights their mistakes hasn’t done its research properly.

What about the opposition then? The Labour Party is still basking in the afterglow of Ed Milliband’s announcement that they would freeze energy bills for two years if elected into office. On the subject of benefits reform they are rather more evasive, talking earnestly about not being able to make any promises until they’ve seen the books; or hanging back to see which way the wind blows if you’ve a cynical cast of mind. My guess is that it will blow in a direction that wafts the ships of fools captained by Red Ed ever further away from Downing Street.

There is no doubt that a cumbersome, slow and bureaucratic benefits system invented in the forties is badly in need of reform. That shouldn’t though mean bashing claimants and making poor people even poorer because it plays well with the sillier tabloids.

We need a reformed benefits system that works with claimants giving them the skills to find work and a sense of personal agency that makes them want to do so. Sadly the chances of even starting the debate that would create such a system in the present political climate are virtually non existent.

Instead we get a sort of mass displacement activity carried out by a political class who are masters at playing the Westminster game and dunces when it comes to understanding life as lived by most Britons. Both main political parties have been hollowed out to the point where the only real difference between the two is one wears blue rosettes and the other red ones.

They say the same things, subscribe to the same prejudices and in extremis resort to roaring like lions at the poor because the poor largely don’t vote. When faced by say the big six energy companies or bankers threatening to go to Wall Street you just see if they don’t if anyone even suggests regulating their activities and the lion promptly turns into a kitten.

The electorate aren’t fools; they know that rising fuel and food bills; never mind nonexistent job security are making us all poorer however much George Osborne says things are getting better. Is it any wonder they are choosing an alternative, even if it is just staying home on polling day, to the tired Tories and lost Labour?

Monday, 21 October 2013

Time to put the lights out on Labour

‘Labour don’t stand for people like us anymore; they’re only in it for themselves,’ a woman in her sixties tells me, as she speaks her head shakes with anger.

‘They’re shutting everything down, then they give themselves a pay rise,’ it’s a man speaking this time; he’s in his forties and has two children in tow.

I’m standing in Hanley town centre collecting signatures for a petition against the closure of Abbots House, a care home for dementia patients where my Father spent some time earlier this year. It is a busy Saturday morning with shoppers rushing to and fro, most pass by clutching bags or with mobile phones clamped to their ears, a few, more than a hundred by the end of the morning, stop and when they do they express a raw anger with the Labour Party which has had a virtual hegemony over running the city for decades.

Near to where I’m standing workmen are taking up the old paving slabs and replacing them with shiny new blocks as part of the ongoing refurbishment of the town centre. They’re also replacing the old streetlights with flash new ones, for some reason these are burning brightly even though it is daytime.

To explain how I came to be here we have to take a step back and it has rather a lot to do with those lights.

We need, I suppose, to step back to 2001 when I joined the Labour Party, Tony Blair had just won a second term in office with a huge majority and I thought I was joining a progressive and principled political party. It is hard to imagine now just how appealing Tony Blair and New Labour were to people who had lived through the tumult of the 1980’s, the decade when greed was good, society was a quaintly old fashioned notion and Labour were eternally unelectable also rans.

The marketing was masterful, guided by Peter Mandelson and Alistair Campbell New Labour pulled off the trick of fooling most of the people for the best part of a decade. By the time I left the party in 2010 after nine years of active membership I had come to realise that the compassionate image was a false front masking something far less pleasant.

The Labour Party had become a hollowed out organisation that hadn’t just lost touch with the concerns of its core vote it had long since begun to take them contemptuously for granted. A party founded to speak up for working people had become a vehicle for the competing egos of a political elite, most of whom had never had a job away from Westminster.

Ample evidence of this can be seen in the endless feuds between the Blair and Brown factions, the shameful waste of the mandate provided by two huge majorities and the failure of Labour, despite three years of soul searching under the leadership of Ed Milliband, to find anything distinctive to say now they’re in opposition.

Locally the Labour Party had become complacent after decades of almost unbroken control of the city. Unelected officials from regional office routinely treated party members with decades of service with contempt and the open and fair debate essential to good policymaking was determinedly stifled.

Three years on little has changed and nothing has got any better. Under the leadership of Councillor Pervez Labour has continued to take the people of this city for granted. They have foisted upon us the expensive gamble of building the Central Business District, alienated residents of Stoke with plans to move the Civic Centre to Hanley doing untold damage to the economy of the town in the process and presided over savage cuts to services.

Earlier this year after much thought I joined the Green Party because they seemed to be the only party that talked about issues of social justice and sounded like they meant what they were saying, two weeks ago I accepted their invitation to stand as a candidate in the Badderley, Milton and Norton by-election.

What Stoke-on-Trent needs is an effective opposition voice in its council chamber, an opposition that will hold the ruling Labour group to account whilst at the same time having the maturity to work in cooperation with any party that has the best interests of our city at heart.

We need to have a serious discussion about the priorities influencing the way our city is governed. Long term regeneration cannot be tied to the retail sector, too many other towns are taking that route and the internet is changing the way we shop, we need to build a skilled manufacturing economy capable of exploiting the opportunities provided by green technology.

We also need to have a serious and open discussion about how we protect vital services, too often under the current administration the most vulnerable people are being asked to pay the highest price. That isn’t fair and it stores up serious problems for the future that will cancel out any savings made now.

I believe the Green Party can provide a real alternative for dissatisfied voters in Stoke-on-Trent, because ours is a party that believes politics only works when everyone works together for the common good.

Something has gone seriously wrong in the political life of our city, the plans to move the Civic Centre against the wishes of the majority of the public have soured relations with the council; many people no longer trust their elected representatives to listen to let alone speak up for their concerns. A swanky light fitting burning wastefully in the daytime is an apt metaphor for a Labour group that has grown too complacent, too distant to represent the people of this city; it is time we put the lights out on them both.

Sunday, 13 October 2013

The political elite squabble while the poor go hungry.

The Red Cross is to start collecting donations of food to distribute to needy families across the UK this winter; something it hasn’t done since the darkest days of World War Two.

The Geneva based charity will work with FareShare and the Trussell Trust to distribute donations through food banks across the country from late November as part of a Europe wide programme to support people his hard by austerity measures.

Belka Geleta told the Independent, the newspaper that broke the story in the UK, ‘We fully understand that governments need to save money, we strongly advise against indiscriminate cuts in health and welfare as it may cost more in the long run.’

Juliet Mountford, the head of the Red Cross UK Service Department said the charity was responding to ‘strong evidence of an increased need for support on food and poverty issues.’

Reacting to the news Chris Jones, UK poverty director for Oxfam told the Independent he was ‘genuinely shocked’ that the situation had become so serious. Maria Eagle, Labour shadow Environment Secretary said this was a ‘warning about the growing number of families facing a lack of nutritious food in Britain’, she went on to say it was a ‘wake up call to David Cameron over his failure to tackle the cost of living crisis.’

Senior figures in the Tory Party have previously tried to dismiss suggestions of a ‘crisis’ relating to the rising cost of living. In June Lord Freud claimed in June that families using food banks were just after a free meal; last month Michael Gove said they simply couldn’t manage their money properly.

On Friday a spokesperson for the Department of Work and Pensions said there was ‘no robust evidence that welfare reforms are linked to increased use of food banks’ and that the government would be supporting vulnerable people with cold weather payments and the winter fuel allowance.

The Red Cross is sending food aid to people living in the UK, that’s a sentence I thought I’d never write; mostly because it is something I thought would never happen. We’re a ‘big’ country, we’ve got a seat on the UN Security Council, we had the Olympics here last year; we send aid to other people dammit!

Amongst the detritus on my desk is a small pile of cuttings from the local newspaper that prove the above assertions wrong. Two thousand more people are in rent arrears this year than last thanks to benefit cuts, council tenants are being forced into the private rental sector due to the ‘bedroom tax’, levels of mental illness are rising as people struggle to cope with the stress caused by financial problems; the list goes on.

Maria Eagle is right, this should be a massive wake up call, not just to David Cameron though; the whole political class should have a collective migraine from the racket made by the alarm bells ringing. They haven’t though; they’ve been far too busy doing anything but notice the lives of the poor imploding.

Busy doing things like taking part in the seemingly endless squabbling over the Leveson Report. Rather than using the more than adequate laws already on the statute books to regulate the behaviour of the press they want to lavish time and effort on writing yet more for clever lawyers to manipulate in the interests of wealthy people.

Busy doing things like getting all hot and bothered about the tedious charade of the cabinet reshuffles. In brief David Cameron has brought in a few people from ‘humble’ backgrounds to show us he isn’t a toff; Ed Milliband has purged the last few Blairites to show he’s his own man, no really he is. The public remain largely indifferent because they know noting has really changed, the same clique of hapless careerists are still in charge of both parties.

Busy doing noting in fact; noting that connects meaningfully with the concerns of the public anyway, in place of political debate we’re given playground name calling; in place of an alternative vision of how the country might be run the opposition offers us vague promises that their cuts will be somehow ‘nicer’ than Tory ones. If the situation wasn’t so dire it would be comical.

The complacent political elite think they have largely got away with things, this isn’t Greece, our riots back in 2011 were a damp squib. Faced with hardship the British tend to grumble and get on with things telling themselves this is the ‘Blitz spirit’, quite mistakenly since in 1940 the country burned with the desire to fight back and had a leader capable of inspiring its people to do so; fat chance of the latter from any of today’s party leaders.

If things have got so bad that the Red Cross has to step in to help people our own government either can’t or won’t help then something serious has changed. There is a real risk that apathy could turn to anger.

Sunday, 6 October 2013

There are no new notes in David Cameron’s dog whistle symphony.

David Cameron promised in his speech to the Tory Party conference in Manchester last week that his government was going to make Britain into a ‘land of opportunity for all.’

In a speech that saw him abandoning the ‘off the cuff’ pretence of previous years in favour of standing austerely behind a lectern he touched all the bases his audience expected him to. Along the way he turned a few neat lines, such as ‘the land of hope is Tory’, as opposed to the ‘land of despair’, which is, obviously, Labour.

He laid into Labour plans to freeze energy prices if returned to office and to raise taxes for big companies, saying they were ‘all sticking plasters and quick fixes cobbled together for the TV cameras- Red Ed and his Blue Peter economy.’

Ouch! Am I the only voter of a certain age who heard this and immediately thought of Ed Milliband clad in seventies TV regalia of flares and tank-top being dragged around a studio floor by a naughty elephant?

He went on to say that ‘if Labour’s plan for jobs is to attack business, ours is to back business.’ All of which was building up to his shot at the ‘vision thing’, here it is, he wants to build a country where ‘in place of the casino economy’ there is ‘one where people who work hard can actually get on’; a sceptered isle where ‘in place of the welfare society’ there is ‘one where no individual is written off’ and where the ‘broken education system’ there is ‘one that gives every child the chance to rise up and succeed.’

Over the years David Cameron has proved himself to be the most adept of the three main party leaders at working the conference season for all its worth. He truly is the heir to Blair in that respect, a shameless ham able to be Mr Sunshine dispensing cheery bromides about how we all need to be nicer to each other; an evangelist whipping the faithful up into a frenzy or a grave statesman promising a sure hand at the helm as the mood of the moment demands.

This year he was David the stern statesman sharing our pain but determined to do the right thing. The trouble was what he had to say wasn’t remotely statesmanlike; it was, in essence, an assemblage of prejudices designed to push the buttons of his audience. A symphony on the dog whistle composed by Lynton Crosby that will warm the heart of Daily Mail readers and make metropolitan liberals choke on their free range chardonnay.

Fair enough, if they serve any purpose at all these days party conferences are glorified rah-rah meetings staged to gee up the faithful. You can’t help wishing though that just once in a while someone would throw out the play-book of clich├ęs and say something they actually mean.

Sadly this year that didn’t happen, what we got instead were fatuous assertions from the Prime Minister that the Tories are on the side of business while Labour aren’t, actually both parties court the same few huge corporations, turning a blind eye to their tax avoidance whilst letting smaller businesses wither through lack of investment.

Bashing the unemployed was popular too, George Osborne talked about people who are out of work being ‘forced’ to take jobs, though where said jobs are to come from seems to be a detail too minor for him to bother with. Iain Duncan Smith meanwhile announced plans to make the long term unemployed attend the job centre eight hours a day five days a week, what they’re supposed to whilst there wasn’t mentioned; never mind though the sillier tabloids will love it.

What went ignored was the yawning gap of inequality opening up in our society, the food banks that have become a feature of weekly life for many Britons; the families split up by the ‘bedroom tax’ and the million plus young people kicking their heels without a job. The only solution the government has to this last problem is to ‘nag’ them into taking jobs that don’t exist.

If there were a credible opposition none of this would matter, the Tories could be as ‘nasty’ as they like and when the public grew tired of their antics they would vote them out of office. Unfortunately there isn’t one, the Liberal Democrats have settled for a role as the perpetual prop to whoever can form a coalition and Labour, despite the boost delivered by an eye catching policy, are saddled with a dud leader and have nothing original to say.

There are alternatives on offer from the smaller parties, but our first past the post electoral system keeps them forever on the fringes.

That means the Tories can stoke up the fires of division and resentment, dressing their cynicism up as hard headed pragmatism and at worst finish as the major partner in another coalition, they might even sneak in with a small majority. Even if David Cameron’s assertions are correct though and the economy has ‘turned the corner’, we cannot hope to be a happy or cohesive nation when so many people are liable to be left behind.

Sunday, 29 September 2013

Ed Milliband’s big gamble with energy prices and populism

At the Labour Party conference in Brighton this week leader Ed Milliband had to come up with something that would generate a big headline and silence the persistent questions about his leadership abilities. He managed the former, but seems to have pushed the latter under the rug; for now.

In his set piece speech on Tuesday Ed Milliand announced that a Labour government would freeze gas and electric prices for domestic and industrial users for twenty months, he also pledged to split up the big energy companies and subject them to tougher regulation.

This was the big headline in a speech he used to set out how ‘Britain can do better’ under a Labour government. He promised action on what he called the ‘cost of living crisis’. In an attack on the government’s handling of the economy he said, ‘David Cameron talks about a global race. But what he thinks is the only way Britain can win is for you to lose.’

This, he said, had translated into ‘the lowest wages, the worst terms and conditions and the fewest rights at work; a race to the bottom,’ adding that ‘the only way we can win is in a race to the top.’

This was an upbeat and, considering the torrid time not so red Ed has had over the summer, surprisingly confident speech. He looked relaxed and peppered his text with promises to defend the NHS and scrap the ‘bedroom tax’, there were also a number of pointed references to the coalition’s approach to basic economic fairness, the most quoted of which was ‘they used to say a rising tide lifts all boats. Now the rising tide just lifts the yachts.’

All good knock about stuff; but once it had passed his lips the only thing anyone wanted to talk about was that plan to freeze energy prices.

The press, well the right wing press which is pretty much all of it these days, wasn’t madly keen on the idea. To the Daily Mail it was an exercise in ‘schoolboy Marxism’, the Sun howled ‘Red Ed knocks £2billion off shares’; the prospect of our boy Ed being invited round to have a ride on Rupert Murdoch’s horse any time soon seems fairly remote.

Perhaps more worryingly for him Lord Mandelson, the chief architect of the New Labour project decided to throw a few stones at his party leader. He said the plan risked creating a situation where ‘perceptions of the Labour Party are in danger of being dragged backwards’. Yikes if Labour’s own Lord Voldemort thinks it’s a bad idea the little man who is, nominally, running the party ought to be shivering in his shoes and thinking about changing his mind pronto.

To his credit Ed Milliband was unrepentant saying it was his job to ‘stand up for the public interest’ and comparing the opposition from the energy companies to the behaviour of the banks who ‘used to threaten and conjure up scare stories’ whenever they couldn’t get their own way.

The public certainly seem to have responded positively to the policy, a YouGov poll gives Labour a nine point lead over the Tories and Ed Milliband’s personal approval rating has risen from 21% to 26%. It’s all good then, the energy companies aren’t well loved and bashing them is a sure fire way to make friends; what could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot unfortunately, for a start by announcing such a radical policy so far in advance of the next election there is a risk he has robbed it of much of its potency. However popular freezing energy prices and breaking up the big energy companies may be now there is no guarantee the public will still be talking about it in 2015.

There is also the small matter of governments seldom making a good job of trying to control prices. In fact the mere suggestion that a prospective Labour one would give it a go might be all the prompting the energy companies need to hike prices as much as they can and cut investment to the bone all in the name of protecting the interests of their shareholders.

As for breaking up the big energy companies that will make little difference if they continue to operate in the same rapacious way. A more radical, perhaps too radical for Labour, plan would be to force them to become co-operatives owned by their customers rather than city shareholders and obliged to operate to high ethical standards including making a genuine commitment to moving towards renewable energy.

The populism of which this policy reeks may well prove to be illusory, Red Ed is riding high now but consider the case of Nick Clegg, for a short while back in 2010 he was the most popular politician ever, based solely on the fact that he could stand upright and speak at the same time. Fast forward a few months and a mixture of the compromises that are an inevitable part of being in government and his own poor judgement had made him less popular than typhoid, the same thing could happen to Ed Milliband.

Once the glow of public popularity has faded the old questions about Ed Milliband’s leadership abilities and his party’s lack of policies will still be there. As will the feeling that nothing he has said this week has provided an answer.

Monday, 23 September 2013

An evening at the budget cabaret

When I arrived at the King’s Hall last Thursday night they had set things out to look like an old style nightclub with lots of round tables arranged in front of a low stage. This, the mutinous thought immediately struck me, was going to be public consultations presented as a cabaret act.

The King’s Hall is the traditional location for election counts and there is no doubt that much of the ruling Labour group’s hopes for survival in 2015 depend on how well they manage making the £100 million in savings demanded by government cuts.

Going into this budget they have given themselves some pretty hefty handicaps. A bitter row earlier in the year over relocating the Civic Centre from Stoke to the new Central Business District (CBD) stirred up public resentment. The day before the consultation the local press ran a front page story suggesting the council now intends to retain a ‘presence’ in Stoke, fuelling rumours that the whole CBD project is about to fall through. Then on the day of the consultation they ran another story claiming more than £7million had been set aside to equip the new Civic Centre on top of the original £41million building cost.

The aim of the consultation was to establish public priorities before the process of making ‘savings’, cuts to you and me, begins. A glossy document on each table said the council wants the public to ‘tell us what is important to you and give us your views on how we meet this challenge’, a noble aspiration; but one previous experience of such exercises suggests may not be met.

The crowd around me seemed to be made up of council suits bussed in to make up the numbers with a smattering of community activists. Each table had a ‘facilitator’, an ugly word much loved by local government and often applied to someone with the job of steering debate away from anything remotely contentious.

Actually the one on our table was helpfulness personified; she managed the discussion with polite authority making sure everyone got an opportunity to speak. The suspicion remains though that the line between facilitating and managing a debate is one that gets crossed too often for comfort.

The opening speech by council leader Mohamed Pervez was introduced by the Assistant Chief Executive of the council, a man with a presentation style reminiscent of the headmaster of a minor public school addressing the parents on speech day. He didn’t do himself many favours later in the evening when he responded to a question from the floor about why there aren’t more good restaurants in the city by murmuring , ‘I quite agree’. The trials of public service; imagine having to work in a place where the restaurants have such limited wine lists.

The most significant fact about the speech Mr Pervez gave on Thursday night was that it contained no significant facts, none his audience weren’t already familiar with anyway.

He ran through the familiar details of how Stoke has been hit hardest by government ‘austerity’ measures and the steps being taken under the Mandate for Change to bring in private sector investment to offset the worst hardships imposed by the cuts. The delivery was so practiced that any trace of passion or commitment seemed to have been ground out by constant repetition.

This presented a problem when he tried to deliver a sort of ‘vision thing’ near to the end. It is hard to fire an audience up with the belief that this is the time to act in order to create a better and more prosperous future if you are speaking in the tones of an automated checkout.

I was left not for the first time with the impression that Mr Pervez leads an administration that knows how to describe the city’s problems but is all at sea when it comes to presenting original solutions.

When Mr Pervez left the stage to a polite ripple of applause with a backwash of indifference the real business of the evening began. It turned out to be a sort of monopoly game where people at each table were asked to place pretend pounds to a value of £25million on the areas where they thought savings could be made.

The message was a simple one, choosing where to make savings is complicated, a fair point, but also a rather obvious one familiar to anyone who has ever balanced a household budget. Rather more interesting was the discussion between the people on my table, from which the consensus emerged that there was a lack of basic efficiency on the part of the council when it comes to securing value for money and commissioning major projects.

Needless to say there was no way to record those responses as part of the exercise at hand. Seeking the views of the public and listening when what they say isn’t necessarily what you want to hear are clearly two different things.

The evening ended with a question and answer session, not something Mr Pervez handles at all comfortably. He tends to give answers that are too long and lose the thread of what he is saying along with the attention of his audience.

Amongst the questions he flapped at like an ineffectual batsman were ones about investment in town centres other than Hanley, the future of the Abbots House care home and the use of council cash reserves to meet some of the savings required. I doubt if most of the people who asked questions were left with the feeling they had been given a meaningful answer.

On they way out we were all handed another glossy leaflet giving details of how well the council is doing to achieve its Mandate for Change targets. The event had been billed as ‘My City, My Say’, the impression I was left with though wasn’t one of having been given a participant in a process that gave me a genuine say, rather it was of helping to tick a box confirming decisions that have already been made.

Sunday, 22 September 2013

From Numpty Nick to the great survivor- what a difference a year makes.

Friends, Romans, malcontents, I come not to bury Nick Clegg but to praise him, well to tip my hat to his remarkable survival skills anyway. The Liberal Democrats held their conference in Glasgow this week and both party and leader emerged from it looking less fragile than anyone would have thought.

In his keynote speech on Wednesday Nick Clegg said that only the presence of the Lib Dems in government had prevented the UK from ‘swinging to the right.’ They had fought the good fight and prevented their coalition partners from imposing a right wing agenda, although the austerity they have supported so enthusiastically since 2010 does seem a teensy bit right of centre; but conference season is no time for cynics.

It had, he said, been an ‘endless battle’ and that ‘sometimes compromise and agreement isn’t possible and you just have to say no.’ He then helpfully ticked off a few of the things his party had said no to ‘inheritance tax cuts for millionaires- no. Bringing back O Levels, no. Profit making in schools, no. Firing workers at will, no…’

The list went on and on, probably for a little too long. The majority of the policies he sought to claim credit for having saved the nation from didn’t have the legs to make it beyond the confines of a boozy ministerial lunch. By contrast some of the ones his party has been content to let through the net, the bedroom tax, savage welfare reforms and those university tuition fee hikes that ruined his reputation in the first place have had disastrous consequences.

Mr Clegg also touched on the negative impact the unpopularity he has experienced since entering government had on his family saying there were times when he thanked his ‘lucky stars’ that his children were too young to understand what the papers were saying about him. Yes Nick it’ll be a nice surprise for them when they’re older. What did you do during the recession Daddy? I was the most unpopular man in the country.

It had though, he asserted, all been worth it, ‘every insult we’ve had to endure since we entered government, every snipe, every bad headline. That was all worth it because we are turning Britain around.’ Quite a tough sell to the hundreds of Liberal Democrat councillors who have lost their seats in recent local elections I’d imagine.

Then it was on to the ‘vision thing or his best attempt at one. After all they’d been through; he said the ‘absolute worst thing to do would be to give the keys of number ten to a single party; Labour or the Conservatives.’

He asked his audience to imagine the leader’s debates in the 2015 election campaign during which ‘David Cameron will say to Ed Milliband: you’re irresponsible, you are going to drive the economy to ruin. Ed Milliband will say to David Cameron: you can’t be trusted to help everyone, your party only cares about the rich.’

Then came the killer line, the one part of the speech he must have stayed up all night practicing ‘For once I’ll agree with them both. Because they’re both right; left to their own devices they’d both get it wrong.’

There it is folks, the big idea; the Liberal Democrats would like to see another coalition government because they’d like a shot at messing things up too. They’ll probably get their wish, hence the thinly veiled hints that they would be happy to snuggle up to Labour if they rather than the Tories come up with the goods in 2015.

Circumstances meant that I had to listen to Nick Clegg’s speech on the radio, which gave me ample opportunity to wonder at the weirdness of his tone of voice. He seemed to be using a strange semi-whisper reminiscent of a primary school teacher assuring his charges that although the cod liver oil of being in government tastes horrid it really is doing them good.

That said this was probably his best speech and his most successful conference since the heady days following the first leader’s debate during the 2010 election when he was, briefly, the most popular politician since Churchill. He managed to get several key votes on economic and defence policy to go his way and the pre-conference call from ex-minister Sarah Tether for him to resign and Vince Cable’s annual Old Testament prophet routine were distractions where previously they might have been disasters.

The laws of political evolution suggest that the Liberal Democrats should be joining the Dodo and the Passenger Pigeon on the extinct list and yet conference season has seen them present the image of a party that is surprisingly united and focussed. Gone is the fluffy party of old that prattled earnestly away on the fringes of British politics, in its place is tougher, more pragmatic organisation. They know they may never wear the crown, but realise the power to be wielded in helping make someone else king.

It may all, of course, be a false dawn, there are lots of things that could go wrong between now and the next election, but for now things are going well. As they head for Brighton this week it is Labour who have it all to prove, and after a summer of missed opportunities and self inflicted wounds their prospects don’t look good.

Saturday, 14 September 2013

The dark side of Michael Gove, another bad week for Ed Milliband and RIP Mr After 8.

Despite the fact that the spoken word is the main tool of their trade politicians say some of the stupidest things. Take Education Secretary Michael Gove, who this week put his foot squarely in his mouth when he said that families turn to food banks due to a ‘failure to manage their finances’; or being poor as we humans call it.

Speaking in the commons he said he had recently visited a food bank in his constituency and that whilst he appreciated ‘there are families who face considerable pressures’ the situation they find themselves in is ‘often the result of decisions that they have taken which mean they are not best able to manage their finances.’ Yes Michael you’re quite right, it is all the fault of the poor, they just aren’t trying; unlike you who’d try the patience of a saint.

Citizen’s Advice Bureau chief executive Gillian Guy called Mr Gove’s comments ‘appalling’, adding that people are often ‘ashamed they have had to turn to food banks’. Quite so, nobody would consider queuing up for food aid in an advanced industrial nation a lifestyle option to which they aspire.

Anyway Michael Gove is the last person to be handing out financial advice, a couple of years ago he had to repay £7000 in wrongly claimed expenses. The old line about people who live in glass houses not throwing stones springs to mind.

Michael Gove has always been a high profile politician, always on hand to feed the media with quotes, as is often the way with such people he has come to believe his own publicity, to think that he is a ‘national treasure’ and so doesn’t have to bother with the niceties observed by littler men. It is sad when this happens to any politician; that is has happened to this one is downright tragic.

Despite the relentless self promotion and the endless gimmicks Michael Gove, as the adopted son of working class parents who has even had a real(ish) job, brings much needed balance to a cabinet stuffed with Oxbridge educated ninnies. Now he seems to have been infected with the sense of entitlement and cosseted ignorance of the shocks and scares of life as lived by ‘ordinary’ people rising above the Cameron government like the stench over a rubbish tip.

He shouldn’t get too comfortable; he isn’t and never can be part of the inner circle. His cabinet colleagues no doubt consider him to be a ‘jolly useful little man’, but not the sort of person they’d invite round for cocktails at Christmas. When they get tired of him he’ll be dropped back into obscurity without a second thought.

Sara Vine, Michael Gove’s wife and a newbie columnist for the Daily Mail wrote this week that it had ‘been hell’ having her husband under her feet all Summer. If he goes on saying things like this she could have him there all year round.

Things are looking bad for not so Red Ed; his personal poll ratings have dipped to an all time low, putting him on a level equivalent to that reached by Tory disasters William Hague and Iain Duncan Smith.

The poll conducted by Ipsos/Mori saw 60% of the people questioned said they were dissatisfied with the performance of the leader of the opposition. He didn’t make things any better for himself with his speech to the TUC conference on Tuesday.

What had been billed as a ‘high noon’ moment turned out to be the dampest of damp squibs. It wasn’t just that he bottled it; he did so in such a dreary fashion, even the enraged brother of the trades unions couldn’t be bothered to boo him.

As he joins them in the annals of political irrelevance Mr Ed can at least take comfort in the fact that both William Hague and IDS reinvented themselves sufficiently to enjoy ministerial careers following their disastrous tenure as party leader. There is every chance that he could do the same, but it really is time he went.

Brian Sollit, the man who invented the After 8 mint has died at the age of 74. Back in the day Abigail’s and anyone else’s party wasn’t complete without a box of mints in fussy individual wrappers on the table.

They are a chocolate coated relic of a time when every office drone was an ‘executive’ in waiting, machines were going to free us from labour and everyone would have a slice of the good life as they went down the slide into everlasting pleasure. It was all an illusion, it is so sad that we will probably never know such innocent optimism again.

Sunday, 8 September 2013

GMB withdrawing its support really could be the end of the road for the Labour Party.

GMB, on of the UK’s largest trades unions announced this week that it will cut its funding to the Labour Party from £1.2million to just £150,000. A move prompted by leader Ed Milliband’s failure to understand the relationship between his party and the unions.

A spokesperson for GMB told the leadership had ‘expressed considerable regret about the apparent lack of understanding of the impact the proposals mooted by Ed Milliband will have on the collective nature of trades union engagement with the Labour Party.’

Earlier this year in response to the ‘scandal’ surrounding the involvement of UNITE in the selection of a candidate to fight the Falkirk by-election Ed Milliband put forward proposals to change the way the Labour Party is funded, under which union members will have to ‘opt in’ to supporting the party rather than have a portion of their membership fee paid as a political levy.

The spokesperson for GMB went on to say that the union leadership saw it as a ‘source of great regret to the union that the party that had been formed to represent the interests of working people intends to end the collective engagement of trades unions in the party they helped to form.’

GMB have also announced they will cut their wider political fund and the donations the union makes to individual constituency parties.

Tom Watson, formerly Labour’s campaign director, warned in a blog post this week that this could be ‘the beginning of the end’ for the link between the Labour Party and the unions. He went on to say that if so it would be ‘a very serious development that threatens a pillar of our democracy that has endured for over a hundred years.’

In an attempt to downplay the seriousness of the issue shadow Treasury Minister Rachel Reeves told the BBC that reducing the amount it gives to Labour was ‘ a decision for the GMB’ and that ‘most of the money that the Labour Party receives comes from ordinary donations.’

Former Home Secretary Alan Johnson, also speaking to the BBC, said ‘I hope this is not a piece of petty retribution. I would hope the GMB are above that.’

Other unions are also thought to be reconsidering their relationship with the Labour Party in light of Mr Milliband’s reform plans, earlier this year Len McCluskie of UNITE warned that if his union were to withdraw its funding it could ‘bankrupt’ the party.

It would be easy to see this as just another part of the traditional build up to conference season, a ‘crisis’ involving the Labour Party seems to be as integral to this as overweight character actors in drag is to the Panto season. Other unions have taken their funding ball home, the RMT did so a few years ago, and the sky didn’t fall down, this time though Tom Watson might be right and the marriage of convenience between Labour and the unions could be about to end in an acrimonious divorce.

To be honest it was never a very happy marriage to start with, the era when union barons were invited round to Downing Street for beer and sandwiches by Labour prime ministers was very short. For most of their shared history it was a relationship marked by resentment on the part of the unions that the party their members were funding was so unresponsive to their concerns and frustration on the part of the Labour Party that the union barons seemed unable to grasp the difficult balancing act between priorities and pragmatism inherent to parliamentary politics.

As in any divorce their will be winners and losers. The unions, if they were to withdraw their funding from the Labour Party, could regain a little of their lost significance as other parties turn to them for funding. Labour though could lose big time, the party’s coffers are empty and much of its grassroots organisation is moribund; a slow decline might be about to turn into a tailspin into doom.

Even if the other unions don’t withdraw their funding the GMB have knocked another nail into the political coffin of Ed Milliband, when he addresses the TUC conference in Bournemouth this week their comrades might well hammer in the rest.

Faced with a ‘scandal’ over selecting a candidate for the Falkirk by-election, which, incidentally, turned out not to be a scandal after all since an internal party inquiry found no rules had been breeched, he acted too quickly. He listened to the siren voices of the Blairites who told him that this crisis was an opportunity to dump the unions for good and move into a bright future where compliant ‘supporters’ hand over money to the party and don’t trouble their fluffy little heads with things like policy.

That won’t happen, ours is an age when everyone has an opinion and the means by which to broadcast it to the world. Any political party that thinks its members are just going to hand over their money and politely ask where they should post the bundle of leaflets they’ve been given in return is living in the past.

If he has provoked the unions into withdrawing their financial backing Ed Milliband will have brought his party to ruin; he might also have sown the seeds of its revival. The Labour Party badly needs to dump the marketing and cynical triangulation that characterised the Blair and Brown years and get back to being a ground up party that speaks for the people who are being ground down by austerity.

If the Labour Party is going to have a long term future it needs a new and more resolute leader with the guts to talk honestly about its core values.

Sunday, 1 September 2013

We should be trying to make young people want to vote- not just making them vote.

Young people should be compelled to vote in the first election where they are eligible to do so according to a report written by think tank the Institute for Public Policy Research. The proposal would see a small fine levied against young people who did not vote and the addition of a ‘none of the above’ option to the ballot.

At the 2013 local elections 32% of sixteen to eighteen year olds voted, compared to 78% of the over sixty fives. Young people have, according to the IPPR report been hit hardest by the spending cuts over recent years and so are more likely to feel alienated from politics.

Guy Lodge, an associate director of the IPPR told the BBC this week the unequal turnout at recent elections had given ‘older and more affluent voters a disproportionate influence at the ballot box.’ He went on to say that people who didn’t start voting at eighteen were ‘more likely not to get into the habit of doing so’, potentially trapping them in a ‘vicious cycle of disaffection and under representation.’

Also speaking to the BBC Sarah Birch or Glasgow University, a co-author of the IPPR report, said there are many things young people are required to do and ‘adding just one more small task to this list would not represent an undue burden, and it could well help to reinvigorate democracy.’ If nothing else, she added, it would ‘make politicians target first time voters like never before and give young voters the potential for greater political power.’

The government are about as capable of resisting a gimmick as a five year old is of resisting chocolate, the Labour Party is said to favour the proposal along with reducing the voting age to sixteen. This is an idea that has legs; and that is really rather unfortunate.

As someone who believes casting your vote is a vital part of being an adult I should back this proposal, but I don’t. The trouble is that for all the good intentions behind it making young people vote by law is unworkable and dangerous.

Telling youngsters, or anyone else for that matter, that they have to vote is only a small step away from telling them who to vote for. There is also the small matter of the sum raised from fining kids who can’t get it together to vote being less than the cost of collecting it and leaving the youngsters in question with a needless criminal record; just what they need when getting that vital first job is harder than ever.

If we are serious about instilling the habits of democracy in our young people and we should be, then we have to start way before it is time to step up to the ballot box. What we need is a thorough, engaging and impartial system of citizenship education in schools.

To date no government has managed to deliver this, although at some stage most have promised to do so. At best kids are exposed to a lot of well meaning waffle, not that Michael Gove has committed schools to trying to deliver an education fit for the twenty first century using methods that were old hat in the nineteenth even this is likely to go to the board.

A cynic would say this is because the political class don’t want an informed electorate asking awkward questions, I’m more inclined to blame it on good old fashioned British institutional inertia. Why go through all the fuss and upheaval of changing the system when we can jog along as we’ve always done?

The simple answer is because our democracy is under threat of dying of indifference. We need young people , and those of us tottering towards middle age too, to feel that voting matters, that despite what the bar-room cynics say they let you do it precisely because it changes things.

To do so we need to teach our children about democracy from nursery school onwards. Not just the mechanics of the parliamentary system but the simple but vital message that they can take part in the process too, perhaps then we will eventually get a House of Commons that is less white, male and Oxbridge educated; and a whole lot more responsive to the people it represents.

About the only good idea in these current proposals it the addition of a ‘none of the above’ option on the ballot. Although I prefer the wording used on ballot papers in New Zealand, which says with admirable Kiwi directness ‘I have no confidence in the above candidates’, it expresses perfectly how I feel about political establishment that is quick to embrace cheap gimmicks whilst dodging real change.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Time to find an exit strategy for Ed Milliband

You know your fortunes have reached their nadir when notorious mangler of the English language John Prescott criticises your communication skills. Labour leader Ed Milliband reached that point this week and it should give him cause to consider his position.

Writing in the Sunday Mirror a week ago John Prescott accused the Labour Party of ‘massively failing’ to get their message across, then went on to urge not so Red Ed to come over all Fergie and give poorly performing members of his shadow cabinet ‘ the hairdryer treatment and then kick em out.’

In a more, for him anyway, forensic tone he wrote that ‘radical change is now required to shape up the policy of organisation and delivery alongside a clear set of policies and principles so people know what we stand for.’ Just because you are stating the obvious doesn’t mean you aren’t also telling the truth.

The polls haven’t been helpful either, on conducted by ComRes for the Sunday Mirror showed just 22% of the people questioned though Ed Milliband was a good leader of the Labour Party, a fall from 31% in May.

Just to add insult to injury Mr Milliband then got a biffing from Maurice, now Lord, Glasman his former policy guru. Writing in the Mail on Sunday Lord Glasman said that as leader he had ‘not followed his instincts’ and attacked ‘predator capitalists.’ He went on to say that ‘at the very time when Labour should be showing the way ahead, it gives every impression of not knowing which way to turn.’

The only glimmer of light in this tunnel of bad luck was an interview given to the Observer by shadow Energy Secretary Caroline Flint in which she defended her embattled leader saying that ‘individual popularity poll ratings are always given prominence, but the truth is that, when it comes to the election that’s not always a significant factor. Elaborating on this theme she suggested readers ‘think back to Labour leaders in the past who were popular but couldn’t win election. Mrs Thatcher was unpopular but won elections. Sometimes these things are overplayed.’

These are touchingly loyal things to have said, but I would be surprised if politically savvy Caroline Flint actually believed a word of it.

It would be easy to point out that during his long tenure as Deputy Prime Minister to Tony Blair John Prescott brought about neither radical change nor the creation of distinctive policies. You could also comment on the singular ingratitude of Lord Glasman biting the hand that lifted him from academic obscurity and then pushing his plate forward for seconds.

Even Caroline Flint’s demonstration of loyalty could be twisted round to be portrayed as an instance of an ambitious politician pretending that the very last thing she wants is the top job; perish the thought.

Anyway there is little point in criticising Ed Milliband now because Labour isn’t a party that dumps its dud leaders; it lets them trundle over the precipice of disaster under their own steam. If that’s the case then it’s high time they started doing do, because if it is to have any relevance at all the Labour Party is going to have to get tough and quickly too.

Not in the way they have tried to so far by binding themselves to Tory austerity policies, but by being willing to say and stand for things that will make them unpopular in the short term, like challenging the idea that endless growth is either desirable or achievable, but may prove to be right in the longer one. Dumping a dud leader who could never decide whether he was on the left, the right or doing the hokey kokey somewhere in the middle would be a good place to start.

The question isn’t really if the deed should be done; just how and when to do it.

The optimum time would be between the end of the party conference season and Christmas, allowing time for a, mercifully, short leadership race and giving the new incumbent a full year to make an impression.

This would allow Ed Milliband to make a final stirring speech, think Iain Duncan Smith telling the Tories not to underestimate the determination of a quiet man, followed by a quietly dignified resignation early in the new parliamentary session; a tactic that would allow him to exit to a round of applause and leave the door open to a possible ministerial career in a future Labour government.

For all his faults as a party leader Ed Milliband is a highly competent politician; just not leadership material. The common characteristic of people who climb to the top in politics is having a strong sense of who they are and what they stand for, something he has signally failed to project.

When you look at Ed Milliband you get the impression that his life has been just that little bit too comfortable to have forged strong political passions, in their place is a sort of well meaning liberal drone. He has tried his best and been found wanting, there is no shame in that; but the Labour Party and Britain deserve better.

Sunday, 18 August 2013

Its true all the people who think they run the country really are driving taxis.

Norwegian Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg recently spent an afternoon disguised as an Oslo taxi driver. He drove passengers around the streets engaging them in conversation about current affairs and kept his real identity secret unless recognised.

Speaking to the media afterwards he said ‘It is important for me to hear what people really think’, adding that ‘if there is one place people really say what they think it’s in the taxi.’

Ok so it was a stunt, and a pretty shameless one too, but it is also a rather good idea. If you’ve got the right sort of mind, and I have, the thought of Citizen Dave behind the wheel of a black cab brims with comic possibilities.

Wherever you asked him to take you he’s cart you off to somewhere else and then tell you this was where you wanted to go all along; you just didn’t know it.

Actually the other party leaders ought to have a turn too. Nick Clegg could bore his passengers rigid by saying endlessly that he was sorry, really, really sorry for making such a sorry job of being Deputy Prime Minister. Sorry.

Not so Red Ed on the other hand could drive his fares round and round the streets of London in no particular direction until he either runs out of petrol or falls into a ditch; which is pretty much what he’s been doing to the Labour Party since he took over as leader.

Shadow Immigration minister Chris Bryant made a speech this week naming and shaming TESCO, Next and other big companies for favouring ‘cheap’ labour from Eastern Europe over British workers. It was supposed to switch the agenda away from the party’s internal squabbles and put the government under pressure on the economy, it didn’t work; in fact he ended up wiping, metaphorical, egg off his face.

The speech was an assemblage of poorly checked facts, Mr Bryant put the TESCO warehouse where the majority of the staff are from outside the UK in the wrong county; he got the number of foreign workers employed there wrong too. As a result he ended up touring the media giving a display of high speed back pedalling that would get a Tour de France winner drug tested. Oops!

Even if it hadn’t been a poorly researched shambles Chris Bryant would have been better advised not to have given the speech at all. Not due to the fear of being accused of ‘racism’, but because in the age of globalisation trying to control the flow of labour across national borders is a bit like going down to the beach and telling the tide not to come in.

Giving local people the first crack at vacancies is an aspiration that can only be fulfilled if they are able to compete with incomers. Something that is unlikely to happen as the government’s austerity drive wrecks the welfare system in the name of reform and Michael Gove replaces vocational courses with Latin prep and hymn singing.

Unfortunately for Labour they have given their tacit support to the spending cuts and so much of what they say on any subject is just noise.

Labour leader Ed Milliband also had egg on his face this week; the real sort. During a visit to South London last week he was pelted with an egg by a passer by, to his credit Red Ed handled the incident quite well, meaning he stood there looking a bit sheepish, something he’s had plenty of practice at.

The man who threw the egg later told police he wasn’t protesting about the Labour leader in particular, he was just fed up of politicians in general. That says it all about Not So Red Ed, three years in the job and even when it comes to provoking violent dislike he fails to stand out.

The number of students gaining top A Level grades has fallen slightly for the second year in a row, am I so very paranoid for thinking this is part of a government plan?

When the news broke I can imagine Citizen Dave and his cabal down in their secret bunker, the cupboard under the stairs at Downing Street to you and I, cackling like a convention of Bond villains.

The plan is working perfectly, if results continue to decline within a decade the middle class will be so dim they’ll believe anything we say and thanks to the welfare reforms the poor will be too busy dodging the workhouse to vote at all. It’s a result chaps!

Here comes a future so scary it ought to be X-rated.

We’re all in it together; austerity is working. You love Citizen Dave and only Citizen Dave.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Blame Not So Red Ed for Labour’s Slump in the Polls.

This could be a nervous summer break for Labour leader Ed Milliband. A poll of polls combining results from ComRes, ICM, Ipsos-Mori and YouGov shows that his party’s lead has slumped from eleven to five points.

An average of the polls puts Labour on 38%, the Tories on 33% and the Lib Dems on 11%. The sharp fall in support for Labour has been attributed to a perceived improvement in the economy and the collapse of support for UKIP; only 13% of disgruntled Tories now say they will vote for Nigel Farage’s band of eccentrics.

This is the closest the two main parties have been since just before the ‘onmishambles’ budget of 2012 when Boy George nearly came a cropper with his hastily scrapped ‘pastie tax.’

Geraint Davies, the latest Labour MP to publicly criticise the party leadership said the poor showing in the polls was linked to Labour’s failure to rebut Tory attempts to lay the blame for the recession at their door. Speaking to he said this made the party ‘look like a shamefaced schoolboy admitting responsibility by omission.’

Ouch! Not quite below the belt, but given his uncanny resemblance to a latter day Jimmy Clithero its close enough to make Red Ed’s eyes water.

Not too long ago Lord Sainsbury, one of New Labour’s paymasters, laid into Ed Milliband for possessing only ‘average’ leadership skills. The fact he had a book to promote at the time and may just feel that he’s still big its politics that has gotten small aside the noble lord might just have had a point.

Particularly when he said that the ‘one nation’ banner Labour was waving at the time was an insufficiently robust platform from which to win an election; then went on to add that ‘you have to be more than a slogan and more than a label to get people to vote for you.’

That a small lift in the economic gloom should coincide with a corresponding dip in the popularity of the opposition is no surprise, in this country we have an almost superstitious attachment to the status quo. It needn’t anyway be a disaster, there is little chance, however dearly they want to, of the government being able to kick start an eighties style consumer boom on the back of a fragile but positive economic performance.

The credit isn’t there these days and new Bank of England boss Mark Carney is too smart and independent minded to play to role of stooge to the Conservative Party. He has already shown his mettle by telling the banks they risk becoming ‘socially useless’ unless they do more to invest in the real economy.

A dip in the polls needn’t be a disaster; but for Labour it is one anyway because it highlights a deeper malaise within the party.

It would be easy at this point to blame the party’s problems on the malign influence of Tony Blair, as easy in fact as someone writing during Labour’s last sojourn in the wilderness blaming all the party’s ills on Mrs Thatcher. There is no doubt that Labour was hollowed out from within during the Blair years, but an overused explanation quickly becomes just an excuse, the fault for the current crop of problems rests squarely with Ed Milliband.

Almost three years into to job of Labour leader and he has yet to stamp an image of himself on either the party membership or the wider public. To date he has presented himself, amongst other things as a trades union man, a Blair style charismatic and a booster for policies such as predistribution that are so convoluted even Gordon Brown would have rejected them during the fingernail gnawing nadir of his premiership.

All these incarnations have proved to be false and in some cases made him look positively ludicrous. On other occasions, such as during the scandal surrounding the alleged fixing of the selection for the Falkirk by-election, Mr Milliband has shown himself to be weak and prone to panic; hardly qualities you look for in a prime minister.

Back in 2010 when the prospective leadership candidates were on their interminable tour of the country I suggested the Labour Party might do better to appoint a safe pair of hands, someone like Alan Johnson or Jack Straw, to lead it through its first term in opposition giving a younger and untainted leader time to emerge. That still seems to me to be a better course of action than promoting, largely because his chief qualification was not being his brother, a man without the aptitude to be a party leader to the post with the certainty he will fail.

The chances of Labour regaining office at the first attempt were always slight and now look non-existent. Their cause would hardly be harmed by changing leader now in favour of someone who could steady the ship and minimise the defeat they suffer in 2015.

Ed Milliband has, I don’t doubt, done his best, but as Lord Sainsbury said you need more than slogans and labels to win an election. Tragically under not so Red Ed the Labour Party has failed to come up with even a workable slogan and the only label sticking to them is the one they are desperate to lose.

Saturday, 3 August 2013

Even for the silly season a fifteen minute ‘grace period’ for parking on the high street is a barmy idea.

The politicians have skipped town until the party conferences get under way and so the silly season is upon us again. This year the honour of getting things started fell to Communities Secretary Eric Pickles, his contribution didn’t disappoint.

On Monday he announced to a breathless world that the government were considering giving motorists a fifteen minute ‘grace period’ so they can park on double yellow lines without fear of getting a ticket in order to nip into the paper shop say. This is all a cunning wheeze to revive Britain’s flagging high streets, it won’t work of course, but on the upside at least it doesn’t involve irritating ‘retail guru’ Mary Portas.

A source close to Mr Pickles, not all that close you’d imagine since he’s a portly chap, told the Daily Telegraph that if people are ‘worries about paying a fortune in parking fines it will make them more likely to shop online or go to out of town shopping centres’ and added that ‘for too long parking has been seen as a revenue raiser. It is time to end that.

Hurray for brave Mr Pickles the heroic slayer of traffic wardens; oh no, hang on a minute here comes nasty transport minister Norman Baker to rain on the parade. He and his Liberal Democrat colleagues think the plan is ‘unworkable’ and even if that isn’t the case it is wrong for central government to interfere with the parking policies of local councils; so there.

The Local Government Association (LGA) and the AA aren’t too pleased either. Peter Box, LGA economy and transport lead, told the BBC that relaxing parking restrictions risked ‘jeopardising the safety of pedestrians’ and the AA slammed the plan as showing ‘confused thinking on the part of the government and called for a review of where double yellow lines are sited instead of some minor fiddling with restrictions.

To which all I can say is ‘calm down dears’ this is just a throwaway press release not a serious policy proposal, it will probably have a lifespan shorter than that of a soap bubble. Councils that impose parking regulations with a Taliban style literalism are an easy Aunt Sally for politicians to biff; doing so though will do little or nothing to save the nation’s high streets from decline.

Doing that requires tackling problems such as the short sighted greed of councils and landlords who drive businesses away by charging extortionate levels rent and business taxes. There is also the small matter of local and national and national government suffering from a total lack of ambition when it comes to public transport, a bus service that was reliable, affordable and a pleasure to use would entice people out of their cars and back into town.

Unfortunately that requires a level of cooperation and joined up thinking of which our current crop of politicians are seemingly incapable. Instead they prefer to engage in the politics of the lowest common denominator, finding an issue they can use to generate a few cheap headlines then moving on without providing a workable solution to the problem they have identified.

Vicky Pryce the former wife of disgraced ex minister Chris Huhne is to have her CBE taken away because she is deemed to have brought the honour into disrepute. Her former partner in crime is having a tough time of it too, the reports are unconfirmed but apparently the fellows cut him quite dead at the last meeting of the Desperate Dan Pie Eaters Club (Westminster Branch).

That rumbling sound you can hear far in the distance is the hypocrisy mill going into overdrive. As I predicted the Westminster establishment hasn’t turned against this hapless pair because of what they did so much as because they got caught doing it.

The House of Lords is stuffed to the rafters with peers who fiddled their expenses, some of whom also went to jail, this hasn’t prevented them from retaining their membership of the most exclusive club in the land. Fred the Shred may have had his snatched back but less high profile city fraudsters have been allowed to keep their knighthoods.

If you scratch the right backs doing wrong, even doing time behind bars as a result, need be no hindrance to riding the gravy train. Clearly Pryce and Huhne were as inept at this as they were at breaking the law.

On the subject of the ‘other place’ thirty new life peers were created this week, a few, such as Doreen Lawrence, will bring new voices and perspectives to public life; most though are just political hacks collecting their payoff for a lifetime of not rocking the boat.

The Lords is now too large to do its job properly and too unrepresentative to hold the confidence of the public; it is an institution ripe for reform. Real reform too, not just dumping the last few hereditary peers, the sort that would involve electing its members by PR and making sure they were properly representative of the diverse communities making up modern Britain.

What a shame this has been put on the back burner for a generation or more thanks to the bungling antics of Deputy PM Nick Clegg.

And finally, the Hubble Space Telescope has shown us this week stunning pictures of galaxy NGC524, known as ‘the spiral of doom’ to its friends and family.

This stunning wheel of gas located some ninety million miles from Earth is entering, so the boffins say, the intermediate stage of its existence, most of its fuel having been expended. However beautiful the result looks from afar its best days are behind it and soon all that will remain will be a few red stars glimmering faintly in an inky void.

Am I the only one who thinks that sounds a bit like the Labour Party under the command of not so Red Ed?

Sunday, 28 July 2013

Naughty Weiners, royal babies and bishops bashing Wonga

British workers need more than just ‘platitudes’ from politicians if a living wage is to be introduced, so says not Red Ed but Dr John Sentamu; otherwise known as the Archbishop of York.

Writing in the Observer last weekend the combative cleric said the ‘scale of low pay in Britain is a national scandal’, he went on to call for more to be done to help those workers who earn above the minimum wage but still can’t afford a decent standard of living.

The idea of introducing a living wage, set at £8.55 in London and £7.45 for the rest of the country, has attracted honeyed words from all three main parties, but these have not been backed by much in the way of action. In his article Dr Sentamu writes that ‘what workers need is pay not platitudes’, adding that too few employers have ‘stepped up to the mark’ in terms of fair pay; go get em Bish!

Not to be outdone Sentamu’s boss, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby, laid into high street loan company Wonga a couple of days later saying that he wanted to use church run credit unions to ‘compete them out of business.’

Dr Sentamu is set to chair the Living Wage Commission which will campaign for the introduction of a living wage across the country. The strongest argument at his disposal will be that if introduced a living wage would save government £4billion in support for low earners and boost the national income by £6.5billion, with a corresponding knock on for consumer spending.

Ok Justin Welby had to wipe a bit of egg off his face with the hem of his bishop’s robes when it emerged that the Church of England had invested money in Wonga, but once again it is leading religious figures who are setting the agenda when it comes to tackling social issues.

The politicians seem to have painted themselves inextricably into the austerity corner, leading to some very odd positions being taken. For example the Tories want to make work pay in order to reduce the number of people claiming benefits, how exactly is that going to happen without the introduction of a living wage?

As for Labour they persist in the belief that willing complicity in the savaging of the welfare system will make them more electable; it will do noting of the sort. Backing a campaign to give the sort of people their party was created to fight for the confidence and security that comes from working for more than survival just might, what a shame not so Red Ed and his team are incapable of recognising a golden opportunity when they see one.

I’m not one of their flock, but having troublesome priests like Justin Welby and John Sentamu around is cause to sing hallelujah.

A poll conducted for GP’s trade magazine Pulse found that 51% of its readership supported the idea of charging patients a small fee of £5 to £25 for a routine appointment. If so they risk sending the NHS down a very dangerous road.

The logic, such as it is, behind the proposal is that charging a small fee will reduce the number of ‘unnecessary’ appointments and the workload placed on GP’s. All well and good until you remember that, as doctors are continually telling us in endless health awareness campaigns, even the most minor symptom could be a sigh of a major illness, so how exactly so we mere patients to know when our trip to the quack is unnecessary?

What will happen is that the poorest and often sickest people will be priced out of seeing their doctor, rich hypochondriacs however will happily pay to see the doctor and expect far more from him or her because they are paying. This situation where the rich get treatment and the poor stay sick is what the NHS was created to prevent, allowing it to return could spell the beginning of the end for universal free healthcare.

Anthony Weiner, a candidate to be mayor of New York m’lud has been caught, again, sending intimate photographs to women who aren’t the remarkably tolerant Mrs Weiner. Weiner, a former Congressman has form in this area and has faced calls to withdraw from the mayoral race.

Sex scandals need not necessarily be the kiss of death to a political career, consider the case of our own dear Boris Johnson, a tendency towards self sabotage always is though.

Bo-Jo rode out the media fuss about his affairs with a charm and aplomb that enhanced his appeal to voters in London. Weiner by contrast looks and sounds like the saddest sack on the truck, his sole motivation for entering public life seems to be to provide a stage on which to make regular pratfalls. It would be much kinder if he were allowed to return to the obscurity he so richly deserves.

And finally it is impossible not to mention THAT baby, Prince George Albert whatever.

As the nation alternately cooed and fawned around the royal Moses basket I couldn’t help thinking the poor mite doesn’t know what he’s in for; a life of wealth and privilege undoubtedly, but one marked by intrusive media interest and suffocating protocol too.

Add to this the knowledge that like his father and grandfather before him he will probably spend decades waiting to take on the only role open to him and Prince George might come to wish he’d been born plain old Mr Windsor instead.