Sunday, 25 January 2015

Let’s kick the D-word out of politics.

Next Tuesday there will be a hundred days to go until the next general election; just writing that sentence makes me cringe.

It shouldn’t be like that, I’ve been actively interested in politics for fifteen years and if I’m getting turned off by the prospect of the coming election what chance is there of a floating voter getting engaged?

Even before the race has begun in earnest what passes for debate has settled into the grimly repetitive rhythms of a playground squabble. Labour accuse the Tories of ‘wrecking’ the NHS, they in turn say the only way to ‘save’ it is by selling huge chunks off to private companies. Ukip want to make our flesh creep over immigration and everyone agrees there is no alternative to more cuts, although Red Ed, bless, seems to think Labour cuts would somehow be kinder than Tory ones.

Locally a Labour group with no idea what to do about the city’s problems, apart it seems from dreaming up costly and badly run projects on which to spend money we don’t have, clings limpet like to power for no reason other than that’s what they’ve always done.

When it comes to the ever more troubled Smithfield project, still no tenant in sight and over the weekend rumours emerged of fresh problems with the floor that could being more costs and delays voters could be forgiven for thinking we’re living in a topsy-turvy version of the Kevin Costner film ‘Field of Dreams.’ What the vision told them about had been built, but they, meaning the investors, will not come.

The Independents and some others carry the banner of protest, but they are too few and too divided to bring about change and so inertia and Labour could win the day.

All of the above makes me sound like the worst sort of saloon bar cynic, they’re all the same so why bother with any of them, and that isn’t good.

I have always believed that politics matters, that it should be an optimistic business and even though they are the most over used words in its lexicon; that it really is all about hope and change. What needs to change than to make me feel a bit less jaded about the coming election?

What we need to do is get rid of something that has dragged politics down for decades; deference.

Let me explain what I mean using a story told to me some years ago when I was Secretary of my local Labour Party branch. A member told me about taking his very elderly mother-in-law to vote; she had poor eyesight but was in every other respect the full shilling. She would always ask him how far down the list the Labour candidate was, count that number of places down and make her mark. At no stage did she ask the name of the candidate or what he or she stood for, the idea that she might vote for anyone other than Labour was, to her, as unlikely as one of Pavlov’s dogs not getting excited when the bell rang.

You could probably get someone to tell you the same story in a staunchly Tory constituency and it is a mind-set that has done terrible damage to our political life. Too many people voting how they have always voted lets the political class massively off the hook. It means they need only pay lip service to engaging with the voting public, leaving them with more time to concentrate on their own insular little squabbles, it’s like Game of Thrones without the swords, a good thing too says our old chum the saloon bar cynic because you wouldn’t trust that lot with anything sharp.

Locally it means Labour can go on using a play-book written for them by regional office that ignores most of the things that concern local people safe in the knowledge that however rough the waves might be in May they’ll still be there clinging to the civic rocks once the storm has passed.

It doesn’t have to be like that, we deserve so much better; but it is up to us to do something about it because the status-quo suits the people who have always held power all too well.

We need to look beyond the so familiar they’ve gone past contempt main parties to new parties that bring new voices to the debate. Voices that, incidentally, sound more like yours and mine because they belong to candidates who have lived a life outside politics.

If you can’t find a party that fits the bill then be one of those new voices yourself and stand as an independent committed to living up to the name.

This isn’t easy for some people, even though it has let them down time and again the Labour Party, for example, exerts a strong emotional pull over those who have supported it for generations. If we’re serious about wanting change though then the time has come to let go of nanny’s hand and make our own way.

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Who’s afraid of the big debate?

The leaders of the Labour and Liberal Democrat parties along with Ukip supremo Nigel Farage have written to the prime minister saying that it is ‘unacceptable’ for him not to take part in the pre- election television debates.

The debates were first staged in 2010 and, briefly, made Nick Clegg the UK’s most popular politician, Mr Cameron has refused to take part this time round on the grounds that following a ruling by OFCOM the Green Party will not be allowed to take part, despite polling ahead of the Lib Dems in the European elections.

In identical letters the three party leaders say that it would be a ‘major setback for our democratic processes if these debates were not repeated because of one politician’s unwillingness to participate.’

They go on to say that unacceptable for the ‘political self-interest of one party leader’, the prime minister is reputedly far from keen on the idea of debating immigration policy with Nigel Farage, ‘were to deny the public the opportunity to see their leaders debate in public.’

The letters end with a call for broadcasters to ‘press ahead’ with staging the debates and to ‘provide an empty podium’ should Mr Cameron have a ‘last minute change of heart’ about participating.

The BBC, Sky, ITV and Channel 4 have tabled plans for three televised debates the first of which would see David Cameron and Ed Milliband go head to head, in the second they would be joined by Nick Clegg and in the third Nigel Farage would make up a foursome. Confused? The audience probably will be.

Quoted on the corporation’s website BBC assistant political editor Norman Smith said that broadcasters would show a ‘huge amount of caution’ before going ahead with the debates without the prime minister taking part.

David Cameron’s conversion to supporting the Greens is frankly unconvincing; he is merely using an ill thought out judgement by OFCOM as an excuse not to participate. I never thought I’d write this sentence, but I’m inclined to agree with Norman Tebbit, if the PM carries on like this it is hard to draw any other conclusion that that he’s ‘frit.’

On the face of it he has no reason to be, of the three main party leaders he is the one most likely to handle the debates best. Clegg is too fatally compromised by five years of coalition; Ed Milliband’s awkwardness is near legendary, if he dusts down his ‘Dave’ persona Mr Cameron though could still connect with the audience.

There are, it must be said, some problems with the debates themselves, three is far too many, after the first debate most of the viewing public lose interest. If there has to be three then broadcasters could make things a lot clearer for everyone if they kept the same line-up throughout.

These though are distractions, that he is so unwilling to take part speaks volumes about David Cameron’s weakness as a leader and the failings of the political class in general.

The three main party leaders will, if they go ahead, have been comprehensively rehearsed by their aides, making a genuinely off the cuff remark or honest answer as rare as water on Mars. Instead we will be treated to the frigid lexis and faux outrage that for all it might excite the boys and girls in the Westminster bubble bores the public to tears.

Adding Nigel Farage and Natalie Bennett to the mix would mean including a variable for which the political establishment has no idea how to compensate. Both have a directness of approach that could turn the safe dolly-drop questions the other three party leaders have been practicing not answering for weeks into unplayable bouncers.

Undoubtedly the player with the most to lose would be Mr Cameron, unlike in 2010 he is there to defend the record of his government, not make blue sky promises about what he’ll do if we trust him with the keys to Downing Street. The definition he uses to prove the success of his government’s economic plans is so narrow it leaves the concerns of most of the people likely to be watching out in the cold.

What David Cameron if rightly ‘frit’ about is being challenged by Farage and Bennett on why a government that pledged to ‘make work pay’ has presided over a situation where working families are driven to use food banks. How the unnecessary panic he stoked up over immigration has handed a golden opportunity to Ukip allowing them to move into the political mainstream and, most of all, why he has done nothing to stop major corporations from dodging tax whilst public services are being cut to the bone.

All of the above are undoubtedly tricky questions; but having to answer them is the price of holding power. By trying to dodge doing so David Cameron is further reinforcing the feeling that politics has become a closed court with little interest in or respect for the feelings of ordinary citizens.

He should stop making excuses, man up and take part. If he doesn’t he risks, to adapt a phrase he coined during his salad days, appearing to be an analogue leader in what is starting at last to look like a multi-party world

Friday, 9 January 2015

A slick performance from the Commissioner as Rent a Cop eyes a move to Stoke.

On Monday evening around twenty two people braved the damp and cold evening of what was, allegedly, the gloomiest day of the year to attend a PACT meeting at the Medical Institute in Hartshill.

The attraction was a double bill featuring Staffordshire Police and Crime Commissioner Matthew Ellis and Joy Garner, Stoke-on-Trent’s representative on the Police and Crime Panel.

There has been a change in Mr Ellis’s style since his last visit to this parish. I’ve previously described him as resembling a house master at a good public school, now he seems like a man who might have his eye on being headmaster someday.

There was certainly a touch of the junior minister with prospects in his delivery on Monday night.

He outlined the impact his attempts to modernise the technology used by the county’s officers had on putting more Bobbies on the beat. Streamlining the mountains of paperwork they have to deal with and getting the multitude of IT systems the force uses, and which currently get on together about as well as cats in a bag, to coordinate properly certainly met with approval from the uniformed officers in the room.

Mr Ellis also highlighted his determination to engage the public with the work of the police, through the 268 projects backed to date through his People Power fund and the work done by the force’s cadet scheme to reach out to young people.

Other engagement initiatives planned for the year ahead include involving members of the public in appointing a new Chief Constable and the setting up of a Safer Communities Panel. Quite how said panels will work, who will sit on them and whether they will have anything like teeth remains to be seen, but it does suggest some level of commitment to public involvement.

All in the garden isn’t rosy though, with his brows knitted together in the way they teach people to do at politician school when they’re being ‘grave’ Mr Ellis told his audience that funding was ‘tricky’; meaning the Treasury would like the force to rub along with less of it, but that he was committed to protecting front line services.

He also expressed disappointment with the support offered to victims of crime and the inability of the council, police and other bodies to work together efficiently. The former, he said, would be addressed by a ‘victim’s gateway’ bringing all the available services together in June.

It is fair to say that Councillor Garner has a less rehearsed approach to public speaking to that of Commissioner Ellis, less stagecraft and more of a chat over a non-existent garden wall. Not a bad approach and sometimes an appealing one since it has the benefit of being genuine rather than just seeming to be genuine.

Unfortunately she came to Monday’s meeting struggling under the weight of two problems. The first is that the police and crime panel has a somewhat nebulous role scrutinising the activities of a public servant most of the public couldn’t be bothered to vote for.

She gamely asserted that the panel was there to ask the public’s questions and then spent much of the meeting fielding questions of her own as to whether the city was ‘shouting up’ for itself on the panel. Her answer that the members of the panel worked together to hold the PCC to account was factually accurate, but exposed their big problem. As a committee by its very nature the work it does is dull and focussed on detail making it hard to feed the press with stories of battles won and concessions gained.

The other problem dogging Councillor Garner was that she spent much of the evening defending the council’s unpopular cuts agenda. Questions about the removal of school crossing guards and the money spent of trying to bring HS2 to the city bounced over her head like cricket balls on a fast wicket, by parroting the party line about the cuts being all the fault of the wicked government she played a straight bat to most deliveries, but scored few runs.

Mr Ellis didn’t have the easiest of times answering his own questions, asked about statistics on littering he gave an ill thought out response about attending a terrorism briefing earlier in the day had pushed such matters clear out of his mind; rude. He also coined the phrase ‘purposeful visibility’ to describe what he wanted officers to engage in, which sounds like pure minister speak. Aspiring to play with the political big kids is fine, but he should try to avoid picking up their worst habits.

The surprise of the evening came at the end of the meeting with Stewart Brown and Steve Rowney of security company Facilitas giving a presentation on proposals to pilot a Community Patrol and Response project in Hartshill and Penkhull.

In the spirit of openness I should declare that I live in one of the communities where the project is to be trialled. It amounts to householders paying £1 a week to have a security guard patrol their neighbourhood and report any suspicious incidents or individuals to the police.

Their motives may be noble, the project would be run on a not for profit basis; but it won’t work and shouldn’t be attempted.

The feeling of the meeting expressed though a number of questions from the floor and some creditable comments by Councillor Garner was that local people won’t support a private police force. There are also practical problems since the patrols would only be able to observe and report and so couldn’t protect people or property.

This particular project is likely to fail, what worries me is that now the idea is in the public forum it won’t go away. A council keen to cut costs any which way it can is open to being tempted by ‘radical’ suggestions.

Like it or not Rent-a-Cop could be patrolling a street near you if not tomorrow then some time soon.

Thursday, 1 January 2015

Tony Blair shows why ex leaders are the elephant in the political drawing room.

Former leaders are always a source of trouble for political parties, like the elephant in the drawing room they are indisputably there; but everyone tries their best to ignore them.

That is certainly the case when it comes to the Labour Party and Tony Blair their most successful, and most controversial leader.

Before the new year break he said in an interview given to the Economist that Labour risk losing the next election if they are perceived as being too left wing.

There was a risk, he said, of May’s general election being one where ‘a traditional left wing party competes with a traditional left wing one, with the traditional result’, meaning defeat for Labour.

The Labour Party, he went on to say ‘succeeds best when it is in the centre ground’, adding that he was ‘still very much New Labour’ and that ‘Ed would not describe himself that way, so there is a difference there.’

All very neatly put with the inference, for those who wish to find it, that Red Ed is too red and will lead the party to defeat.

Lucy Powell, a close ally of Ed Milliband told the BBC that she had ‘a great deal of respect’ for Tony Blair, but said he was a politician from ‘a different time’ and that the challenges faced by the current leadership are different.

Paul Kenny of the GMB union, also speaking to the BBC, was more robust saying that Mr Blair was ‘disconnected’ from the lives of the people Labour represents, adding that it was ‘sad and disappointing’ that the former party leader appeared to oppose Labour’s policies aimed at closing the ‘unacceptable inequality gap between those at the top and the rest in our society.’

At one level this is, of course, a story about one of the largest egos in politics grabbing a few precious minutes in the spotlight. Mr Blair later said that his comments had been ‘misinterpreted’ and that he expected Labour to win in May. The damage though may already have been done.

Lucy Powell is right when she says that Tony Blair is a man out of his time with a take on political realities to match, the centre ground is a much less attractive place to be than it was in the 1990’s.

The trouble with Ed Milliband is that since becoming leader in 2010 he has tried with ever increasing levels of desperation to please everyone, the unions, the New Labour faction, the press and an increasingly restive grassroots membership; with the predictable result that he has ended up satisfying nobody.

There is a real risk that given his past form he will respond to this fairly coded criticism by making yet another policy lurch with the associated pratfall; that would be a potentially fatal mistake.

The parties that are growing, Ukip, the Greens, and the SNP et al make no pretence of being on the middle ground; they are all very clear about where they stand. In the case of Ukip that may often be in a rather worrying place, but it is a distinct one for all that.

Labour can’t be the nostalgia party wedded to a past rooted in heavy industries that have gone for good, they could and should though be more vocal about adhering to their core values. Having a leader who is determined to be the first version of himself rather than the next Tony Blair would be a good start.