Thursday, 14 January 2010

Why Labour supporters should examine their consciences

I think that many good and worthy people beating the drum for New Labour ahead of the election must be doing so even though their hearts are not in it. Maybe you can forgive and forget about taking the country into Iraq. Maybe you can overlook the insult to our intelligence that was the debate over 42 days and all the other assaults on our civil liberties. Perhaps you can ignore the mismanagement of the economy that left us dangerously exposed to the finance and property sectors and with unsustainable levels of personal debt, with the government all the while drunkenly spending like the rising tax receipts could never go into reverse.

I am not so one-eyed as to suggest there have been no successes: the NHS has certainly come a long way and schools have had a badly needed infusion of cash. These successes have, however, come at a cost, and for each one of those, there are so many more failures that we can point to. Energy? A looming energy gap. Environment? A yawning chasm between Labour’s rhetoric and its achievements. Defence? Characterised by a penny pinching, incompetent bureaucracy. Housing? Continuing chronic under supply of new housing. Immigration? A laissez-faire approach that has led to the build up of social pressures and public resentment. I could go on and on.

Maybe you are able to overlook all of that and focus only on the successes. However, surely the most ardent New Labour supporter' heart must sink when it reads that Britain now educates a smaller proportion of its 15 to 19 year-olds and its 20 to 29 year-olds than it did in 1995, an achievement shared only by one other country (France for the former and Portugal for the latter) among the 30 OECD members.

Perhaps all this proves is that governing is hard. I am sure that if this government could turn back the clocks, they would do things differently in many policy areas. But they cannot. The pact New Labour made with the capitalist devil when they took office has unravelled as the tax receipts have dried up in recession. Faced with the unthinkable prospect of cuts in public spending, their raison d’etre has been taken away and they look and sound defeated. The Conservatives, for their part, having been promising (pre-recession) largely to continue New Labour spending patterns if they won the election, also now sound lost and in search of a convincing narrative.

I’m not going to insult you by saying you should switch allegiance – that would be ridiculous. But do your conscience a favour and don’t go out and campaign for a party that you know you have run out of patience with. When it comes to election time, do the country a favour - stay at home and let the other lot have a go. After all, in all probability they too will foul things up at some point and someone else will take their place at the helm.

Friday, 4 December 2009

Confessions of a Speaker's Wife

Some shocking confessions there from a would-be MP…she confesses to being both a member of the Young Conservatives AND an advertising executive. Either one of those should pretty much disqualify her from holding any sort of public office, in my view. At least all the drinking and shagging will mean she will have no trouble fitting in at Westminster, should she make it that far.

Perhaps she will, like her husband, embark on her own political journey, except this time in reverse…from New Labour identikit class war/equality warrior to genteel Lady Bercow of the Shire. Give it time…and a few years ensconced in a grace and favour apartment and, who knows? But let’s not damn her for sins not yet committed...unlike her damning of Cameron for potentially sending his kids to private school, like that is a crime in the first place.

I suppose her noteriety will earn her some votes out of some Jordan-esque misguided sense of feminist solidarity. She will doubtless horrify the Labour Party rank and file...a Jonny come lately urban champagne socialist as far removed from the labour movement as it is possible to be. If Mrs Bercow represents the future of the Labour Party, they have bigger problems than we ever thought.

Saturday, 24 October 2009

BBC and the BNP: what were they thinking?

I have no idea what the makers of Question Time were thinking when they decided to make Nick Griffin the focus of the programme. Forget the nonsense they are bleating about the audience deciding the questions – the programme’s executives decide which questions get asked and which don’t. Are we really expected to believe not a single audience member wanted to ask anything about the economy?

Perhaps they thought that Griffin’s views would not stand up to an hour’s scrutiny from someone as intellectual as David Dimbleby and the assembled political elite. Maybe they expected him to crumble before their brilliance, to roll over and surrender, thus enabling them to lay claim to being the clever sods that slayed the BNP dragon once and for all.

Yes, at times Griffin looked and sounded shaken; yes, at times it was obvious that he does not hold blacks, asians, muslims and jews in high regard, despite his protestations. But he did not crumble or recant. Instead, he is now able to portray himself as a victim, a political outsider campaigning on issues the liberal elite refuse to engage on…which of course plays right into their hands.

Do you really think a BNP supporter in Burnley or Stoke watching Question Time is going to be put off from supporting them in the future? Nothing that Griffin said or had said about him on Thursday night will have come as a surprise. The BNP now have plenty of ammunition to support their contention that Westminster just does not want to discuss the downsides of immigration, refuses to countenance that multiculturalism might not have worked out so well for some and that they have been abandoned and marginalized by mainstream politicians.

One final thought: isn’t it incredibly inconsistent for the BBC to have centred the programme around Griffin? After all, over one million voters decided to support the BNP at the last Euro elections. For good or ill, they exercised their democratic right. Having recognised this fact by inviting Griffin onto Question Time in the first place, they then proceeded to ignore it totally by refusing to run the programme as normal and allow Griffin to air the views that presumably persuaded all those people to vote for him. Inconsistent and patronising. If I was a BNP supporter, I would be feeling mightily pissed off and even more alienated from the mainstream. It is likely that, far from slaying the dragon, the BBC may have made matters considerably worse.

Wednesday, 7 October 2009

The poor always pay in the end

There has been an extraordinary amount of gibberish written about David Cameron's speech to the Conservative Conference last week. Perhaps the most common deliberate misconception put about by critics has been that David Cameron believes that the financial crisis was "caused by big government". He in fact said nothing of the sort:

"Why is our economy broken? Not just because Labour wrongly thought they'd abolished boom and bust. But because government got too big, spent too much and doubled the national debt"

To paraphrase, if Labour hadn't spent all the money whilst the economy was booming, we wouldn't be having to deal with such an impossibly large national debt now.

One of the reasons the UK is in such a relatively poor position (compared to, for example, Germany) is the high proportion of government revenues hitherto provided by the hard hit finance and property sectors. Waiting on a resurgence in tax revenues alone to fix the gaping hole in the public finances could prove a long wait indeed.

There is a sense at large in the popular consciousness that the goverment has become bloated, living beyond its means and needs to be reined in. This doesn't just relate to cuts in public expenditure but also means reversing the well meaning but ultimately anti-social upwards march of the state as surrogate parent. The fact is that the national debt is so huge that it would take cuts of humungous proportions to make a difference. It seems unlikely that the British population, whilst in the mood for a bout of belt tightening, would actually countenance the reduction in public services this would entail.

Instead, both the government and the opposition are proposing to snip away at the margins of public expenditure and chase after apocryphal efficiency savings. What else can be done? In a global economy, trying to tax multinational corporations or high net worth individuals will simply result in them departing for friendlier shores. The proposed levy on financial transactions will similarly lead to the exodus from London of hedge funds and investment firms, unless applied uniformly across major markets.

So, as always, the burden will most likely fall on those unable to escape. Consumption taxes (VAT, cigarette, alcohol and fuel etc) will therefore most likely rise once recovery has been secured to try and plug the gap. They are hard to avoid and fairly stable but tend to fall more heavily on the poor than the rich. It may be wealthy bankers and inept politicians that cause the crisis but the clean up is always paid for by the poor in the end.

Monday, 5 October 2009

The return of politics

Whisper it quietly but politics can, at times, be a little….boring. After 12 long years of a Labour Government, you might forgive politicians and commentators alike of a little fatigue with the daily Westminsters comings and goings. Mix in a little summer sunshine and the intrusion of ‘normal’ life (a bit of work, having a baby) and that explains the long radio silence of this blog.

However, with the conference season in full swing and the starting gun for the general election having sounded, this blog is BACK. And what’s more, I see I have been added to the wonderful and extremely useful House of Twits front bench as a Tory blogger, no less.

That feels slightly odd as I have never viewed myself as a true blue Conservative, finding the party’s traditional patrician and unfeeling character a total turn off. The party’s embrace of David Cameron has, however, allowed me at least temporarily to put aside my habitual dislike of both major parties. What I can say is that as long as the Conservatives stick to their current approach they will have my support; although not necessarily my trust and it absolutely won’t be unswerving devotion to the cause.

I am aware that the threat of the withdrawal of one insignificant blogger’s support will hardly have the Conservative brass quaking in their shoes. That, however, is not the point. For if they lose the support of someone like me then it is a sure sign that will be surrendering the hard won middle ground that Cameron and his cronies have fought so hard to claim.

Anyway, my message to the Conservative conference is this: please, please, please try to act normal and not like a bunch of disgruntled country squires out on a seaside jolly. Hide the old duffers at the back and try to sound firm but fair without being triumphal. Pretend Europe does not exist as far as possible. Then just sit back and soak up the column inches.

Wednesday, 3 June 2009

Three reasons why the City should fear a Chancellor Balls

If business and the City think a Chancellor Balls will be good for them, they should think again.

Heady times. Its 2006. The City credit boom is in full swing. Ed Balls is City Minister, winning friends and influencing people by championing the banks and preaching the virtues of his light touch regulatory system. Champagne corks pop and Ed feels like the king of the world. Its no wonder then that the FT reminds us this morning that business and the City have 'fond memories' of Ed's time as City Minister.

The FT and the media in general have decided on the back of this past cosy relationship that business should be pleased if Ed Balls is allowed to fulfil his destiny (in his eyes, anyway) and become Chancellor in the forthcoming Cabinet reshuffle.

In reality, the City should not be so quick to open its arms to Mr Balls, for three reasons. One, obviously, the world is a very different place and, ever the politician, Mr Balls has been quick to lambast his former banking friends for their contribution to the recession. To be fair, he has also sort of acknowledged that his system was at fault (In retrospect we all underestimated the risks and we were nowhere near tough enough...).

The second reason is that since his stint as City Minister, Balls has spent much of the time cosying up to the left wing of the Labour Party. As Minister for Children, Schools and Families he has put into reverse the modernising agenda begun under Tony Blair, ousting Lord Adonis and putting restrictions on new foundation schools. Balls is said to be fond of drawing dividing lines between his agenda and that of his opponents. Having clearly placed himself on the side of a 'statist', interventionist government, it will be all the harder for him to row back from that position if he is made Chancellor.

The third reason is that given the state of the Labour Party in the polls and the proximity of the next election, he (and Gordon) will feel they have little to lose by swinging for the fences. Populist measures will be the order of the day - expect plenty of anti-banker rhetoric, scapegoating, headline-grabbing etc.

So, a Chancellor Balls should give business and the City pause for thought. He is likely to be a very different animal in 2009/10 than he would have been in 2006/7. It is ironic that, just like his master, Balls will be handed the one position he has always coveted at the worst possible time, in the depths of the worst recession in living memory and with mere months to go before his government is ejected from office.

Friday, 22 May 2009

V or U? Brown gambling it all on shape of recovery

Labour have bet the farm on the recovery being V shaped

There's a tug of war going on at the moment in the markets. Bulls, hoping for a classic V shaped recovery, point to the slowing pace of decline pretty much everywhere as destocking comes to an end and the credit markets begin to thaw. Bears, fearing a U shaped recovery or worse, worry that the rally in evidence since March has been overdone, that recovery is still a long way off and that the expansionary policies put to work to dig the global economy out of its hole will necessarily result in the brakes having to be slammed on hard in due course.

Alistair Darling's Budget in April may have proposed what seemed - at the time - an almost embarrasingly over-optimistic growth set of growth forecasts but now, with the benefit of hindsight, they make more sense. Back in April, we did not have the benefit of all the data evidencing the slowing pace of decline around the world. Whilst the recovery in stockmarkets was underway by then, the doomsayers prophesising another Great Depression were still very much in evidence.

Exactly one month on and the landscape feels quite different. Despite the reality of continuing job losses and weak economic activity, the debate has moved on to discussing when, not if, the upturn will arrive. This suits Labour just fine as it is a necessary precondition for their growth forecasts to prove true...the first part of their forecasts require the economy effectively to begin growing again in Q4 09 and it now looks as though that might well be possible, all be it anaemic growth.

The second part of their growth forecasts (+1.25% in 2010 vs the IMF's -0.4%) corresponds neatly with the debate over the V or U shaped recovery. If it is U shaped, then the Treasury's borrowing forecasts will need to be revised upwards yet again and Brown, Darling et al will be whipped out of Westmister. If it is V shaped, however, cue smugness all round and plenty of humble pie from, well, pretty much everyone except New Labour supporters.

Will a V shaped recovery be enough to win New Labour the General Election? Maybe not, but it may serve to avoid the sorts of apocalyptic drubbing the opinion polls currently envisage. So, Darling and co. had absolutely nothing to lose by being optimistic. Seen in that light, the growth forecasts no longer seem so illogical. Desperate, yes, but illogical, no.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Common sense 1, Government 0

Under fire and under resourced: fewer soldiers will die, thanks to our tradition of a free and independent judiciary.

[First post for a while...been a bit preoccupied with some work stuff but now have more time on my hands and lots and lots of issues to be cynical about. I know MPs expenses is the issue du jour but, hell, that's being done to death elsewhere...]

Sometimes I wonder why anyone wants to be a soldier. Sent to fight in far off lands for dubious causes by a government that seems only partially interested in their welfare and then largely ignored by the public, save for the odd bit of clapping while they march past or the handful of clowns who shout abuse at them in the name of islam.

The armed forces are, of course, staffed by honourable men and women striving to serve their country and keep the rest of safe to go about our daily lives free from getting shot or having our own limbs blown off by roadside bombs.

So it raised a little cheer this morning when I read that our judiciary was rallying to their cause by ruling that the government did indeed have to apply the Human Rights Act to its soldiers on the battlefield. You can read more about it here but suffice it to say that the government does not come across very well in seeking to block the aims of the families of dead and maimed soldiers bringing the case, namely that our boys and girls fighting over there deserve to have the government legally obliged to do everything they can to stop them getting killed. That means proper kit in sufficient quantities to support the job that the armed forces are being asked to do.

The government (boooo!) will doubtless appeal the case to the House of Lords but, for the moment, its score one for the good guys.

Thursday, 9 October 2008

UK bailout: timid Brown didn't go far enough

The problem with the bailout was that it didn't go far enough. Now we've had a chance to digest the news, it is clear that the plan has generally been well received. Stockmarkets may have continued to gyrate and Libor didn't immediately fall (although the overnight rate did subsequently fall dramatically) but this was as much a reflection of international events as well as a realisation of just how bad things were.

However, HSBC, Standard Chartered and Abbey have already stated that they have no intention of making use of the £50bn lifebelt on offer from the government. Lloyds TSB, Nationwide and Barclays may or may not choose to use it - the vague, threatening noises about limiting dividends and executive pay will no doubt give them pause for thought. These banks continue to be answerable only to their current shareholders who doubtless would prefer their boards to continue searching under every unturned stone in the search for fresh capital before having to turn to the taxpayer.

The government should have been even bolder by announcing that it would take the power to force banks that it (in conjunction with the FSA) considered to be under capitalised to accept the taxpayers' money through the issuance of preference shares. By giving banks the option to use it or not, uncertainty still lingers over the banking sector. The banks should have been told effectively to negotiate the terms of a capital injection with the government now or have terms of the government's choosing forced upon you. That would have drawn a definite line under the issue.

Moreover, it seems strange that the government seems not, after all, to have insisted upon being issued with warrants to accompany its preference shares as without them, there is no way for the taxpayer to share in any upside, if and when it comes.

I am betting that the £50bn capital injection which has dominated the headlines will prove a damp squib, remaining largely untapped. What will have a far greater impact will be the £250bn of underwriting guarantees the government will give to participating banks. This is indeed ground breaking and is more likely to begin to ungum the interbank lending system than any other measure suggested thus far.

It may be nitpicking to suggest Brown and co. should have gone even further but in their timidity they have missed an opportunity. With all the headlines about nationalisation and political failure that resulted anyway, they may as well have been hung for the proverbial sheep as for the lamb. The banks should have been forced to take the taxpayer shilling.

Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Cameron tactical error in not going for jugular

David Cameron made a wrong choice in PMQs today in not criticising the government in a time of crisis. We are not in a war and the government is not immune from criticism. The Tories could have lent their support to the bailout plan and still kept Gordon Brown on the hook.

Today's announcement of an injection of up to £50bn in UK banks represents an extraordinary and abject failure of New Labour's management of the economy. It is the job of politicians -at the very least - to create a stable framework for the private sector to do its job of wealth creation.

There is absolutely no point in Gordon Brown to claim this crisis has blown in from abroad when it was they who allowed the culture of debt to develop to such dangerous proportions, when it was they who designed and maintained the regulatory framework that was supposed to ring alarm bells , when it was they who were only to happy to accept the plaudits for the long period of economic growth that the credit bubble brought about, when it was they who accepted the donations and hospitality of the millionaires the system created.

The public want some blood in return for their cash. There is palpable anger on the streets that this situation has been allowed to develop. David Cameron's job as leader of the opposition was first and foremost to express that anger to Brown and his cohorts who were sitting smugly on their benches as if the problems had nothing to do with them. It was as if the partial nationalisation of our banking system was just another policy announcement and not the turning upside down of the economic and financial system that has sustained this country for the last 30 years.

Do they not realise the calamity that this represents for the country? The shame and stigma of being brought so low will remain with us for a very very long time. Our political capital around and influence in far flung corners, where we for so long were considered to punch above our weight, will have been diminished, probably permanently. Cameron could and should have let the PM know that a day of reckoning was coming for him and his party..not to do so was an error of judgement and let Brown off the hook.

£50bn bailout - first step on road to recovery

I don't know, you turn your back for a couple of weeks and look what happens. The entire world sems to be heading down the financial gurgler and there doesn't seem to be much anyone can do about it.

Or is there? At last, Western governments have moved out of the denial phase and accepted that we are well and truly in it up to our necks. Central bankers and politicians have finally started to think strategically about how to deal with the crisis, ending their previous haphazard firefighting approach which could be likened to trying to kill the mythical monster, the Hydra, which would annoyingly grow back two heads if you ever managed successfully to lop one off.

The US $700 bn bail out and the UK £50 bn bail out, although different approaches, will not of themselves cure what ails the interbank lending market. But they do each represent a necessary prerequisite if the sick patient is to recover. As long as there is a chance that a bank might go bust, no other bank will lend to it. Remove the cause of the lack of confidence by recapitalising (or in the case of the US, by excising the impaired assets) and, in theory, the banks should be happy to start lending to each other again, and at more sensible rates.

Of course, there is no guarantee that banks will avail themselves of the capital that the UK government is making available. The conditions that will be attached to any assistance will undoubtedly cause the bank executives to think twice (not least restrictions on their ability to pay themselves and their emnployees). But at least the assistance is there as a last resort and interbank lenders should know that no counterparty need go bust for want of capital.

In the meantime, of course, the desperate deleveraging by the banking sector has started hitting the wider economy, rippling outwards in a now unstoppable wave. Credit is being tightened and new loans refused which will inevitably lead to companies, personal borrowers and individuals who have been borrowing at the margins of what their revenues and incomes could sustain going into administration and bankruptcy. Unemployment and home repossessions are the inevitable consequence. Sweeping up that mess will be a whole different challenge.

We are moving into the second phase of this crisis - the policies proposed so far may or may not do the trick...but at least they are a step in the right direction.

Friday, 19 September 2008

Credit crunch - the end of the beginning

So, that's it. After the most extraordinary week that anyone can remember in the financial markets, the US government has finally surrendered. In announcing that they are to try and create a government sponsored entity to take toxic assets off of investors' hands, they are finally admitting that the current system has failed.

Despite trying to do everything to avoid the creation of moral hazard (the encouragement of irresponsible behaviour in market participants by allowing them to perceive that the goverment will always be on hand to bail them out if things get bad enough), this new toxic GSE represents the ultimate bail out.

It was, however, the lesser of two evils and hence the logical thing to do. As Former Fed chief Paul Volcker put it:

"Until there is a new mechanism in place to remove this decaying tissue from the
system, the infection will spread, confidence will deteriorate further, and we
will have to live through the mother of all credit contractions. This
contraction will undercut the financial system, and with it, the broader
economy. It will in the short run require serious money. But a failure to act
boldly would cost the taxpayer and the country far more. The pathology of this
crisis is that unless you get ahead of it and deal with it from strength, it
devours the weakest link in the chain and then moves on to the next link. Crisis
times require stern measures."

It could be argued that this move was inevitable ever since the decision was taken to nationalise Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae. In taking the decision to cut the shareholders loose, the US government effectively closed the door on troubled institutions raising fresh equity capital in the future. What would be the point for an investor, if the US goverment was just going to step in and expropriate your investment if things didn't go the right way?

The US Treasury should not be criticised for what they did - they needed to make a decision in the heat of the moment and, faced with the systemic collapse that the bankruptcy of Freddie Mac, Fannie Mae or AIG might have caused, they did what they thought was best. They then let Lehman Bros go to the wall, showing that when the system was not threatened, there would be no intervention.

When yesterday's firebreak (the $180 billion liquidity injection) failed to narrow the interbank lending spreads sufficiently and fears started to multiply over the previously rock solid money market funds, they realised what they had to do.

The creation of the "toxic GSE" is, in effect, the pushing of the big red button on the corner of the desk. It will push all the poisoned assets held across the spectrum onto the US national debt, left for future generations of US taxpayers to foot the bill. Fortunately, even the estimated $1 trillion of additional debt that this will entail will only push the US ratio of debt to GDP up by approximately 10%, to 55% - still lower than that of Germany, France, Italy or Japan.

Nobody should doubt, however, that this represents the US government running up the white flag with the biggest bail out of all time. As long as it actually gets approved (no mean feat so close to an election), we will never know how bad things would have got without it - but let's just be grateful that we may never have to find out.

Monday, 15 September 2008

Why do Spurs never learn?

I have held off commenting, so far, on the lamentable start to the season made by my football team, Tottenham Hotspur. Tonight's loss at home to Aston Villa, however, presents undeniable proof that Spurs have gone backwards since last season.

Juande Ramos seems a manager well suited for the famous Tottenham tradition of looking attractive going forward but lacking spine and bite at the back. Only a fool would pretend that the summer's transfer dealings had left the team looking a stronger side, with the sale of our two most skillful attacking players, Berbatov and Keane, looking especially suspect.

Oh, but their sale was an excellent bit of business, I have heard more than one fan say. Maybe individually each deal made financial sense for the club's shareholders, but collectively they represented a colossal failure of nerve by the board. In deciding to take the money, they have shown up their lack of ambition and the late, panicky buy of the unproven (in Premiership terms) Roman Pavluychenko does nothing to dispel that feeling. Spurs came across having no proper planning in place and amateurish.

Yes, they have spent big in the close season but which player, other than Luka Modric, really has that feeling of Champions League quality about him? With Ledley King sadly only to be relied upon for a game now and then, where were the central defensive reinforcements that were so badly needed? The fact is, with so many players once again coming in and going out, it will be all but impossible for this new team to begin to gel any time soon. Aston Villa look a far better bet to make the Big Four into the Big Five...the reason? Consistency. Martin O'Neill has now been in the job for 3 years, fashioning a young, dynamic team and sticking with it. We Spurs fans can only dream of such luxuries.

Another "transitional" season beckons for Tottenham.

Monday, 8 September 2008

Post Office hell

A funny thought ocurred to me as I queued out the door and down the street at one of my now not-so-local post offices, in Hampstead. I thought that maybe, just maybe, closing down local post offices wasn't actually such a good idea?

15 minutes later as I spy the front of the queue a mere 4 people ahead of me I have lost the will to live. When I eventually get to the front, I am grumpy with the poor unfortunate that has to serve me and came out thinking how awful the whole process was and cursing this government.

The Royal Mail may have saved themselves a bit of cash but they have lost whatever goodwill people still felt towards them. Next the posties will be going on strike again. Surely some enterprising private company can come up with an alternative business model that can fill the yawning service gap left by our public postal service?

Friday, 5 September 2008

Harman's at it again

Her surprise election as Deputy Labour leader must have given Harriet Harman a shot of confidence. In the last few months we have seen a steady output of what can only be politely described as 'old fashioned' feminist legislative proposals from her department.

Now she has revived her plan to criminalise prostitution, using a highly questionable survey to boost her case. Apparently, a government-commissioned poll (I wonder who commissioned it?) by Ipsos-Mori revealed that 58 per cent of people said they would support legislation making it illegal to pay for sex if it helped stop the trafficking of women and children into the UK. Harman has today pounced on this as evidence that the public backs her campaign.

This is disingenuous. Does she think we are idiots? The key is the "if". "If" it could be shown that wearing lime green underpants would stop global warming, I would bet that a fair few people could be persuaded to don them. The trouble is, there is no evidence that making prostitution would do anything to stop sex trafficking. In fact, there is a case for saying that it would make the situation worse, by driving prostitution and the trafficking that feeds it even deeper underground, thus making women more vulnerable to violence.

Harriet certainly has been busy lately. First there was the Equalities Bill in June of this year that forced public sector employers to publish their so-called 'gender pay gap' and allowed firms to discriminate in favour of women when making employment decisions.

In July she proposed that women who kill abusive partners could escape a life sentence if they could show that they were responding only to a “fear of serious violence”, while men would no longer be able to claim “provocation” from sexual jealousy or nagging, as a defence.

In August she said plans were 'well under way' to force all companies that bid for government contracts (30% of companies in the UK) to disclose their gender pay gap and to allow selection decisions to be based upon the figure where other factors are equal.

Also in August she came out in favour of plans to double the length of time (to one year) employers must keep open a job for a woman on maternity leave. Currently they have only to offer an equivalent position if the original one is no longer available.

Thursday, 4 September 2008

Palin's speech was good but Republicans should still worry

You couldn't help but be impressed with Sarah Palin's speech at the Republican convention last night. The speech was generally witty and effective, with plenty of well aimed barbs at Barack Obama. According to The Times, the liberal media is terrified whilst the conservative media is swooning. Amidst the euphoria, however, Republican supporters may yet have cause to pause and think. Here are 3 reasons:

1. The Republican campaign pre-Palin focused on making the election a referendum on Obama - his character, his experience and his suitability for the Presidency. That seemed to meet with some success. By choosing as a running mate someone with their own colourful back story and similar level of experience, the Republicans will find it much harder to fight the election on those grounds of their own choosing and will increasingly find themselves dragged into a discussion on policy and the performance of their party under George W Bush.

2. Palin's selection has been widely touted as a gamble, due to her relative inexperience. However, the real selection gamble is nothing to do with experience. For McCain to win the election, he has to do well in a relatively small number (10-12) of important swing states. The voters he has to target there are ordinary Joes - middle of the road, blue collar types - who are unlikely to share Palin's hardcore conservative views. So the gamble is that the choice of Palin may help to energise and get out the base Republican vote (for whom McCain has never been one of their own) but it may equally turn off the crucial swing voters that McCain will need to seal the deal.

3. There is an obvious danger that Palin herself will trip up. I thought she came across as a little shrill last night and, by all accounts, she is headstrong and shoots first, asks questions later. This tendency, together with her lack of experience in national policy, may be her downfall when it comes to the televised debates. Then there is always the possibility of fresh revelations about her past.

I was previously (that is, before this Presidential campaign) a fan of McCain. I liked his maverick status, his willingness to take on vested interests, to stand up to his party. I increasingly feel that he has decided to make a deal with the devil to try and secure the top spot as all his moves since he secured the nomination have been towards the right. The appointment of Palin in a cynical move to appease the Republican base have left me even more firmly rooting for Obama, I wonder how many US voters feel the same?

Sir Ian Blair - could he be more pompous?

What kind of a pompous windbag feels the need to make a televised statement to the press in repsonse to a press rumour that he might lose his job? Sir Ian Blair has shown himself to be totally unsuited to his role...vain, self-regarding and unable to recognise any of his own faults. He quoted Mark Twain, for heaven's sake. Doesn't he see that it is totally meaningless (and possibly self-defeating) for him to be the person denying the rumour? For if the rumour is true, he is hardly likely to be in the loop, is he?

I, like the rest of the public, lost confidence in Sir Ian the day he went on television and incorrectly stated that his police force had shot dead a terrorist at Brixton. Whether he knew this not to the case or not does not matter, he is either a lier or allowed a seriously disfunctional system to develop. He should have carried the can. His continued presence at the head of the Met undermines public confidence in the police and contibutes to the generally low opinion that the public hold the police in. How many crimes have gone unreported as a result? How many decent officers attacked?

For one so caught up in politics, Ian Blair also showed a remarkable lack of awareness in rounding off his statement with a flourish: "I've a job to do and I'm getting on with it." Sound familiar?

Wednesday, 3 September 2008

Am I being conned by Cameron?

I had a dreadful thought this morning. There have been some signs of late that David Cameron's Tories are not all that I thought them to be. I am as fed up with New Labour as the next man - sick of the sight of them, in fact. I know that they mean well, with their initiatives and targets, trying to help us and keep us on the right track. Its just that they have gone too far, with petty restrictions on everyday life and layer upon layer of additional red tape. They have also splurged on public services and welfare to the point that we have now run out of money just when we need it most.

I actually voted for Michael Howard's Tories at the last election...but I felt quite dirty doing it. That was the first time for me, having previously felt that both mainstream choices did not actively deserve my vote, for varying reasons. Getting out of bed to vote for a third party seemed to represent just a waste of valuable sleeping time. I told my other half that I was voting Conservative to 'give Tony Blair a bloody nose' after his insistence on going to war in Iraq but, secretly, it gave me a little tingle. Hmm, I thought, it feels vaguely satisfying to express my democratic right in entirely a selfish manner (being one of the fortunates with more to lose than to gain from income redistribution).

Now the Tories have David Cameron at the helm, I have no such qualms. He allows me to express the same democratic right but without the same 'conscience deficit' that I suffered last time around. With his concern for social breakdown, love of green causes and general all round reasonableness, how could someone like me (middle class, mid-30's) not like him? I even thought about donating some cash.

Lately, however, I've begun to have my doubts...what if I am being conned? Labour supporters keep banging on about how the Tory leopard hasn't changed its spots and, if they are let back into power, all the old tendencies will re-emerge. Sleazy, braying, uncaring posh white blokes all saying 'do as I say, not as I do' will come leaping out of the closet to take charge. I can't see that happening but there have been a few pointers that the Tories might not be sticking to the script.

An alarm bell started to ring faintly when Michael Gove started getting all preachy about absent fathers (and, bizarrely, lads mags). Then they seemingly abdicated responsibility for dealing with the nation's obesity problem to our not-at-all conflicted food manufacturers and supermarkets. Then there is the fact that their spokespeople all still seem to be very white, very male and very posh. They didn't help themselves by replacing the populist David Davis with Dominic Grieve with another very posh sounding white guy. I don't have a problem with that (best person for the job and all that), as long as they are saying sensible, inclusive things. But when the doubts begin to surface, this aspect immediately seems to become a liability again.

The latest shock to my system - and the thing that prompted me to write this - is the weird way in which some otherwise sensible sounding commentators seem to have come out in defence of the Republican Party in general and, in particular, their appointment of Sarah Palin as McCain's running mate. I am thinking, in particular, of Iain Dale (here) and Melanie Philips, who I read here this morning. Now, they may desire to live in a country run by creationist, anti-abortion, tax-breaks-for-the-rich-loving, shoot first ask questions later politicians, but I certainly don't. Obama may not be perfect but come on...the Republicans?

All this taken individually might be seen as inconsequential but, taken together, could be construed as a pattern. And its a pattern I don't like. Is David Cameron just a beard for a still frothing at the mouth, red in tooth and claw Tory party? Antipathy for New Labour is running so deep that it looks like they will get their hands on the levers of power come what may. But the selection of John McCain and his overturning of a seemingly impregnable lead for the Democrats should serve to put them on notice not to get complacent. Meanwhile, I'd like some reassurance please.

Tuesday, 2 September 2008

You can't blame the Government for trying

To be fair to Gordon Brown, he was going to be criticised whatever he did. If he had waited until the housing market bottomed out at a new equilibrium point he would have been damned for sitting on his hands. Now that he has scraped around and found a bit of new cash, he is being roundly criticised anyway. Some are accusing him of not going far enough, pointing out that the £600m cost of the stamp duty measure is only a small fraction of the annual stamp duty take of £13 - 14 billion.

Others are saying that it makes no sense to try and prop up falling prices or encourage those at the marginal end of affordable borrowing to get on the housing ladder. Economically this is hard to argue against but it is the Government's job to help people, after all. Yes they may be misguided in this attempt but at least they are trying to do something. The raft of measures introduced do at least look as if someone, somewhere, has been thinking hard about the problems.

When the dust settles, however, I think the most telling criticism might compare the cost of government action to support the housing markets in the US and the UK (in proportion to GDP) and conclude that it is precisely because the UK has so little fiscal room for manoeuvre that our Government has had to try and be so innovative.

US GDP: $14,312.5 bn-----Housing help: $300 bn = 2%
UK GDP: £1,410 bn------- Housing help: £1.6 bn = 0.1%

N.B. this is being kind as I am including the estimated £1bn of UK help that represents existing spending plans brought forward. Excluding this the UK figure is 0.04% of GDP.

Monday, 1 September 2008

Hey teacher! Leave those kids alone.

Ed Balls speaking today at the launch of the abominable Early Years Foundation Stage, seemingly launched despite the protestations of practically every leading childcare expert in the UK:

"I can't think of any more important job I could have than making sure that the children in our country are equipped to learn going into primary school and can get the qualifications they need to be happy, to have fun and to do well in life."
Look, we know you mean well and have thought deeply about it, but this just isn't the way to go about it. If you want them to be happy and have fun, try leaving them the @#@# alone and not setting them 69 different targets to be achieved by the age of 5. Whatever happened to the light touch, hey?