Thursday, 31 July 2008

Where is Alan Johnson?

Alan Johnson is a top contender for the post of next Labour leader and, possibly PM, depending on how things pan out. A plain speaker and the only would-be leader the Conservatives are said to really fear, he has at least the possibility of acting as the vital bridge between the core Labour vote, the trade unions and the middle classes.

We have heard from a few ministers since the Glasgow East debacle and the Miliband leadership explosion. Jack Straw, Jacqui Smith, Hattie Harman, Alistair Darling have at least gone through the motions of expressing support for their under fire boss. I could be wrong but I can't recall so much as a peep coming from Johnson.

As the febrile mood intensifies over the Miliband furore, speculation will undoubtedly turn to Alan Johnson as MPs will want to know where he stands. Anything less from Johnson than an unequivocal backing of Gordon Brown will reallly light the touchpaper under the now inevitable battle for the top Labour job. Come out, come out, wherever you are.....

Why don't we lower the voting age to 16?

David Cameron is a great campaigner, as pointed out in this article today in the Coffee House (Spectator). I have only just got around to watching the round table discussion that Cameron held with a group of people aged under 30 that aired on Newsnight last night (I know, haven't I got anything better to do with my time?).

Cameron did really well, I thought but, so far, politicians have been able to do nothing about counteracting the more general malaise of youth disaffection and alienation. Teenagers complain that their voices are ignored and that they have nothing to do other than hang around town centres with all the problems that brings.

There is no quick fix for the problems of underage drinking, drugs, pregnancies and teen on teen violence. Here is one suggestion from left field, however, that could, at a stroke, do something useful. Let us accept that the age of responsibility has been steadily lowering over recent decades and lower the voting age to 16.

Kids today just grow up faster - that may be a shame (loss of innocence and all that) but it is the truth. It is anomalous that we allow 16 year olds to marry, enter the workforce and fight for Queen and country but not vote. The average 16 year old today is already well acquainted with real life, be it crime, drugs, alcohol, sex or money. Respect them by giving them a say and they will automatically become more engaged politically.

You may think that it is not sensible for someone of my centre-right persuasion to suggest the addition to the electoral roll of what would seem to be millions of natural Labour voters. You would be jumping to conclusions, however. A recent poll of UK students (published on June 26th by Opinionpanel, a research outfit that specialises in polling students and reported in The Economist here), traditionally attracted to the politics of the Left and/or the Lib Dems, showed that a staggering 45% were now declared for the Conservatives.

David Cameron may not be cool, but he has nonetheless succeeded in attracting a new generation to his cause. He has, of course, been helped by the fact that it is Labour who are now viewed as the establishment party by the young. 16 -17 year olds may vote differently to their slightly older peers but I would suggest that their votes are definitely up for grabs.

What do you think?

p.s. this is an edited version of an article I wrote yesterday that nobody read, maybe because it was way too long or boring (or both). I'm trying to keep things shorter from now on.

Wednesday, 30 July 2008

Can politics in the UK ever be cool? 3 suggestions...

Barack Obama is not cool. I'm sorry, he's just not. He is famously rubbish at ten pin bowling and was President of the Harvard Law Review, not exactly a hip publication. He is running for President of the US, a position that hasn't been associated with cool since JFK. He is, however, young (relatively), black and a gifted orator. Ally that to a message of change, offering people hope in difficult times, and you have a powerful political force. Even if he ends up losing, Obama has succeeded in making politics in the US seem exciting again, awakening a feeling of civic duty inside a whole generation of young people, the likes of which has not been seen since the 1960's.

This article will analyse why caring about politics in the UK lacks street cred and suggest three things - one obvious, one less obvious and one radical - that can be done about it.

The leadership in the UK's main political parties can be accused of many things but being cool certainly isn't one of them. David Cameron, whose rise to power in the Conservative party has done much to attract a new, more youthful audience, tries extremely hard to appear cool (to wit, his all too obvious gift to Obama on his recent visit of his favourite CDs: The Smiths, Radiohead, Gorillaz and Lily Allen), despite his obvious poshness, but as we all know, trying too hard is just

The problem can be partially explained by the dash for the centre ground by Labour and the Conservatives since the 1990s. As policies have coalesced around the middle of the road, so people have been left feeling as if they have no real choice and, hence, disenfranchised. At the same time, a combination of self-inflicted wounds at Westminster including scandals over MPs expenses, cash for honours, seedy office flings and juvenile behaviour have served to reinforce a feeling that MPs have become too cosy. People have been turned off in droves. This is especially true for the iPod generation, used to the instant gratification and transparency of YouTube, facebook et al. Is there a way to attract this generation back to the mainstream of politics in the way that Obama has done in the US?

The iPod generation, unscarred by experience, has the luxury of falling back into the arms of radicalism, futile causes and obscure ideologies. They like nothing better than a 'cause', be it saving the whale, defending human rights or climate change. All worthy causes but amongst them you will find nothing as mundane as spiralling gas bills or getting your kid into the school of your choice. The young, by definition, reject the mainstream, preferring thinktanks to political parties and blogs to newspapers...why, after all, should they be expected to support things that their Dads like?

The parties make things worse by co-opting the very causes that the iPod generation support, like climate change and Make Poverty History, thereby sucking the cool out of them. Then, by a combination of prevarication, backtracking and compromise, the mainstream ends up junking or sitting on a cause, leaving the faithful feeling disappointed and even more disenfranchised than before.

So, what can be done about it? Can politics, absent a British Barack Obama (sorry Dave), be made to seem cool again?

Well, there are perhaps a few things that can be tried. Here are my three suggestions:
The obvious: clean up Westminster. Institute a new, transparent remuneration and expenses structure for MPs; beef up the Parliamentary Standards Commissioner to root out mercilessly sleaze, dishonesty and unacceptable conflicts of interest; reduce the influence of the invisible hand of lobbyists and unelected quangos; and reach agreement on party funding (without resorting to the taxpayer).

The not so obvious: introduce the US concept of ballot initiatives for local issues. The idea is simple – as long as sufficient local signatures can be collected, the matter can be put to the local electorate for them to vote on, the result then being binding on the local authority. There could be two thresholds…a lower one would see an issue included the next time local elections were scheduled to be held and a higher one would see a mid-term special ballot called. Only matters that do not conflict with national government policy and are left to local authorities would be capable of consideration; e.g. how often your bins are collected or your local schools admissions policy etc.

The radical: let us accept that the age of responsibility has been steadily lowering over recent decades and lower the voting age to 16. This may sound controversial but when you hold it up to the light, it isn’t, really. It is anomalous that we allow 16 year olds to marry, enter the workforce and fight for Queen and country but not vote. The average 16 year old today is already well acquainted with real life, be it crime, drugs, alcohol, sex or money. Kids today just grow up faster - that may be a shame but it is the truth. Respect them by giving them a say and they will automatically become more engaged politically.

You may think that it is madness for a blogger of the centre-right to suggest the addition to the electoral roll of what would seem to be millions of natural Labour sympathisers. You would be jumping to conclusions, however. A recent poll of UK students (published on June 26th by Opinionpanel, a research outfit that specialises in polling students and reported in The Economist here), traditionally attracted to the politics of the Left and/or the Lib Dems, showed that a staggering 45% were now declared for the Conservatives.

David Cameron may not be cool, but he has nonetheless succeeded in attracting a new generation to his cause. He has, of course, been helped by the fact that it is Labour who are now viewed as the establishment party by the young. Those starting courses this autumn were just seven when Labour came to power. 16 – 18 year olds may vote differently to their slightly older peers but I would suggest that their votes would be anything but in the bag for Labour. Were Labour to promote an equally youthful politician such as David Miliband - with his climate change cred - to the leadership, then the battle for the youth vote would well and truly be joined.

So, there are three suggestions for trying to breathe life back into politics for the young and the disaffected. Whether they add up, however, to a recipe for making politics cool is unfortunately unlikely, given the inherent elusive nature of cool itself. In the end, if we can just get young people to care more and start engaging with the political process, that could be counted as success.

Tuesday, 29 July 2008

The Doha Round collapses whilst in Haiti they are eating mudcakes

Two stories to compare and contrast in today's press. On the one hand, The Guardian is reporting on approaching famine in Haiti that is forcing residents to eat mudcakes just to stave off the feeling of hunger. On the other hand, you have the collapse, possibly never to be restarted, of the Doha round of talks on international trade liberalisation, ongoing since 2001 and aimed at reducing tariffs.

The reduction of tariffs in the developing world has sometimes led to a flood of cheap food imports that can undermine domestic production. This is what happened in Haiti in the 1990s, according to The Guardian. Trade liberalisation, then, has its many victims. However, it is all too easy to overlook the incredible increase in the total sum of human happiness that free trade has brought about since the 1800s with hundreds of millions lifted out of the misery of subsistence farming into comfortable prosperity.

It is sometimes difficult to reconcile these two opposing forces and I cannot pretend to totally understand it. It is frustrating that, despite all our ingenuity and the gains that have been made in the last decade of global growth, hunger and poverty remain such intractable and deadly foes. Keeping tariffs higher than they might be, all at a cost to the consumer which has been estimated at $125 billion, does not seem to be the right way to go at a time when prices are rising so rapidly and economies are deteriorating anyway.

We are sleepwalking into another 9-11

Much has been done to stem the tide of Islamic terrorism. Al Qaeda has largely lost its power base in Iraq and has been beaten back elsewhere by a combination of enhanced cooperation between intelligence agencies, a backlash against its excess brutality in the Muslim world and a renewed emphasis on combating the violent jihadist ideology by more moderate Islamic theologians. Saudi Arabia, significantly, has made great strides in overcoming the threat to it from radicals in its midst.

The battle, however, is by no means over or even nearly over. Al Qaeda is still very active. There are pockets of instability right across the developing world, from Somalia to the Philippines to Algeria, that Al Qaeda is seeking to establish itself in. The gravest danger to the West comes from the ungovernable tribal areas between Afghanistan and Pakistan. Al Qaeda and the Taliban may have been driven from power in Afghanistan but they have found another safe haven amongst the Pushtun tribes that inhabit this area and answer to no central government.

Fiercely anti-West, violent and fundamentalist, they have allowed the Taliban to regroup and launch their attacks on the Western troops seeking to stabilise Afghanistan. Here, amongst the impenetrable mountains, it is likely that the Al Qaeda leadership is busy plotting its next spectacular attack on the West, free from interference.

This cannot be allowed to go on. The West feels it cannot put further pressure on an already fractured and weak Pakistan government. The Pakistan army has already suffered morale-sapping losses in its attempts to quell the area and does not seem to have the stomach to go back for another try. The political leadership has found it expedient to make a truce with the tribal leaders, getting them off their backs but leaving them free to help their Taliban brothers. President Musharraf, on whom the West has bet much, is weak and unpopular.

If Pakistan does not have the stomach for the fight, then the Western troops fighting in Afghanistan must take the fight to our enemies for them. We simply cannot allow Al Qaeda the room to breathe as they will use it to murder thousands of Western civilians. Yes, this may undermine Pakistani sovereignty, destabilise Pakistani politics and turn otherwise sympathetic Pakistanis against the West. However, according to The Pew Research Centre's annual survey of global opinion of America, only 15% of Pakistanis have a favourable view of America anyway (from The Economist, here), so can it get any worse?

The alternative to taking action, with or without the support of the Pakistan government, is unacceptable. If we wait for the Pakistan leadership to cooperate more fully (as Barack Obama recently suggested he would), we could find ourselves waiting in vain. The safe haven being provided to Al Qaeda in the tribal areas of Pakistan represents a clear and present danger and unless we stop treading on eggshells around Pakistan's sensibilities we will end up sleepwalking into another 9-11.

Monday, 28 July 2008

New Labour should have taken a leaf out of Madonna's book

Nobody likes to see 50 year old ladies writhing around in their leotard but somehow Madonna gets away with it. The reason? She has constantly reinvented herself and made herself seem fresh to each new generation of pop culture consumers. Madonna's experience holds a lesson for New Labour - their failure to renew themselves explains how they find themselves in such a hole.

As the twin hurricanes of globalisation and Thatcherism changed the UK landscape irreversibly in the 1980's, the Labour Party (with Blair and Brown in the vanguard) gradually realised and came to accept that the old Labour vision of state socialism was dead. New Labour was born, twinning a pared down version of social democracy (the idea that governments can control economic and social change and thus harness capitalism for a greater good) with an embrace of the free market. In so doing, Blair and Brown had correctly taken the pulse of a population that was ready for a greater emphasis on public services, paid for through taxation, and a tired Conservative administration was shown the door.

As New Labour has now found out, when you climb onto a bucking bronco, it can be extremely hard to tame and you suffer a high risk of being thrown off. This is what the free market has done to Gordon Brown. The New Labour leadership failed to apply, via state imposed regulation, their own social democratic principles sufficiently to the free market and this has led directly to the personal debt crisis and housing bubble that the UK now finds itself in.

Governing could be said to be about finding a healthy balance between three things: the power of free markets to increase incomes, regulation to rein in the excesses of the free market and a good safety net to catch people when the market fails them. Easy to say but less easy to put into practice. Part of that balancing act involves calibrating levels of taxation and expenditure over an economic cycle, always leaving a sufficient margin of error to allow for the unavoidable shortcomings of economic forecasting.

The architects of New Labour have made three fundamental mistakes. Firstly, they have allowed a perception to fester that the welfare state safety net is over generous. We Brits obsess about fairness and if the system (which our taxes pay for) is being abused or is viewed as unfair then disillusionment is inevitable. Combine that with the belt tightening that accompanies an economic downturn and you have a toxic mix.

Secondly, New Labour has allowed itself no margin for error in its sums. Caught out by a deteriorating economy, government borrowing is already too high at the same time as its receipts are falling. Thirdly, and most importantly, Blair, Brown et al failed to understand that the balance between the three pillars of good governance - free markets, regulation and a safety net - needs to be re-assessed and renewed, not constantly, but from time to time.

Gordon Brown is right to say that is the job of government and its leaders to take difficult decisions that are in the long term interests of the country. The implicit adjunct to this statement is that sometimes those long term decisions are unpopular with a general public necessarily more focused on the short term. Just as Blair and Brown successfully took the pulse of the nation when they created the New Labour project, so Brown - now shorn of his colleague who was so adept at it - has failed to judge how far the popular mood has swung away from the same project.

The idea that a state, using the principles of social democracy, has the tools to cure all the ills that might befall a society, has been taken too far, to the point where the public has become alienated from it. New Labour has run on merrily ahead whilst the general population has has been left behind, preoccupied with fuel and grocery bills. The gap between the two has grown too large to be bridged and, as a consequence, the public have ceased to listen to or even care what ministers are saying.

David Cameron and his colleagues have recognised this and are seeking to fill that gap with their own brand of "Compassionate Conservatism". Whether they fare any better at finding the right balance, over the long term, between the state and the free market, only time will tell.

Sunday, 27 July 2008

Didn't you know? People actually ring Gordon for advice

With all the swirling rumours of plots, denials and statements of support there have been some great quotes on the airwaves today. We had Caroline Flint tying herself in knots and virtually begging Adam Boulton to help her out. We have seen John Prescott popping up and castigating the entire Cabinet as not having "anywhere near the ability or the experience" to take the PM's place. Nice vote of confidence from Prezza in his former colleagues.

Backbencher Geraldine Smith showed herself not be in her right mind by first denying that there was any plotting going on at all and then simultaneously contradicting her own denial by attacking those responsible as "spineless individuals" who should be sacked.

My favourite quote of the day, however, came from Harriet Harman, on Sky News, who tried her best to convince us that "we are very fortunate to have someone" like Gordon Brown to lead us and then, with her voice rising in incredulity at our idiocy for even doubting him, she exclaimed that "You know, people ring up Gordon Brown to get advice from all around the world on economic circumstances!" Makes a change at least from Gordon Brown ringing up random voters and putting them off their breakfast.

What "getting on with the job" actually means

All the focus in this weekend's papers has, of course, been on Gordon Brown's chances of survival and the numerous accounts of unnamed Labour sources variously whinging, collecting names or generally scheming as to the best way to knife the beleaguered PM in the back. He is just "getting on with the job".

In the meantime, further evidence has emerged of the government's scary level of incompetence in its handling of our data. Stories leak out about hundreds of MoD laptops or millions of bank account details going walkabout with such depressing regularity that Government ministers seem to have become blase about it and we have become inured to it.

Whenever Gordon Brown is asked a question, he has a famous tendency to reel off a list of supposed Labour achievements in office. Guaranteed to be amongst them is his pet project of working tax credits. The Sunday Times today reports (here) that there continue to be severe problems in the administering of the tax credit system, with 2 million people per year wrongly being given overpayments, which now add up to a staggering £8 billion.

HMRC takes the line that any beneficiary of an overpayment has either deliberately understated their family income to boost their tax credit, inadvertently entered the wrong numbers into the myriad forms or, at the very least, should take responsibility for spotting a mistake even if it is HMRC that has made the error. HMRC zealots threaten court action, without any avenue for complaint, from their hard-pressed victims who might not be in a position to repay money they received in good faith. They are currently pursuing 1.5 million families.

The HMRC is institutionally incapable of handling such a labyrinthine project as the working tax credit system. Evidence obtained under the Data Protection Act by claimants reveals that data entry errors are usually the cause of problems, rather than the actions of the claimants themselves. An HMRC whistleblower gave the following wonderful explanation of what has gone on:

"We put duplicate files into the system because the software could not calculate the payments on original files that were inputted incorrectly. We were never able to erase those files and they have always been there in the background causing a lot of the errors." Got that? The fact that the Parliamentary Ombudsman, a pursued claimant's only source of redress, upheld 74% of the cases she investigated on behalf of claimants, tells us all we need to know.

Personally, I could never quite get my head around a system that takes income tax from working people with one hand and then gives it back to them in the form of working tax credits with the other hand. Why not just simplify the system and net the two things off? I know that would entail an awful lot of work and upheaval for HMRC but, let's face it, if ever there was a public body that was crying out for reform, the HMRC must be near the top of the list.

Friday, 25 July 2008

How these lemmings miss Tony Blair

Fraser Nelson, on Sky News this morning, aptly described Gordon Brown as a lightning rod for the UK's worries about the economy and forecast that as long as he remains in place there would be no let up in the government's deep unpopularity.

Gordon Brown has been undeniably unlucky. Viewed through the prism of today's weakening economy and rising prices, Gordon Brown's record as Chancellor looks decidedly worse than it might have done. If mortgage brokers in the US had not got greedy and mis-sold mortgages to sub-prime borrowers, it is likely that the UK electorate would not have given a fig about Brown's dour, humourless persona. But, of course, they did and they do.

Listening to Tony McNulty, an effective defender of the New Labour cause if ever there was one, this afternoon, it seems clear that the Labour leadership is marching, lemming-like, straight towards the cliff edge. They are clinging to the hope that, when held up to the light during the General Election campaign, the public will somehow see through the 'shallow flim-flam' rhetoric (in McNulty's words) of David Cameron and come to see the PM for what he really is, a stoic defender of fairness and all that is good in the world.

It is said that Labour "don't do regicide" and hence we should not expect the pretenders to the crown to step forward and knife their leader in the back. This is nonsense. Milliband (carefully shunted off the Foreign Office where he stands less chance of being tainted) and Purnell are calculating, ambitious and have their eyes on the prize. The truth is much simpler - Labour are just not capable of admitting they are wrong about anything.

Time after time, they promise to "listen" to the message the voters are sending them but still they stick to the same course. To change course, to admit they are wrong about the direction they have been taking the country, is just not in their make up.

It is only now, as time has passed, can we fully realise just how vital to the whole New Labour project Tony Blair was. With each new disaster that befalls Brown and co., that fact becomes more and more painfully obvious. He was the glue, the sticking plaster, that held it all together. With a grin, a shrug and a joke, he could make us forgive the Government anything. Tuition fees? Oh go on then. Cash for honours? Not me, guv. Iraq War? OK, maybe not the Iraq War.

It was New Labour's tremendous fortune that a politician of Tony Blair's oratorical and crowd-pleasing skills happened along at just the right time. No other person could have pulled in the middle class votes that Labour needed to push them over the finish line in 1997, convincing them that his vision of public sector reform and "fairness" (whatever that meant) was just what they wanted. Like all good salesmen, the trick is to convince your customers that it is they who decided that what they really, really needed was just what the salesman happened to be selling.

With Blair history and the successful UK economy, the one thing that Brown could lay claim to, in freefall, it was only a matter of time until the wheels fell off.

Thursday, 24 July 2008

Radovan Karadzic was a lying, paranoid, drunken madman - Sir Michael Rose interview

With all the headlines focusing on the bizarre appearance and new life Radovan Karadzic had made for himself, it is worth remembering some of the madness that accompanied the horrors of the Bosnian conflict.

The Daily Mail yesterday carried a fascinating interview with Sir Michael Rose, head of the UN peacekeeping forces in 1994, about his numerous encounters with Karadzic. He comes across as a lying, paranoid drunk who would not move without speaking to his military commander, Ratko Mladic, who, Rose reports, he was probably afraid of. Its well worth a read and can be found here.

Wednesday, 23 July 2008

Trade unions fire first shot in brazen call for Hutton's head

Yesterday I wrote about how we could expect a battle royal over the coming months between New Labour and its trade union paymasters. Casualties are expected on both sides and it seems that the unions have a high profile target in their sights already.

The Times is reporting here that the unions are demanding that the head of John Hutton, the Business Secretary, be served up before the Warwick negotiations even begin. Hutton stands accused of cosying up too much to the business lobby. The unions, says The Times, "are furious with Mr Hutton after he said in May that the Labour Government had reached “the end of the era” on considering sweeping new regulations as the best way to improve standards". Sounds pretty innocuous to me.

Relations between the likeable Hutton and the trade union representatives have broken down so much that they cannot even stand to be in the same room together. A Government "source" stated that it was "inconceivable that Mr Brown would bow to such a brazen demand". The call for Hutton's head should be seen as a warning shot across the bows rather than a red line issue as the unions test Gordon Brown's resolve. That they should be aiming so high, so early is a sign of their confidence - the battle lines are drawn.

Tuesday, 22 July 2008

New Labour complete journey to become centre-right party

There is an irreconcilable conflict tearing at the heart of the Labour Party and it can no longer be truthfully said that New Labour is the party of the Left. Bit by bit, New Labour has chipped away at its traditional leftist policies on education, health, civil liberties, wealth redistribution and law and order until very little remains.

Yesterday, one of the last bastions of the Left fell. James Purnell's Green Paper on welfare reform went further even than the Conservative government in the 1980's would have dared. At long last, there is to be a concerted effort to do something about the scandalously high number of incapacity benefit claimants (2.5 million) and to tackle the problem of those in society who would prefer to claim the dole rather than accept available work. With this announcement, it can be said that the Conservatives - in Westminster, at least - have won the ideological argument. Certainly, James Purnell is being hugged by centre-right commentators as one of their own.

The battle, however, is not yet done. For the unions, who find themselves for the first time in a long tim holding the whip-hand over the Labour Party, this latest lurch to the right must have been a slap in the face. The welfare of workers, the unemployed and the incapacitated goes to the heart of the very meaning of the labour movement.

The unions and the Labour Party will sit down for their well-publicised pow-wow next week to discuss future policy, where the unions are, apparently, to present a list of 130 policy changes that they would like to see implemented. They have not spelled out their implicit threat to withdraw funding from the Labour Party if their "requests" are not met simply because they have not needed to.

The dispute between the unions and the Labour Government is likely to be a slow-burner at first as the arguments are played out behind closed doors and is only likely to spill over into the public domain come the Autumn. Neither side will be willing to back down but one must ultimately prevail. The result will be a choice between financial or electoral meltdown as the Government is acutely aware that any union dictated leftwards turn is likely to prove a disaster with those voters that New Labour need to retain most.

The debate will be a vicious one as the two sides fight for the soul of the Labour Party. There are likely to be casualties on both sides before the dust clears and the battle is done. David Cameron must be rubbing his hands at the prospect.

Monday, 21 July 2008

Gor-Don Quixote-Brown is at it again - this time its the Middle East

Not content with single handedly solving the global oil crisis the other week, our glorious leader has now turned his hand to sorting out the Middle East.

Despite being unable to rustle up any extra money to honour his promises to the police or to pay for proper equipment for our troops in Afghanistan, Labour have managed to dig around and find an extra $60 million to hand over to the Palestinian National Authority. This brings the total amount of UK taxpayers' money donated to the Palestinians to $175 million this year.

Without any trace of irony, the PM also proffered his advice on how the Palestinians could get access to "cheap mortgages" to kickstart their housing market. I'm sure Mahmoud Abbas is very grateful.

Brown has also laid down the law to Iran on its nuclear programme, giving them 2 weeks to suspend their enrichment programme or else. Or else what? With Russia increasingly saying "Nyet" to any request for action in the UN Security Council, it is very unclear whether the threat of tighter sanctions can be brought to bear by the West. Iran has shown absolutely no sign of stopping its enrichment and probably will continue to stall at least until the results of the US Presidential election are known. So Gordon Brown's threats are empty ones.

As a useful diversion from his domestic woes, these overseas trips are useful for Brown. But if he put half as much thought and energy into solving the UK's problems, he might just get somewhere.

Friday, 18 July 2008

The General Election phoney war has begun

These are interesting times at Westminster. With a likely 20 months still to go, the parties have started jockeying for their starting positions at the next General Election.

Alistair Darling and the Labour Party are squirming, caught like worms on a hook. With government receipts plunging along with the worsening outlook for the UK economy, they have very few palatable options available. Labour can't or won't cut spending on public services as that would run counter to all that New Labour stands for, as well as lead to anarchy on the Labour backbenches. Darling admitted in an interview in the Times today that he cannot raise taxes any further - to do so would be to sign their own electoral death warrant. His only option, then, is to relax the fiscal rules which formed the bedrock upon which Gordon Brown's reputation for economic competence was built and borrow more money.

There is nothing theoretically wrong for a government to borrow money to provide a fiscal stimulus to a faltering economy. The problem for Labour is that the increased borrowing is needed just to plug the deficit and fulfil current spending plans, not to provide a fiscal stimulus. There is also nothing magical about the self-imposed figure of 40% [of government borrowing as a percentage of GDP]. The point is that, having made the rule, its abandonment leaves Labour open to its traditional criticism, i.e. that it is a "tax and spend" party.

Labour governments always run out of money, as the old Tory saying goes. The undermining of the government's economic credibility will have a real cost when it somes to raising finance through future gilt issuance as buyers of government debt will extract enhanced terms in return for the perceived increased risk inherent in UK plc.

Darling defended the relaxation of the rule by pointing out that the US, France, Germany and Italy currently have higher deficits as a proportion of GDP. That may be true of today, of course, but with the impact of the downturn on the government's finances likely to be far worse than it and analysts have predicted (it always is), that is not likely to hold true for very long.

Labour's virtual only remaining claim to economic fame is that employment levels remain high. It is true to say that people generally are not yet worried about their jobs (unless they happen to work in the not insignificant housebuilding or financial sectors) and unemployment levels are not high. Leaving aside the hidden unemployed bloating the benefit rolls, the numbers are, however, worsening rapidly.

So, the issues of government taxation and expenditure have come to the fore. The Lib Dems have taken the tactical decision to colonise the ground normally reserved for the Conservatives - i.e. opportunistic and unrealistic tax-cutters. The Conservatives themselves are manfully sticking to their promise to abide by Labour's spending plans but are bound to be watching the shifting sands very closely.

All the talk at present is of Labour's "scorched earth" policy....the deliberate wreckage of the public finances in order to sabotage the Conservative's first term in office. That view is over-cynical but it does seem as if the starting gun for the next General Election has been fired....the phoney war has begun.

Thursday, 17 July 2008

Dwain Chambers should be allowed to run

The great and the good of UK athletics have lined up over the last few days to condemn Dwain Chambers and emplore the court not to overturn his Olympic ban. This is self-righteous, self-serving, inconsistent claptrap. The rules are the rules, they say. It wasn't quite like that for Christine Ohuruogu, was it?

Ohuruogu had her Olympic ban overturned on appeal, even though the "rules" were just as clear for her as they are for Dwain Chambers. Ohuruogu earned her ban for missing 3 drugs tests, a clear breach that gave her an easy opportunity to cover up the administering of an banned substance. But, hey, she said she was innocent and she's a nice girl, if a bit dizzy, so we'll let her off. She even went on to be nominated for Sports Personality of the Year (after an eyebrow raising victory in the World Championships in only her fifth race back after her ban).

She's not the only one. The triathlete, Tim Don, and judo athlete, Peter Cousins, both won an Olympic reprieve from the BOA after serving a suspension for missing 3 tests. Mark Lewis-Francis was let off his Olympic ban after serving a suspension for having cannabis in his system. So the BOA 'rule' can be ignored when it suits the BOA.

Chambers may be an admitted drugs cheat but he has, at least, served his sentence, apologised and come clean about what he did. Not only that, he has put in the hard graft to get back to a level of serious competitiveness. What does the BOA's refusal to give him a second chance say about the Olympic ideal?

Its not as if drugs have not been rife throughout athletics over the years, is it? So many athletes have been outed as drug cheats, its probably safer to assume an athlete is competing on drugs rather than vice versa. The only difference with Dwain Chambers is that he got caught. So, let him run. He might even win us a medal.

What are the Lib Dems for?

Nick Clegg has today set out a new direction of travel for the Lib Dems as a party of tax cutters. This is in stark contrast with their previous position as a tax and spend party. Of course, they have had to cut their cloth to suit the political climate...any party commiting to tax increases in our already over-taxed country would be laughed out the door come General Election time.

The Lib Dems' problem is that they know they risk getting squeezed by the resurgent Conservatives. By promising tax cuts, Clegg is seeking to shore up his party's position, particularly across the South. In doing so, however, he is putting himself increasingly at odds with his party's grass roots, already smarting from the dropping of the 50% top rate of tax.

He will also, of course, simultaneously jeopardise his party's chances of attracting disenchanted Labour voters who cannot bring themselves to cross the Rubicon and vote Tory. Clegg has realised that there is no mileage in being a party out on a limb (on the left or right) and that he has to keep moving his party towards the centre ground. On taxes, he has now leapfrogged the Conservatives on the political spectrum - a brave move.

He has left himself open to two charges. One - that he is now leading a party that will cut public services - already proven to be a big no-no for the electorate. Two - that he is just blowing with the political wind in opting to cut taxes only because it suits his party electorally to do so.

Moreover, he is taking a gamble on choosing to compete head on with the Conservatives. There is a need for a political party that will defend individual liberty, maintain and improve public services, reduce the size of government, decrease the long term tax burden and seek to heal rifts in our society. The trouble for Nick Clegg is that we already have a party seeking to do all that: the Conservatives. So why exactly do we need the Lib Dems?

Samir Kuntar may be free but he is no hero

It made sick to the very pit of my stomach yesterday to watch the pictures of Samir Kuntar being welcomed home a hero. There could not have been a starker contrast between the sombre mood on the Israeli side of the border, with grief-stricken families welcoming home the two coffins of the dead Israeli soldiers, and the wild celebrations on the Lebanese side.

The sickening act of terror perpetrated by Kuntar should never be forgotten. In 1979, Kuntar and 3 accomplices made ashore in a rubber dinghy in northern Israel. After shooting dead a policeman that stumbled across their path, he and his three accomplices burst into the home of the unfortunate Naran family and frogmarched the father, Danny, and his 4 year old daughter, Einat, down to the beach. Meanwhile, Einat's mother was hiding in a crawlspace with her 2 year old daughter, Yael. Tragically, although they were not discovered, the mother accidentally suffocated Yael as she tried to stop her crying out.

On the beach, Kuntar shot Danny in the back, in front of Einat, before finishing him off by drowning him in the sea. He then turned to Einat and knocked her down with his rifle butt before proceeding to smash her skull against the rocks until she was dead. A 4 year old girl.

Kuntar received an official welcome at Beirut airport from President Michel Suleiman, Prime Minister Fouad Siniora and members of all the major political factions - including Hizbullah's rivals. Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas also sent a message of congratulations to Kuntar's family.

Kuntar may be a free man but he is a psycopath and a murderer, not a hero. His release by Israel, painful as it is, should never have happened.

Tuesday, 15 July 2008

Kids and knives: why Polly Toynbee has her head in the sand

It must be quite difficult being Polly Toynbee in today's Britain. In Polly's world, the poor are always deserving and criminals are never responsible for their actions. There is no problem in society that government cannot come up with a solution to. It must be extremely painful for Polly to see the increase in the prison population from 60,000 to 80,000 that has taken place on New Labour's watch.

Today, Polly has weighed in with her views on knife crime. Much has been written and spoken about on knife crime in the last few days, most of it rubbish. The fact is, no-one knows why things have got worse over the last couple of years and, as a consequence, no-one knows how to fix it. Instead, we get kneejerk suggestions and a lot of hand-wringing.

Polly, surprise surprise, is not in favour of harsher penalties for those using and carrying knives. She lectures us that we should not be overly concerned as “all through history there have been waves of youth violence” and uses statistics selectively to demonstrate her case that things have not got worse recently. Apparently, reports Polly, only 15% of knife-carriers “intend to take part in crime or gang activity”. I’d love to know how that particular survey was carried out.

As Polly reminds us, violent crime numbers are down dramatically since 1997, according to the British Crime Survey. There are fewer murders today and Britain is not particularly murderous when compared with the EU average (although it is a bit high for western Europe). Since 2000, the number of people killed by knives has been fairly constant (258 people in 2007) and deaths inflicted by knives as a proportion of overall murders are also stable.

So, if murders are no more frequent and the use of knives to commit them no more prevalent, what exactly is going on and why do we feel less safe? If we look beyond murders, at the number of threats and assaults committed (as measured by the International Crime Victims Survey) we can begin to understand the picture. In 1988 Britain placed eighth in Europe and below the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand out of all the 28 rich countries surveyed. Today Britain comes second overall (behind Iceland).

Violent crime may be down overall but this is only because of a halving in domestic violence and fighting between friends. The fall masks an increase in violence at the hands of strangers, which has risen by 14% since 1997. Those unlucky enough to be on the receiving end are coming off worse too: a doubling (from 8%) in victims needing to see a doctor between 2002 and 2005.

These are worrying trends and give the lie to the government’s claims about crime and safety. What is even more worrying is the dramatic change in the age profile of murderers and their victims. The overall number of murders may be coming down but this hides the fact that the over 35s are murdering each other less and teenagers (according to a recent study by King’s College London) are taking up the slack with gusto, murdering each other far more. This bears out our gut feeling from recent headlines that youth on youth murder is becoming a major problem for British society. From 2000 to 2006, between 15 and 19 teenagers were killed in the capital each year. In 2007, 26 were killed; half way through 2008, 19 have died already.

So, when Ms Toynbee says “This is not a "broken society" at all, but a time of falling crime.”, we know that she is being misleading. She castigates David Cameron for saying society is broken as, for her, the problem is restricted to a relatively small section of society:

“For a long time now it's been clear a relatively small number of families - Brown said 110,000 - cause most crime and violence, sometimes for generations.”

For Polly, the answer is identification of, and early intervention in, those families….training, courses, “special units for intensive parenting support”. No blame to be attached to the perpetrators and certainly no more prison. The Government can fix what ails you.

A brief look at the statistics above, however, confirms what our eyes and ears are telling us. Polly is wrong, so wrong. For far too long, we have allowed the likes of her to set the agenda on youth justice. By all means let us try and coax problem kids and their parents to mend their ways through training and courses. We have to admit, however, that this soft approach on its own has failed.

“Speak softly and carry a big stick” was how Teddy Roosevelt described the ideal US foreign policy. The government would do well to take heed. No more ‘blame free’ justice. No more youth offenders laughing their way through their sentence, as the killers of Damilola Taylor were recently photographed doing (above). Actions must have consequences.

Cameron has it spot on and the likes of Toynbee have their heads firmly in the sand. The roots of the problem go deep and have many causes. Poor quality state education, lack of opportunities and family breakdown all play a part. These may be problems that take a generation to solve and government may not even be in posession of the tools to fix them. However, Toynbee’s refusal to even admit that there is a wider problem, as she na├»vely clings to her outdated social policy beliefs, is only making the situation worse. Shame on her.

Sunday, 6 July 2008

GLC is on holiday, wondering why we have to pay extra for internet access in hotels

I am on my travels at present, in Bali for a wedding, as it happens. Internet access is intermittent so normal service will be resumed next week. Whilst briefly online I thought I would share my latest bugbear: the policy hotels seem to have universally adopted on internet access...why oh why do they charge extra for it? Isn't providing internet access to guests now just like every other utility? Smells decidedly fishy to me....

The place I'm currently in charges US$25 per day to get online (or US$6 per hour) which seems outrageous to me. They're not charging me extra to watch the TV or flush the loo so why do I have to pay more to use the internet? I know times are tough (well, maybe not in Bali) but surely the hotel industry's business model can bear the cost of providing free access in exchange for the goodwill of their guests. Maybe I should start a campaign. Or something.