Monday, March 30, 2009

Jacqui Smith's Expenses

The porn films watched by her husband may only amount to £10 worth of extra expenses, but this is in addition to a few other movies which the Home Secretary 'mistakenly' claimed for, to say nothing of the second home allowance that she claims for her actual home in Redditch. There is more than the whiff of sleaze hanging over the lady; more than the whiff of a public servant ransacking the public purse for all she's worth while she can.

And while the Opposition stays rather quiet - they're worried about their own MPs' expenses after all - David Davis has about got it right when he says there would be less strident calls for her to go if she were actually any good at her job. As remarked here previously, she is a dismally underwhelming performer in one of the top offices of state, over-promoted and incapable. But then, I guess if she'd been any good, she'd have had the wit to avoid her present controversy wouldn't she?

UPDATE: I see that the BBC's Nick Robinson has made a couple of interesting points about the Smith case on his blog. First, he comments that she has been has been "poring over her home, constituency and office diary to plot where she had spent each night in the past year." Which must be quite a considerable task, taking her away from the minutiae of running the Home Office - one not so happy impact of this whole affair on the conduct of public affairs. Second, he outlines the gap between the political and non-political worlds:

"To many MPs, she's a likeable working mum who didn't expect to be elected in '97; whose husband agreed to sacrifice his career to make hers possible; who works such long hours that she spends more days away from her family than with it and who knows that she's on course to lose her very marginal seat and thus, her job, income and allowances, at the next election.

To many voters she's a minister "on the take" who is not satisfied with a fat salary, a chauffeur and two homes but also claims more by employing her husband, calling her family home her second home and submitting bills for porn films."

Now this is a salutary point. Robinson is in a position rather different from most of the rest of us, where his regular contact with politicians allows him the opportunity to understand their 'human' side, and provide a more balanced picture of their actions. He rightly says that it is in all of our interests to close the gap between public and private perceptions of the political world. But who is repsonsible, at least in part, for the gap in the first place? So much of that public perception is down to the way MPs are reported in the media. If journalists have the opportunity to understand the nuances of political existence, would it be too much to expect them to do their job and convey that through their writing? Or are they enjoying Stanley Baldwin's famous "prerogative of the whore" too much? There are many lessons coming out of the Jacqui Smith affair - not all of them for MPs alone.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Pickled Politics

Oh dear! Just as the right-wing blogosphere is getting ever so excited at the knowledge that an elected Tory can make a good speech, along comes another elected Tory to provide something that Conservative Home admitted was a 'trainwreck'!

I missed the BBC's Question Time last night, so the first intimation I got that Tory Chairman Eric Pickles had hit the rails was a text saying concisely that he'd just been 'destroyed'. And they weren't wrong. It seems that Pickles ran into trouble when trying to explain why MPs claimed second home allowances. Now there might not be an easy way, in the current political and economic climate, for any MP to explain why they should have financial perks, paid for by the taxpayer, that are not available for others. Possibly the best approach is to hold your hands up and suggest that perhaps there should be an inquiry. Possibly the worst approach is to try and explain that they're absolutely essential because, if you live 37 miles away, you have to get up at 5.30 am in order to attend a committee start time of 9.30 am. Guess which approach Pickles took.

What is annoying so many people about his comments is the way they seem to encapsulate the insularity of the Westminster world. A 9.30 start?!! There are people living much further out from London who have to start work at 9, or 8.30, or 8. And is the Central Line so poor that it takes four hours to get from Brentwood and Ongar to central London?! The world of Pickles is clearly not the world of most workers. I have already referred to Andrew Rawnsley's article last week in which he suggested that the debate on public services was now moving towards the value that they give, since the pressure to justify public spending in the depths of recession is becoming ever greater. Eric Pickles, to the obvious dismay of fellow panellists who included Lib Dem MP Ed Davy, may have inadvertantly struck another blow for the cause of reigning in MPs' allowances. Certainly, for a newly appointed party chairman charged with getting the Tory message across to voters, he cannot have boosted confidence much back at Tory HQ. Maybe Dan Hannan will be promoted more quickly than he could imagine.

Thursday, March 26, 2009

The Viral Internet

The 'Today' programme has been trying a little experiment in internet video influence, by producing a light little video and seeing how long it takes for it to 'go viral' - i.e. start being seen all round the world, and by large numbers of ordinary, humble net surfers. They needn't have bothered. The Dan Hannan attack on Gordon Brown in the European Parliament the other day appears to have done the trick far more effectively.

Hannan gave a short (3 minutes) but effective and sustained demolition of Brown in reply to Brown's speech to the European Parliament. His speech went unreported by all of the mainstream media; certainly no showing on any broadcast news outlet. As with all of his speeches, Hannan posted it to youtube. It was picked up by a number of widely read Conservative bloggers (Iain Dale, Guido Fawkes etc). By yesterday, it had become the most watched video on youtube and Hannan was being invited onto Fox News in America to comment. So without any mainstream media promotion, Daniel Hannan nonetheless becomes an icon of Conservative opposition to Brown, and his speech widely seen. Now that's viral. And that's how the internet is breaking the monopoly of what used to be a privileged caste of political reporters. It is also an indication of how well organised the right are in their use of the internet in the UK.

Hannan's own comment on all of this is here.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

A Euro Attack on the PM

Events in the European Parliament don't get a great deal of coverage, perhaps deservedly so. Gordon Brown, however, is probably quite pleased at their low profile amongst the public at large, as he isn't always subject to the sort of forensic attack in Westminster that he was treated to in Strasbourg by Conservative MEP Daniel Hannan. See whether you think Mr. Hannan deserves a wider audience in the clip below - helpfully placed on you tube by, er, Dan Hannan MEP!

Monday, March 23, 2009

Westminster and Work

Just how hard working are these MPs, that they need to claim all manner of extra expenses? Tony McNulty is merely the latest, but the issue of MPs' allowances for second homes, John Lewis lists etc has been on the front burner for a while now. There has been the suggestion that perhaps they should be paid a higher salary, and then the extra allowances could be abolished altogether. Are they, though, worth extra money from the public purse? The Evening Standard's Paul Waugh has this piece on MPs working hours, written on a Friday afternoon when MPs were distinctly thin on the ground at Westminster.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

The PM and Goody

When he became prime minister Gordon Brown was apparently keen to roll back the celebrity obsessions of his predecessor Tony Blair. It seemed somehow inappropriate that the nation's leader should be so obviously in hock to a febrile celebrity culture when, really, didn't he have more significant things to do with his time? So to hear him issue a paean of praise to the deceased Jade Goody, whose sole claim to public attention is to have appeared, foul mouthed and ignorant, on a reality television show, is surely an immersion in celebrity vacuousness too far? There are many, many more sufferers from terminal diseases at too young an age who have given much to others, lived their lives with charity and warmth and suffered their approach to death wih quiet dignity. But, of course, they haven't appeared on television, or screamed about the unfairness of life on cable television channels and in celebrity magazines, so naturally why would Gordon Brown be interested in them?

Policies for a New Tomorrow

Do you think reform of the House of Lords is a good idea? How about granting every young adult £20,000 once they turn 18 as a reflection of the stake they hold in society? Both of these suggested policies for a future Labour manifesto feature on the New Statesman's website. More interestingly, they both come from quite near to home for anyone studying politics at Sutton GS...just have a look at the authorship of the first and seventh policies listed!

School Places and Bottled Mineral Water

No, hard pressed parents can't win much coveted school places with the gift of a bottle of mineral water for their prospective schools but there is a link in the title nonetheless. The Observer today carries a story about parents of pupils in a high achieving west London state primary who are faced with rejection by all of their preferred secondary schools. The education lottery is becoming worse as the credit crunch forces parents who might once have opted for the private sector to search for appropriate places in the state sector. (There is, interestingly, another story here, to do with how well the state sector could cope with demand if the socialist desire to abolish private education were ever realised, but that's for another time.) Consequently, parents at a well run primary school like the one featured in the Observer's article, becoming more choosy about what they are willing to accept for their children, are finding that the 'top' secondary schools are massively over-subscribed. How willing are they to send their offspring to the more chancey secondary school, the one with poorer results and worse discipline? Whatever else the state is delivering, it has a long way to go before its secondary education sector matches the aspirations of the majority of taxpayers.

Over on the comment pages of the same paper, meanwhile, Andrew Rawnsley observes that the public finances are in such a state of ruinous deficit that, apart from giving any politician with a brain nightmares about how to deal with them, the public sector is under greater pressure than ever to 'prove its worth'. Takes a recession of near unprecedented proportions to produce this genius observation, but at least it is now on the table. And just how, at the moment, is the public sector 'proving its worth'. Rawnsley provides a slew of examples of its Alice in Wonderland mentality. Ofcom, for instance, has its own branded mineral water; 61 of Rotherham's council bureaucrats earn salaries in excess of the town's MP; the chief executive of the Stafford hospital whose standards of care were so comprehensively rubbished this week earns £180,000 a year. He could have gone on to examine the salaries of top echelons of the BBC, or the vast amounts of money spent on PR in every Whitehall department, but his column has a limited word length and you have to stop somewhere.

Both parties are confronted with a deficit crisis that means they have to redefine their approach to the public services. Neither can deny that a ballooning state has, over the past couple of decades, produced plenty of examples of waste while leaving parents bereft of a decent choice of education in their boroughs. Even if the choice isn't quite as stark as branded mineral water for a few extra decent state school places, it is time to see the debate about the 'worth of the state' back on the agenda. It is the old liberal conundrun writ large. The modern liberal wants to empower the citizens of the state, and believes it is legitimate to expand the state's role accordingly. But in expanding, they are recreating the uncontrollable state that their ideological cousins, the classical liberals, were warning about when it was focused on the power of an individual ruler. Despots and welfare states both demand large sums of unearned income in the form of taxes. It was a rare despot who used it to provide services of genuine public worth. Let us hope the same does not apply to his Hydra headed successor.

Friday, March 20, 2009

Select Committee Extravagance

Private Eye's 'Gavel Basher' carries an exposure of potential select committee abuse in this fortnight's edition.

The select committees could be a crowning triumph of the parliamentary system. Introduced in 1979 by Conservative Leader of the House Norman St. John Stevas (did Margaret Thatcher, his PM, really understand what he was doing I wonder?), they are there to call government departments to account. Manned and chaired by backbenchers, they are an opportunity for MP's to assert their legislative independence and do a bit of decent scrutiny. Unfortunately, much of the would-be independence of the committees is undermined by the ferocious activity of party whips in ensuring representation on them by tame lobby fodder MP's. Now, according to Private Eye, the government have set up seven new regional select committees as a way of rewarding loyal followers. The committees - designed to scrutinise regional spending that is already scrutinised by other committees - are utterly superfluous, and undermine the principle of independence even further by having Parliamentary Private Secretaries sit on them. PPS's work for ministers, so the chances of them asking hard questions range from nil at the positive end to a significant minus number.

Not content with setting up more committees, Leader of the House Harriet Harman has also decided to start paying the chairman of the allowances committee. The purpose of the allowances committee? To check unjustified spending in the House of Commons. Just the right time to make sure it is now responsible for absorbing a bit of extra spending in the form of this new salary then!

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Tories' Nightmare - Winning in 2010

Over on the 'skipper' blog, Bill Jones examines the polling evidence in yesterday's Guardian, suggesting that if any sign of recovery can be perceived by 2010 then Gordon Brown could still win. He looks back at the situation for the Major government in 1992, which squeaked a victory against all odds for precisely that reason. The analogy offers little comfort for the Tories.

In 1992, even the Tories were expecting to lose. Had they done so, Neil Kinnock would have become Prime Minister. His Chancellor would have been John Smith, who at that time was following a remarkably similar path to Tory Chancellor Norman Lamont, esepcially with relation to the European Exchange Rate Mechanism. As PM, Kinnock would have thus been the man to preside over 'Black Wednesday', and the subsequent collapse of economic confidence. He would have lost the next election, and Labour's reputation for economic competence would have sunk into the earth's crust, probably not to emerge again for another decade or two. The Tories, meanwhile, would have elected a fresh leader after Major's defeat - possibly Michael Heseltine or Ken Clarke. Reinvigorated, they would have won the 1997 election and would now be enjoying the summer of a second long spell in government. Instead, reality gave Major his election win in 1992, and doomed the Tories to lengthy opposition from 1997.

So what if Cameron wins in 2010? Could he be subject to the hypothetical scenario outlined above for Kinnock? What if the recession does indeed last as long as some commentators say - up to a decade. If it continues to get worse, even a brief boost from the 2012 Olympics won't help the sitting government much. Elected on a promise of getting the country moving again, Cameron could face the ire of a frustrated electorate if he failed to deliver by 2015. A rejuvenated Labour Party, under a fresh leader (James Purnell? Jon Cruddas even?) might then sweep back into power, ready to take the helm as the real recovery starts to works its way in.

Far-fetched, possibly, but few Tories are looking with full equanimity at winning in 2010. After all, Cameron's apology wasn't just about not seeing the recession on the way. It was really about the failure of the Tories to have devised a distinct economic vision to Labour. Even now, they are treading warily around the policy pit to try and determine their best way forward. This is a crisis with few answers, but plenty of potential crashes. If even the President Messiah is struggling, what chance a mere Tory leader with no experience of government?

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Burstow on Liberalism

Paul Burstow was the latest guest to grace the 6th. Form Lecture programme at SGS. The Lib Dem Chief Whip - and local MP of course - focused on the defence of freedom for his speech. He gave an eloquent survey of what he saw as the overweening power of the state threatening individual freedoms, and it is not surprising that his talk should have generated some good questions from the audience. His view of freedom is certainly classically liberal - to the extent that he was happy to accept that freedom must come with risks; that some 'anti-terror' measures should be consigned to the waste bin because their impact on individual freedom is more significant than whether they might protect us from external attack. He was clear about not wanting to live in Voltaire's "gilded cage".

The key question for any modern liberal, of course, is how to resolve that tension between protecting individual liberties and promoting empowerment for all. Opposing the power of the state as manifested in its security apparatus is not essentially difficult (although too few still do so nonetheless). Opposing the power of the state when it is more becomingly clothed in its nanny outfit is much more daring. To say that the state has no role in telling us how we should live, how much we should drink, who we should have sex with, what drugs we can smoke....these are the gradual encroachments that are just as iniquitous to individual liberty as the security apparatus. Paul Burstow illustrated his effective case with some high profile, and clearly outrageous, infringements on certain individuals. If you want to see a more low level attack, just drive past any pub of an evening and see the poor sods who have been forced, like naughty children, to take to the cold pavements to enjoy their cigarettes. Freedom comes in many guises, and they are not qualitatively different.

Monday, March 16, 2009

Binge Whinge

If the Sunday papers are to be believed, Britain is drowning under a deluge of alcohol abuse. There are binge drinkers on every corner, corner shops are being besieged by under-age buyers of alcohol, and virtually every adult in England is taking advantage of phenomenally low prices to consume as much as possible.

Or is it possible that there were lots of blank pages to fill and yet another piece about alcoholism is (a) easy, and (b) guaranteed to raise the blood pressure of middle England?

There may or may not be a binge drinking issue to be addressed - the sensationalist nature of all news coverage of the topic actually makes it quite difficult to genuinely decide. If there is, we can be pretty sure that it is not universal, that it is confined to certain groups in society, and that it is nothing new. Which makes the constant attempts to squeeze it onto the news agenda both depressing and suspicious. The chief medical officer, Liam Donaldson, is the man who pushed the story out this weekend with his ill-considered suggestion of price fixing - there should, he said, be a minimum price for alcohol. Oh, absolutely. It is clearly the role of the government to tell us all exactly how much is good for us, and to direct what we can consume. And, of course, it is well known that alcohol is priced far too low.

Fortunately, once one has waded through the morass of hysteria there is a beacon of hope, not just for the perfectly reasonable wine drinkers of society, but for anyone concerned with an over-abundance of government intervention on the liberties of ordinary people. The government and the opposition seem united in rejecting the idea of alcohol price fixing. Gordon Brown has been distinctly cool on his response, suggesting that the government has no intention of introducing the measure, and the Tories' health spokesman Andrew Lansley has also clearly opposed it. So we can safely leave the boozy journalists to their anti-alcohol print frenzies without the prospect of a Big Brother state hoving into view just yet.

For a different view of the Great Alcohol Debate, see Will Self's First Post article.

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Quality? Just Select a Woman!

The Labour Party undoubtedly transformed the look of the House of Commons after 1997 with the admission of a large number of women MPs, thanks almost entirely to the success of the all-women shortlists. This was a comsiderable move forward for female equality in a parliamentary world that had been clearly biased against it. Naturally, such an advance also came at a price, most notably the price of quality. Very few of the women who entered parliament then established themselves as effective, weighty politicians. Labour continues to suffer - and the cause of female equality certainly suffers - from the promotion of clearly inadequate women to senior positions purely on account of their gender. No better example than Jacqui Smith, the woefully underwhelming Home Secretary, serves as clear evidence of this. And Labour encountered growing opposition amongst its grassroots to the continued use of all-women shortlists, which seemed increasingly to be imposed on ultra safe seats that looked in danger of selecting potentially maverick male MPs. It was this situation that led to the election of Peter Law as an Independent MP in the utterly solid seat of Blanaeu Gwent in 2001.

Now, Labour may be facing another revolt in a historically strong seat. John Reid, the former Home Secretary and all round tough guy of the Blair years, is retiring from his Airdrie and Shotts seat, and the party leadership is looking to impose an all-woman shortlist here. It is causing the most almighty row. The local party is up in arms at the actions of "an arrogant London clique". There are rumours that the move is inspired by another woman of limited abilities but unlimited ambition - Harriet Harman - in order to shore up her support amongst the sisterhood in parliament. The constituency chairman points out that his activists have previously selected not only John Reid, but also Helen Liddell and John Smith - hardly a poor record, or an exclusively male one.

All-women shortlists have made a major impact, and hopefully changed the face of the Commons for good. They have certainly shown that the centre of national politics does not need to be an all male preserve, and may have opened constituency eyes to the virtues of selecting able women. The problem is that the next step in the promotion of women in politics is to improve the quality of those who get there, thus ensuring better representation at the highest levels of government - not just tokenistic as in the case of Smith, or seriously off-putting, as with Harman. And to do this, the Labour Party probably needs to allow constituencies to choose their own candidates again. They may even have to accept a few more independent minded candidates of either sex, to parliament's significant gain. Whether or not Labour's National Executive sees it this way is dubious, and the progress of Airdrie and Shotts will show us how willing they are to cede local choice again. Central control, though, is more easily extended that rescinded, and the cause it was extended for may now suffer by its continuation.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

Immigration - The ESU Debate

Was at the English Speaking Union's grand headquarters in London, Dartmouth House, last night to hear a debate on immigration. Dartmouth House has, in the past, been the scene of great public speaking nearly triumphs from the SGS speaking teams, but last night it hosted Damian Green MP, Phillippe LeGrain, Dr. Mark Pennington and Jim Black. The motion was that "This House Believes in a Liberal Immigration Policy", which means uncontrolled. Damian Green - still on bail for the heinous crime of trying to hold the government to account - was opposing, and made in fact the most eloquent and practical of the four cases. Acknowledging that the proposition had "better tunes to play" he nonetheless warned against leaving the case for any sort of control on immigration to extremist politicians, proceeding to make a pretty level headed one of his own.

One aspect of the debate was that each side's speakers seemed to come to their position from a different perspective to their colleague, thus the proposition's Mark Pennington was all for allowing uncontrolled immigration because it would mean the end of the welfare state, a position strongly rejected by his colleague. Green's colleague, Jim Black, meanwhile made an intervention about his grandfather telling his grandmother he was going to kill Germans, which I must confess I didn't understand, and which in the light of current events seemed a little ill considered.

SGS contributions from the floor included the Comrade Major asking, in his thickly accented Russian, for free immigration from Russia without fear or favour (I paraphrase - he pretended to be asking about something more neutral). The final vote from the well heeled audience went 27-26 in favour of the motion, showing that liberals still thrive in the salons of London, even if not in the wider voting public.

Monday, March 09, 2009

Lib-Con Pact?

It seems the Lib Dems may be preparing to look at a Liberal Conservative Pact in the event of a hung parliament after the next election. That, at least, is the substance of a report on Nick Robinson's blog, and an FT report as well. The problem for the Liberals is that, whatever the logic of a Tory pact, most of their activists hate the Tories, and the Liberal party as a whole is far more sympathetic to Labour. You can find plenty of examples of Lib-Lab pacts in both local government and, until the nationalists kyboshed the idea, in the devolved assemblies. There are, however, precious few examples of Lib-Con deals in any governmental organisation in the UK. And the reason, of course, is that the two parties are simply not natural allies. Although both may be in opposition at present, it is all too easy to forget that the Liberal Democrats are a left of centre party and the Tories are a right of centre party. They exist in clear opposition to each other, and that is the reality that Nick, Vince and Chris are having to confront in their pre-election pact planning!