Saturday, December 17, 2005

A good deal for French farmers

The EU has a budget deal. The new eastern members of the EU get more money, Western Europe puts its hands in its pockets and the British rebate is slashed. And the Common Agricultural Policy is safe, a ‘review’ in a few years but nothing concrete until 2013. It remains nearly half of the entire EU budget.

Why subsidise farming and not other industries? Well, there is a point. Food is a strategic resource. If a country does not maintain a viable agricultural sector then it must rely on imports. That is fine unless foreign trade is disrupted; then people go hungry. Thousands died of starvation in Europe and millions across the world during World War two and in its immediate aftermath. Zimbabwe today is a case study in what happens when a country can no longer feed itself. That’s why farming is different from making fridges.

The CAP has been pernicious though. Its effect has been to dump cheap, surplus agricultural products onto the world market, crushing developing country producers and causing poverty. The rules have changed from 2005 to unlink subsidy to farmers and raw production, but countries can implement them on an individual basis. That probably means that the French won’t and the export of poverty will continue.

Was it a good deal? The new EU countries certainly deserve support, both for their own sake and as potential trading partners for the prosperity of all. This is especially true as they tend to take a more Anglo-American than Franco-German view of economics. Britain will shell out, but the rebate was cut for too little. The CAP needed deeper reform, so do the EU finances as a whole. While the leaders debated the big numbers they glossed over the fact that the EU’s 2004 accounts were rejected by the auditors. This is the 11th year in a row that the accounts haven’t been signed off.

There is some good news though. In 2004 they could actually verify 35% of the spending. That’s on a £67 billion budget.

Critics condemn EU deal 'failure'

Friday, December 16, 2005

Police amalgamation blues

On the 13th of September a report landed on the Home Secretary’s desk entitled Closing The Gap - A Review Of The ‘Fitness For Purpose’ Of The Current Structure Of Policing in England & Wales. One of its key findings was that smaller Police Forces had difficulty with certain categories of major incidents and crime. The government fell on this like starving hyenas onto a fallen wildebeest. Plans for radical amalgamations, maybe 12 Police Forces instead of 43 and huge geographical areas covered by a single force followed. It’s all happening at breakneck speed too; final proposals from Police authorities have to be in by the 23rd of December. Public consultation finished on the 2nd of December.

From early next year the Serious and Organised Crime Agency comes into being, a force that will provide national resources to tackle many of the types of crime highlighted in the report. The government could wait to see how that affects policing in the UK, but they aren't.

This has been described by one Chief Constable as the most radical change in policing since 1836. The Association of Chief Police Officers wants to know how the restructuring is to be funded. Members of Parliament have barely been allowed to talk about this and yet the government presses on. In Essex a large, efficient Police Force faces the prospect of merger into an Eastern Region force or some combination with two other counties. Almost no one is happy with that.

If you were to pick one problem with modern policing in Britain it would probably be the disconnect that many people feel from the police, which often stems from a seeming lack of local accountability. This will not help at all. In fact it will likely make things worse.

Police shake-up is 'too quick and with no debate'

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Help the poor

Social Justice is not a topic that has historically been much talked about in Conservative circles. It is not just the terminology either; a right-wing view of economics is that reducing taxes and government interference coupled with increasing opportunities will of itself make the poor richer. So it might, over the long term. However, some countries much closer to this way of doing things than the UK, such as the United States, have significant long-term deprivation and gross inequalities of wealth.

David Cameron is pushing the poverty agenda already set moving by Iain Duncan-Smith. He is also talking about Social Justice. This is surely the right thing to do; no party that seeks to improve the quality of life of the British people can just write off the poorest. More pragmatically, poverty is the incubator of a raft of social problems, from addictions to abuse to crime, which eventually affect everyone. Then there is the language and the way it affects the image of the Conservative party. Caring about the poor makes the party seem, well, caring. That is a welcome change. There aren’t too many votes in appearing not to give a damn.

Social Justice Challenge

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Kennedy in trouble

Charles Kennedy has problems. Actually, he has multiple problems. There’s David Cameron, a liberal-Conservative who could steal much of the reasonable centre ground. Then there’s an ongoing funding scandal where the Liberal Democrats, and Kennedy’s private office, took money from an offshore millionaire and possibility broke UK party funding law. Worst of all there is briefing from within his own party that he’s not long for the Liberal Democrat leadership.

That seems a bit perverse. After all Kennedy was re-elected leader unopposed just after the recent general election. He has delivered the largest number of Liberal Democrat MPs for decades. Why is he now under threat? The short answer is that British politics is changing. Tony Blair is waning fast; the loss of the vote in parliament on 90-day detention for terrorists and the manoeuvring over education reform has made that plain. Take that with the unexpected outcome of the Conservative leadership process and suddenly the Liberal Democrats are looking less relevant. The polls agree, with the party’s numbers trending down. It’s not a panic, yet, but it appears that someone reasonably credible in the Liberal Democrats thinks they can do a better job than Charlie. One knife, at least, is out.

Kennedy told to improve or resign

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Conservatives up

The Conservatives lead in the polls for the first time since 2004. That is according to YouGov in The Sunday Times and the poll has been mirrored by other surveys in the Sunday papers. This is very interesting because, unlike previous Labour dips, it is not government unpopularity that is driving the shift; rather it is the Conservative leadership election and Cameron’s victory. Polls driven by a Conservative positive instead of a Labour negative are something new.

Of course polls aren’t important; only joking, they are hugely important. Everyone in the political process watches them, if they aren’t commissioning their own. Certainly the spate of results that put the Conservatives up, Labour down and the Liberal Democrats squeezed will cause a furore. Labour will be scrabbling about for a strategy to deal with a Conservative leader who doesn’t fit the right-wing core-vote stereotype. The Liberal Democrats will look even harder at Charles Kennedy’s leadership as MPs fighting the Conservatives at the next election start to feel the heat. The Conservatives, well, their challenge is to maintain momentum and not to get sucked back by the traditionalists in the party. Politics is shifting in Britain, and not before time.

Tories seize lead in polls