Monday, December 24, 2007

Blair a Catholic

Tony Blair has been admitted into the Catholic Church, this despite deliberately downplaying his Christianity during his premiership so as to not sound like a 'nutter'. I am not a Catholic, but I am a little surprised as the reaction of some prominent members for that Church who instead of treating a new convert as a matter for rejoicing are suggesting that past policy decisions should have disbarred him. Even if you accept that he did things in office against the teachings of the Church then the parable of the Prodigal Son pretty much covers that situation, so maybe a little more quiet reflection and Bible study is called for and a little less carping. As for the 'nutter' thing, he sort of has a point. Politicians in the UK don't tend to advertise their religion because it gives rise to the suspicion that their political decisions are filtered through the literal interpretation of some book or another. The Atheists in British public life do not help by trying to equate jam-making Anglicans with the Taliban in terms of fundamentalist irrationality. So, Blair probably made the right call. Of course there are lots of religious people in politics. There are even lots of religious people on Basildon Council. I am a Christian, as are several other Councillors, and there are probably other religions as well but no-one actually talks about it. Is that good? Well, if the alternative is the US model where Christ is a regular running-mate at election time then maybe we have got it right.

Saturday, December 22, 2007

Noak Bridge Parish Council shows how it should be done

First, I must claim an interest: my wife is a Parish Councillor on Noak Bridge Parish Council. Our local paper has reported that the Council has cut its precept, or tax, for the third year in a row. They have done this by not employing anyone beyond the Councillors themselves, not paying themselves anything, and substituting hard work for even trivial amounts of expense. They have an excellent Chairman in Alison Armfield, who is not my wife I hasten to add, and they have managed all sorts of projects in the village, from replacing old and damaged signs, to installing benches and play and recreation facilities for children and teenagers. They don't even brag about it; their Christmas newsletter's headline is 'Merry Christmas' and it is being delivered by the Councillors themselves. If Basildon District Council had managed a tax cut then you would be able to shut us up about it.

The article was wrong about one thing. They didn't get rid of allowances this year. They never have paid themselves anything.

Friday, December 21, 2007

A coup against Brown?

This is a rumour, but it's a good one, that there has been a conference call among Labour backbenchers with the aim of ousting Gordon Brown as leader. It seems to have started in the Blogosphere, on Labourhome no less, and it is also echoed in an article in today's Daily Mail that suggests that a bad result in May's local elections might mean curtains for Brown. One of the few Labour MPs who has allowed himself to be named is Andrew MacKinlay, from just down the road in Thurrock. He thinks that changes have to be made at cabinet level, and he is quite right about that at least. Too many of Brown's appointments have turned out to be duds, from Balls the incoherent to Darling the downright incompetent, but the problem really is the man at the top. Brown's real problem was his coronation; by efficiently seeing off any challengers before there was any kind of a vote he denied himself the mandate that he surely would have won. Now, too many backbenchers can honestly say 'well, I didn't vote for him', cos they didn't. No-one did, not as Labour Leader or PM anyway. Brown's allowing himself a day off for Christmas. He might get rather more than that in the New Year.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Government Data Shambles, again

Yet more data has been lost by the HMRC to add to that lost by other government departments. With the number of incidents approaching double figures, it is clear that there is a systemic failure of data and records security and management throughout large parts of the public sector. This doesn't just come from a failure of systems, though God knows these seem pretty shambolic, but from a failure of culture. Take the 25 million child benefits claimants on the two CDs that were lost for example. In cash terms this data could not have been more valuable if the two CDs had been made out of 24-carat gold. If they had been made of gold then no-one whould have shoved them into the internal mail, but no-one batted an eyelid about doing that to the data. Was it because no one understood how important the data was? Was it because it is almost impossible to get fired in the Civil Service no matter how poorly you perform? Professionally, I am an expert in this particular field and in my organision, a FTSE 100 company, errors of this kind would get you escorted off the premises by security. Unsurprisingly, this tends to concentrate minds. Now there is talk of adding criminal sanctions to the Data Protection Act. Well, that might help but it isn't actually necessary if management in government agencies were doing their jobs, and miscreants know that screwups of this kind lead directly to a P45.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

The Times Gives a 13 point Conservative Lead

A YouGov poll in the Sunday Times has voting intentions with changes from their last poll of Conservative 45% (+2), Labour 32% (nc), Liberal Democrat 14% (nc). Read more here and here.

The 45% figure is the one the talking heads seem to think the Conservatives need to get to for a convincing election victory. Now that this hurdle has been overcome it will be interesting to see what the Left establishment line becomes. The BBC have decided just not to mention it for example. Too painful I suppose.

John Baron MP: Traveller plan from Regional Assembly is unfair

Unelected quango says number of local sites should increase by 70%

John Baron MP today criticised proposals from the unelected East of England Regional Assembly (EERA) to increase the number of authorised traveller sites in Basildon from 116 to 197 (a 70% increase) while still leaving some areas in Essex with as few as 15 sites. The plans were agreed this week by the Regional Planning Panel and will be considered by ERRA on 25th January 2008.

John said:

These proposals are completely unfair and discriminate against Basildon District. The unelected members of this regional assembly should come and talk with local residents and gauge for themselves just how angry people are. Basildon has done more than most to provide sites, and so it is absurd that we should now be expected to provide even more.

These proposals would drive a coach and horses through our Greenbelt, as they equate need with unauthorised pitches and therefore reward travellers for illegally developing our Greenbelt land. But these illegal pitches reflect demand – a desire to be close to existing sites – not genuine need.

Instead, the Regional Assembly should be taking a genuinely regional view by obliging all those councils which have done far less to step up to the plate and now share this responsibility.

I would add that I sit on EERA for Basildon and that John's criticisms are entirely justified. If the Assembly was composed of elected members from the various Councils in the East of England then that would be one thing, but it is packed out with appointees from all sorts of unaccountable bodies who can easily push through anything they like. The Assembly has no proper rules of debate and it doesn't even record individual votes, so this could be voted through on a show of hands by people who don't face election and who can later claim 'it wasn't me guv'. Even the Labour government has realised that the Regional Assemblies are going nowhere and they likely face abolition; good riddance. In any case, if this plan goes through then Basildon Council at least will set the process in motion for a judicial review and then the whole stumbling, incompetent mess of the Traveller Review will be replayed out in the High Court. Or maybe EERA will have an attack of sanity and realise that its abject failure to represent the people of the Eastern Region's views on this issue among many others is the main reason that the Assembly is on the way out.

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Basildon's Towngate Theatre open for Panto again

I went to see the Pantomime at the Towngate Theatre last night. It was very good; Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs with a beautiful princess and dashing prince and a scheming evil queen all portrayed by a fine cast, with some particularly talented younger members in supporting roles. The audience loved it, especially the children who booed, hissed and cheered with enthusiasm. It was pantomime at its best, and it marked the latest stage of a renaissance for the Towngate theatre, which has had a troubled history. The problem is that the theatre has all the facilities of top class theatre, except that its auditorium was designed to be far too small. So, it has all of the costs of a big venue while it can only generate the income of a small venue. This has meant that it has opened and closed many times as successive organisations have tried and failed to make it work as a theatre. At some points in its history it has also had a huge subsidy from the Council and so has been a political football, at that still lingers around in Basildon's politics. Now it is open again, and running better than for years thanks to an excellent team from the Council and a well-crafted policy from the Conservative Administration. The timing is also good as we are currently procuring a development partner for Basildon Town Centre, and one of the things under consideration in the future provision of a theatre for central Basildon. Ideally we will get a newer, better, and bigger theatre, but the deal has to add up and evidence of a functioning theatre already operating cannot help but make the case.

Oh, and if you live anywhere near Basildon, go and see the panto!

Friday, December 14, 2007

Reform treaty signed by Brown, by himself

In politics you often have to do unpopular things. It really cannot be helped, even when you are doing the right thing there is often some interest group that takes against you, and sometimes everyone is unhappy, like when you put taxes up. Good politicians are very aware of public reaction and do their best to minimise the number of people annoyed by any given course of action. So, Brown's actions in signing the Reform Treaty are inexplicable, though they try here. Of course, signing the treaty was always going to go down badly with anyone of even a vaguely Euroskeptic bent, but by citing a routine appointment in parliament as an excuse for missing the main signing ceremony, Brown also managed to irritate people who actually thought he was doing the right thing. This is schoolboy politics. How can it be that no one in the Prime Minister's circle told him that he would deflect not one iota of press and public approbation by this cack-handedness, and in fact would only add to it? Does Gordon Brown not employ press officers? Or is his man-management so dire that none of them dared to tell him how foolish he would look? I agreed with almost nothing that Tony Blair and Alistair Campbell actually did, but at least they did it competently. If Brown and his cohorts were organising an evening reception at a local brewery they would probably get the day wrong.

Thursday, December 13, 2007

Brown takes on the Police

The government has got itself into an extraordinary dispute with the Police Federation. By not backdating a pay rise as recommended by the independent Police Arbitration Tribunal they have triggered a vote of no confidence in the Home Secretary and a ballot on the police demanding the right to strike. The facts are pretty simple: P0lice pay has risen above inflation since 1994 and they have done as well or better than the rest of the public sector. Now government finances are being squeezed and public sector pay is being restrained across the aboard. So far, so good, but what makes the Police different is that governments have historically always followed the Tribunal's recommendation, and that they do not have the right to strike. In terms of savings on the wage bill it is of the order of £30m, but in terms of loss of goodwill with a very important interest group the price is much higher than that. Some Members of Parliament understand that at least and a motion urging the government to think again has over 70 signatures, including many Labour backbenchers. Gordon Brown is standing firm, however, saying:
No policeman and no person across the country would thank us if their pay rise was wiped out by inflation...
Except it's not inflation, it's government finances that are the problem and everyone knows this. Gordon wanted an end to Boom and Bust. Let's hope he has a Plan B.

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Judith Armitt Resigns

Juith Armitt, the Chief Executive the Thames Gateway project has abruptly resigned. This comes barely a week after the Thames Gateway forum event at Docklands Excel centre, where the project plans for the next three years were launched. No official reason has been given for the abrupt departure, though the Times, is running an article suggesting it was after a spat with Minister for Housing Yvette Cooper. I have no inside gossip on that, but Judith's departure is not good news for Basildon, where the Basildon Renaissance Partnership is a successful Thames Gateway delivery vehicle. We have real projects and a development portfolio of around £1.5bn that rely on support from the Thames Gateway initiative, and any impression of drift or disorganisation does not help the cause of improving Basildon District. In particular the lack of cross-party political support for the Thames Gateway is worrying, though not necessarily surprising given this sort of development. We must hope that Judith's successor can pull things together, and quickly, if the project is not to lose momentum. It is far too important to Basildon for that.

Sunday, December 09, 2007

John Baron MP: Government admits plans for ISTC in Basildon have been shelved

Letter confirms that independent hospital will not be imposed on local NHS

Commenting on a letter he received from Health Minister Ivan Lewis MP today in response to his correspondence of 2nd November, John Baron MP welcomed news that the local campaign against an Independent Sector Treatment Centre (ISTC) in Basildon has paid off. Ivan Lewis confirmed that “Basildon is not currently one of the sites being considered”. Despite rumours about the local project being cancelled, this is the first time the Department of Health has admitted that plans for an ISTC locally have been shelved.

John said:

This is great news for local NHS patients – our campaign has really paid off. An ISTC would have disrupted existing services, taken resources away from Basildon Hospital, and had a knock-on effect on training budgets and cross-subsidy of emergency services. It is no wonder that the hospital and SW Essex Primary Care Trust were both opposed.

Having raised this matter in Parliament and in writing many times, I am relieved the Government has finally listened to the views of local people. It would have been completely wrong to impose an ISTC against the wishes of the local NHS. Ministers admitted as much to me months ago, but now we have a concrete assurance.

Trust in government and local government

There is a problem with trust in government. The Labour government has a history of spinning and dishonesty and their poor reputation has been compounded by the latest party funding scandal. Of course Conservatives have had their own troubles and the popular media finds it difficult to portray any politician in a positive light. In fact, if you wanted to make a subversive, mould-breaking film today you could portray a government and its officials being absolutely straight in the face of a crisis or a complex issue. This lack of trust leaks into local government, where Councillors routinely find their integrity being questioned when they make contentious decisions. I've been taken to the Standards Board for England on four occasions; in each case it was found that there was no case to answer but the fact that we have a process where anyone can start an official process against a Councillor speaks to an institutional lack of trust. The last one, by the way, was because some individual thought my handwriting indicated membership of a secret Masonic cult. Instead of being told to seek help, this person's delusions were entertained and the process grimly gone through, though all concerned thought it absurd.

Lack of trust can have very serious effects. Some Councils, for example, will not talk to potential developers in advance of a planning application because their Councillors are terrified of an appearance of impropriety. This is a disastrous policy if you want to attract investment for the good of your community, but at least you don't get investigated by faceless bureaucrats. In Basildon we have had a series of press articles probing our regeneration efforts, stirred up by the so-called Wickford Action Group, who feel empowered to spray accusations and innuendo around at anyone they happen to disagree with. To be fair, most community groups aren't like that even when they are arguing against Council policy. I have a lot of respect for those concerned about the Sporting Village project for example, who have put their case very forcefully and effectively without resorting to accusation and abuse. They are the sort of people you listen to. Others get filed with the Masonic cult chap.

Friday, December 07, 2007

Latest election prediction

The Electoral Calculus website had been at it again:
A new prediction has been posted on 6 December 2007 at

Recent polls now show a strong Conservative lead over Labour. ComRes (Independent) has a lead of 13% (up from 8%); Ipsos-MORI has 9% (up from 5%); YouGov (Daily Telegraph) has 11% (up from 3%); and ICM (News of the World) has 11% (up from 8%). Overall the Conservatives are now 9% ahead of Labour (up from 4%), and are now predicted to have an overall majority for the first time in several years.

The current prediction is that the Conservatives will have an overall majority of 8 seats, winning 329 seats (+45 seats since 17 November 2007).

Thursday, December 06, 2007

Labour government hammers Basildon

We got details of the provisional Local Government Finance Settlement this evening, the money that the government gives Basildon Council every year to help fund local services such as our sports centres and rubbish collection. It wasn't very good. The three-year settlement gives Basildon an increase above the CPI measure of inflation of 2% in 2008/9, 1.32% in 2009/10 and 1.55% in 2010/11, which sounds fine until you realise that the spending increases caused by government policy are well above that, most notably Labour's failure to fully fund concessionary fares for the over 65s. Basildon got less than many other Essex councils; for example Castle Point gets a rise next year of 3.1%.

This settlement gives Basildon a shortfall of £751,000 over the three-year period against our very conservative projections and the Labour government has coupled this with an announcement that Councils will be capped from making council tax increases above a certain level...which they won't tell us. So, we may end up having to make service cuts as a result, which could mean putting people out of work in the middle of a recession. The Labour members on the Cabinet resorted to bluster and then downright dishonesty. We were told that this shortfall in revenue funding was is some way made up for by the capital funding that we had received for regeneration projects, but of course they are not in any way related. We were told that it would be worse under the savage cuts of a Cameron Conservative government, but the Shadow Chancellor has already made it very clear that a rapid and imprudent reduction in government spending would not occur. We were told that the money could be made up from Council reserves, which made me wonder if they had been reading the same financial reports as me. The Labour deputy leader in particular seemed to find the situation amusing.

What is going on is that Brown's economic failures are coming home to the British people. Because government finances are in a mess then Britain is badly placed for an economic slowdown and a debt-ridden and high-taxing government is running out of both ideas and cash. That is why Basildon is feeling the pain and why the local Labour party had no option but to talk nonsense in an effort to defend the indefensible.

Wednesday, December 05, 2007

Northern Rock delusions

A colleague of mine was worried that I have been too hard on Northern Rock. He is not a banker, but there is a dawning realisation outside of the trade just how bad this situation has become, and a fair amount of denial if some of the comments on this blog are to be believed. Not only is Northern Rock in crisis, it is getting worse by the day as more deposits drain out and more loans fall due for repayment without further loans to repay them. Without treasury support then this would be an ex-bank, with its shares valueless. At the moment there isn't a realistic rescue plan, and the Virgin bid has many unanswered questions, like the fact that loan funding other institutions has not been arranged, that Virgin is putting only a few hundred million of its own assets into the deal, that most of the other cash comes from existing shareholders and the hopelessly optimistic business plan assumes that the saved bank can capture 25% of the UK banking deposit business going forward from 2008.

Unless a new source of capital can be found then the only alternatives are administration of nationalisation, either option a progressive disposal of assets and a dismantling of the business. It is a mess caused by a Labour government who would not overrule the Bank of England to provide liquidity to the markets and then overruled the Bank of England to provide support to Northern Rock when it couldn't find funding on the capital markets. Either the market should have been supported or Northern Rock allowed to go bust. As it was policy stumbled from one strategy to another and so predictably failed. It's a bit of a cliché, but I wouldn't trust this lot to run a whelk stall.

Tuesday, December 04, 2007

Janet Daley thinks Cameron should go easy on Brown

Writing in her column yesterday Janet Daley, a writer who I always have time for, sounded a word of warning about David Cameron's treatment of Gordon Brown. Her view was that the Prime Minister is clearly in the middle of a psychological crisis and that putting him under sort of pressure that Cameron has been exerting at PMQs was needlessly cruel. She was also mindful of the potential political price that could be paid if Cameron had come across as a bully. Of course, she has a point. If Cameron was perceived as picking on a man in a state of collapse then he would face criticism, and rightly so, but the thing she misses, or appears to miss, is the context. We are not talking about some David Brent figure going over the top at a junior member of staff. This is the Leader of the Opposition versus the Prime Minister in the Mother of Parliaments. Both men should be the products of a Darwinian selection process that arrives at people who can represent the whole country's interests in peace and war, to find those few characters that can take the unimaginable pressure of the very top job. If they can't then they shouldn't be there. Put simply, Brown should be able to hack it. If he can't then he should never have put himself forward for the job.

To put it another way: big boys games, big boys rules.

Sunday, December 02, 2007

Labour in the mire on party funding

Let us be clear: Labour's current difficulties are not because of a problem with the system of party funding. They are because of a problem in the Labour Party. There are no comparable examples of illegal funding in the other parties and Labour's attempts to smear Lord Achcroft in defence of their own criminality are beneath contempt. What on earth makes these people think that they can simply ignore laws that they find inconvenient? Then we have the line that the numerous instances of criminal acts are all a matter of incompentence rather than design. If that were true then it would hardly be an advertisement for the party of government, but of course it isn't true. These people are amoral, not stupid. In political terms, this is about as bad as it gets. Senior members of the party on both the professional and political side are implicated. There are several police investigations and there will be prosecutions and trials. Wendy Alexander north of the border and Harriet Harman down south are both on borrowed time. Numerous Labour officials may be trading the corridors of power for Wormwood Scrubs. It is difficult to see how Labour comes back from this without a wholesale change, and that means a change at the top. I am sure that thought has already occurred to a few Labour MPs who can otherwise look forward to an abrupt end to their parliamentary careers otherwise. The trouble is that, unlike the Conservatives, Labour has no tradition of this sort of thing. They had better learn quickly.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Matthew Parris deconstructs Brown in the Times

Incredible piece of writing from Matthew Parris. I'm not going to quote any of it because it deserves to be read in its entirety. Read it here.

Simon Heffer decides that Gordon Brown isn't very good, not what he said a while ago

Fans of Simon Heffer may remember his former words of praise for Gordon Brown, for example this from 5th September:
Mr Brown is doing so well not because he has better policies than his rivals (insofar as his rivals have any), but because he is a better politician than any of them.
Today the tune changed to:
You may find this hard to believe, but there will be some people in the Labour Party who will be taking some consolation from the otherwise hideous secret donations scandal. These are not necessarily the small but growing band who realise the mistake they made in giving the job of leader to Gordon Brown, though heaven knows they must be having to have their grins surgically removed.
The basis of this argument was that some people in Labour are happy to see Party and Leader implode because this would allow an argument for State funding of political parties to be made. Apart from being nonsense, no politician would swap government for opposition just to get hold of taxpayers money, Heffer's conversion is pretty funny. He has moved smoothly from praise to criticism with no acknowledgement of the failure of his own political judgement. Next thing he'll be saying nice things about David Cameron.

Damien Green at Billericay Conservative Association

We had Damien Green MP at Billericay Conservative Association yesterday, speaking on the current political scene and on his shadow portfolio of Immigration. He frankly thought that the troubles of the current government stemmed from the mindset of the Labour party, their belief in their own moral purity, which therefore means that as far as they are concerned anything they do must therefore be correct. I have seen much the same from Labour Councillors here in Basildon, who treat most issues as good against evil instead of option one against option two. On immigration, he reiterated the Conservative policy of an annual limit of non-EU migrants and the need for a specialist border police. His response to those who accuse the Conservatives of playing the race card was to first point out that Trevor Phillips, former head of the Commission for Racial Equality, thought this was a valid contribution to the debate on immigration and to say that one of the consequences of Labour's failure to control our borders has to make Britain a centre for the vile trade in people-smuggling.

It went down pretty well.

Thursday, November 29, 2007

Gordon Brown at Thames Gateway Forum

Gordon Brown did turn up, giving a very encouraging speech in general, but littering it with so many numbers that it sounded like the man reading out the football scores. There was also a session with Judith Armitt, the Chief Executive of the Thames Gateway, hosted by the editor of Property Week. His game was to try and write a plan for the Thames Gateway in an hour-long panel debate, despite the fact that Judith was in the room and already had a plan thank you very much. She took it in pretty good part, I certainly wouldn't have, and despite the fact that he was talking nonsense. The big idea from this chap and his supporting troupe was that the Thames Gateway should boil down to six projects and more or less forget everything else. So, if you live on a crumbling estate and aren't included in the six then so long, and have a nice life. Another idea was to emphasise on architectural excellence, and a short film showing examples of good buildings from around the world, and the last 1000 years or so, accompanied this proposal. I can accept that no-one should set out to build ugly buildings, but the first priority for any scheme is that it does what it is meant to do, that is homes actually function as homes, shops as shops and so on. That might seem obvious, but we have examples in Basildon of buildings that won architectural awards in their time and ended up decaying in a few years because while they looked great from the air they paid scant attention to how they might actually be used, ending up as sink estates or crime and graffiti-ridden town centres. If I had to make a choice I would pick a boring building where people could live and work in comfort and security over something that made a statement but was more or less unusable in a decade every time. If you can get function and iconic than so much the better, but please let us not pretend that both are equally important.

It was the Thames Gateway Forum dinner last night, and I was fortunate to spend the evening in the company of some rather more intelligent people from Property Week. There were speeches from Boris Johnson and John Prescott and entertainment that included a man with lubricant and a balloon. I won't try to describe that; you really had to be there.

Thames Gateway Forum

I attended the Thames Gateway forum today to launch the procurement for the Sporting Village. For those that don’t know, the forum is a big exhibition and conference in the Docklands Excel Centre, and the Council had a stand to promote our various regeneration projects. The launch was via a reception held on the stand and the surrounds, and it went very well indeed, with a good attendance and speeches from the great and the good. It compared very favourably with several other similar events at much the same time and this speaks very well to the narrative that we have fashioned for Basildon as a place to invest. That message has certainly got through to government as well, and they announced £30m of funding for Basildon regeneration over the next 3 years, which compares vary favourably to our surrounding local authorities. So, all in all, a very good day for the long term future of Basildon District, and there is also a rumour that Gordon Brown might be coming tomorrow, politics permitting.

You might have thought that as a Conservative I would be gloating over the government’s current predicament, but I am not. It is this sort of thing that brings politics and public service into disrepute and I would much rather that any party advantage from this affair had instead come from the debate on the best future for our nation.

Monday, November 26, 2007

Very large Conservative lead in tomorrow's Indepenent

A poll in Tomorrow's Independent puts the Conservatives on 40, Labour on 27 and the Liberal Democrats on 18, a lead of 13. This is the largest Conservative lead since August 1988, when Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minister, enough to give David Cameron a parliamentary majority of 64. Oh and Labour's General Secretary resigned because of £600,000 of illegal loans.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Brown/Darling worse than Major/Lamont

From the Mail on Sunday:

John Baron MP demands debate in Parliament on lost HMRC data

Yesterday in the House of Commons, John Baron MP quizzed Harriet Harman MP, Leader of the House of Commons, about the lost HMRC data and asked for a full debate.

John asked:

Will the Leader of the House reconsider her decision not to grant a topical debate on the loss of data by the Government? I suggest that little is more topical than the loss of the personal details of 25 million people, especially given the concern it has caused in our constituencies.

Harriet Harman said she would consider this request and let Parliament know by Monday evening.

John said afterwards:

Gordon Brown has blamed a junior official for the loss of 25 million people’s personal banking details. However, it is becoming increasingly evident that high-ranking officials were aware of the 2 disks being sent through the post. This would suggest a systemic failure in data protection, which is a Government responsibility. We need a proper debate to find out the truth.”

What matters now is that the 2 missing disks are recovered and millions of people, including many constituents, can be reassured that their personal details are safe.

Harriet Harman will 'let Parliament know by Monday evening'? Translated this means 'I hope the bloody disks have turned up by then'.

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Nothern Rock chief shareholder wants to block sale

The major shareholders in Northern Rock have gone on a media offensive, threatening to block the sale of the company if they don't get value for their investments. You can't blame them for trying, but it does smack of a wilful refusal to face reality. A representative of the largest shareholder, RAB Capital, speaking on BBC's Today programme tried to talk up the state of the Rock saying that it was solvent 'because the government said so'. This is nonsense, without the support of over £23bn of taxpayers money Northern Rock would now be in bankrupt, so pretending that this is basically a healthy company is ludicrous. What the shareholders are trying to do is to pressure the government by threatening to drive Northern Rock into administration if they do not get their way. The trouble is that the government probably cannot give them what they want, which is some sort of value for their shares, because EU competition rules do not allow it. Even if that was not the case, support could only come from taxpayers funds, which basically means that the shareholders want the government to give them money, which most people would think unlikely. Northern Rock is bankrupt and as a bankrupt company it is simply not worth the value of the investments that have been made in it. The only question is what real value remains. It could be very little indeed.

Thursday, November 22, 2007

Labour slumps in polls

A poll for Channel 4 News from YouGov, with changes from the last YouGov poll, CON 41%(nc), LAB 32%(-3), LDEM 14(+1). This is after Labour's data disaster, where the excuses from ministers are unravelling by the hour. Now it turns out that the sending of unencrypted CDs by post containing vast amounts of data, and more data than the recipient actually wanted, was endorsed at a senior level within HMRC. So, no junior staffer making a blunder then, more a management failure from top to bottom, and the top was until recently Gordon Brown.

Labour is now plumbing the depths that the Conservatives found after the ERM debacle in 1992, and conversely Conservative support is now at the level it was before that fiasco.

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Labour's excuses on data don't wash

More details have emerged on Labour's data disaster we have had a mix of abject apologies and excuses. The worst of it is that the data was lost a whole month ago, with days lost while officials hoped that the envelope would turn up and then prevaricated before calling the police or telling the banks. Apologies are fine, but the basic excuse appears to be that a junior staffer is responsible for the whole mess. So, they are trying to reassure us on the basis that junior staff at HMRC have access to their entire database, to the point that they can put it on a couple of CDs? Are they having a larf? If this happened low down the HMRC food chain than it actually makes it worse, not better. A straightforward security breach would at least mean that the internal processes were circumvented. The government's story implies that it was business as usual up to the point that the envelope was licked. That makes HMRC a shambles and let us not forget that this department was run by Gordon Brown for the last 10 years. If there a structural problem, and a combination of savage job cuts and reorganisations are suggested as a cause, than the bony finger of blame points straight at the Prime Minister.

Politically, this whole business is poison. Everyone is either affected or knows someone who it. My wife's data has been lost for example. People remember things that affect them personally, and no-one is going to forget this. Think Black Wednesday when the political ground shifted in an afternoon. This lot are on the way out.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Two Catastrophes Darling

So, Alastair Darling has presided over the bail-out of Northern Rock, which is now virtually guaranteed to lose the taxpayers' money, and has followed this by losing the banking details of half of the adult population of the country. Both show incompetence, though only the first can squarely be laid at the Chancellor's door. The second speaks to an institutional problem whereby clowns in HMRC feel that they are empowered to not only download critical data onto an unencrypted CD but then to just pop it into the post. There have certainly been cases in other organisations of data being stolen because it was on a laptop that went missing, but never anything on this scale and never because of this level of sheer stupidity. Now, some people will use this as an argument against large-scale computer systems, period, which is, of course, nonsense. Large-scale IT can be operated safely, in the same way that nuclear power stations can be operated safely, but you have to have the professional expertise and organisation to do it. Nothing about the way the government deals with IT suggests either professionalism or organisation. Instead, the model appears to be amateurs giving orders to expensive consultants. So, projects fail, systems aren't integrated, and policy allows egregious breaches of the Data Protection Act or common sense for that matter.

To think, Alastair Darling was supposed to be a safe pair of hands.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Liberal Democrat leadership hopefuls' spat

So much for Liberal Democrats being the 'nice' party...

New Labour logic seeps away

New Labour always rested on a triad. There was residual dislike of the Tories from their 18 years in power, where disappointed interest groups and the desire for change made for votes against, and so to support for Labour. There was the persona of Tony Blair, who always maintained an affability that seemed above narrow partisan politics and which allowed the other members of the Labour party to be as nakedly political as they liked. Finally, and most importantly there was the economy, the ten year period of sustained growth that funded the government’s schemes and, more importantly, kept cash jingling in peoples’ pockets. A triad is pretty stable unless one of the legs is kicked away, but Labour is now starting to resemble a chair with no legs. David Cameron has decontaminated the Conservative brand, though time and space from John Major’s government had already done much of the work. Tony Blair is gone, and Gordon Brown is nowhere near his equal in the dark arts of politics. Most importantly, and most worryingly, the economy is going south with growth forecasts cut against a background of rising oil prices and the real possibility of both a British and international Recession. That has the potential to expose the way that Labour has unbalanced the economy to the point that the government would have very little ability to ameliorate the worst effects of a downturn on our people. No-one wishes that, and I bet it is giving Brown and Darling nightmares.

Saturday, November 17, 2007

Brown crashes in the polls

The headline figures show a steady Conservative lead in the polls of 4-6%, but a new poll in the Times shows that something else is going on:

The YouGov poll of nearly 2,000 people for The Sunday Times shows that Brown’s honeymoon period has ended. Last month 59% thought that he was doing a good job as prime minister, while 29% said he was doing badly, a healthy net approval rating of +30.

Now only 33% think he is doing well and 43% think he is doing badly, a net approval rating of -10 and a precipitous drop of 40 percentage points in a month. At the height of his honeymoon in the summer, his approval rating was +48.

Down 40 points in a month! Brown is inhabiting the same territory as John Major after the ERM debacle in 1992. And if we thought Tony Blair was a control freak the media are suggesting that Brown is trying to run the entire country with a 5-man conference call every day at 07:00, just his mates, no civil servants. Never mind the politics, this is just incompetent management. Don't get me wrong I want the Conservatives to succeed, but I would much rather it was because we won the battle of ideas and opinion, not because the government of my country are a bunch of idiots.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Northern Rock bosses sacked

You bet your company on the international money markets and lose, creating the first run on a British bank for 158 years and are only saved from bankruptcy by government intervention and they still leave you in charge, until now that is. Finally, someone has figured out that the Northern Rock fiasco was down to bad catastrophic management and the guilty parties have been shown the door. Except not yet. Apparently, Adam Applegarth, the CEO, is being kept on until January as an 'advisor'. Is this so he can go to the firm's Christmas party? This chap has caused over £20 billion of taxpayers money to be tied up in his little business scheme and there is a real prospect that some of that may be lost. Every taxpayer in the UK has effectively invested in Northern Rock because we have a financial regulatory system that failed and a government without the bottle to let a bank fail when it richly deserved to do so, but in the final analysis the blame lies with Applegarth and his cronies on the Northern Rock board. They should have been sacked sooner, and the way that this is being handled does not auger well for the takeover bids and rescue plans that are now jostling for attention because the now ex-management appear to have done little to stop the value draining out of what was left of their business. In the end it will be shareholders, staff and taxpayers who will suffer for that.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

Commons public accounts committee slates Thames Gateway

The view of the Public Accounts Committee on the Thames Gateway is that:
Without significant improvement in the overall management of the programme it will remain a series of disjointed projects and is unlikely to achieve its potential to make a major difference to economic regeneration and sustainable housing.
That is just an excerpt from a relentlessly critical report on the huge Thames Gateway project, which is the largest regeneration project in Europe. Now I have an insider view on this: I sit on the Basildon Renaissance Partnership and I chair the Thames Gateway South Essex Economy and Inward Investment Board and I think that the MPs do and don't have a point. First of all the Thames Gateway project is a worthy one, and without it the growing prosperity of the area will still leave areas of deprivation and inadequate infrastructure. Unfortunately, the scale of the endeavour is matched by its difficulty. Regeneration that works across numerous local authorities and communities is hard to organise and the professional talent that is needed is scarce. The project did not get off to a good start either, with John Prescott running it under the now defunct Office of the Deputy Prime-Minister. He was not a good leader and his department made numerous mistakes, not least in grossly complicating the planning system, which then made delivering regeneration on the ground a tortuous process. That having been said, from my lowly viewpoint things are happening. Basildon at least has a thriving regeneration programme that has been enabled by carefully targeted funding from the Thames Gateway organisation. In Thurrock there is a port project that will eventually handle half of the UK's container traffic, and there are other schemes elsewhere in the Gateway. It is when you step back and look at achievements in aggregate through the Thames Gateway that things start to look uneven. In particular, there are issues with housing delivery and the CLG seems to be under pressure from other government departments. One point in the report is on how local MPs have been engaged, and I know that there are certainly issues there in other parts of South Essex. Here in Basildon we make a point of meeting with our local parliamentarians, and both John Baron and Angela Smith have been very supportive.

What will be interesting is how the Thames Gateway project's leadership reacts. I hope that they push through the strident tone of the report and look carefully at each point in turn, because there are some things to fix.

Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Conservatives on votes for Council Tax

David Cameron has proposed that Councils who want to raise their taxes above a certain limit must ask their people in a referendum. The idea was immediately rubbished on the the Today programme by the BBC's 'expert' commentators who said that because people would never vote for higher taxes it was just the same as the current capping regime. There are examples, from Croydon and Bristol, where people who were faced with a choice certainly did vote for the lowest possible Council Tax increase. Case closed you might have thought if you listened to the piece. The thing is that the BBC in their never-ending quest to be even-handed did not mention Milton Keynes. Here a vote was offered on three Council Tax alternatives and on a turn-out higher than the local elections people did not vote for the lowest, going for the rise in the middle of the range instead. So, the BBC's contemptuous dismissal of the Conservative proposals that was based on an assumption that people only ever act in their own narrow self-interest was simply wrong. It does, however illustrate the soft-left view that people cannot be trusted and must be corralled by their betters instead of being given any real power or choice themselves. Actually, I think that the idea could work and that people would vote for a well made case, even if it meant paying a higher tax. They did in Milton Keynes.

It all reflects the Conservative agenda of pushing power down to individuals and communities. After ten years of this controlling, target-obsessed government it is time that the argument moved on.

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Conservatives ahead by 8

From the Sunday papers:
An exclusive ICM poll for the Sunday Express put the Tories on 43 per cent, Labour on 35 per cent and the Lib-Dems on 15 per cent. The eight-point lead – a three-point rise on the last ICM poll a fortnight ago – would be enough to give David Cameron a slim overall majority in a General Election.
The Conservatives are up three from two weeks ago, all at the expense of the the Liberal Democrats who are down three. Labour have not moved despite the re-launch of the Queen's speech. While Labour has had mid-term blues before this is the first sustained period that the Conservative Party has been running at 40+ in the polls since 1992.

Labour thinks Basildon is on welfare

Basildon survives on government handouts, according to the local Labour party that is. We were debating Basildon's Regeneration Framework at the Council's Cabinet when the Leader of the Labour Group came out with the claim that Basildon District gets more government money in the form of subsidies and investment than it returns to the government in the form of tax. Now, the Regeneration Framework is our way of presenting our multiplicity of regeneration projects as a coherent whole, and many of those projects have had government funding in one form of another, but to move from that to the idea that Basildon District is basically on benefits is a bit of a leap. Basildon is in southern England within striking distance of the London economic powerhouse, our largest industrial and business area employs 40000 people and the District has areas that are very affluent indeed. Is it even remotely likely that its contribution to the exchequer is net negative? If Basildon as a successful District in southern county is on welfare then which part of the country is providing the subsidy? All in all this harks back to the old Labour tactic of running Basildon down in an effort to obtain more cash from the government. Our approach is to demonstrate our success in order to show that Basildon District is the right place to invest. That at least has the virtue that it works.

Friday, November 09, 2007

Cross-party push to lower abortion age

It appears that a government bill just introduced into the Commons is going to be amended in an effort to reduce the abortion limit from 24 weeks to 20. So, this issue will again be a matter for public an parliamentary debate. The arguments on abortion are complex; on the one hand a termination may be needed for medical reasons, which has now come to include the mindset of the mothers. On the other hand medical science has now moved to the point that an embryo at 24 weeks is more like a baby at 24 weeks, with theoretical survival rates now around 40%. So, at that limit babies are dying who might otherwise have lived. There are extremes of opinion on either side; people who believe that abortion should not be allowed at all or people who think that it should be allowed on demand at any time before the child emerges at nine months. The former clearly have a point when it comes to regarding human life as being special, anyone who thinks differently should research societies can become when human life comes to be regarded as disposable. However, they do not have a point at least in the case of medical harm to the mother. The latter argument would at the extreme turn doctors into murderers.

Abortion should be allowed, but as medical science advances it is going to be progressively more difficult to maintain the current limits, and that situation is going to become steadily worse in the future. At this time a reduction from 24 to 20 weeks is reasonable, but it won't be the last word.

Wednesday, November 07, 2007

Labour Defence Minister quits to go car racing

You couldn't make it up. The defence procurement minister, you know the chap responsible for getting the kit into our soldiers' hands, has quit to go and compete in the Le Mans motor race. Our men and women are dying for want of equipment, as shown by a coroner's verdict today, and this man decides to wander off on an extended holiday. So much for being a Labour 'working' peer.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

Brown's Vision hidden in Queen's Speech

A Zen master once asked what is the sound of one hand clapping? The answer is the appropriate response to Gordon Brown's program for the new parliament. True there is a lot of legislation and a few sound bites, but is there is nothing on the biggest problems facing our people today. On immigration there is actually nothing. On reform of the benefits system, almost nothing, and absolutely nothing on able-bodied people ending up in permanent dependency on the State. On crime we have a measures to do things to people after they have been convicted, nothing on prevention or detection or getting more police out on the street. Then we have a manufactured row in the making about extending the detention without being charged of terrorist suspects to 56 days from the current 28. There is absolutely no evidence that this is needed, and no terrorist suspect has ever failed to be charged or released inside the current 28 days, so the only reason for this is to get the opposition to vote against and then portray them as soft on terrorism. Never mind actually doing any good for our country. David Cameron's response was to call Brown weak. Personally, I never thought I would miss Tony Blair.

Monday, November 05, 2007

John Baron MP: ISTC for Basildon is now killed off

Having now been told in writing by the Government that no Independent Sector Treatment Centre (ISTC) for Basildon would go ahead against the wishes of the local NHS, and having recently met with SW Essex Primary Care Trust (PCT) and been informed of their decision to oppose the idea, John Baron MP has said that the proposal for an ISTC for Basildon has now effectively been killed off. John and Basildon Hospital have long argued that such a scheme would disrupt existing NHS services, undermine staff training, and threaten patient choice. Now the plans appear to have been blocked.

Commenting, John said:

“Given that a Government letter to me has clearly stated that an ISTC will not be imposed on Basildon against the wishes of the local NHS, and now that both SW Essex PCT and Basildon Hospital have come out against it, a local ISTC is now dead in the water.”

“Major changes to the health service cannot proceed without the support of the local NHS and residents. I have therefore written to the Government reminding them of their promise and asking them to confirm that plans for an ISTC for Basildon have now been shelved.”

“I welcome the PCT’s decision to oppose an independent hospital in Basildon. Our existing NHS Hospital would suffer a drain of resources if a new hospital was set up next door. This would have bad effect on training budgets, planning, and cross-subsidy of services.”

“The ISTC project has been subject to secret negotiations between the Government and a private provider, with local patients and the NHS kept in the dark. There were many unanswered questions about who would pay the bill if patient numbers fell below the level agreed between Whitehall and the private sector. My concern was always that local services would suffer as a result.”

Sunday, November 04, 2007

Conservative Nigel Hastilow Resigns in Race Row

A Conservative parliamentary candidate has resigned after writing a column in a local paper which said that Enoch Powell was right in his infamous 'Rivers of Blood' speech in 1968. Powell was sacked from the Conservative front bench for that one, and so expressing admiration for him was a little unwise to say the least.

Immigration has been a toxic issue in British politics for years, with those who want to close down debate on what is a legitimate political issue pointing fingers and screaming 'racist!' at anyone who dares to say that immigration might not be an untrammelled good. They have come out of the woodwork again in the form of Peter Hain who has been drivelling on about the 'racist underbelly' of the Conservative Party. That is the sort of abuse that you would expect from a government that has no idea about the numbers of immigrants in the country or their contribution to the economy, and desperately wants to close any debate down. Well, it won't wash this time. Hastilow, might have show extraordinarily poor political judgement, but that is as nothing when compared to the serial incompetence of the Labour government that Peter Hain's drivel is an effort to cover up.

Saturday, November 03, 2007

John Baron MP slams new bin taxes

John Baron MP today warned that families across Basildon District face the prospect of new bin taxes on top of council tax. After confusion in, Labour Ministers have finally confirmed that new taxes for bin collections will go ahead. In July, a cross-party Parliamentary Committee savaged the bin tax plans, warning of more fly-tipping, neighbourhood bin wars, non-payment by the public; it said that the plans would raise the overall burden of taxation.

John said, “Bin taxes will harm the local environment and public health by leading to a surge in backyard burning. The evidence shows this is what happened in the Republic of Ireland after bin taxes were introduced. Illegal burning of household waste releases toxic chemicals into the atmosphere. On top of tip-taxes, they will also lead to an increase in fly-tipping and put at risk Basildon Council’s good record in this area.

“Meanwhile, the set-up and running costs of such a complex tax, which involves installing microchips in every bin, will mean the overall burden of taxation will rise. Families now face the double whammy of record council tax bills and new bin taxes.

“The soaring costs of waste are yet another example of how Whitehall and EU burdens are being imposed on Basildon Council. The answer is not to create new local taxes. Labour Ministers must stop imposing unfunded obligations and red tape on local communities and cease hiking up local taxes by stealth.”

News of higher taxes comes as new official figures published by the Government have exposed that fly-tipping across England is soaring. Basildon Council has a good record in recent years in fly-tipping but, in total, cleaning up after fly-tipping has still cost local taxpayers £1,372,304 over the last three years. The Keep Britain Tidy campaign is warning that new bin taxes will make the problem even worse.

Friday, November 02, 2007

Nothern Rock Nationalised

There is an old saying; 'if you owe the bank £1000 then you are in trouble, if you owe the bank £1000000 then the bank's in trouble'. Well now Northern Rock owes the Bank of England £23bn, and so the risks associated with that failing company have now been smoothly transferred from shareholders and depositors to taxpayers. The Bank of England, the FSA and the Treasury regulate banks in the UK, and all three have had a hand in this mess. The FSA failed to monitor Northern Rock's activities adequately, despite the fact that the Rock's business model was different to every other major financial institution. You would have thought that this would have brought some special scrutiny, but you would have thought wrong. Then there was the Bank of England's refusal to follow the other central banks in providing liquidity when the money markets dried up. The inevitable logic of that was that they were happy for a major bank to fail if it came to it, but of course they weren't so why take a course of action that would make it happen? Then we come to the treasury who sleepwalked their way into the first run on a major UK bank for a century. Let us be clear, Northern Rock is now effectively owned by the government who both finance it and guarantee its deposits. Safe in the arms of the State, Northern Rock's management are doing nothing to sort out their company, no closures, redundancies, repricing of products, nothing. In fact it is a question why those clowns are still running the show. It's not as if the Chief Executive is even a qualified banker.

Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Labour has been making it up on immigration

Let’s get this straight, the government have had no idea of how many foreign workers there were in the UK and no idea of how many of the jobs created since 1997 have gone to foreigners. Against this background we have been told for years that immigration was an unmitigated good and as recently as the 2005 general election anyone saying different has been branded a racist or a xenophobe. Now it turns out that the number of foreign workers in the country is at least 1.5 million and that more than half of the jobs created since 1997 have gone to them. This last is very serious as whenever the number of people on benefits refused to decline the government always pointed to the numbers in work as a defence. What these numbers are telling us is that the large numbers of people who a locked into dependency on the state by Labour’s failed policies have stayed there while the jobs that they may have had are taken by new arrivals. There is plenty of anecdotal evidence of this as well if you talk to ordinary people in ordinary parts of our country, many of whom have been traditional Labour voters. That leaves aside the strain on public services and on the housing market of our steeply rising population. Now David Cameron has announced that a new Conservative government would tighten up on immigration, as well as doing something about people trapped on benefits, which also means being trapped in poverty. Labour meanwhile are floundering as ministers face the ruins of policies going back ten years. The country, and some of their own backbenchers, demands that they get on top of this situation. So far they seem to be in denial.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Wickford Action Group rubbish Laindon Centre Regeneration

Wickford Town Centre doesn’t need ‘something doing to brighten it up’ which is the view of the 'Wickford Action Group' in their recent letter in our local paper; it needs proper regeneration to halt its decline. There is certainly a serious problem if you talk to the traders on the High Street, including the one who asked me if it was worth renewing the lease and staying in business because things have got so bad. There are also local examples of town centres going badly wrong and you only have to go to Grays or Laindon Town Centres and then consider what having half of the local shops boarded up does to a community. Basildon Council is not waiting for Wickford to reach a terminal state, which is why there is a Master Plan and why we are progressing with delivery. Another complaint is about town centre housing; this is government policy, which means that a local Council cannot turn down legal planning applications for residences in the Town Centre. We also don’t want to build on the surrounding Green belt that is Wickford’s vital green lung and gives the town so much of its character as a town instead of a suburb of Basildon. What is most disappointing is that the Wickford Action Group is now trying to rubbish regeneration efforts elsewhere in Basildon District, particularly in Laindon where regeneration of the Town Centre is desperately needed. They go so far as to claim that Councillors are misleading the people of Laindon in the consultation process there. In fact the consultation that has been going on is by the private owners of the Laindon Centre and nothing to do with the Council. So, who is misleading who?

Monday, October 29, 2007

Northern Rock saga trickles on

Northern Rock's bailout from the Bank of England is now over £20bn, and climbing. Given that the interest rate on the loans is around 7% and that most Northern Rock mortgages are for less than this amount, this means that the Northern Rock loan book is growing increasingly unprofitable. Worse still, the haemorrhage of market funds from the Rock is likely to continue as commercial loans have to be repaid and no more are to be had. So, what we have is a bank with rapidly decreasing profitability and little in the way of assets: few branches, unexceptional computer systems and a toxic brand. Two questions immediately spring to mind; why on earth are their shares still trading and what is in it for the two or three prospective buyers? There is no good answer to the first. It is impossible to accurately value Northern Rock shares and they should be suspended to stop the uninformed or downright foolish from investing further. The second question is more interesting; all of the buyers want some level of government support and the most likely scenario is that the various players are looking to a time when the capital markets will start to operate again and then the long term value of the Rock's generally high-quality mortgage book can be realised.

There is also the small matter of sorting out the regulatory shambles that led to this situation. Someone needs to get a grip there.

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Liberal Democrats now predicted to win some seats!

Following a revision of the predictive model, the Electoral Calculus site has revised its election prediction to Conservative 267, Labour 334, Liberal Democrat 16; giving Labour an 18 seat majority. This is based on the most recent opinion polls and takes the Liberal Democrats from a prediction of no seats to merely having their parliamentary representation cut by nearly three quarters.

Locally this prediction yields:

Basildon and Billericay

MP John Baron (CON)
Electorate64,873 Turnout60.20%

2005 Votes2005 SharePrediction
OTH3,096 7.93%
MIN1,805 4.62%
CON Majority3,587 9.19% Pred Maj12.12%

Basildon South and East Thurrock

MP Angela Smith (LAB)
Electorate71,108 Turnout58.95%

2005 Votes2005 SharePrediction
OTH2,446 5.83%
MIN250 0.60%
LAB Majority461 1.10% Pred Maj 1.71%CON Gain

Of course, there is probably a long way to go to the actual election, though with 'decisive' Gordon in charge who knows, but if I were Angela Smith I would be a little worried. This particular contest is marked by an incumbent who is actually a pretty good MP and a challenger in Stephen Metcalfe who will make an excellent MP. The people of Basildon and East Thurrock are lucky to have such high quality candidates for the next general election.

English votes for English laws

A proposal for a parliamentary Grand Committee of English MPs to deal with English-only laws is being considered by the Conservative Party. This is a very good idea, and the only way to really balance out the democratic deficit created by Labour's ham-fisted approach to devolution. Currently, Scottish MPs decide on policy for England while English MPs are excluded from doing the same for Scotland. In fact on many issues the Labour Party relies on its Scottish MPs to push English policy through parliament. Of course, Labour is now predictably whining about how the proposal puts the Union in danger when what has actually put the Union in danger is their own incompetent approach to devolution that has led to a separatist government in Scotland and mounting English resentment of subsidising Scottish state handouts that are not available in England. But there is another reason why Labour is complaining, and that is the electoral math. It is quite conceivable that there could be a Conservative majority in England, even if our skewed electoral system made for a Labour national government. A Labour Prime Minister would have to deal with an effective Conservative English government, in addition to whoever was in power in Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales and Labour do not relish that prospect one bit. Well, tough; this is the inevitable consequence of what they started, and the only hope of rebalancing the constitutional arrangements for our nation. Just for once it would be nice if they though about our country first instead of obsessing about their party political interests.

Saturday, October 27, 2007

Harlow by-election results

Two by-elections in Harlow on Thursday. A good gain for the Conservatives, but look at the Lib Dem vote share. The motives for Ming's knifing are quite apparent.

Little Parndon and Hare Street Turnout 28.4%. Conservative Gain

Change in Vote Share
Cons 598 39.63% 8.00%
Lab 794 52.62% 5.95%
Lib Dem 117 7.75% -13.94%

Toddbrook Turnout 30.53%. Labour Hold

Change in Vote Share
Cons 728 45.50% 7.36%
Lab 713 44.56% 3.76%
Lib Dem 57 3.56% -7.34%
Respect 102 6.38% -3.78%

9/11 "Truthers" told to "Get a Life"

Most people with lives don't realise that there is a strand of opinion that thinks the terrorist attacks on September 11th 2001 were actually organised by the US government. These people have built up an entire theology around the government conspiracy proposition, complete with factions and schisms. Some believe that aeroplanes didn't actually hit the towers, they were holograms apparently; some believe that the World Trade Centre was hit by rays from space, and there are those who merely believe that the entire complex was wired for demolition. Of course they have no evidence that stands up to a moment's scrutiny and the entire movement is a monument to logical fallacies, and failures in basic science education. In fact, the only reason this is at all important is that these people act as apologists and deniers to the very real threat of Islamic terrorism, preferring the comfort zone of believing in the supposed evils of the governments of the West instead of recognising that there are actually enemies from elsewhere who would kill them in an eyeblink if it served their purposes.

Having failed to make any impression on public opinion, the latest 'truther' tactic is to ambush live television programmes and public figures with moronic shouted slogans or crackpot questions, usually filming the results for YouTube. This has moved some commentator opinion from amused tolerance to irritation, as can be seen from this article in the Telegraph. It is also a worrying development. Having seen some of the other things these people also tend to believe, Jews Control the media, worldwide conspiracies etc., then the more active they get the more likely it is that their activism will not end well. There is a rich history of lunatic fringes escalating to violence from the Unabomber to Timothy McVeigh to more 'organised' groups such as the Weather Underground or the Baader Meinhof group in Germany. So, not only are they abetting the enemies of democracy through their propaganda, but they are on a dangerous and slippery slope to becoming agents of terror themselves. Let's hope that 'truth' movement gets off that train before it arrives at its ghastly destination.

Friday, October 26, 2007

Conservatives lead Labour in new poll

The latest YouGov poll in the Telegraph has the Conservatives three points ahead of Labour. This represents an almost unprecedented shift from Labour's 11 point lead of just one month ago, and it is that turnaround rather than the bald numbers that make the situation more interesting. The proximate cause of the shift in support was Brown's non-election fiasco, which in a few short days undid his reputation for decisiveness and leadership. He followed that with the Pre-Budget Report, where the student-politics trick of lifting Conservative policy did not go down well in the world of grown-ups. Of course, the Conservative Party reacted brilliantly to the developing government dither, but these were primarily Labour self-inflicted wounds. How serious they will be for the long term remains to be seen, but Labour needed a cushion of goodwill with the serious danger of an economic downturn in the near future, and it has been squandered in a staggering display of political incompetence. Over on the Labour blogs, there actually are a few, they are consoling themselves that a new Liberal Democrat leader will steal support from the Conservatives and so all will be well. For myself I hear the scraping at the bottom of the barrel on that one. What Labour needs to do is come with coherent policies for the good of our country. Instead we have Alan Johnson claiming that obesity is as bad a global warming. With that sense of perspective from one of their so-called 'stars' it is no wonder that the government appears increasingly shambolic.

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Brown's economic miracle a sham according to a German team

Britain's economic performance is built on the twin pillars of personal debt that is based on inflated house prices and a fiscally irresponsible splurge in public spending. This is the view of a German-led team of economists writing for a think-tank. I have heard similar analysis before, that the difference between the trend growth in the British economy and the Brown boom has been funded through debt, both personal and governmental, and there is a ring of truth about it. Record government debt is a fact. Record personal debt is a fact. While there has also been a great deal of virtuous economic activity over the last ten years, the gloss has come from borrowing at levels not hitherto seen before. This is the point really as debt is not an absolute evil, and there are cases in business where a low level of debt is actually an inefficient use of assets. However, during periods of growth the government should be paying down the national debt, not ratcheting it up and the same is true of individuals, who should be saving. When there is a downturn, and there is a fair amount of evidence that we are heading into one now, then it is the savings from the good times that carry you through; but what if there are no savings? With growth slowing, real interest rates climbing and government spending being squeezed then there is a possibility that things might get a great deal worse for the economy. The political consequences that would follow are easy to predict. That at least is justice; the architects of this mess should be out on their ears.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

Liberal Democrats next election prediction: zero seats

The Electoral Calculus website is a sort of guilty secret among politicos. It takes current opinion polling and overlays it on various parliamentary constituencies to determine a possible General Election result. The site is excellent in its layout and makes it easy to drill down to an individual constituency. Its current prediction is for Labour on 338, Conservatives on 271 and the Liberal Democrats on zero, nothing, nada, sod all. Of course this is an artefact of a uniform swing model, and the Electoral Calculus site has a detailed explanation of how it has come about. However, that cannot disguise the underlying fact that Liberal Democrat support has halved since the 2005 election. Even given more variable swings by constituency in a forthcoming election, it seems likely that a lot of the bright young things that came into parliament under the Liberal Democrat banner in 2005 will be going straight out again at the earliest opportunity. The reasons for the collapse in support are not hard to discern, with the Iraq War losing its electoral potency as an issue and the stuttering end of anti-Tory tactical voting. There was also Ming, whose failures as a leader led to a pretty brutal assassination.

Now the Liberal Democrat theory seems to be that all they have to do is elect a photogenic leader and their dire position will reverse itself. My observation is that nothing in politics is that simple, and that bouffant hair does not substitute for clarity of political vision and policy. This is a bit of a challenge for the Liberal Democrats as everyone knows that they won't be forming the next government and that their stated position is to prop up Labour given half the chance. So, if you want the current lot out, vote Conservative. Why do anything different? Well, the answer to that will come if the new Liberal Democrat leader can change the dynamic, especially in his party's relationship to the Conservatives and with one eye on what they would do in a hung parliament. This is not a trivial thing and would require a wholesale change of attitude, but, as the Electoral Calculus prediction shows, the alternative might be quite grisly. Ask the Liberal Democrats here in Basildon what happens when you prop up an unpopular Labour administration. They used to be the second largest party after Labour. Now they have three Councillors left; not quite zero, but getting there.

Monday, October 22, 2007

Brown on the wrong side of big issues

There is a rule in politics; try to avoid giving issues to your opponents. What this means is that significant matters of concern to key communities, keep on the right side of the argument, or at least make it hard for your opponents to get into a more popular position that you. Tony Blair was very good at this, on things like taxation or the future of the health service where he made it difficult for anyone to draw a sharp divide with Labour by allowing them to champion a more appealing way forward. Gordon Brown does not have this skill, and he has handed two big ones over to the Conservatives in his short stay in power. The first is Capital Gains Tax, where Labour's 'tax simplification' agenda has managed to array all four of the UK's main business organisations against them. It is a pretty difficult feat to get the representatives of business of every size, from window-cleaners to multinationals, up in arms on the same issue, but Labour has managed it. The Conservatives have come down for lower CGT and get an issue of huge importance to the nations business community. Smart politics from Labour it is not. Then there is the European Reform Treaty, or constitution by any other name. Here Labour's line that this is a new treaty that is unrelated to the old and that Britain's 'Red Lines' will be inviolate is bought by the Independent, who these days just print government press releases anyway, but by no-one else. Again the Conservatives get the issue and they are campaigning vigorously on a platform that has the support of most of the media and around 80% of the population. Brown should never have let it come to this and his microscopic political talents are in danger of leaving his party looking like it is being unpopular on purpose. This is not a wise strategy in any system that involves reasonably free and fair elections.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

LibDem Leadership race just a beauty contest?

Leadership races are seminal moments for a political party. This is when the policy alternatives that will set the party's direction for an electoral cycle can be debated, where established principles can be questioned, where the very meaning of an entire political movement can be redefined. Or not. Incredibly, in the Liberal Democrat leadership race the key issue has been identified as 'presentation'. So, instead of a battle of ideas it appears that LibDem members face a battle of hairdos. Instead of a showcase on what in means to be a Liberal Democrat, and I for one was quite interested in that cos I've never managed to figure it out, we will presumably see an argument regarding the finer points of conducting a press conference or which brand of face powder makes you look younger on TV. To say that this is astonishing is an understatement, and you have to wonder what they think they are playing at. Apparently, there has been some understanding between the two declared contestants, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg, to keep the contest clean. Somehow this has translated into not talking about, well, politics, which is an absurdity for a political party leadership contest. It is also a huge missed opportunity. If they don't talk about policy than any value the contest may have had as a showcase for the LibDems will evaporate. This was hardly going to primetime viewing anyway, but now media obscurity beckons. Bluntly, if one of these two guys really wanted the leadership then he would fight an election campaign for it, not engage in farcical shadow-boxing. Otherwise both risk looking like fools.

Friday, October 19, 2007

Basildon Council Motion on Reform Treaty

There was a debate at Basildon Council on the following motion:

The “Reform Treaty”, signed by Tony Blair on 23 June, is acknowledged publicly
by the leaders of nearly all our EU partners and by the parliamentary cross-party European Scrutiny Committee to be virtually the same as the
Constitution Treaty.

France and the Netherlands decisively rejected that Treaty.

The “Reform Treaty” transfers yet more substantive powers from Britain to the EU and further erodes British laws and the British Constitution.

It will reduce the rights and freedoms of the residents of Basildon and of the whole nation.

Therefore this Council calls on Gordon Brown, the Prime Minister, to abide by the Government’s promise to the electorate in the 2005 Labour Party Manifesto, page 84, “We will put the [Constitution Treaty] to the British People in a

As might be expected, a very full debate ensued, with the Labour Party taking the view that no referendum was required. Their arguments were either abuse, 'you're all xenophobes' etc., or claims that the new treaty was minor or otherwise harmless. What there wasn't was anything on the central issue that both treaties were the same and the government had broken a manifesto commitment. This was very interesting indeed. With the government spouting a line that the Constitution Treaty and the Reform Treaty are totally different you would have expected that their own most fervent supporters would have believed this enough to advance it as an argument, but they didn't. This is a pretty good indication that Brown and co. are on to a loser.

The motion was carried. As well as being a very damaging issue for the Labour government this is also a very uniting issue for the Conservatives.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Someone tell Gordon he can't do jokes, please

This week's PMQs weren't the painful mugging followed by stamping of last Wednesday, but they did illustrate one central point: Gordon Brown can't do humour. Now, some people can't, or can't very well and all of the advice on public speaking is that if you aren't funny then don't try to be. Unfortunately, none of Brown's coterie appears to have had the bottle to tell him that he won't be doing the Edinburgh fringe anytime soon. So, we had the sad sight of missed punchlines and repeated attempts to get the joke right. In a seaside pub he would have been pelted with food, but this was parliament and Labour MPs had clearly been told to act as more than last week's shocked bystanders, and so duly cheered no matter what came out of Brown's mouth.

There were two topics really, the superbug epidemic and the EU Reform Treaty. This last was on the eve of Gordon Brown's key meeting in Lisbon tomorrow, and put a pretty firm marker down on the issue. Unless the PM has an epiphany and decides that the matter deserves the referendum the Labour Party promised in their 2005 manifesto, then there will be a huge parliamentary row on this matter, on an issue that unites the Conservatives and splits Labour. Should be interesting.

Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Sir Menzies Campbell knifed by LibDems

He was assassinated, and any attempt to spin otherwise is understandable, but does not have the virtue of being true. Ming's problem was that he wasn't delivering either in terms of punch in the Commons or polls in the country. That didn't lead to a delegation of men and/or women in grey suits, but it did translate into a palpable lack of support from the Liberal Democrat parliamentary team. All this business about age wouldn't have mattered if Ming had being doing the business. Because he wasn't, and because at least some of his colleagues were pushing them the press started to raise the leadership question, but there should be no doubt that a bit of loyalty from LibDem MPs would have meant that there was no question in the first place.

The news coverage yesterday was most instructive. Vince Cable, Ming's deputy leader told the British media that Campbell had not talked to him about the leadership question, despite admitting earlier in the day that the matter was 'under discussion'. This does not at least suggest close and harmonious working relationship at best and at worst identifies at least one set of prints on the murder weapon. Then there was Sandra Gidley, LibDem MP for Romsey and sitting on a majority of 125. She didn't even bother to disguise her glee and the turn of events, and this with the bloke resigned barely an hour before. Finally there was an old-school MP phoning in from a parliamentary delegation to Moscow, who was pretty scathing about the way his colleagues had behaved. So, platitudes and attempts to blame it all on press ageism aside, it was an engineered departure with the one proviso that Ming might just have pre-empted them all by going a bit sooner than expected.

What now? Well we have the fascinating spectacle of a leadership contest to look forward to. The question is if that automatically translates into a bounce in the polls for the LibDems. On that I am not so sure. There is some evidence, based on emails and texts coming into various news organisations that the latest turn of events has not gone down that well with the public, so that has to be fixed. Then some lucky man or woman has to lead this bunch into a general election, now knowing exactly the level of loyalty they can expect if things don't do to plan. Sometimes, the swift removal of a leader doesn't always do it. After all, as far as the LibDems are concerned this is the second time in eighteen months.

Over-enthusiastic flu jab

My flu jab went feral, hence the lack of activity over the last few days. Perils of a compromised immune system. Feeling a lot better now though.

Labour's Vision

Gordon Brown talked about his vision in his conference speech. That is a good thing, having an overarching view of where you wish to take the country is a pretty good idea for a Prime Minister. It also means that policy can be put into context and a well-designed series of measures that underpin a vision is the basic process by which any institution, be it country or community association, is changed for the better. Unfortunately, Gordon Brown does not seem to have actually shared his vision with his own cabinet, much less the public. So, Labour ministers were on over the weekend either making up their own vision for the future or trying to change the subject. This is also the reason why Conservative-inspired policy on things like inheritance tax have gone down badly with both the public and the Labour Party. Without a political vision is seemed like simple opportunism, cunning without belief, and no-one likes that.

Having engineered a situation where the Conservatives are polling better than any time since 1992, Brown really has to sort this out. It would kind of be good for the country too.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

Marriage is suddenly OK, Conservatives setting agenda again

For years politicians fought shy of marriage. Inept presentation by the Conservatives coupled with their own indiscretions made marriage-neutral policy the norm. In fact, the welfare systems developed by Gordon Brown are more than that, they have financial discouragements to marriage. This is not so much a bad thing as barking mad. Morals aside, repeated quantitative analysis of the outcomes for children show that those raised in a stable relationship outperform those from any other situation in every regard. In terms of academic achievement, absence of drug use, lack of criminal activity, economic success and even good mental health there isn't so much as a gap, but a gulf. And guess what? Marriages are more stable, make that much more stable, that any cohabitation arrangements. Now, that is the trend, but it isn't true in every case. There are examples of heroic single parents whose children have been wildly successful, in the same way as there are examples of 93-year olds who have smoked two packs a day and never got lung cancer. But, you don't base public policy only on the extremes, either for supporting marriage or smoking prevention.

The sea-change started with Iain Duncan-Smith who instead of sulking when he lost the leadership of the Conservative Party organised some serious research into social policy. He came to the conclusion that marriage should be supported. Without giving out any credit, the government's recent U-turn on inheritance tax only applies to Married couples or those in civil partnerships. Now Andrew Burnham, Labour's Chief Secretary to the treasury and also adopted the Conservative line. It is inconceivable that he would freelance on this issue, so he must be preparing the ground for something, and not before time. Now we have Gordon Brown's vision laid bare, it's whatever David Cameron thinks.

Friday, October 12, 2007


Gordon Brown probably should watch this, unless he has abruptly developed a sense of humour, and some general emotional balance. Otherwise, I won't be held responsible for the consequences.

Funding established for Basildon Sporting Village Project

There was an item at Basildon Council's cabinet last night to set up the funding structure for our Sporting Village Project. For those not familiar; this is to build a world-class sports complex including a 50m competition pool, gymnastics hall, with supporting athletics track, climbing walls, weights, physiotherapy, pitches of various kinds and so on. The idea is that it can service all needs from elite sports through to leisure and therapeutic, and for the entire District. Because of the quality of the facility it can act as a support to the 2012 Olympics. It is also desperately needed because Basildon's existing sporting infrastructure is deteriorating beyond economic repair. Now, a project like this is pretty expensive, even to run, never mind the actual build costs. Fortunately, the Communities and Local Government department have stumped up the £1m we need to get things going, and the meeting last night was to factor it into the Council's budget. Whatever the rest of the government might get up to, I have found the CLG regeneration arm to be very supportive of our ambitions for Basildon District. It was a pity that the Labour members on the Cabinet did not feel able to vote for the project establishment, but they are still hung up on the delivery model, which will see a private company design, build, operate and maintain the facility. Of course this will be to the Council's standards, especially on price, but there seems to be a Socialist thing going on here. I thought we finished this with argument sometime in the early 80s, but apparently not.

Thursday, October 11, 2007

Cameron slaughters Brown at PMQs

A lot has been said about the mugging that passed for parliamentary procedure which occurred yesterday. It had been widely predicted that Brown would get a kicking from Cameron, and he did. Simon Hoggart sums it up pretty well in the Guardian, and if this is the view of the centre-left press then a Labour Prime Minister must know how badly things went. Do PMQs matter though? William Hague was pretty good against Tony Blair, but it never translated into electoral support. So, can the Brownites laugh it off as the doings of the Westminster bubble, disconnected from the real world? Well, there are some key differences between the Hague/Blair dynamic and what the situation today. Most importantly, Tony Blair always operated inside a coherent political strategy that he did not allow to be deflected by short-term events. He also had a very good team around him, who understood how to operate in the face of the modern media. The other thing was that while Hague often spoke very well, Blair was pretty good too and he was always willing to laugh at himself in a way that kept the whole affair pretty good-humoured. For Brown, in contrast, strategy seems to consist of lurching from one short-term wheeze to another and his media operation seems to think that you can tell bare-faced, obvious lies and no-one will know or care. His personal performance is also pretty bad, and he loses his temper far too easily. It was also astonishing how little support he seemed to get from his own troops in the House. In fact it seemed that they were genuinely appalled at his poor performance.

Does it matter? I think that it does, not because we have a good speaker up against a weaker opponent, but because it illustrates that we have a good leader up against a weaker opponent. And people are noticing.