Saturday, April 18, 2009

Veteran Labour ex-MP quits the party

Alice Mahon, long-serving Labour member and an MP for 18 years has walked out on the party. Her critique on policy is quite devastating:

For example we said that we would not privatise the Royal Mail, and we're going ahead and privatising part of it.

We said we would give people a referendum on the [EU] constitution. And yet the Lisbon Treaty has just been rushed through Parliament with no referendum and that's another promise we've broken.

It is not a party I recognise - I have lost faith with it," she added. "I am very very sad, the Labour Party has been my life.

This is not a fit of pique, rather a substantive divergence of views. The next bit is also quite interesting though:

I have reached the conclusion that there is not any avenue left in the structure of the Labour party for people like me.

Any threat from anybody marginally from the left and… the party machine comes down on them like a ton of bricks.

So, if you don't agree with the leadership, then you get hammered. It appears that the picture that has emerged of a top-down Labour party that is prepared to use any weapon against any of its own people who steps out of line is pretty much spot on. The Independent today has totted up all of the smears pumped out by Gordon Brown's people that it knows about, and nearly all of the targets are Labour politicians. They include several cabinet ministers. What kind of party is this where the leader rules by ruining his own colleagues reputations and threat of that keeps the rest in line? What sort of spineless yes-men and women would serve in such a regime? No wonder they have no compunction about passing illiberal law after illiberal law, such people are used to the feel of the jackboot on their own necks so the idea of universal DNA databases, ID cards, email and phone interception, entry into people's homes, covert surveillance and cameras everywhere doesn't bother them a bit. As long it is them with their fingers on the levers of power, ordering anti-terror police into action onto anyone that irks them then they don't mind if ordinary people have their lives exposed to those in authority. The mantra 'if you have nothing to hide you have nothing to fear' wears a bit thin now that we see that having nothing to hide doesn't stop you having your door kicked in, spending hours in interrogation and months waiting for the CPS to decide if you should be put on trial. And that is a senior opposition MP. What chance have the rest of us got?

Alice Mahon has had the courage to walk with her feet. The rest of the spineless cowards remain.

City protest and the police

The Metropolitan Police are under some pressure after the City protests in which Ian Tomlinson died and Nicola Fisher was struck by a sergeant. We have to have a balanced view of this. The City demonstration included hardcore anarchists, some of whom had come from the continent, who wanted a riot and did cause severe damage to one business premises. The police had to contain them amid the usual abuse and nastiness and by and large they did a decent job. Unfortunately 'by and large' doesn't cut it in the case of Ian Tomlinson. No-one has tried to defend the officer involved there and as the second post-mortem has shown death by internal bleed he may well end up in the dock for manslaughter. Nicola Fisher was behaving pretty badly, but she did not deserve to be whacked with a baton. What is worrying in both cases was police wearing balaclavas and covering up their IDs. What is even more worrying is that all of this has come out from digital filming from the public and that police statements were initially misleading. No, they were lies. This speaks to institutional failures, not a small number of hotheads. So, now we have a number of complaints that are being investigated by the IPCC and which will probably turn into trials. A government inspector is heading an enquiry into the whole affair. This mess further distances the police from the public which is not good for either.

The new Commissioner really needs to get a grip.

Friday, April 17, 2009

John Baron MP welcomes Essex County Council’s decision on Drug Rehabilitation Centre

MP says local people should always be consulted.

John Baron MP has welcomed the decision by Essex County Council to withdraw its application to site a drug rehabilitation centre in Northlands Pavement, Pitsea. Having voiced his opposition to the proposal, John believes consultation is absolutely essential in such matters. However, the Council has reserved the right to reapply at a later date.

John said:
It is absolutely right that Essex County Council has changed its mind on this issue given that, to my knowledge, there was no consultation. Local residents and traders have a right to be consulted when it comes to such proposals.

However, I am concerned the Council has said it has not totally abandoned the idea and so we must remain vigilant about any further proposals.

John is absolutely right, unfortunately the planning application was for an unsuitable site. While we accept the need for alcohol and drug treatment, this cannot impact on the local community. That means any centre has to be well away from residents, schools or shops. Our preference is for a converted commercial location, with decent transport links for the users of the facility. Basildon Council will be working with the County Council to get the right result for all of our residents.

Thursday, April 16, 2009

Brown finally apologises

Gordon Brown has finally said sorry that his head of strategy was planning a vicious, lying campaign of smears against opposition politicians from his office in no10. Astonishingly, it has taken nearly a week for him to do not only the decent thing but the sensible thing. A man with any sense of morality would have apologised because it was the right thing to do. A man with any sense of media management would have faked the morality and also apologised. Instead, Gordon Brown failed to have any sense and so has kept public and press approbation running since the story first broke. The delay has done enormous damage to both the government and the image of the Labour party. It is likely that the latter is more dangerous because most Labour people are pretty moral and, more importantly, they are very concerned to be seen to be moral. If you puncture that self-image then they become pretty unhappy pretty quickly. Right now they are having to try and defend a no.10 operation that tried to smear political opponents' wives and uses anti-terror police to arrest people leaking information in the public interest. At least some of them are trying to defend it, quite a few aren't, including a number of senior backbenchers.

What happens next will be interesting. Brown has a variety of enemies inside the party and the polls remain awful for Labour. He has crushed any internal dissent in the past, but that was using the sort of appalling tactics that have now been exposed. My view is that a sane Labour party would have ditched him as leader long since, but the brothers can be sentimental compared to the relative ruthlessness of the Conservatives. Now, that sense of sentiment might work against Brown. Harold Wilson said that the Labour party 'is a moral crusade or it is nothing'. Most of them really believe that.

Damien Green not to be charged

So, 20 anti-terror police pulled of defending against Al-Qaeda, raids on parliament and an MPs home address and now, no charges against Damien Green. We had Whitehall Mandarins talking up a threat to 'national security' and now-disgraced Bob Quick dropping everything to support his political masters. We had harassment of the opposition by the government and police and an astonishing contempt for the basic liberties of our elected representatives, and by extension everyone else. We then had the long, intimidating silence while the CPS reviewed the case and at the end of it, no case to answer. What kind of state do we live in when the police can drag an MP into nine hours of questioning, go through his files and then put him under threat of criminal charges for months because he annoyed a Civil Servant? Things will have to change, and it should start with the man who told the police about the bogus national security threat. That is a clear abuse of office and he should be fired, or perhaps charged with wasting police time. Parliament has already changed the protocols so that the police won't get in without a warrant, but that is not enough. We need to be convinced that any of us won't suddenly victimised at some official's whim, and officials need to know that if they abuse their powers then their world will get a whole lot worse.

John Baron MP calls on PM to help savers and pensioners in Budget

MP says economy should be based on investment, not debt

Ahead of the Budget next week, John Baron MP is calling on the Prime Minister to help savers and pensioners, the forgotten victims of the current recession. As a result of falling interest rates, someone relying on savings interest will have seen their income halve over the last year, leading to lower standards of living. John has welcomed Conservative proposals to help savers which include:
  • Restoring income from savings by scrapping the double taxation effect – money taxed when earned and interest then taxed again – for basic rate taxpayers. This could benefit up to 25 million savers by as much as £7,200 per year.
  • Promoting saving by increasing age-related personal allowances for those aged 65 and over by £2,000. A pensioner couple with a total pension income of £14,000 a year would be up to £800 a year better off.
  • Fairness for pension holders at 75 – suspending the requirement to annuitise accrued pensions. Currently, many pension holders are forced to buy annuities at 75 which, because of the downturn, would give them a lower income.
Commenting, John said:

“Savers and pensioners are the forgotten victims of this recession. Having done the right thing and put money aside for a rainy day, people are now facing falling living standards. This has been made worse by Gordon Brown undermining savings and raiding private pensions.”

“Scrapping tax on savings for basic rate taxpayers and increasing personal allowances by £2,000 for those aged 65 or over would make a real difference to people living on their savings today whilst also creating an incentive for others to save for the future. This is vital if we are to restructure our economy away from debt and back towards savings and investments.”

“I am calling on Gordon Brown to adopt these proposals and include them in the budget next week. The Government should stop dithering and take action.”

Electric Cars

The government have announced a scheme to give people £5000 to get electric cars. Actually, they haven't. There are no dates, details or, in fact, cars. What we have is an eye-catching idea to grab a few column inches with no committed spend and probably no committed spend for years. Still, the media have lapped it up. The biggest problem with electric cars are the cars. Right now the only pure, plug-in, electric cars on the road are slow, unreliable, have a short range and have significant safety issues. You wouldn't buy one through choice. There are hybrids around, primarily based on the Toyota system, but they are outperformed in environmental and practical terms by the best of the clean diesels. So, the best that this policy may be is a marker for motor manufacturers to build something better, and there are some new designs on the way. One example is the Chevrolet Volt, arriving in the UK in 2011 at an estimated price of £30,000 for a car that underperforms a normal car costing half as much. For electric cars to be truly popular they will have to match the performance of at least an average car running on fossil fuels and, crucially, they will have to be capable of recharge in minutes rather than hours. Otherwise no amount of theoretical incentives are going to help.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Heffer applying for McBride's job

Simon Heffer is not impressed with Gordon Brown over the McBride smears, but it doesn't take long for him to get back to his favourite topic, which is how awful the Conservatives are. For those that don't remember Simon used to be a bit of a fan of Brown. This from his column of September 5th 2007:
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.
That appears to be past at least, but Simon is still annoyed that David Cameron appears to be succeeding without the radical programme advocated by, well, Simon Heffer. So, he continues with the claim of a policy vacuum and then, incredibly, goes on spray some vicious smears of his own for good measure. Of course the Conservatives have been producing policy papers steadily for the last year, the latest on housing, but this seems to have passed Simon by. The rest is actually a pretty good example of the moral vacuum inhabited by some on the political inside. Simon sees no problem in shoving out his various allegations in a form you might get at the bar of the Dog and Duck. This isn't journalism, it is malicious gossip. If he had a story in the real sense of the word then we would have sources, evidence, maybe some analysis. Instead Simon criticises McBride and then goes on ape him. This is the point. As the Times has it this morning, the only reason that McBride and his ilk could do what they did was because of connivance from mainstream media people like Simon. If they had stood up to his bullying and refused to join him in his bottom-feeding world then anonymous smears would have been ineffective, because no-one would have published them. If they had gone one better and actually reported what was going on then someone else may have broken a story that eventually relied on a blog to bring to the British people. Instead, they were supine, and he was supine.

So, Simon, did you know what was going on with your hero Brown? Did you not care? Or did you just not think there was anything wrong with it

Tuesday, April 14, 2009

Five Links troubles

I used to live on the Five Links estate, and I can say that is was designed by a madman. It came at that time when British architecture went collectively insane and threw away hundreds of years of design experience in what actually worked for housing to be replaced by radical 'modern' designs. So we had the early 70s vision of progress, with pedestrian only access, separate parking inward facing designs and courtyards and walkways. Nothing as old fashioned as, you-know, streets. Much of the job of regeneration on Basildon Council is rebuilding those mistakes, heartbreaking when you think that they only have been up for a few decades, and Five Links is a prime example of an estate that needs substantial change. Much has already been done, and the next phase is currently in progress. Unfortunately, there do appear to be some issues with the development, it is an active building site butting up against still-occupied homes and disruption is occurring. So it runs in the Echo, which has produced a great headline, but the detail appears to be that there is dust from the building and that emergency access gates have been blocked. Then it harks back to the initial delay in starting work, which was true but that is clearly not the current problem. Of course we will get into it and ensure that Swan are being as considerate as they should be, but we should not lose sight of the central point. Five Links was an appalling estate, so loved that it's nickname was 'Alcatraz'. Successive regeneration phases under the Conservative Council has removed that stigma and after this phase we want to do even more, because, frankly people do not deserve to live in poorly designed housing. Of course local Labour have weighed in but when we had a Labour Council they did next to nothing to regenerate out estates. It is a bit rich for them to be complaining when Conservatives actually get things done.

Blogs are evil

There has been some muttering in the traditional press on the subject of blogs as a result of the McBride poison emails business. The story was initially broken by Guido Fawkes, before being taken up by the mainstream media, who lagged the internet by a news-cycle, and in the case of the Telegraph ran a government-friendly piece designed for damage limitation. That didn't work and now few could argue that we have a slightly changed situation with regard to politics and news given the wide readership and responsiveness of the better political blogs.

Stephen Glover in the Mail isn't too happy though:
There is a further highly alarming aspect to this affair which no amount of apologies can ever affect. It has to do with the destructive power of the internet in disseminating false and scurrilous stories about individuals against which they have little or no redress.

Imagine what a low-life character such as McBride would have done as recently as ten years ago, had he wanted to smear the Tories. He would have known, in the pre-internet age, that not even the seediest gossip column in the most disreputable newspaper would have taken him seriously for a single moment. All he could have done was what such people have done down the ages. He could have spread his unsubstantiated rumours in a pub, where one or two listeners who had had a few too many drinks might have believed him.

The internet, in this sense, has become like one giant universal pub in which the darkest allegations against people can be recycled without risk. Actually it is potentially much more lethal in its effects than any pub. For if McBride had been peddling his mendacious stories while propping up a bar, he would have had to identify himself and might have therefore limited the scope of his allegations for fear of being publicly exposed as their source.
I think we need a bit of a reality check here. There is a lot of garbage on the internet, but most of it faces off to a tiny readership. So, if you are a fan of paranoid conspiracies about the Alien Lizards who really rule us then there is website for you, but you have to find it and you won't be in a crowd. The blogs and websites with substantial readership are much fewer and most of them are very good. What they aren't is controlled or controllable in the way that the media was as recently as 1997. Then Peter Mandleson probably had the phone numbers of a dozen news editors and key journalists in his filofax. All he needed to do was to keep them on board and the news agenda followed. That is simply no longer possible because of the internet, not just private blogs but because mainstream media also blogs and acceepts comments. The news process is now faster and more interactive and stories cannot easily be killed with a promise of an exclusive, as McBride tried to do.

Glover's key point is that it is the medium of the internet that prompted the attempt at an attack blog in the first place, but it was the internet community that found it out using old-fashioned investigative journalism. In fact, this is less an example of new media than an example of amoral bufoons who don't understand how new media works at all. They thought all they had to do was put up a website and tell lies. Idiocy. Like any publication, a successful blog needs credibility and a degree of authority. Guido is on the money often enough to attact a recurring audience, because you can find out things from him that don't appear anywhere else until later.

Glover is really wrong when he says that without the internet all McBride could have done is gossip to people in a bar. This man was no.10's head of strategy, reporting directly to the Prime Minister. Any mainstream journalist would take his call and accept an off the record. Few would dare alienate him, or else he would have been unable to operate for years in the way that he has. Boris Johnson has a piece in the Telegraph today with an example of McBride in action spinning a story, so don't give us nonsense that the medium made the monster. What is actually happening is that the internet makes it harder for the spin doctors to operate, and it fractures the cosy relationship between them and the tamer journalists in the mainstream media. This cannot be but a good thing.

Sorrry appears to be the hardest word

Gordon Brown has written to the targets of the McBride smears expressing 'regret'. What he hasn't done is the decent thing and apologised. The reason he hasn't said sorry is probably because he isn't sorry. Brown's operation has a long history of spin and smears against anyone perceived as an enemy, both inside and outside of the Labour party. Boris Johnson writes in the Telegraph today describing another incident of McBride in action when he spun up a story at the end of the Beijing Olympics in an effort to damage the Mayor's office, and there have been plenty of other incidents going back for years. These from people paid for by the taxpayer, but working directly for Gordon Brown.

To an extent politics has to be partisan. Parties are coalitions of viewpoints bent to a collective view and within that view and effective party has to stick together. That does not mean it is necessary to treat other parties or the individuals within them as evil though, and the ends do not always justify the means even if you are convinced that you are right. Not everyone subscribes to that of course and we have a number of Labour councillors here in Basildon who will happily stand up in a Council meeting and say that because we are Tories anything that we are doing must be wrong with an almost religious fervour. Even the most partisan of politics is a long way away from peddling deliberate and disgusting lies in the hope of destroying people's reputations, which is what McBride and Draper and presumably the others copied into this email chain sought to do. What is different this time is that they have been caught out, and extent of the malice in no.10 has been laid bare. Now we have a couple of ministers breaking cover to try and help out, Alan Johnson looking distinctly uncomfortable and Hazel Blears, who was very dismissive about the whole thing. The person who has been absent is Gordon Brown. Think what Tony Blair would have done had this occurred on his watch. He would have dealt with it himself. He would have looked straight at the camera and apologised. He would have recognised that it was better to take it on the chin for a 24-hour battering in the news rather than let there be any uncertainty about the moral centre of his government. Gordon Brown doesn't do that, however. Whenever the pressure comes on, Brown disappears. He lets his underlings take the flak and he emerges a few days later talking about something else as if whatever it was had never happened.

And he wrote a book about courage.

Monday, April 13, 2009

Email smears - Labour reaction

Tom Harris, Labour MP for Glasgow East, has a blog and this is his take on the email smears perpetrated by McBride and Draper.

We screwed up, big time. We have no-one — absolutely no-one at all — to blame for this but ourselves. The damage the Labour Party and the government have sustained this last 24 hours has been entirely self-inflicted.

And the people behind this sordid little mess owe everyone named in these emails a very public apology.

He is a decent man.

What has been more depressing is the reaction of some other Labour commentators. In particular Kevin McGuire in the Mirror. He clearly doesn't see anything wrong in what McBride did, except in getting caught, and even tries to follow up on one of the vicious lies that McBride was peddling. He is either fundamentally amoral or so caught up in tribalism that ends always justify means. In any case his own readers' reactions in their comments should tell him just how badly he has got this wrong.

This is a very serious situation for the government, moral authority once lost cannot be regained. They should have fired McBride for cause, not let him resign with a self-serving letter. They should have apologised immediately and unreservedly. Anything else looks appalling, and the efforts of McGuire and his ilk only makes it worse.

[Correction: Tom Harris represents Glasgow South, not East. Sorry for the mistake.]

Email 101

One of Derek Draper's defences in the smear email affair is that his email was 'hacked', implying that there was some great act of cyber-espionage involved and somehow this diminished the despicable nature of the messages. This is almost certainly not the case and shows either a complete misunderstanding on how email actually works or is yet more spin.

For those that don't know, email is an inherently insecure medium. Normal email is readable on the source computer, readable on any intervening email server and is readable on the target computer. If all three are within the same secure network then the potential readership is limited, but it the email crosses the internet, and most email between different domains, e.g. a to an, does, then it can be read just about everywhere. Encryption can prevent an email being read in transit, that is from an intervening email server, but of course email is always in plain text when it arrives. The key differential between email and, say, a phone call, is its persistence. Emails survive in inboxes, in folders, they can be further forwarded or copied. There have been plenty of instances of emails sent to a few people being forwarded and copied to a much wider readership than originally intended. In this case the emails were initially sent to a number of people, any of whom could have passed them on to anyone else. Given the content of the emails all that is required is for one recipient to be a reasonably normal human being and you have a whistle-blower. As for hacking, well, that would depend on the security surrounding each of the target computers and email accounts, numerous in this case. This again illustrates the insecurity of email. When you send confidential information you are dependent on the recipient's technology, processes and sense in order for it to be kept secret. Organisations that take communications confidentiality seriously spend a great deal on both technology and staff training. Is that true of all of the places the emails ended up? Even so, the word 'hacking' overstates what might have been a computer left unattended and running Outlook in a shared office.

My advice is simple. Don't send sensitive email unless it is encrypted and to someone you trust absolutely. If something is really sensitve use the phone, or look them in the eye.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Appalling emails content published

So now we know the lurid details of Labour's no.10 smear operation as published in the Sunday Times. As the paper puts it 'lurid lies of sex and drugs', which Derek Draper, Labour's online campaigner described as 'brilliant'. So, Labour are now spinning that McBride was acting alone and that it was just a theoretical chat that came to nothing. Hogwash. McBride was not a junior researcher he was the Prime Minister's Head of Strategy. He sat next to Laim Byrne, Minister for the Cabinet Office and the emails went to a number of other Labour figures. The question is did Gordon Brown know? If he did know that this was going on then he is a deeply morally corrupt man whose rise to the post of Prime Minister is a debasement of that office and an accident the like of which must never be allowed to be repeated. Even if he didn't, in any organisation the boss sets the tone, sets the parameters, and we know Brown's tone. All his career he has relied on his staff to destroy opposition, including the most successful Labour Prime Minister ever. He didn't have to see the emails to be responsible for picking people who would do this as a matter of character and then creating a team dynamic where they thought that they could. He is still damned.

There is a lot of chat and comment on the web about this as you would expect. Some of it is of the 'they are all at it' type, which suggests to me either deep cynicism or attempts to blur the culpability in this case. They aren't 'all at it'. I defy anyone to find a similar example to this pre-1997. Post 1997 I could give you a list, but not supported by the email evididence that has made guilt undeniable in this case. It is right that politics be hardball, it is important that public policy affecting people's lives is well tested, but that is debased by spin and lies. Here is Basildon we have a pretty tough political environment, marginal Council, marginal parliamentary seats and so on. Things happen in the lives of local politicians and rumours do occasionally surface, but I am proud to say that none of the local political parties have ever descended into anything like this, not even the BNP. I am sure that most good Labour people will be disgusted by these events and Labourhome to their credit immediately called for McBride and Draper to go. Ordinary Labour activists can immediately see the huge damage these events have done to their party, it is a pity, but not surprising, that the government seems blind to them.