Thursday, January 05, 2006

Kennedy, truth at last

Charles Kennedy has finally come clean. He's an alcoholic. The dramatic announcement was designed to pre-empt the press, so it wasn't an unprompted bout of honesty. It also means that Kennedy has systematically lied to a very wide range of people on the subject for years, including many of his own colleagues. His announcement was coupled with defiance on the leadership question, with a leadership election involving all of the party membership in the offing.

Will it all work? Kennedy calculates that he will win a ballot of the entire membership, as opposed to the MPs where the result would be in doubt. He also calculates that his admission will elicit sympathy from many people. I am not so sure about his mathematics. Many of his MPs will be furious, and he had major problems there already. His serial dishonesty about drinking will wreck his credibility with the media and the press will probably not be kind. Both pressures could yet force him out. The nightmare for the Liberal Democrats though might be that he is right. Suppose he wins a ballot of Liberal Democrat members? Much of the parliamentary party does not support him. Ask the Tories what it is like if the members pick a leader the MPs cannot work with.

Wednesday, January 04, 2006

If not Brown then who?

When Blair steps down then Gordon Brown will smoothly assume the leadership of the Labour party and the prime ministership, at least that is the assumption. Things might not be so simple though. On a basic political level it is no longer clear that Labour would get a boost from a Brown leadership. In fact at least one poll has suggested that they would slip a few points. Back bench Labour MPs sitting on marginal seats do pay attention to such things. Then there is the actual leadership process itself. Would Gordon Brown be the only candidate? Hardly likely, at least there would be a candidate from the left and then there is a contest, not a coronation. Would the number of contestants stay at two? Hardly likely, unless Brown was clearly an overwhelming electoral asset, and he isn’t. Finally there is the worst kept secret in British politics, that Blair and Brown can’t stand each other. Tony Blair hands over the highest office in the land to Gordon Brown? Hardly likely.

If not Brown, then who? This is the question. Blair’s cabinet are a pretty undistinguished bunch or at least cabinet discipline had prevented members distinguishing themselves. If any one of them is serious about succeeding Blair they will have to start organising at some point, and standing out from their colleagues. More likely Blair’s successor isn’t in the Cabinet, but in the junior ministerial ranks, today a comparative unknown. After all, there is a recent precedent for a younger, lesser-known candidate unexpectedly getting the top job.

Tuesday, December 27, 2005

Labour on Tories on Terrorists

Conservatives have apparently abandoned the cross-party approach to the Northern Ireland peace process after the party refused to back the government’s plan to allow terrorist fugitives fled abroad to return home without having to answer for their crimes. This is a wildly exaggerated accusation from the Labour government and also quite puzzling. It was the Conservatives who began the peace process in the first place and who supported it through its most difficult days. To suggest that they are reneging at this late stage so ridiculous that it borders on the bizarre. The puzzling bit is why the proposal about sought suspects is even being put forward at all as it has never figured hitherto.

Now, in many ways the Northern Ireland process has been an object lesson in how to bring a protracted and bitter struggle to an end. Both sides have ended up with less then they think that they deserve and it has been painful for almost all concerned. There have been unpalatable concessions that have seen murderers, Republican and Loyalist, walking the streets again long before they should have been let out to see the light of day. But in the end there is peace, and the absence of war is worth a great deal. As many have said you make peace with your enemies, not your friends, and no-one is likely to be entirely satisfied with the outcome in such circumstances. The government’s latest move is causing even less satisfaction than usual though. It’s not just the Conservatives this time. The Liberal Democrats, the Unionists and even the moderate Nationalists think this is a step too far. Labour’s approach is less cross-party than one-party.

Hain attacks Tories on N Ireland

Friday, December 23, 2005

Future Politics

Globalisation and free trade are the best engines of wealth creation the world has ever seen. There is no more real argument about this. Alternative economic models have been tried, variations on Communism, Nationalism and the like, and they have all failed slowly or failed quickly. Of course, this doesn’t mean that a nation should just throw open its borders and let the entire world in. Trade is complex and short-term competition into a relatively undeveloped economy can have catastrophic effects on some sectors, which translates into people ruined and out of work. That is what trade negotiations in all their intricacy are about.

Some people still cling to old, failed systems from the 20th century. Some people want to go even further back to some mythical pastoral past, as if that could even feed the world’s population never mind raise people out of poverty. What there doesn’t seem to be much debate about is what lies ahead. It has taken recent hikes in the oil price to put future energy supply to the forefront of politics and technological effort. Global Warming certainly didn’t do that. There are other things though. Advances in robotics will probably push the cost of manufacturing down even further, and maybe eliminate the comparative advantage of developing nations. Cheap labour means nothing when that labour isn’t paid anything. The continuing advances in computing will change advanced nations out of all recognition over the coming decades, especially if Artificial Intelligence in the true sense of the word becomes available.

What principles and politics will sustain us in 2025? What should we be doing now?

BT Technology Timeline 2006-2051

Monday, December 19, 2005

Class education

John Prescott wants a class war. His reaction to Eton-educated David Cameron’s leadership of the Conservative party has nothing to do with issues and everything to do with background. Because Cameron went to a good school he is the enemy, never mind that the Labour cabinet is filled with men and women who went to selective schools. Prescott thinks he can rally the Labour party as the party of workers against the middle-class. It would be interesting to see him try it, but the Labour party collectively are not idiots. Supposed class divisions have limited traction among British voters and Labour’s strategists know it. Issues are want count, and there is a serious issue in all of this.

Education has come full circle, from the abolition of Grant-Maintained schools in 1997 back to the proposal for Self-Governing Trust schools today. The government has finally recognised that it is better for schools to run themselves than to be branch offices of a monolithic education authority. Enter Prescott and his cronies stage left, with their cries of a two-tier education system and their terror of academic selection. Their instinct is to level down education, so that it is equal for all even if it is equally bad. The last thing they want is for schools to be free to improve themselves because some would end up better than others. That might end up benefiting the middle-class and they cannot have that.

Hang on a moment though, isn’t Prescott a Cabinet Minister? Doesn’t he have a duty to support government policy? In the midst of the class war it appears that the Prime Minister’s authority is the first casualty.

Class war: Prescott attacks Blair's education reforms and Cameron's 'Eton Mafia'

Saturday, December 17, 2005

A good deal for French farmers

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

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

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

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

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

Critics condemn EU deal 'failure'

Friday, December 16, 2005

Police amalgamation blues

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Help the poor

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

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

Social Justice Challenge

Tuesday, December 13, 2005

Kennedy in trouble

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

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

Kennedy told to improve or resign

Sunday, December 11, 2005

Conservatives up

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

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

Tories seize lead in polls