Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Peter's got Guts

Speaking as a straight, married with two kids sort of chap, I have got some admiration for Peter Tatchell. As most people know Mr. Tatchell is a long-standing campaigner for gay rights and in so doing he has occasionally been quite controversial. What he has never been, however, is a hypocrite. If someone or some group is homophobic then they get it both barrels, no matter how fashionable they may be. So, when the Left was cosying up to fundamentalist Islam because of a shared view on the Iraq war, Mr. Tatchell wasn't going to mute his criticism of the treatment of homosexuals in Islamic countries. Likewise reggae or hip-hop singers with homophobic lyrics are exposed and feeble attempts to defend their bigotry on the grounds or ethnicity or culture are, quite rightly, brushed aside. Now he has been to Moscow for a Gay Rights rally, which was predictably subject to violence by the local bigots. He knew what would probably happen, but he went anyway.

Peter Tatchell stood for Labour in the infamous Bermondsey by-election in 1983. It may be that they lost more then they knew when he was defeated.

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Why no Houses?

The front page of the Telegraph castigates John Prescott for planning guidance that more homes should be built on less land, leading to an explosion of flat building at the expense of constructing houses for families. The idea of PPG3, as it is called, is to increase the housing density in town centres, which takes pressure off the Green Belt but has the effect on skewing housebuilders towards building flats. Now there is apparently an oversupply of flats and an undersupply of houses. Of course there is an undersupply of new homes in general, hence the current crazy house prices.

The Telegraph piece was right as far as it goes, but it totally missed the point when it comes to Prescott messing up planning. Land used to be allocated for building via an easy-to-understand and reasonably straightforward local plan process. Prescott replaced this with a process called the Local Development Framework, a hideously complex and enormously lengthy exercise that requires about an hour just to explain, with diagrams. Completing the framework takes years, and those Councils that have successfully negotiated the obstacle course have found themselves in the High Court because in addition to being complex and time-consuming the process is also badly designed and easy for interested parties to challenge.

Here in Basildon we are doing an LDF, which means we won’t be allocating any new land for housing until 2009 at the absolute earliest and it will probably be much later than that. Every local authority in the country is in the same boat, so next time you hear the government whinging about nimby local authorities bear in mind that the same government has added years to the process of housing land allocation. You could even suspect Machiavellian motives at this point: fewer new houses equals higher house prices equals economic growth pumped from remortgages.

Or maybe they just screwed up.

Monday, May 28, 2007

Liberal Democrat Rainbows

What is going on with the Liberal Democrats in Wales? First they are for a coalition with just about everyone who isn't the Labour Party, then they aren't, and a slightly bemused Rhodri Morgan becomes First Minister again, and now the coalition is back on. It's all a bit of a shambles really. Let us move smoothly to bottom lines: electoral politics is about power, because only if you are in power can you deliver your vision for the electorate. If you are serious about politics then you want to be in power. Only the ideologically blinkered prefer the purity of opposition to actually being able to do things. It seems, however, that the Welsh Liberal Democrat executive bottled it when their chance came and it took their wider membership to remind them that all of that campaigning was not just to keep their AMs in expensive-account lunches. So, we may yet have a rainbow coalition government in Wales. It's the sort of thing that occasionally happens in local councils, but that is about as far as precedent goes. The people of Wales seem doomed to live in interesting times.

Saturday, May 26, 2007

What's in a Name?

Basildon District Council's Conservative administration wants to change the name of the Council to Basildon Borough Council. This changes the Chairman of the Council to a Mayor, some stationary, and not a lot else. Total cost around £1000. So, why bother? Well, Basildon is surrounded by boroughs, they are pretty much the norm in Essex, and successive Chairmen of the Council have had to put up with being called the Mayor by, well, almost everyone outside of Basildon District. There is also another reason; Basildon proper was a New Town, but that was decades ago. The image the Council wants for Basildon District today is of a mature community, that no longer needs to be treated as a special case and which can compete with any of the Boroughs in Essex as a place to live and do business. Branding is important, and name is a key part of brand.

Anyway, to change to a Borough there has to be a two thirds majority for the motion at a Council meeting and then a petition is sent to the Queen. Pretty straightforward you would think, but no. The local Labour Party had the idea, pure genius this, of having a local referendum on the subject, and when that was refused their Councillors voted against becoming a borough. At once they decried the expenditure, wanted to spend a tens of thousands of pounds on a referendum, declared the matter unimportant, and put their opposition to it in their election material. Consistent they are not. Still, they like Gordon Brown.

Friday, May 25, 2007

Grammar Schools and Reality

David Willetts has been taking a bit of a caning over his comments on Grammar Schools. Well, frankly, he should have thought to put an exercise book down his shorts if was going to come up with lines like 'there is overwhelming evidence that such academic selection entrenches advantage, it does not spread it'. The 'advantage' that grammars entrench is the one children get from having parents that care about their education. This trait is not just confined to the middle class; I have personal experience of working-class families that supported their children into a grammar school and university education and middle class families that 'supported' their children into leaving school early to work at a Tesco checkout. But in the midst of poor delivery and damaging the Party's standing with its core support, there is a serious point: grammars schools simply are not the answer to education as it has to function in the 21st century. Academic selection is very good at finding those with a particularly strong academic bent and grammars are very good at developing them to a high level. What is also required, however, is a system that takes the vast majority of children of average academic ability and equips them to function in a high-skill, knowledge-based economy. It is no longer good enough to sift out the top 10-15%, because a modern developed economy requires a much higher proportion of people with a good education to function. Grammars have their place, and Willetts was wrong to think that to suggest that they weren't all of the answer he had to rubbish them, but something else is also required.

The problem is that the Labour government took education backwards in scrapping the Conservative grant-maintained system that was starting to work very well indeed. Then they had an epiphany on school independence, gifting us academies and foundation schools. Willetts is right to seek to build on that, but it is poor politics to stir up opposition by ineptly articulating a position that nearly everyone agrees with anyway.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

No Contest

It's Brown by coronation. This is good news, for just about everyone except the Labour Party. A contested leadership election, even one as mismatched as the bout on offer, would have given Labour a rolling primetime six-week platform to lay out new policies and build new enthusiasm. Instead we got one press conference and a palpable sense of anticlimax. Brown looked smug, but already there are a few rumblings in the Labour blogsphere that this might have been a bit of an own goal by the great clunking fist.

Labour Party rules required that the MPs nominate candidates for the subsequent election. It did not require that they support the nominee, just that they nominate. However the PLP decided that getting in with the new boss was more important that little things like allowing the ordinary membership a voice, and it is inconceivable that they would have come to this conclusion unless it was also the view of Brown's campaign team. So, no election, which has a corollary of reduced legitimacy when the going gets tough, and the going is already pretty tough if you are a Labour MP in a southern marginal seat.

Democracy may be inconvenient for candidates to high office, but the alternatives can be far worse. Ask Nicolae Ceau┼čescu.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Wounded at Dunfermline

Labour got hammered in the Dunfermline and West Fyfe by-election. The safe Labour seat went Liberal Democrat, despite that party’s problems over the last few weeks and despite the close involvement of premier to be Gordon Brown. All are surprised, and the parties and pundits are grappling to discern the significance of the result. It’s a by-election, so nearly all explanations are valid: local factors; low turnout; voters knowing they wouldn’t change the government but wanting to protest and so on. In all of this some things are clear: people did want to protest and Gordon Brown is not the overwhelming force that Blair was at his height. Otherwise local difficulties could have been swept away by Labour chosen political message of government success now, and in the future with Gordon.

The problem for the government is two fold. In the short term bad by-elections make MPs nervous for their own electoral prospects. Now couple that with crunch votes in the commons on ID Cards and Terrorism this week and there is at least a small chance of a crisis. The longer term problem is Brown as Labour’s Plan A after Blair. Dunfermline might mean they need a Plan B.

Saturday, January 14, 2006

Brown's Flag

A cohesive nation needs a national identity. It cannot be a collection of separate communities, each with their own completely separate values and beliefs. This is, or should be, common sense. Of course, it hasn’t been. Britain has had a cultural cringe that led to our own national flag being appropriated by the Far Right without anyone batting an eyelid. The good news is that attitudes are changing. The bad news is that the government is making a hash of it. They seem to be trying to build national identity while simultaneously restricting the freedom of speech, and thought. The idea seems to be that if no group can offend any other group then somehow they will all come together. Or at least glower at each other in silence.

Amid all of this Gordon Brown wraps himself in the Union Flag. His motives, at least, are clear. He is Scottish, very Scottish in fact. He is going to have an electoral problem in England, especially now that there is a Scottish parliament. The Saltaire and the Cross of St. George are no good to him. He needs the Union Jack.

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.