“We have had an excellent debate. Indeed, it has shown the House at its best…”

The smug verdict of Bob Blackman was obviously wrong, yet apposite; borne of his vast 9 months experience as a fresher backbench MP. Last week’s Commons’ self-indulgence on the ECHR’s finding against the UKs blanket denial of votes for prisoners was pretty much a disgrace to democracy; ill-informed, poorly argued, shot through with small-minded prejudice and rather pointless.

Its limited value was the glimpses it offered of some of the newbies in action. Having no truck with duck-houses, apparently they run buy-to-let’s and develop property between making speeches intended to laud British democratic traditions; something of which they seem to know little and care less.

Prisoners’ voting was never discussed in any meeting I’ve been at during 30-odd years in active politics. Yet today it animates hundreds of MPs and journalists who act as though the roof will fall in if any ballot papers get past the guards along with everything else.

What’s voting got to do with crime anyway?

Ten thousand people were murdered in the UK between 1995 and 2009. A shocking figure, certainly, but were other lives saved by keeping prisoners away from the ballot box? Would the crime rate have been higher if they’d been allowed to vote during terms behind bars?

I’ve been a cop show addict from Jack Warner’s Dock Green to Life on Mars via most of The Bill. Yes, I know they’re not real. But can you foresee a scriptwriter ever, ever using the old – ‘I’m not putting my vote at risk gov’nor…’ excuse in any rogues’ dialogue where a baddie resolves to go straight?

I shouldn’t mock really, at least not in these terms, because sadly, the exact converse of this argument is one latched onto by Tory MPs. If it reduced crime they’d have granted prisoners the vote years ago; it doesn’t so they won’t.

At least there’s logic in the argument that it might not be good to have constituencies with prisoners forming a sufficient part of the electorate that results could turn on their enfranchisement. In a few places no doubt, the prison population is greater than a sitting MP’s majority. I’ll bet some have done the sums.

But from whatever quarter it comes, this is claptrap.

It half-assumes prisoners voting en bloc, with participation rates higher than the population at large. Balloting in secret means that if it happened, no-one could know. Criminals might sometimes struggle to, but shouldn’t MP’s get their story straight? If, as a number claim, they’ve never had a letter from a prisoner demanding the vote, and prisoners tend not to register anyway, well how, precisely, does that sit with turning elections?

Is there nothing revelatory, embarrassing or perhaps ominous in MPs puffing-out their chests in a “sovereign Parliament, which has done more to promote democracy and the rule of law than any other” yet in their next breath arguing that individuals’ disinclination to register is ground enough not to grant them a vote?

The Prime Minister says it makes him “physically ill to contemplate giving the vote to prisoners” and he’s right to recognise it’s a gut issue; traditional Tory values from a pre-modern setting. Many whose portraits hang in the stairwell of Number 10 – his predecessors – also had weak stomachs when having to ponder voting by people thought to be of lower moral worth than them.

In lesser jobs an admission of nausea is rare. Though unsurprisingly routine, it’s much less mentioned amongst those who make up by far the largest occupational group in the prison system – soldiers; thought by some to comprise nearly 10% of the people we put away. Heroes to zeros in the time it takes to upset a premier’s digestion. No second chances here, eh, Mr. Coulson, not even for ‘Our Boys’.

The justice system, rather than bloodlines, taxes or landholdings, puts some up-to-date camouflage of rationality over measuring our moral worth and mapping our rights. Different lines are now drawn around who can vote. But why have lines at all? There’s something dodgy about any government voting on who should have a say in electing them, especially when, as crime has gone down the prison population has gone up.

Should the size and make-up of an electorate really be formed at its margins by sentencing policy, available prison space, police priorities or crime detection rates? If moral worth is the gut issue, do these really provide a sound basis for judgment; any more than amounts handed-back in unpaid tax and public money misclaimed for house-flipping, plasma TVs, or pruning wisteria?

I think not.

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Just checked the police map of reported crimes for Thomas More St., Wapping – home of News International – and found just a single vehicle crime in the vicinity; no murders, no burglaries, no er… telephone hacking.

But it’s good to see that the website says:-

‘To protect privacy, crimes are mapped to points on or near the road where they occurred’.

Whether we’re citizens or celebrities, fans or footballers, voters or politicians, we can all sleep easier knowing that the Met takes the protection of our privacy so seriously.

It doesn’t do to mock the indignation which met Fifa’s decision to reject England’s bid for the 2018 World Cup, but so what? The bid was a complete and ignominious failure, yet those closest to it managed to scatter responsibility for its demise far and wide.

The splendid England bid team couldn’t have done more. They produced a splendid bid. They had the best technical and commercial bid, the best bid presentation. They should by rights have won. They didn’t, but don’t blame them, it’s not their fault; they’re only the bid team.

Dream on.

Fifa’s decision-making isn’t some 1990s competitive tendering exercise, market-testing run by civil servants or even a dreaded EU-regulated procurement process with evaluation methods published and well-known in advance. What England’s bid team knew in advance was – that’s not how it works.

What’s the benefit of working up the best technical and commercial bid if no-one knows how, or indeed whether, those elements are to be appraised and weighted? The bid team, it seems, were ticking boxes of their own invention.

So what was known about the process in advance?

We could start with the influence of Blatter and his visceral resentment of England, the inevitability of negative reactions prompted by any hint of English entitlement, the attraction for Fifa executives of living high on the hog from bi-partisan backroom dealing. If these weren’t factors recognised by the England bid team, how was it that Mayor Boris had arranged beforehand for Blatter and his muckers to spend a week during the London Olympics in £1000-a-night suites at the Dorchester?

Despite these factors they persisted; canvassing in the bars late at night for the promise of executive votes in a prolonged schmooze-fest, simultaneously at pains to present the charade as an exercise in rational deliberation and themselves as privy to its ground-rules. How else could they have secured 3 days face-time from the political leader of the world’s 6th largest economy and its future head of state? Someone must have put it to Dave and Wills, and been believed, that they could make the crucial difference.

To secure just 2 votes was a precisely quantified humiliation. Little wonder then that No.10 pointedly failed to congratulate Russia and Qatar as winners; that was left to Becks, the sporting one, the one who (hat-tip Paul Waugh) isn’t on record in Hansard confessing that he’s not a fan of football.

It was bittersweet.

The Cameron Boy was in his comfort zone fronting the best of four presentations. Speaking without notes, a clincher well-used before in tight games, he gave a plausible rendition of a fresh-faced business development manager in a beauty contest for a public-sector outsourcing contract. Absent from his spiel, and spiel it was, were the stock, dubious promises of ‘synergy’ and ‘partnership’; deliberate omissions, for the bid team also knew in advance that, to those it opts to prefer, Fifa makes only offers they can’t refuse.

I took a vicarious pleasure in watching him; once again failing to seal a deal, certainly, but mostly from his discomforted and unfamiliar position as a supplicant. Rejected, and surprised to be so. Isn’t the over-riding mission of his political life, after all, the removal of obstacles to the powerful and unaccountable pursuing their capricious ends? To have flattered, begged, danced and served so well, yet be peremptorily discarded at the whim of an international brand with a global reach happens daily the world over to pliable itinerant labourers, but surely not, in a public spotlight, to compliant British Prime Ministers?

The pleasure was fleeting. An ocean away, in Cancun, Mexico, another international gathering convened – the 16th Conference of the Parties under the UN’s Framework Convention on Climate Change. As political leaders and heads of state flew in and out of Switzerland, and football pundits lamented that England would not stage a World Cup in their lifetimes, the small matter of whether it remains possible for their children and grandchildren to have a World Cup, was left to their underlings.

Harold Wilson’s disparaging “all the little gnomes in Zürich” deserves to take on a fresh meaning.

Ideology not necessity…..

October 4, 2010

What’s really, really sick about George Osborne’s plans to means-test Child Benefit and to cap welfare payments at £26k per family, come what may, is that, essentially, the proposals are cosmetic.

I don’t mean by that that no-one will suffer adverse consequences from these measures simply that, in quantum terms, they add up to small-beer in the overall scheme of things he has planned. The political significance of these measures far outweighs the financial sums involved.

Stuck with making a speech to the first post-election Tory Conference taking place just a couple of weeks before he announces the outcome of his comprehensive spending review, Osborne has chosen to highlight small financial measures that are loaded with radical anti-welfare state politics.

The ending of child benefit entitlements for any household having someone earning over £44k p.a., scraps the universality of family allowances for those with kids that goes back to the post-war settlement of the welfare state and restricts a major stake in the provisions of that welfare state to those paying basic rate tax.

With take-up at 98% and paid directly, in the main, to mothers, it reduces the 7.1 million current beneficiaries by 15% for savings of £1bn or 0.6% of the deficit.

The measure is designed to address the question Osborne wants the majority (basic rate taxpayers) to be asking: “Why should we pay child benefit for the kids of the rich?” not the more fundamental: “Does not the whole of society have an obligation to all its children?” which now becomes answered in the negative.

That earning £45k p.a. with one or more children is unlikely to be sufficient to allow parents to reach even the first rung of home-ownership in large parts of the UK is neither here nor there.

Osborne manages to present himself as ‘taking from the rich’ in pursuit of fairness by hitting them for less than the equivalent of an inflation increase in annual boarder fees for the public school he once attended.

Producing an effective marginal tax rate of over 100% and a real dilemma for those parents of youngsters who may be considering promotions to annual salaries of £39k p.a. and over – one wonders how many pupils at St Paul’s, will shortly be moved into state comprehensive schools as a result of the impact of this measure on the truly wealthy. Not many.

Worse is the unstated political underpinning of Osborne’s cap on benefits.

Here he wants to claim that he’s making work pay – but not by providing job opportunities, raising the minimum wage or backing union claims. He’s simply putting a lid – average earnings – on what’s claimable, regardless of circumstance.

The costs and welfare benefits associated with disability are exempt from the limit, but beyond that he’s saying: “Tough – you may have more kids, but if you aren’t able to work to keep them, that’s no business of government.”

What was intended as a safety net for those facing difficult times when the economic cycle prevented government from achieving full employment has at a stroke, been removed from large families just as the government sets about deliberately creating unemployment.

The anticipated savings? About £300m – less than 0.2% of the deficit.

Like I say, sick.

Well I used to reckon that this Andy Coulson fellow, you know, the News of the World editor who moved across to head David Cameron’s media strategy, must have known all about the phone-tapping and tape-recording that was going on during his watch.

It doesn’t just stretch credibility; it’s wholly implausible to imagine him sitting there in the editor’s office with not a clue about how a succession of exclusives involving celebrities right up to the Royal Family were obtained.

And let’s face it, The Cameron Boy is a bright lad; a first in Modern Greats from Oxford and his tutor there, constitutional expert Prof. Vernon Bogdanor, considered him ‘one of the ablest’ students he had taught.

There’s no way, I thought, that Dave would appoint to a critical role someone who truly hasn’t a clue about what goes on in the organisation they’re supposed to be in charge of. Not a chance.

Then it dawned on me. Of course, that’s precisely what The Cameron Boy does. It’s his modus operandi.

Osborne… Gove… Lansley….

And let’s not forget the young leader of the Conservative opposition himself.

So firm, disciplined and total was his grip on his party in the run up to the 2010 election that it seems entirely to have escaped his notice for nearly 5 years of his leadership, that Lord Ashcroft did not pay tax on his overseas earnings in the UK.

It’s long been a conundrum faced by top managers and leaders that when things go awry – if they didn’t know about it, then they should have, if they did know about it they should have acted to prevent things taking a wrong turn.

Cameron has clocked-on that sustaining an unlikely level of cluelessness about day-to-day operations is the only sure-fire insurance available when wrongdoing is exposed, and a valuable political skill.

When Aberdonian Secretary of State for Education, Michael Gove wanted someone to write a new history syllabus – “history as a connected narrative” – for schools in England and Wales he turned, in May this year, to fellow Scot Niall Ferguson, a renowned Glaswegian hedge-fund adviser, TV history pundit and, according to Eric Hobsbawm, a “nostalgist for empire”.

Credit to Scotland’s First Minister Alex Salmond, then, who announced at the funeral this week of 1970s Clydeside communist councillor and shop steward Jimmy Reid, a commitment to make Reid’s famous ‘rectorial address’ available to every Scottish secondary pupil. Material on Jimmy Reid will be promoted to teachers of History and Modern Studies as being of great importance in understanding modern Scotland.

Here’s just three extracts from Jimmy’s speeches that might be considered to have a bearing on, or perhaps a vague relevance to current political issues…

“…this bunch of political hatchet-men that are masquerading as a government that can take anti-human and uncivilised decisions of this nature are going to be confronted with a fight…”

“It can’t be justified economically, but even more disastrously, it could never be justified with the social consequences of their action….its pre-Keynes, it’s prehistoric, and it belongs to the C19th and I think that despite their suavity, how suave and well-mannered and well modulated their voices I think we’re dealing with a bunch of political cavemen.”

“We’re taking over the yards because we refuse to accept that faceless men can take decisions which devastate our livelihoods with impunity.”

(From Fighting and Winning – the work-in at UCS)

Of course Gove and Ferguson, students, respectively, at Lady Margaret Hall and Magdalen College, Oxford would no doubt be amongst the first to recognise Jimmy Reid (autodidact, Govan Library) as the product of a “Big Society”; one that comprised of voluntary organisations providing mutual assistance, protection, and a schooling in the democratic politics of self-help.

Just a pity that as school kids aged 4 and 7 years old at the time of UCS, they must have missed out on ‘history as a connected narrative’ for Scotland.

The ConDems setting the date for a referendum on AV for next May – has raised the issue for many of how the electorate’s votes would translate into parliamentary representation under a new and different system.

Most of the estimates that I’ve seen of the impact of AV, had it applied in May 2010, suggest that the LibDems would have gained significantly, the Tories would have lost some seats and Labour may have been marginally better off with a handful more.

There are dangers in letting likely outcomes colour attitudes to the Alternative Vote and how we should vote in the referendum. Here are three:-

-estimates of outcome based on 2010 voting patterns are misleading and based on assumptions about second preference voting that may prove incorrect.

– the next election may be for fewer seats, many having new boundaries, so further, possibly mistaken, assumptions about both first and second preference voting will inevitably qualify any estimates of results.

-tactical voting will become altogether more complex.

This last point is least obvious but perhaps the most interesting.

Tactical voting under ‘first past the post’ has often comprised voters switching their votes to support candidates most likely, in their estimation, to beat an incumbent MP or keeping their vote switched in subsequent elections. Voters’ estimations, based on previous election results and current polling, have often proved accurate.

This will remain possible and will no doubt be practised, but AV adds the further ingredient of a second preference, with scope for this vote to be used tactically. This second vote has the potential to either reinforce or undermine prospects of the electors’ first choice candidate succeeding.

Further, unless failure to exercise a second preference is considered to produce a spoiled ballot, the option for voters of expressing a single preference only will remain.

Indeed, it seems highly likely that not only so-called ‘tribalists’ will adopt this tactic but also many others in constituencies where the distribution of second preference voting, or indeed, the likely best placed candidate to displace an incumbent MP, is uncertain. With a reduced number of seats and many of the remaining ones having new boundaries that could be a lot of constituencies.

None of this is to argue against supporting a move to AV in next year’s referendum, but I do suggest that taking a position for or against AV because you anticipate a particular party will gain or lose could prove foolish.

Many people, myself included, are by now used to the Daily Mail getting things wrong.

Sycophantic support for Mussolini, Hitler and Mosley’s Blackshirts in the 30s are evidence not only of wayward political preference but appallingly poor judgment; bad calls that continue to this day.

“You couldn’t make it up” is just one of Richard Littlejohn’s catchphrases regularly deployed in his rants about political correctness and health and safety – but The Daily Mail manages precisely that.

So notorious have its slanted features become over the years that for a long time I used to joke with friends that I wouldn’t even believe the results on the Mails sports pages, let alone agree with them.

Imagine my surprise therefore on Saturday.

I watched the prologue of this year’s Tour de France – a time trial of 5.5 miles circuiting the wet streets of Rotterdam. It was won by Swiss rider Fabian Cancellara. His comprehensive victory was no great shock; he won the equivalent time-trials in 2007 and 2009.

What was a shock, was the Daily Mails take on the event.

“Rain hampers Bradley Wiggins as Germany’s Tony Martin takes Tour prologue”

-ran the webpage header, last updated at 9.07pm, hours after Cancellara had claimed the first yellow jersey of this year’s Tour.

A combination of disbelief and self-doubt led me to check the page again the following day, and there it remained; and Fabian Cancellara had still won.

I then noticed, tucked away in the 7th paragraph, that the Daily Mail had actually conceded that Martin ….eventually finished second behind Fabian Cancellara of Switzerland.

For probably the first time in my life I wondered what Richard Littlejohn might say and made a mental note never again to joke about the unreliability of Daily Mail sports results.

—————————————————————————————————–

* as http://www.voiceoftheturtle.org has it:- “Hurrah for the Blackshirts”
A famous example of the Daily Mail’s longstanding commitment to impeccably balanced and unbiased coverage of controversial political events. This headline appeared on the front page of the 8 July 1934 edition, and accompanied a piece on Sir Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists that read, in part: “If the Blackshirts movement had any need of justification, the Red Hooligans who savagely and systematically tried to wreck Sir Oswald Mosley’s huge and magnificently successful meeting at Olympia last night would have supplied it.”
Subsequent articles emphasised the paper’s unstinting support — on 15 January 1934, the BUF was described as “a well organised party of the right ready to take over responsibility for national affairs with the same directness of purpose and energy of method as Hitler and Mussolini have displayed”. This betrays the paper’s similar enthusiasm for Fascist parties elsewhere in Europe, especially Adolf Hitler’s burgeoning Nazi movement (“The sturdy young Nazis are Europe’s guardians against the Communist danger”).

My view remains that most of the cuts to public spending proposed by the coalition and its Labour predecessors are avoidable, unnecessary and/or undeliverable as things stand; they result from political choice.

It seems odd, therefore, to take issue with press coverage critical of the Government, but sometimes it has to be done.

It particularly hurts to say it, but I think Philip Hammond, Tory Secretary of State for Transport, was correct in what he told BBC1’s The Andrew Marr Show:-

“…telling departments to budget for 40 per cent cuts was a way of making sure that the real target of 25 per cent on average was reached. I don’t expect any departments will see a 40 per cent cut but some departments may see cuts a bit higher than 25 per cent, some departments may then see cuts a bit lower than 25 per cent.”

Responses elsewhere to news that civil servants have been told by the Treasury to draw up proposals for cuts of 40% to their departmental budgets were predictable.

There was widespread horror at the likely impact that cuts of this magnitude might produce, particularly on the poorest and most vulnerable who, as a matter of deliberate policy will suffer most from so-called austerity, despite the persistence of the “we’re all in it together” meme.

“Cuts on that scale would exceed anything ever done by a democracy” wrote commentator Andy McSmith in the Independent.

There were accusations of spinning; deliberate leaking of the 40% cuts exercise aimed at colouring expectations with the hope of prompting a welcome relief when actual proposals emerge to meet the budgets’ requirement of 25%. The successfully softened-up “Ah well, it might have been worse” approach was well summed up by Nicholas Watt in the Guardian:-

“Outline the worst case scenario, goes the thinking, so that voters will be grateful when George Osborne eventually shows some mercy.”

Such alleged sleight of hand was variously referred to as a scare story by LibDem MP, Bob Russell and the oldest trick in the political book by Tory MP John Redwood.

Most of this stuff, however, is tosh.

If 25% cuts in most departmental budgets are required, it makes sense to ask top civil service managers to prepare proposals for cuts of 40% for 2 reasons.

The first is Hammond’s explanation; that scope to go below and above the 25% cuts requirement is straightforward common sense if one wants to maintain flexibility, prioritise between and across departments and avoid rigid top slicing.

The second is to provide options for decisions on priorities within departmental budgets. Should ministers or the Treasury really be expected to adopt the first plans for 25% cuts that emerge from senior civil servants and departments? Not if they have any political nous, they shouldn’t.

Moreover, any Treasury suggestion that proposals be worked up for the 40% figure were bound to leak out. Any attempt to keep it secret, disguise or deny it would rebound badly on the LibCon coalition, so being up front from the outset also makes sense.

It’s the presentation by commentators of the Treasury instruction as an indication of possible intent rather than a sensible approach to produce the widest range of options for decision, which gives grounds for the accusations of softening-up the public.

Commentators presenting process as possible outcome at best, or at worst, mistaking process for outcome, help no-one, least of all anyone worried about the impact of cuts on their future lives and those seeking to ensure the LibCons pay a price at the polls for their political choices.

If it wasn’t so serious you’d have to laugh.

The CBI has urged the coalition government, which as we know comprises Tories (supported by 36.1% of those voting) and LibDems (23%) to legislate so that unions will in future need support from more than 40% of members balloted, in addition to a simple majority in favour, to authorise an official strike.

CBI plans might have sailed through if the Tories had won the election; and a mere 40% share of those voting would probably have won it for them. With the coalition there may be problems.

After all, the coalition partners’ agreement on the alternative vote (AV) goes no further than a commitment to organise a referendum on the issue. The Tories are committed to oppose AV. We should stick to what we know, they will argue; it’s not necessary in order to take their place in the House of Commons, for politicians to have the support of the majority who vote in their constituency even by counting second preference votes.

So, insisting for trade unionists that having a majority favouring a strike is insufficient for anyone to take their place on a picket line might well seem ever so slightly inconsistent.

No legislation to raise the bar for strike ballots to 40% of those entitled to vote could get through parliament without significant backing; of MPs on Commons benches most of whom could only ever dream of having that level of popular support and, incidentally, totally unelected nobles and bishops in the Lords.

As Britain’s self-proclaimed ‘leading business group’ the CBI doesn’t just concern itself with trade union democracy, it worries too about problems of uncertainty for all workers.
Its press release recommends:-

“…the consultation period for collective redundancies should be shortened from 90 days to 30 days to reduce uncertainty for staff and allow employers to reshape their workforces swiftly to respond to significant falls in demand.”

John Cridland, CBI Deputy Director-General, elaborates –

“…when… redundancies are inevitable, dragging out the process over three months just prolongs the agony for employees.”

This is bullshit. Trade unions have long had a response to the shedding of management crocodile tears over uncertainty in redundancy consultation – “We’ll get by with the uncertainty thanks – it’s losing their jobs that people find harder.”

John Cridland knows full well of course, that if consultation on mass redundancies was limited to 30 days, no trade union members could ever take lawful strike action to resist them because 30 days is insufficient for their unions to conduct ballots in compliance with the law.

Cridland also knows that workers got rid of before the 90 day consultation period is up are entitled to be paid, in addition to redundancy pay, for the unexpired part of that period. Ending workers’ uncertainty by sacking them early costs employers money.

With UK workers amongst the cheapest in Europe to get rid of and a government committed to mass unemployment, he just wants it to be cheaper still.

These measures are put forward under the rubric of a “fairer approach to employment relations in the workplace”.

Before Cameron latched onto ‘fair’, just as Blair latched onto ‘modern’, it used to mean free from bias, dishonesty or injustice.