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May 20, 2009

Why the next Speaker has to be Sir George Young

I won’t predict the next Speaker of the House of Commons. My last prediction, that Michael Martin would cling on, proved to be somewhere in the region of wrong.

Instead, I’ll offer a few reasons why the Conservative MP for North-West Hampshire, Sir George Young, should be trusted with the role.

1) Independence
He’s not afraid to walk the difficult path. In Andover, the centre of his constituency, he disagreed with almost every Conservative in the town on plans for an enormous Tesco warehouse. They generally supported it – he was one of the leaders of the campaign against it. By doing so, he was against those who wanted the jobs, but probably caught the public mood at the time. Perhaps he was guilty of following that public mood for electoral gain, but nevertheless, don’t we need a Speaker who’s in touch with what the public wants right now?

2) Transparency
Sir George was one of the first MPs to publish their expenses online. I doubt there are any others who reveal their spending in as much detail as this. In 06/07 he claimed £165 for food, for instance. The one black mark on his record might be that he maxed out his second home allowance for the last two years.

3) Balance
If convention is that the Speakership rotates between someone from the Government benches and someone from the Opposition benches, it really is time for a Tory.

4) Form
As the Chairman of the Select Committee on Standards and Privileges, he knows how the system works but can’t be blamed for its failings. He’s also a man in tune with the times – he led a campaign to get broadband into rural areas back in 2001.

5) The X Factor
He’s likable. He’s not annoyed anyone on the opposition benches, and he’s a lover of Parliament (theyworkforyou.com says he has well-above average attendance). Yes, he’s a Baronet, and yes he’s what people might call a ‘Grandee’, but he’s also a safe pair of hands, from the right party, at the right time.

P.S. Make of this disclosure what you will, but I lived, for just over a year, in Sir George’s constituency and regularly met with him to do radio interviews. That fact probably colours/informs my judgement somewhat.


May 19, 2009

'Education, Education, Education': The Results

Figures released quietly on Friday reveal the success of some of the government’s education programmes.

Michael Gove, the Tories’ Education Spokesman, asked the government how children on free school meals (the widely used guide to childrens’ family wealth) had done at A-Level and in their Sats tests (soon to be abolished).

These are the answers he got:

Those on free school meals who sat Maths A-Level:
2004: 554 (13.8%)
2008: 705 (17.1%)

Those on free school meals who sat Further Maths A-Level:
2004: 31 (0.8%)
2008: 53 (1.3%)

Those on free school meals who achieved Level 7 in their KS3 Maths tests:
2002: 5,120
2006: 9,233

But it’s not all good news. While Maths has been a big success, English results have actually worsened.

Those on free school meals who achieved Level 7 in their KS3 English tests:
2002: 2,663
2006: 2,364

These figures only reflect successes (or otherwise) in English, Maths and Science. Many teachers say the focus on these three subjects came at the expense of other subjects, especially at primary school. Where maths figures appear to be good news, those for modern languages show the inverse. Those getting two language GCSEs at grades A* to C fell from 7.3% of pupils in 1996 to 4.7% in 2008.


May 18, 2009

The Speaker will cling on

I think the Speaker of the House of Commons did enough today to cling onto his big green seat.

He was, of course, awful. Woeful. Abysmal. He needed a good showing, and he summarily proved he didn’t know House of Commons rules by getting confused over the technical arcania of substantive motions. I was momentarily transported back to student politics.

Shudder.

But he was nice to Gordon Prentice and Douglas Carswell who did their very best to rile him.

This was out of character, and was the one solitary thing he did today that was different from last week. Hidden in his measured, if stuttered tone was a smidgen of a whiff of a note of change.

The Speaker didn’t give the people (nor the media) what they wanted though. No retirement date. No immediate release of every MP’s expenses. And beyond that faint dram of forced friendliness, no sign of change.

He doesn’t want to go. The PM may want him to go politically, but electorally a by-election in the until-now safe Glasgow North East seat would be disastrous. And a contrived band of Scottish friends, led by the ridiculous Lord Foulkes, don’t want him to go.

All they have by way of weaponry is the sharp sword of convention.

Rarely do five or six people stand up to sixty million and win. In this battle, full of history and precedents, they just might.


May 11, 2009

They're not all scum

I think the Telegraph, and others, have gone too far with MP’s expenses now.

Yes, some of them are money-grabbing little sh*ts who deserve the marching orders they’ll be given at the next election.

But some of the MPs who’ve had their expenses splashed across the newspapers really have done nothing wrong.

The Daily Mail have the news that Oliver Letwin claimed £2,000 to replace a leaking pipe under his tennis court. His response that:

I was served a statutory notice by the water company to repair the leaking pipe, which runs underneath the tennis court and garden. No improvements were made to the tennis court or garden.”

seems to have been pretty much ignored – the paper’s still run the story and painted him as an expenses cheat in the process.

Another overblown example is the Prime Minister – yes his cleaner seems to be flipping expensive, but suggesting he was siphoning off public money to line his brother’s pockets is pretty close to an outright lie, and yet it’s the impression most people will now have.

I’m not too worried about individual MPs being slandered though – their electorate will see through the media bluster at the next election.

But I think the general ‘they’re all at it’ mood of the press is going to be really damaging. With a change of government more than likely, you’d expect turnout at the next election to be higher than 2001 and 2005.

But if the public think politicians are universally a breed of tight-fisted, public money-stealing good-for-nothings then it wouldn’t surprise me if turnout actually dropped. What, after all, is the point of voting for anyone if every politician is bent?

Gordon Brown’s claim that the system is at fault is nearly half-right, but it takes a certain kind of person to exploit that system.

However, the media’s completely over-the-top wall-to-wall coverage of the 650+ liars, cheats and bastards will do nothing for the public’s faith in democracy. And if that breaks down, we really are screwed.


February 12, 2009

How 12500 new British jobs is actually just 500.

Much of the media seemed to fall for the Department for Transport’s PR this morning.

‘Super express’ trains contract gives boost to British jobs said the Guardian.

The Daily Mail said: Government buys British for intercity train fleet

The Telegraph seemed to fall hook, line and sinker: Next generation of Intercity trains to be built in Britain they said.

The only trouble is, none of those headlines appear to be entirely accurate.

They all stemmed from the DfT’s confident announcement that ‘This will create or safeguard some 12,500 manufacturing jobs in these regions [of the UK].’

But as the day’s gone on, that number’s begun to look like a big ball of spin.

The 12,500 appears to include maintenance workers, who could hardly have found their jobs offshored! “Safeguarding”, here, seems like an exaggeration.

Hitachi, part of the winning consortium, issued a UK press release that goes along with the DfT’s version of events. But they also issued a global press release, which has a different version.

Rather than 12,500 manufacturing jobs, as stated by the DfT, Hitachi promise their shareholders the deal will “secure up to 12,500 direct and indirect jobs in the local supply and services industry and local supporting communities.” It doesn’t say create, and doesn’t say manufacturing. “Local supporting communities” could mean Joyce who works in the nearby corner shop.

What’s more, it appears the trains will be designed and, largely, constructed in Japan. Only the final assembly and some basic manufacturing will be done in Britain.

Transport Briefing says just 500 manufacturing jobs will be created here in Britain. I’ll repeat that again: Five Hundred.

It appears that of the Department for Transport’s headline figure, just 2.5% are new jobs.

Why does all of this matter? Well, there was another bid for the £7.5bn tender from Bombardier, who are based in Derby and would have designed and constructed the trains in Britain.

I’m not a protectionist, but the spin coming out of the DfT today has been particularly effective, and particularly deceitful. Slowly the media’s realising they’ve been had.

Edit: The BBC just beat me to it on the spin story.


January 28, 2009

Obama copying Brown's economic plan?

Writing about web page http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/01/27/AR2009012700457.html

This article in the Washington Post (signup required) might provide some rare good news for Gordon Brown.

The U.S. Treasury is planning to help America’s banks in much the same way as Gordon Brown has in the UK.

On the table are several approaches, which officials have begun to experiment with on a smaller scale. One would give the firms a federal guarantee protecting them against losses on assets that are backed by failing mortgages and other troubled loans. Another would set up new government institutions to buy these toxic assets. A third would inject more money into financial firms in exchange for ownership stakes, perhaps ending with nationalization in all but name.

Pretty much entirely the British plan then, and the piece also goes on to say how the whole project will rely on ‘trial and error’ and ‘a combination of initiatives’.

For the ‘Saviour of the World’ (© All Media Outlets) to be considering exactly what Gordon Brown has been often criticised for will surely give the PM something to smile about.

He might be under fire for having caused the problem, but if Obama’s economic team is in complete agreement about how to fix it, Gordon Brown might just come out of this with his head held high.

Either that or the UK and US are both doomed.


Recognition = £££?

The Consultative Group on the Past of Northern Ireland is publishing its final report today.

Clearly the most contentious part of it will be the suggestion that victims of the Troubles’ families (both terrorists and those killed by terrorists) will be eligible to receive £12,000.

The co-Chair of the group is adamant this is not ‘compensation’.

This is ‘recognition’ of people’s loss, given in answer to people’s complaints that recognition is lacking.

But I can’t help thinking the Consultative Group has added two plus two and got five.

How many of those asking for ‘recognition’ specifically asked for money? I suspect the bureaucrats have completely misconstrued what they were asking for.

A quick glance at the Consultative Group’s website suggests many people are unhappy at the £12,000 idea and wanted recognition of another kind.


January 27, 2009

Doing things differently… some of the time

Writing about web page http://edition.cnn.com/video/#/video/politics/2009/01/27/intv.obama.arabiya.alarabiya

President Obama is certainly doing things differently. His first broadcast interview was with Dubai-based Al-Arabiya, one of the most watched TV channels in the Middle East.

Watching it though, there were a few parallels with the past.

He often listens to a question, and begins his answer with “Well what I think is important is this…”

Mr Obama’s message to the Muslim world is that America’s now listening.

As an interviewee, not so much.


January 20, 2009

This historic day

There is something more to today than the inauguration of the first mixed-race President of the United States.

When Barack Hussein Obama is sworn in at 5pm (GMT) tonight, he’ll assume responsibility for the greatest country in the world.

Its economic, military, social and cultural impact is immense. And its reputation is in need of salvation.

President Obama has been hailed as the Saviour of the America many want the country to become. Yet that task is so great, imbuing responsibility for it in one man has never been as risky.

Two wars, a failing economy, a crumbling infrastructure, a woeful health system and an underperforming education system. These are each difficult crises, just one of which can sink a President.

President Obama does appear to have a once-in-a-generation chance to solve some of these.

But to solve them all – and to simultaneously repair the country’s image, particularly in Latin America and the Middle East – will require a miracle even greater than President Obama’s election.

He begins his term of office with majorities in the House and Senate. With millions of supporters ready to jump in front of traffic for him. And with the goodwill of most of the Western world.

All of these things make it more likely he will let some of us down.

But there will be achievements to savour during the 44th Presidency, and we should appreciate each of them, even if President Obama fails us at times. He is, after all, only human.

It’s been a while.

But today, at last, we’re jealous of America, hoping that the stardust will fall beyond the country’s borders.


January 17, 2009

Problems for LabourList

This is pretty funny.

A Labour Party apparatchik called Derek Draper set up LabourList as a counter to the wildly successful Conservative Home last week. The only trouble, he’s very close to Peter Mandelson, and unlike the Tory version, LabourList is seen as being too close to the party’s leadership.

Derek’s other problem is a dislike for humour or dissent. He’s been accused of heavily censoring comments left by members of the public, and generally treating the site’s users like poo.

So someone’s set up Labourist. Lacking a certain, er… ‘L’, the site is identical to LabourList, but anyone can leave comments.

It seems completely legal at the moment – LabourList encourages people to use the data on the site elsewhere.

It’d be pretty funny if Labourist turned out to be more popular, made more money from advertising and had more of an effect on the party than the original version – very “bottom-up”.


January 15, 2009

Is Labour too scared of business to say 'No'?

Finding a good reason to build a third runway at Heathrow Airport isn’t hard. The trouble is, there’s only one.

It’ll apparently be good for business.

Some airlines argue that it’s good for passenger equality too because more ‘slots’ means more cheap flights for the lower-middle class. The only trouble is that it’s not true. George Monbiot estimates more than half of Ryanair’s adverts are placed in the Daily Telegraph.

Put simply, a bigger Heathrow means more flights for people with second homes in the Med.

The strangest thing about the whole Heathrow argument is who is opposing it.

Heathrow AirportThe Mayor of London, the Conservative Party (their leadership, at least) and the Liberal Democrats. All in unison.

For Labour to be left on the other side with the CBI suggests the government’s reasons are skewed somehow.

I think they’re scared.

Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling know that in the current economic climate, the economy is their soft spot. Any decision they make that could be seen as damaging to business is, right now, potentially fatal.

What’s strange is that the government hasn’t – until now, at least – taken high-speed rail more seriously. Spain is throwing 220mph lines across their country like confetti. France has had the TGV for years. We’ve got… er… the Channel Tunnel Rail Link. Eventually.

If you’re flying from London to Scotland, the plane is a) cheaper b) quicker and c) more convenient.

Perhaps allowing a third runway is just politically easier. If flights are delayed, airlines get the blame. If a high-speed rail link is delayed, the government is blamed by association.

But by the time a new rail line is built, or a new runway is constructed, Gordon Brown will be gone and forgotten.

This is a long-term decision being taken for a short-term reason: Fear.


December 17, 2008

Britain's broken back

As President-elect Obama promises to invest in the United States’ infrastructure during the recession, here there’s little sign of progress.

A depressing Friday-night journey from Nottingham to Southampton last week gave me plenty of time to ponder the uselessness of Britain’s transport network. In fact I only had to go about ten miles down the M1 before it became a car park.

We’re a long, relatively thin country with a large proportion of the population spread along a spine running from London to Liverpool/Manchester.

But the spine’s broken.

As of last weekend we’ve now got one medium-speed rail line running from North to South. It’s not bad, but it’s nowhere near enough. It’s also ludicrously expensive, hence why I was sat on the M1.

We’ve got two North-to-South motorways, the M1 and the M6. They are renowned, probably across most of Europe, for being over-stretched.

And then we’ve got internal flights, the use of which ought to be a national embarrassment.

No-one really knows how to solve the problem, and there certainly isn’t a consensus. We’re building Crossrail at the same time as considering putting the brakes on Heathrow’s expansion. We’re widening motorways at the same time as encouraging people to use public transport. It must be the least well-planned area of public policy in Britain. Nothing adds up.

One decision ought to be a no-brainer. We need new railways, stretching from the North to the South. They don’t necessarily need to be TGV-fast – in some ways making them as cheap as possible might be the most important priority.

And it actually makes more sense for them to be freight lines than passenger ones. Anyone who’s tried overtaking a lorry which is itself overtaking another lorry will tell you what causes most of the congestion on the roads.

But we’ve not built the country for rail freight. I spent much of the summer listening to people fight for or against a Tesco Megashed in Hampshire. It was to be bigger than T5 at Heathrow, and would have served most of their supermarkets in the South-East of England. It was right next to a railway line, but they had no intention of ever using it.

Personally I’m not a fan of expanding Heathrow, as it seems obvious to everyone that it was built in the wrong place. The more we expand it, the more we compound the problem. The Thames Estuary idea apparently favoured by Boris Johnson seems a good idea to me, and is worthy of investigation by the government.

Unfortunately it’s all a bit too late. A recession is the ideal time to do some of these things (it’s cheaper and employs people). But it’ll take decades for anything to be done.

We’re in real danger of becoming a country of motorway-bound I-Spy players.


December 11, 2008

Hug a German

Peer Steinbrück is the German finance minister, and a Social Democratic member of the country’s governing coalition.

Can we adopt him or find some distant relative of his that allows us to claim him as British?

From Newsweek:

The speed at which proposals are put together under pressure that don’t even pass an economic test is breathtaking and depressing. Our British friends are now cutting their value-added tax. We have no idea how much of that stores will pass on to customers. Are you really going to buy a DVD player because it now costs £39.10 instead of £39.90? All this will do is raise Britain’s debt to a level that will take a whole generation to work off. The same people who would never touch deficit spending are now tossing around billions. The switch from decades of supply-side politics all the way to a crass Keynesianism is breathtaking. When I ask about the origins of the crisis, economists I respect tell me it is the credit-financed growth of recent years and decades. Isn’t this the same mistake everyone is suddenly making again, under all the public pressure?


November 23, 2008

Breaking from the script

I thought Barack Obama was supposed to be The West Wing v.2? I mean, he even appointed Josh Lyman as his Chief of Staff.

Now he’s got elected, the script’s got jumbled up.

His weekly radio address yesterday was headlined:

Obama seeks to create 2.5m jobs

Come on, neither Jed Bartlet nor Matthew Santos were centrists, but they knew full well the adage that governments don’t create jobs, businesses do.

Has the U.S. gone socialist overnight?


November 22, 2008

Return of the 'P' word

Tomorrow’s Sunday Times leads on details of Alistair Darling’s planned spending cuts to boost the economy. From the article:

Cuts in Vat are to form a key plank of Gordon Brown’s emergency economic rescue package to be unveiled tomorrow… A 2.5% Vat cut would cost £12.5 billion a year, making it by far the biggest element of Brown’s £15 billion-plus “fiscal stimulus”.

But it’s further down the article that the bigger story could lie.

Officials are drawing up plans for a sale of government assets including the Met Office, the Ordnance Survey and thousands of acres of Forestry Commission land.

Using this image probably breaks that Crown Copyright. But ho hum.It’s strange that this green-light for new privatisation is given no further comment in the article. Not only is it a change of tune for New Labour, but the choice of government agencies in the firing line is bizarre. The sale of all three would constitute minimal short-term gain in return for extraordinary long-term pain.

Firstly, with the Met Office. Selling off this public service (for never was the term more apt than in predicting the country’s weather) is bound to lead to a rush to commercialise forecasting. Don’t worry about the BBC having to pay more for weather data, that’s irrelevant in the grand scheme of things. If the Met Office is put in private hands, it’s sure to lead to big price increases for farmers, fishermen and aircraft pilots, all of whom rely on weather forecasting much more detailed than you find in a TV bulletin.

Secondly, Ordnance Survey. OS already behaves like a commercial company in many ways, demanding licence fees for almost any map of Britain. They’re currently in a scrap with Google over Google Maps, and this week tried to tell the Home Secretary what she could and couldn’t do. The Register has been pushing for the government to make OS’s data more freely available. A key point they make is:

The government argues that businesses and individuals who use the data should contribute to the cost of collecting it. The counter-argument is damning: Ordnance Survey makes a profit for the Treasury, but locking down its maps suffocates a potential boom in Geographic Information Services and other businesses, that would funnel much more back into the economy.

The government should be using Ordnance Survey as a tool to unlock some new economic potential (see this brilliant idea as just one use of the data that relies on it being cheap), not as part of a short-term fire sale.

Thirdly and finally, Forestry Commission land. If this isn’t a shortsighted idea, I don’t know what is. Selling it off for commercial gain means only one thing – the environment won’t be the main concern any more. We’re unlikely to see the land stripped for palm oil but any commercial use will conflict with the current limits on what Forestry Commission land can be used for.

The article has the whiff of being leaked by a naive junior government minister who hasn’t thought any of these things through yet.

Let’s hope the rest of Monday’s pre-budget report isn’t so half-baked.


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