Thursday, 30 April 2015

Newspaper readership and voting patterns

It may have been the "Sun wot won it" in 1992, but in the most recent election it seems the Independent was most in tune with the electorate. Yesterday's Indy contains a guide to the influence which newspapers have had (or not had) on UK general elections since the Great War. According to a study by Deacon and Wring of Loughborough University, the voting behaviour of national newspaper readers in May 2010 was:

Independent: 29 per cent Lab; 36 per cent Con; 23 per cent  Lib Dem.
Times: 22 per cent Lab; 49 per cent Con; 24 per cent Lib Dem.
Telegraph: 7 per cent Lab;  70 per cent Con; 18 per cent  Lib Dem.
Daily Express: 19 per cent Lab; 53 per cent Con; 18 per cent Lib Dem.
Daily Mail: 16 per cent Lab; 59 per cent Con; 16 per cent Lib Dem.
The Sun: 28 per cent Lab; 43 per cent Con; 18 per cent Lib Dem.
Daily Mirror: 59 per cent Lab; 16 per cent Con; 17 per cent  Lib Dem.
Guardian: 46 per cent Lab; 9 per cent Con; 37 per cent Lib Dem.

This compares with the actual voting of: Conservative 36.06% , Labour  29.00%, Lib. Dem. 23.03% (courtesy of UKElect).

Wednesday, 29 April 2015

Ed Miliband's financial blank page

I have disagreed with Paul Reynolds over his jaundiced view of the civil service, but I think he is spot on with this criticism of Labour:

At recent hustings (I’m a candidate in West Ham and doing some Newham-wide events) Labour incumbents robotically read through lists of extra spending promises, but dodge much else with bland statements of the blindingly obvious. They peddle the myth of the 2007 ‘global crisis’.
The truth is that the crisis originated in the UK and US and then affected severely only a few countries. There was no ‘'global financial crisis’ in Turkey, China, South America, SE Asia, Germany, Scandinavia or Australia (although of course they were later affected by reduced demand in USA and other countries). [My emphasis]
Labour spokespeople  still deny the UK’s economic vulnerability from  pre-2007 Labour over-borrowing, which left little room to deal with the crisis, and thus led to emergency cuts.
Maybe this explains Ed Miliband’s policies on preventing another financial crisis in the UK. Apart from a few vague populist promises the page is entirely blank.
Any cursory read of the financial press shows how banks are up to their old tricks, and how close we are to another financial sector crash. But surprisingly given their prior culpability, Labour has nothing to say about this. All the running on further crash-prevention has been made in government by Vince Cable, Lib Dem (former) MEP Sharon Bowles in the EU, and the anti-Cameron, Pro-EU Tory MP Andrew Tyrie in Parliament.
We can only presume the restart of Labour Blairite shoe-lace licking in the City is already well underway.

One should remember that key people directing the country's economic policy in the Blair Brown era are still in place in the Labour leader's group.

Tuesday, 28 April 2015

Earthquake response donations - a reminder

The Gurkhas earthquake response donation page is

The main Disasters Emergency Committee page is

The UK government will match the first £5m raised by a fund seeking donations towards the Nepalese earthquake. (The United States and the Canadian federal governments have announced similar programmes. Their match-funding ends on 25th May, but, it appears, there is no upper cash limit.)

The latest estimate of casualties exceeds 10,000.

First fruits of the new CFP

A move towards sustainability of fishing stocks in the Baltic was approved by the European Parliament yesterday as a result of the revised Common Fisheries Policy. One trusts that this scheme is a precursor to those for larger fishing grounds.

Monday, 27 April 2015


At the time of writing the number of confirmed deaths in Nepal is 3700. Because of the difficulties of communication in the mountainous nation, there is almost certainly worse news to come.

The Gurkha Welfare Trust reports on Facebook:

Reports of significant damage to the homes of our Gurkha veterans across affected areas are now starting to pour into our HQ in Pokhara. Damage ranges from cracks to complete destruction with our pensioners sleeping in temporary accommodation. It's clear that large numbers have been affected.

The Disasters Emergency Committee is collecting to help the Nepalis. May I also put in a word for the Gurkha Welfare Trust? Donating to the GWT will not only help deserving veterans, who have links to this part of the world, but also reduce the load on other aid workers.

We should be proud of the volunteers from the Mid and West Wales Fire and Rescue Service who are taking their expertise and specialist equipment to Nepal. COBRA and the International Development ministry have also moved swiftly to assist. The speed of this response points to the need for any future government to retain the Department for International Development machinery.

Sunday, 26 April 2015

Cheshire loses another football league club

Yesterday's results confirmed Birkenhead's Tranmere Rovers' drop into non-league football for the first time in 94 years. I remember when the Rovers were constantly in the top half of Division 2 (now The Championship). It was rumoured that the club made more from being regular challengers than actually achieving promotion. How things have changed!

In my lifetime New Brighton, Chester and Stockport County have departed, and Macclesfield have been in and out of the League. By my reckoning that just leaves Crewe Alexandra representing Cheshire.

I admire Mark Palios's optimism, but the record of teams attempting to return is not good.

Refereeing elections

The ruling of Judge Richard Mawrey on the conduct of the late mayoral election in Tower Hamlets, repays reading in full. It is far from the usual dry analysis. Part of his preamble deserves wider circulation.

17 Before dealing with the law relating to election petitions, it is necessary briefly to rebut
the criticism made in certain quarters after the high profile case of Watkins v Woolas
(referred to hereafter as ‘Woolas’) in which the election of Mr Philip Woolas as Member of Parliament for Oldham East and Saddleworth in 2010 was set aside by an election court on the ground that Mr Woolas had committed an illegal practice contrary to s 106 of the 1983 Act (which will be discussed in detail later in this judgment).

18 The criticism is usually voiced in terms of ‘unelected judges unseating democratically elected politicians’, the obvious implication being that this process is itself undemocratic.

19 There are two answers to this criticism. First the resolution of disputed elections by the courts is not a power the judges have arrogated to themselves. It is a task laid upon them by Parliament, a task, what is more, that the judiciary originally resisted tooth and nail. As the history of election courts set out in Woolas in the Divisional Court shows, when, in 1868, it was proposed that election disputes should be referred to the courts, the then Lord Chief Justice, Sir Alexander Cockburn Bt (ironically the country’s leading expert in electoral law), wrote a stern letter of protest to the Lord Chancellor and earned himself an unflattering cartoon in Punch for his pains. All to no avail. The reason is obvious: if, as Parliament believed, and has continued to believe, politicians cannot be trusted to resolve election disputes fairly, then who is left but the judiciary? Election courts have thus lasted from 1868 to the present.

20 The second reason is that the criticism itself begs the question. If a candidate is elected in breach of the rules for elections laid down in the legislation, then he cannot be said to have been ‘democratically elected’. In elections, as in sport, those who win by cheating have not properly won and are disqualified. Nor is it of any avail for the candidate to say ‘I would have won anyway’ because cheating leads to disqualification whether it was necessary for the victory or not. In recent election cases, for example, it has been proved that candidates were elected by the use of hundreds (in Birmingham, thousands) of forged votes: would anyone seriously claim that those candidates had been ‘democratically elected’?

It is an answer to those of my Labour-supporting friends who protest that elections can be overturned "on a whim", "if the losers don't like it". (Some whim; the legal costs are high.)

Mr Mawrey's final paragraph has even wider resonance:

Events of recent months in contexts very different from electoral malpractice have starkly demonstrated what happens when those in authority are afraid to confront wrongdoing for fear of allegations of racism and Islamophobia. Even in the multicultural society which is 21st century Britain, the law must be applied fairly and equally to everyone. Otherwise we are lost.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

Another EU state votes in Liberals

In last Sunday's elections, Suomen Keskuta, the liberal Centre Party, became the largest party in the Finnish parliament. The Liberal International report does not say what the opinion polls were predicting.

Another party to do well was the one formed to look after the interests of the Swedish-speaking community in Finland (from which, incidentally, the composer Sibelius sprang). One would have thought from its name that the Swedish People's Party was either extremely socialist or extremely fascist but, no, it too is a liberal party.

Friday, 24 April 2015

Revolt against party-political NUS campaign

The politically-motivated National Union of Students' "Liar Liar" campaign has come under increasing fire. £40,000 of student union funds is reported to have been spent on the personal attack on Nick Clegg. The NUS, which has over the years been a forcing-ground for Labour politicians, has form in this area as Nick Barlow's blog recalls.

The fact is that students get a far better deal under the revised tuition fees scheme of the coalition than they did under Labour. If you don't believe me, believe the independent Martin Lewis of Money Saving Expert. Also believe the facts: university admissions have risen and the number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds has risen faster since 2010.

The posters are clearly not aimed at current students, who are taking advantage of the more generous rules and who will not benefit from the campaign, but at older voters who are unaware of the facts. A Facebook Event countering the propaganda has proved popular.

Thursday, 23 April 2015

Asthma breakthrough

Asthma UK and Cardiff University have made an announcement which offers hope to those whose asthma resists the standard treatments:

"Cardiff University scientists have for the first time identified the potential root cause of asthma and an existing drug that offers a new treatment.

"Published today in Science Translational Medicine journal, Cardiff University researchers, working in collaboration with scientists at King’s College London and the Mayo Clinic (USA), describe the previously unproven role of the calcium sensing receptor (CaSR) in causing asthma, a disease which affects 300 million people worldwide.

"The team used mouse models of asthma and human airway tissue from asthmatic and non-asthmatic people to reach their findings.

"Crucially, the paper highlights the effectiveness of a class of drugs known as calcilytics in manipulating CaSR to reverse all symptoms associated with the condition. These symptoms include airway narrowing, airway twitchiness and inflammation - all of which contribute to increased breathing difficulty.

"'Our findings are incredibly exciting,' said the principal investigator, Professor Daniela Riccardi, from Cardiff University School of Biosciences. 'For the first time we have found a link airways inflammation, which can be caused by environmental triggers - such as allergens, cigarette smoke and car fumes – and airways twitchiness in allergic asthma.

"'Our paper shows how these triggers release chemicals that activate CaSR in airway tissue and drive asthma symptoms like airway twitchiness, inflammation, and narrowing. Using calcilytics, nebulised directly into the lungs, we show that it is possible to deactivate CaSR and prevent all of these symptoms.'

"Dr Samantha Walker, Director of Research and Policy at Asthma UK, who helped fund the research, said:

"'This hugely exciting discovery enables us, for the first time, to tackle the underlying causes of asthma symptoms. Five per cent of people with asthma don’t respond to current treatments so research breakthroughs could be life changing for hundreds of thousands of people.

"'If this research proves successful we may be just a few years away from a new treatment for asthma, and we urgently need further investment to take it further through clinical trials. Asthma research is chronically underfunded; there have only been a handful of new treatments developed in the last 50 years so the importance of investment in research like this is absolutely essential.'

"While asthma is well controlled in some people, around one-in-twelve patients respond poorly to current treatments. This significant minority accounts for around 90% of healthcare costs associated with the condition.

"According to Cardiff University Professor Paul Kemp, who co-authored the study, the identification of CaSR in airway tissue means that the potential for treatment of other inflammatory lung diseases beyond asthma is immense. These include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and chronic bronchitis, for which currently there exists no cure. It is predicted that by 2020 these diseases will be the third biggest killers worldwide.

"Professor Riccardi and her collaborators are now seeking funding to determine the efficacy of calcilytic drugs in treating asthmas that are especially difficult to treat, particularly steroid-resistant and influenza-exacerbated asthma, and to test these drugs in patients with asthma.

"Calcilytics were first developed for the treatment of osteoporosis around 15 years ago with the aim of strengthening deteriorating bone by targeting CaSR to induce the release of an anabolic hormone. Although clinically safe and well tolerated in people, calcilytics proved unsuccessful in treating osteoporosis.

"But this latest breakthrough has provided researchers with the unique opportunity to re-purpose these drugs, potentially accelerating the time it takes for them to be approved for use asthma patients. Once funding has been secured, thg has been secured, the group aim to be trialing the drugs on humans within two years.

"'If we can prove that calcilytics are safe when administered directly to the lung in people, then in five years we could be in a position to treat patients and potentially stop asthma from happening in the first place,' added Professor Riccardi.

"The study was part-funded by Asthma UK, the Cardiff Partnership Fund and a BBSRC ‘Sparking Impact’ award."

The possible extension of the therapy to others with COPD will be particularly good news to those in South Wales and other industrial areas whose lives have been wrecked by pollution in and around the workplace.

Poet and would-be soldier

Today is not only St George's Day, but also a hundred years since the death of Rupert Brooke. This is the first of many centenaries of deaths of promising young men because of the Great War, but it is one of the more tantalising. His ODNB biography reveals easy academic ability, early fame as a poet, but also a conflicted sexual life. The career path of the musicians whose lives were cut short between 1914 and 1918 was clear but that of the poets less so. Most poets write their best stuff when young and, in any case, Brooke had a wide range of interests. I would see him, if he survived the war and the Spanish 'flu which followed as a potential "distinguished literary figure", travel writer or even politician.. He would also have come to terms with his sexualtiy in the brief period of social liberation after the war.

Wednesday, 22 April 2015

Football representation

Inspired by a thread on Facebook, I tested the assertion that the Conservatives were not represented in the 2010-2015 parliament in respect of Premier League clubs except at the top of the table: Chelsea. A distant memory of a claim by a dyed-in-the-wool Fulham supporter caused me to doubt this, and sure enough a search on the postcode of Stamford Bridge (SW6 1HS) confirmed that the club is in the Fulham Road in Hammersmith and Fulham, held until last month by Andy Slaughter for Labour. The only exception to the Labour monopoly of the Premier League is Burnley who I hope will hang on to both their top-level status and to their Liberal Democrat representative, Gordon Birtwistle.

In fact, you have to drop to the Championship to find many Conservative-held seats. Watford is currently favourite for automatic promotion, but I see that this is a three-way marginal so it is anyone's guess who will be MP for Vicarage Road after May 7th. The next team, Bournemouth, was also Conservative-represented, then sixth-placed Ipswich, seventh-placed Brentford, eighth Wolves, eleventh Nottingham (never Notts!) Forest, nineteenth Reading, and twentieth Brighton. The rest are Labour-held, apart from LibDem Norwich, presently in fourth position. Note that these are the constituencies where the grounds are situated, which is why Caroline Lucas and the Greens do not get a look in. The AMEX Stadium is in the Conservative-held half of Brighton.

To follow this up in the remainder of the Football League and the Scottish Leagues, I recommend and

Tuesday, 21 April 2015

Some party conferences do matter

I caught Jon Snow's interview of Nick Clegg on Channel 4 News earlier. I thought Nick was more in Deputy Prime Minister than in party leader mode, particularly in defending the coalition's record over Libya. I was hoping that he would be honest about tuition fees. He implied that he had changed his mind on the formation of the coalition. The fact is that he has been resolute in defending the student loan system. It was Liberal Democrat party conference which insisted that abolition be included in the 2010 manifesto. (To be fair to the "top table", they set to and produced a workable system for the manifesto as a result of the vote. It was not the party's fault that we were outvoted ten to one in the Commons in not only keeping the system but also raising the level of fees: in Labour's case, probably removing the upper limit altogether.) This gives the lie to Peter Hennessy's assertion on Sunday's "Broadcasting House" that conference no longer matters.

This year's manifesto shows another instance, the insistence on a balance between cuts and taxes in eliminating the structural deficit. If Liberal Democrats are in coalition negotiations after the election, I can't see the leadership backsliding on that one.

A businessman's view of the coalition

Joe Zammit-Lucia commented recently on Huffington Post:

"As a British business person and entrepreneur, I have always felt that the Conservative Party was my natural political home. I never gave it much thought. [...] Now my business interests are largely back in the UK and we are in an election year - an election year with more possible outcomes than in any of my previous experiences. I have decided for the first time to throw my support - and my vote - behind the Liberal Democrats."

He explained:
"Lib Dem led policies have also been positive for business. From the highly successful apprenticeship scheme to the British Business Bank and the Green Investment Bank; the emphasis on spreading prosperity throughout the country through decentralisation initiatives such as the Regional Growth Fund, City Deals and Local Growth Deals; the moderating influence on legislation such as the Snooper's Charter which, if passed in its original extreme form, would not only have representing an attack on liberal and democratic values but would have been damaging to the UK as a base for the booming digital economy (damage that will only be surpassed by Mr Cameron's daft idea of banning end to end encryption of digital data). All these policies were a direct result of having the Lib Dems in government."

It was also a defensive move:
"The Chairman of a FTSE 100 company was recently quoted as saying of the two main parties 'One party hates Europe; the other party hates business. It is a worrying state of affairs.' It is indeed. If we look at the possible outcomes of the upcoming election, any outcome that does not involve a coalition with the Lib Dems would be nothing short of disastrous for UK Business.

"A slim conservative majority (a large majority is out of the question) would put the government at the mercy of the party's loony fringe. We would almost certainly exit the EU and the business of government would be held hostage by a few MPs with extreme views (and there are plenty enough of those). Business's ability to import the skills it so desperately needs would be severely restricted. The digital economy will likely be damaged further and Scotland will almost certainly secede."

His conclusion: "should the upcoming election produce an outcome that is anything other than a stable, two-party coalition that includes the moderating influence and the liberal, decentralising, internationalist values represented by the Lib Dems, the consequences for UK business and, as a result, the whole country, would range from the bad to the disastrous."

Monday, 20 April 2015

Manifestos: green issues

Green Liberal Democrats have issued their statistical analysis of all the general election manifestos:

Party ranking by manifesto keyword count on environmental issues*

Green Party 293
Liberal Democrats 230
SNP 59
Tory 51
Plaed Cymru 47
Labour 45
* NB this reflects how important the environment is to the party - not how pro- or anti- they are (for example, UKIP are opposed to having an environment at all and their opposition leads to a high word count). Nor does it take into account how practical and achievable those policies are. The Liberal Democrats are ‪#‎BritainsGreenestParty‬ precisely because they have a record of success implementing their practical policy ideas.

A campaign that the next parliament should take note of

I am not going to put money on Ed Goncalves winning the Rugby constituency, which looks like being a fight between Labour and Conservative* but his vote share will be an indication of how much the public is still concerned about MPs' troughing at our expense. Ed is centring his campaign on an attack on the expenses culture of Westminster. Even in a party which wants to clean up politics, Ed's platform stands out. Some samples:

If Ed's vote goes up markedly, against the trend of opinion research, then the new roster of MPs will need to take seriously further reforms in Westminster.

*2010 result in Rugby [courtesy of UKElect]
Electorate 68914
Mark Pawsey, Con 20901 44.03%
Andy King, Lab 14901 31.39%
Jerry Roodhouse, LDm  9434 19.87%
Mark Badrick, BNP  1375 2.89%
Roy Sandison, Grn   451 0.95%
Barry Milford, UKIP   406 0.85%
Total 47468 68.88%
Con Majority  6000 12.64%
Con Gain From Lab
Swing from Labour to Conservative of 6.63%

Sunday, 19 April 2015

Leicester child abuse footnotes

Ian Pace has, since my item of two days ago, drawn our attention to a number of counter-precedents. It seems to me that in all these cases the defendant, though impaired, was in a position to instruct counsel which seems to be the legal test. Greville Janner is said to be in the final stages of dementia, requiring round-the-clock care. His family can also call upon the best legal teams to defend their interests, which clearly was not so in the other cases cited. I imagine the DPP had in mind, in addition to the Serafinowicz precedent, the cost to the public purse of a costly action whose outcome was uncertain when she made her decision.

The pdf of the Kirkwood Inquiry, referred to in the Liberal England blog, turned up some intriguing leads. Frank Beck's predecessor John Moseling had a similar background and, as it turned out, similar predilections. It could be a coincidence, or it could be that there was someone already in place in Leicester in 1970 who was ready to provide employment to paedophiles.

Jonathan Calder has added to his blog recollections of the Beck trial and its implications for Janner by journalists who covered it.

[Later] It appears that Lord Janner has misled the DPP over the severity of his condition: 

If this is so, then my opinions based on information hitherto in the public domain should be taken as subject to revision.

Saturday, 18 April 2015

Bribery - asymmetric justice

The common law offence of misconduct in public office occurs when a public officer, acting as such, wilfully neglects to perform his duty and/or wilfully misconducts himself to such a degree as to amount to an abuse of the public's trust in the office holder without reasonable excuse or justification. Taking money in return for divulging confidential information is clearly such misconduct and in a recent series of cases triggered by the Milly Dowler case, 21 out of 28 public officials, including police, prison officers, health workers and a Ministry of Defence official have been convicted and jailed.

One would think that the man paying the bribe, procuring the offence of misconduct, would be equally guilty, but the Court of Appeal has disagreed. That was worrying enough, but what disturbed me more was the shameless celebration by the journalists afterwards, like football fans revelling in a win by a dubious penalty. "We were only doing our job" was the mantra.

Clearly the same justification could be offered by our arms salesmen or other businessmen obtaining contracts abroad by bribery. In the Bribery Acts of 2010 and 2012, the UK brought itself up to the standard of enlightened nations. Will the Elveden acquittals will tempt certain British corporations to fall back into their old bad ways?

Friday, 17 April 2015

Greville Janner

The complainants were understandably disappointed, but the DPP had little choice in electing to abandon proceedings against Greville Janner on historic sexual abuse charges. There is no doubt that he is in the advanced stages of dementia. There is precedent. In 1997, a jury decided that a man accused of crimes during the second world war was unfit to stand trial because of dementia. Coincidentally, Szymon Serafinowicz was the same age then as Baron Janner is now, 86. (Thanks to Ian Pace for pulling out a copy of the contemporaneous report.) Then there is the question: if he were to be found guilty, would he be capable of understanding his punishment and so would it be punishment?

What the complainants, and we, should really be angry about is a failing which, ironically, Janner himself complained about in 1997:

Former Labour MP Lord Greville Janner, vice-president of the World Jewish Congress and chairman of the Holocaust Educational Trust, said he was disappointed that Serafinowicz had not been brought to trial sooner.
A 1940s war crimes investigator himself, Lord Janner said: “There was an abundance of evidence alleging individual and mass murders against him. I am sorry that he was not tried while he was fit enough to stand. War criminals have managed to evade prosecution under our system of justice for decades. There were absolutely no reasons why he should have escaped charges for ever.
“The CPS had a huge file of powerful evidence against him. He was accused of individual involvement in more than 3,000 murders.

Investigations into Janner's sexual conduct seem to have begun in 1989, then stopped on orders from above. They were forced to be resumed when the then MP was named in the trial of the notorious Frank Beck. For further detail see , and Andy McSmith's analysis in the Indy. Jonathan Calder's commentary is especially valuable as he is physically on the spot as well as being a news editor for the British Psychological Society.

It could be that Janner was kicked upstairs in 1997 not only to make way for a New Labour-favoured woman, Patricia Hewitt, in Leicester West, but also to head off any political embarrassment.

It is to be hoped that the complainants will have their day in court through the Lowell Goddard Inquiry. Whether the shadowy names hinted at during the Beck trial are also revealed is another matter.

Thursday, 16 April 2015

Green record

I had planned to utter a pronouncement on the Conservative manifesto today, but it has proved to be a bit too chewy for a quick judgment. Perhaps something will appear here at the weekend. As to the Green Party manifesto, here is the Green Liberal Democrats' verdict: "its dogmatic and doom-laden approach will simply not gain enough public support till it’s too late".

To my rescue in filling the space comes Michael McCarthy in the Indy with a view on the coalition's record. He looks over "the environmental record of the coalition Government just gone. Its outstanding success has been action on global warming: the passing of the fourth carbon budget, which commits the UK to the toughest regime for cutting carbon emissions in the world. We should note at once, however, this was in essence a Liberal Democrat achievement, brought about by two Lib Dem Secretaries of State for Energy and Climate Change, Chris Huhne (who was outstanding) and Ed Davey (who has been pretty competent)".

However, he adds: "it should be recorded here that Caroline Spelman, [...] Defra Secretary from 2010-2012, seemed to have her heart in the right place, environmentally. Spelman eventually got the chop (partly because she had to take the blame for the forests sell-off fiasco, when the real culprit was the cold-eyed zealot in the Cabinet Office, Francis Maude)." It should be pointed out that there were also massive conflicts of interest. Nothing is black and white in politics, but some practitioners are brighter green than others.

Wednesday, 15 April 2015

Ronnie Carroll

He was one of the contributors to the sound-track of my youth and yet he has only come to general attention now because his death has triggered a dispute about electoral law.

My single memory of Ronnie Carroll in the flesh was seeing him pass through the ticket barrier at a virtually deserted Manchester Central station while I was waiting for a train returning west. The period of his big early hits had passed and Eurovision was yet to come, so he must have been cashing in by doing the club and theatre circuit. Carroll was still well enough known, yet he was alone and carrying his own suitcase. How times have changed.

Tuesday, 14 April 2015

Positivity at last from Lib Dem campaign

Last evening, BBC1 showed a major interview of Nick Clegg by Evan Davis. It's available on BBC iPlayer. Apart from occasional signs of prickliness, he surmounted rather more probing questions than he has been used to since the early days of the government.

He was in Maidstone earler, as Great George Street reported, "campaigning with Jasper Gerard as he targets the seat of the unpopular sitting Conservative MP Helen Grant. Asked by a local newspaper if he believed the Liberal Democrats could gain the seat on May 7, Nick replied, 'You bet.' He said Lib Dem candidate Jasper Gerard was 'one of the most energetic, most dynamic campaigners I have ever come across in any party'."

This is the first time in this campaign that I have seen the central organisation proclaim our aim not just to hold on to core seats but actually to gain some. The campaigners I know in marginal seats have always been optimistic; it's good to see HQ echo that at last. I acknowledge that Scottish and some English metropolitan seats are under severe threat. On the other hand, we could not only regain some constituencies which we lost in 2010 but also some from 2005.

Monday, 13 April 2015

Labour manifesto

Manifestos are important. They are what parties in government are judged by. This is true even of the current coalition disposition. The coalition agreement addressed the manifesto commitments of both the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, so that each side - and let us not forget that the Conservatives had to give up a lot, too - could justify itself. Further, the House of Lords is under an obligation not to block legislation which is in the manifesto(s) of the elected government.

So each of the 2015 manifestos should be taken seriously. Labour's was launched today, with Conservatives to follow tomorrow and the LibDems on Wednesday - though the costings of the latter are already released.  I look forward to the serious dissection of Labour in tomorrow's serious press, but I have glanced over today's document. I went straight for the back pages because that's where the "small print" tends to be.

As expected, Labour at least matches the Conservatives in a commitment to renew Trident and to protect jobs in some traditional areas ("The UK defence and security industry is a key contributor to our economy, with a turnover of £22 billion a year. We will work to secure defence jobs across the UK"). It should also be pointed out that a nuclear missile replacement would also help industry in the US.

On the international front, and in particular in relation to developing countries, there are warm words which Lib Dems would not disagree with. The promise to engage more with the EU is a welcome change of heart after Gordon Brown's Euroscepticism. I have to say that the efforts "to open up EU decision-making" have come from the EU side, particularly from the parliament and some enlightened presidencies, but has not gone far enough. Labour's record is as bad as the Conservatives on this. There is no specific mention of the need to open up the common market in services which has been implicit in EU treaties for so long.

Labour would "ban MPs from holding paid directorships and consultancies". Well, good luck with that one, especially as their own MPs have benefited from such in the past. Legislation would have to be very carefully worded to avoid circumvention. They would "create a statutory register of lobbyists", but they have avoided any conflict with unions by not addressing the problem of big organisations buying elections and favours.

The much-discussed principled, but probably net loss-making, abolition of non-dom status is there, but of course nothing about the scandal of limited-liability partnerships introduced by Blair-Brown. (Mind you, I shall be pleasantly surprised if any of the other major manifestos includes action on this.)

They have back-tracked on Lord's Reform.  After scuppering a measure, approved by all the major parties, to largely elect the House of Peers, Mr Miliband produces for this election the vague notion of  "a Senate of the Nations and Regions" which one suspects would be appointed as before.

For Wales, Labour commits to the same formula of retaining the Barnett formula with a funding floor as has already been announced. And do I detect some weasel words when it comes to further devolution? "An all-Wales Policing Plan" is not the same as devolution of policing.

I gather that the IFS has already cast doubt on the costing of the manifesto because no date has been put on when Labour would start cutting into the deficit. Labour have also not said how they would pay for their bald promise to "abolish the Bedroom Tax". We acknowledge that there will be a cost even to the balanced measures in Andrew George's Affordable Homes Bill, blocked by the Conservatives but hopefully to be enshrined in the Lib Dem manifesto. It would not be the many billions estimated by George Osborne, but it will still be significant. If Labour wants to restore the full subsidy to every renter (and in equity they should give it back to the private tenants deprived of it in 2008), they will need to find much more.

They would also have to find an alternative income stream for "a compulsory jobs guarantee" because the "Bank Bonus Tax" would be very much a one-off, as Alistair Darling admitted.

Most worryingly, there is nothing one way or the other about id cards or about security (apart from social security). An incoming Labour government would therefore feel free to return to restrictions on civil rights which Theresa May would balk at.

Apart from that, there are plenty of warm words (much repeated) on the social front with which we could hardly disagree. There are also several other gaps. My first impression is that it is not a document which would be a barrier to intelligent coalition negotiations.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

A fair cop

An anonymous Plaid Cymru supporter twitted me in a comment on Thursday about the Liberal Democrats abandoning our 2010 manifesto commitment to reject new nuclear power generation. I suggest he should accept that, in a coalition, there are some issues in which the minority has to yield ground. However, the coalition agreement went a long way to accommodating the LibDem party position:

• We will implement a process allowing the Liberal Democrats to maintain their opposition to nuclear power while permitting the Government to bring forward the National Planning Statement for ratification by Parliament so that new nuclear construction becomes possible. This process will involve:
 – the Government completing the drafting of a national planning statement and putting it before Parliament;
– specific agreement that a Liberal Democrat spokesperson will speak against the Planning Statement, but that Liberal Democrat MPs will abstain; and
– clarity that this will not be regarded as an issue of confidence.

But we did achieve the other - and from the environmental point of view, more important - part of our policy:

• We will establish an emissions performance standard that will prevent coal-fired power stations being built unless they are equipped with sufficient carbon capture and storage to meet the emissions performance standard.

But what of Plaid Cymru's own record in coalition? Peter Black has already pointed out its own division between the leadership and the rank-and-file over tuition fees in 2007. I also seem to recall the abrupt softening of Plaid's support for Local Income Tax and for Fair Votes when it joined Labour. And what of the commitment to a national newspaper in the Welsh language? Clearly the north-south air link was more important.

Plaid Cymru was also complicit in the cut in the NHS budget in Wales for which Labour is taking all the flak. The party is keeping its head down over that one.

Friday, 10 April 2015

Richie Benaud

This is not the post I was intending to write today; that will have to wait. I have just heard of the death of Richie Benaud. These are just a few disconnected thoughts on hearing the sad news.

It is unfair to other great commentators like John Arlott, Brian Johnston and his Australian predecessor in the box, Jack Fingleton, to bill him as *the* voice of cricket, but he certainly was one of the best. As a former test captain his contributions were always insightful.

He should be remembered as one of the most successful all-rounders of world cricket and as one of the shrewdest captains. I particularly remember his turning round a probable defeat at Old Trafford in 1961 against a side led by Ted Dexter which was arguably better.

I trust that the obituaries will also mark his fight for the ordinary cricketer in Australia, who suffered from lack of financial support until Kerry Packer came along. He was particularly scornful of those with private incomes who expected those who had to work for a living to put in the same amount of time for cricket as they. Benaud himself worked for a Sydney daily and if I remember correctly it was not a sinecure.

Perhaps as a journalist he would have had a wry smile at the fact that his last illness was the skin cancer which has been so much in the news in the last week.

Thursday, 9 April 2015

Simon Kelner is angry

On two points of Simon Kelner's piece in today's Indy I agree: the use of dog-whistle phrases and attacking the man (it is usually a man) and not the policy in election campaigning. However, most of the rest is disputable.

He describes the term "hard-working families" as vacuous. It does, however, have a point. It is meant to convey that party X is on the side of people who have a job and pay their taxes and will attack scroungers. I would add another term, "the security of the nation", much deployed today in the exchanges over Trident. The implication here is that the party will defend you against the invasion of continental or even Russian hordes which party Y would lay you open to.

Epithets like "a dangerous man" or "a little man in a little party" certainly debase the democratic process. However, while the general public wants to see politicians between elections co-operate when it is in the public good and dislike mud-slinging, they also need to know that all parties are not the same. There are philosophical differences between liberals, democrats, socialists and tories and it is right that the people are made aware of them. Mr Kelner may not have noticed, but well before the election the prime minister, defence secretary and home secretary, all Conservatives, were open about their disagreements with their coalition partners about defence, civil liberties and our relationship with the EU. I believe that was healthy and am sorry that Liberal Democrats in government did not also differentiate themselves sooner. The coalition continued to function.

 If Plaid Cymru were standing in my London constituency, I’d be tempted. 
Not if he saw how Plaid operated day-to-day in Wales.

However, now Labour are pledged to end non-dom tax status with the purpose of creating a fairer society, at last, maybe, there is a reason to believe...
This is the same Labour Party which promised to end non-dom status in 1997 before thirteen years of government in which the number of non-doms is estimated to have doubled. Incidentally, Robert Peston (I think it was) on PM yesterday reckoned that Margaret Thatcher was intent on ridding us of the anomaly but was persuaded not to by a group of magnates led by Greek ship-owners, the same people who contributed to the revenue difficulties in Greece today. It is not clear whether their threat was to reduce income to the UK Treasury or to the Conservative Party. ;-)

Wednesday, 8 April 2015

An in-out referendum

I do not often disagree with Jonathan Calder, but I think he (and Tony Blair) might be wrong on the subject of an EU referendum. I regret that an in-out national vote was not held as soon as practical after the coalition government came into being. It could have been held instead of that pointless AV referendum. It would almost certainly have produced a sensible result as Labour would not have used it as a stick to beat Nick Clegg with*. It would also have removed a cause for dissension within our coalition partners as well as a major UKIP plank.

Clearly we do not share the mentality of the Swiss, who seem to have referendums at the drop of a hat, but this issue has been made a central and exceptional one in the UK media. There would have to be parameters, of course. It would be, as is our tradition, non-binding and the government should not even take note of the result if less than a majority of those able to vote were in favour of Brexit.

The period of uncertainty referred to by Blair would not last long enough to cause irrevocable decisions by manufacturers to be made and, in my opinion, would serve to concentrate minds as foreign investors would be forced to "come out" and voice their reasons for being in the UK. Between three and four million jobs are linked to trade with the EU and, while that is not the same as saying that they would necessarily all be lost if we exited, it is also obvious that all would be affected in some way.

I agree with Guido Fawkes and Nigel Farage that we should trust the people on this issue which cuts across party boundaries. I believe they would make the right decision - but not the one that Kippers expect.

* Nick recently admitted that he felt betrayed by Labour who he expected to support him in the proposal which, after all, had come from the Labour side of their failed coalition talks.

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

Baron Berkeley's anthology

From the current edition of the Radio Times, I learn that Private Passions has been going for twenty years now. There will be a celebratory highlights programme on the nineteenth of April, but I am particularly looking forward to next Sunday when Stephen Hawking's first wife, Jane, will be the guest.

In some ways, Michael Berkeley is a successor to Antony Hopkins, though the former has somewhat more renown as a composer. As he says in the RT interview, Private Passions "is a good access point to classical music for people who might not listen to a lot of Radio 3." In that respect, it would be at home on Radio 4, along with Soul Music and Tales from the Stave.

Michael Berkeley was appointed a life peer two years ago (he was introduced on the same day as Martha Lane Fox) because of his cultural connections, but he has been more than an adornment to the Lords. He has spoken against the restrictions on judicial review, in support of assisted dying, on domestic abuse and in particular against the barbarity of female genital mutilation, as well as on the role of music in the community.

His criticism of the second chamber strikes a chord:

The expertise is extraordinary, but the numbers are ridiculous. Peers who don't contribute to the debates or committees should be asked to leave. And there are still too many instances of 'cash for peerages'.

The whole article is worth reading.

Sunday, 5 April 2015

Canadian pianists

I've just heard Rob Cowan on Radio 3 nominate someone I've never heard of as the "other great Canadian pianist" (beside Glenn Gould). Isn't Angela Hewitt one of the greats, not to mention Oscar Peterson?

[Later] Cowan obviously received many Tweets. He has amended his assertion to the effect that he considers Anton Kuerti to be under-appreciated. He also added the name of Marc-André Hamelin, who I should have remembered, to the roster.

Saturday, 4 April 2015

Why should anyone believe that Nick Clegg will lose Sheffield Hallam?

The Independent is at it again, pushing the line that Labour can decapitate the Liberal Democrats in Sheffield.  In fact, the small print of the Indy's story reinforces the analyses summarised by Jonathan Calder here which should have scotched the story.

" look at past performance – 16 local elections in Sheffield Hallam since 2010, with 14 Lib Dem victories. "

It is said that the LibDem majority depends on the student vote. Not only is the student population relatively small, it also comprises those who have accepted the coalition's revised student loan régime. (One wonders how much higher student fees would have been if Labour had won in 2010.) The only problem is going to be to get their vote out.

In fact, given the demography of the constituency, reflected in the 2010 poll*, if Clegg should lose, it would be to the Conservative, not to Labour - and it would take a political earthquake to overturn a 30% majority. If that earthquake were to occur similarly in other LibDem seats where Conservatives are challengers, then we will suffer five years of Conservative majority government and the return to Thatcherism which Ed Miliband says he fears. But perhaps that is his aim. Perhaps Nicola Sturgeon is not the only one who secretly wishes for a Cameron majority for their own personal reasons.

I have criticised Clegg over the period of his leadership, but he remains the most straightforward and consistent of the major party leaders**. Above all, he now and again reasserts his liberal values;

The Deputy Prime Minister warned that on key issues such as civil liberties, the environment and workers’ rights, the Tories had now moved so far to the right it had almost nothing in common with the party that was elected in 2010. [...]
“They professed an interest in civil liberties, they professed an interest in the environment, they professed an interest in being a centralist party.
“Five years later it has been an almost non-stop struggle for me to remind the Conservatives to care about civil liberties – they spend most of their time at the Home Office trying to trash them. They (also) appear to have absolutely no interest in the environment whatsoever.
“I hear some people on the right of British politics rant against single mothers, the EU and wind farms all in the same breath. What have they got to do with each other? It’s a completely random set of prejudices.”

*Sheffield, Hallam in 2010:
Electorate 68798, Local Council: City Of Sheffield
Nick Clegg, LDm 27324 53.43%
Nicola Bates, Con 12040 23.54%
Jack Scott, Lab  8228 16.09%
Nigel James, UKIP  1195 2.33%
Steve Barnard, Grn   919 1.79%
David Wildgoose, EngDems   586 1.14%
Martin Fitzpatrick, Ind   429 0.83%
Ray Green, CP   250 0.48%
Mark Adshead, Lny   164 0.32%
Total 51135 74.32%
LDm Majority 15284 29.89%
LDm Hold

Labour has never held the constituency

**Some might retort "that is not saying much"

Friday, 3 April 2015

Netanyahu and Iran

The response by Binyamin Netanyahu to a deal which would remove the threat of an Iranian nuclear weapon for the foreseeable future betrays a desire to hobble the economic development of a neighbour.

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Robots and coding on screen

Today's Radio 4 portmanteau "Film Programme" meets "Inside Science" was short on science but rather better on entertainment. I was particularly interested in Christopher Frayling's tracing of the ancestries of robots and androids in SF movies - a sort of "Who are you programmed to think you are?" - and in Bill Thompson on the representation of programs on screen.

There was not time for Sir Christopher to cover all the iconic robots in film history if they didn't actually innovate (Gort in "The Day the Earth Stood Still", for instance), but I would quarrel with his nomination of Pris in "Blade Runner" as the archetypal android sex-toy. I believe that honour goes to Michael Crichton's creations in "Westworld".

I completely agree with Thompson that there is no good representation of actual computer code in major movies. I would nominate sequences from a minor TV SF melodrama, "Natural Selection", as the most realistic depiction of a programmer at work. As someone who used to make a living from that stuff, I share Thompson's joy in spotting that part of the source code that is seen through the eyes of the original Terminator is in COBOL, venerable but still not bettered for administrative and accounting functions. "So basically the Terminator is an accounting program run amok", The more apocalyptic critics of big business would probably not object.