Saturday, 31 May 2008


One of the key messages Labour has pushed in recent times is that it is a "listening government" and that it "understands" public concerns, especially since the 10p tax mess.

To my mind there are 4 levels of political communication between the Government of the day and the people it serves:

  1. Hearing- receiving information but no action taken in response.
  2. Acknowledging - receiving information. Incorrect action taken in response.
  3. Listening - receiving information and taking correct action in response.
  4. Understanding - anticipating immediate concerns and acting correctly to deal with them.

Communication levels are directly linked to trust, albeit with trust being a longer term reflection of communication levels. If a Government cannot communicate and respond to concerns correctly, it cannot be trusted, therefore affecting their electoral prospects in the future.

The issue of the 10p tax band is a textbook example of the above in practice. I believe the 10p tax furore will be seen in the future as the critical moment when the facade of Understanding was smashed and replaced with Acknowledging. When the change was initially announced, adverse reaction was received but was deemed not serious enough to take action (Hearing). When the reaction got particularly loud in this Spring, only then did the Government take action. In my opinion the action is in effect a deferal of the problem because come April next year, the compensation as it exists now, will no longer apply, typical of Acknowledging rather than Listening. Were the Government to find permanent compensation for those who lost out it would be Listening. It would not mean the Government would retain trust but it would do the most to make up for the initial mistake of not Understanding. Such a breach of a key tenet of Labour philosophy (a pledge of Understanding the concerns of the working poor and the volunerable) shows a breakdown of communication and as polls since have shown, as drop in levels of trust.

Consultations and reveiews do not necessarily mean high levels of communication. As with the previous example, if correct action is not taken, it is an example of Acknowledging, not Listening. Frequent use of such methods of communication will lead to lower levels of communication as it would exhibit lack of Understanding and initiative.

While Oppositions cannot take action as Governments do, they still have to respond and the appropriateness of their responses can be judged according to the same scale. They are measured on the communication levels through polls and elections and with the Conservatives riding high at present, it can be infered that communication levels are good. That is not to say that the Conservatives have avoided low levels of communication. The internal policy debate over Grammar Schools hurt their rating on communication by confusing the public and showing disunity to the public, something which is noted and in itself forms part of the judgement the public make at election time.

Whoever can communicate their ideas and approach best and exhibit Understanding will form the next Government.

Friday, 23 May 2008

Crewe goes blue

It had been expected for some time after the problems Labour have made for themselves and the rest of the country and indeed it came to fruition, with Crewe and Nantwich being won by the Conservatives with a 17% swing from Labour to the Conservatives, reversing Labours previously safe 7000 vote majority. Given that Crewe and Nantwich was the 165th target seat for the Conservatives, Im sure there are 164 MPs feeling a little more under the weather, including South Thanet's Stephen Ladyman, with a tiny majority of 664. Apparently Labour is "solidly behind" Brown. I bet they are...all wielding knives.

Saturday, 17 May 2008

Abortion changes through the back door

One of the most controversial issues in politics and a very topical one at present in the Westminster village (and Eastenders too) is that of abortion. A campaign is fighting to lower the limit for abortion to 20 weeks led by Conservative MP Nadine Dorries.

Firstly I disagree wholly with the manner in which the issue was brought up. The issue has been tagged onto the consideration of the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill (a controversial Bill in its own right) even though there are no clauses that directly change the law on abortion. Such a Trojan Horse tactic demeans the issue. Any changes made to the abortion law should be made through a separate Bill after full consideration of both Houses of Parliament and plenty of pre-legislative scrutiny. The issue is far too important to just tag on like this.

The basis of my view on abortion is essentially that it is the woman’s choice to make. I have no right to dictate if and when a woman can have an abortion as I will never have to make such a decision. However any changes to be made to abortion law would have to be made purely on the basis of substantial empirical evidence. Photographs of babies moving in the womb in my opinion aren’t good enough. I understand that DVDs of foetuses post abortion have been sent out to those seen as pro-abortion, a disgusting thing to do. Emotion must be removed from the debate. We need to follow the evidence. If such evidence exists showing the survival rates of premature births then there surely would be a case for a change to the limit. At present I am not persuaded that such a change is necessary. Those who support abortion aren’t child murderers with no understanding of the pain the foetuses suffer and those who are against abortion aren’t necessarily religious nutters stuck in the medieval ages forcing wayward parents to take children to full term as punishment for the sin of procreation. The woman making the choice very often will suffer psychological scarring and the decision to have an abortion will change their lives forever.

I propose just one amendment to bring the legislation up to date that surely couldn’t be that disagreeable. Those with minor disabilities such as cleft palate or hair lip can be aborted as late as 39 weeks at present. It seems strange that the rules should be completely different for those who have slight, almost cosmetic problems which surgery can routinely solve, whilst normal babies have tighter restrictions. I propose that the limit on abortion for those with minor disabilities should be brought into line with that of the normal abortion limit. It is a shame that David Cameron does not agree and has spoken publicly saying he believes that abortion should continue to be allowed for those with minor disabilities up to 39 weeks whilst favouring a cut of the normal limit to 21 or 22 weeks.

Abortion isn’t an issue that can treated lightly and I’m sure that the senior politicians who have publicly commented on the issue do not treat it as such. Any change that occurs must happen on the basis of evidence, not emotion, and should take as long as necessary to be done properly. Rushing to change abortion law will lead to a horrible situation that no one wants.

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Drafting for salvation

Yesterday Gordon Brown announced the draft legislation programme, in essence the Government’s proposed legislation for the next Parliamentary session that will be kicked off with the Queen’s Speech in November. Last year the draft legislation programme was announced in July. It is a bag of the last remaining scraps that could be cobbled together. Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue…

The Government has pushed this forward deliberately to attempt to build up some good momentum after the disaster of recent weeks and to try and save the Crewe and Nantwich by-election. We are so far away from November Brown could easily have delayed this by a few months without any harm being done to the programme or slowdown in public involvement in the process. It could have something to do with a critical report from the Parliamentary Select Committee for Public Appointments out yesterday, which said “It is not appropriate that Prime Ministers should be able to alter the structure of the civil service departments on a whim, and we do not understand why they should ever need to do so”. There was a radical change in the structure of Government departments when Brown came to power and done against a lot of frustration at the lack of scrutiny over such plans.

As with every Queen’s Speech under Labour, there is a raft of legislation to go before Parliament in this coming session. If this draft programme becomes the programme proper, as it probably will, there will be Whip driven processes restricting the length of time Bills can be debated and scrutinised for, leading for poorly written and inadequate legislation which will have to be revisited at a later date, taking more time away from holding members of the Government of the day to account for their policies or spending more time scrutinising the legislation that requires more time. Given that one such bill is designed to replace 10 pieces of immigration legislation, surely lesser issues can be put off to allow further debate on that and some of the other key pieces of legislation? Another Bill, the Equality Bill, will act to allow ‘equality of opportunity’ (a concept I will come back to in more detail at a later time) and to tackle discrimination in the workplace.

More legislation doesn’t mean better legislation. It means the complete opposite. As we’ve seen from the various defeats the Government has had in the courts over issues of immigration and terrorism, the Government needs to realise that by allowing more scrutiny of Bills going through Parliament, the law can be improved over and above what the Government itself wants. Just because the Opposition proposes an amendment, it doesn’t automatically make it a bad idea.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Once a con, always a con

Yesterday saw a volte-face by Brown and Darling as they increased the personal tax allowance by £600 to alleviate the problems caused by Gordon Brown’s last Budget as Chancellor. Alistair Darling has said that economics allows such a set of changes. Don’t be fooled for one second.

This was a wholly political move. A by-election in Crewe and Nantwich is coming just days away and Labour is facing defeat. Frank Field had a lot of support in his campaign to find compensation for the 10p losers, with the threat of losing its Finance Bill, which would lead to political crisis. Darling had already said that compensation would be explained at the Pre-Budget Report, but that’s not for months so the timing of this is obviously political, not that the Government will admit it. This is the same Government who said that the 10p band abolition wasn’t that bad and that no one was losing out (even Stephen Ladyman played that line).

The package is to cost £2.7 billion and paid for through increasing borrowing, which will lead to borrowing forecasts going out of the window. Labour has said for over a decade that it would borrow only to invest. This mini Budget will mean that rule is obliterated as this borrowing is not to invest as the rule intended. Labour has enjoyed deriding Conservative proposals on changes to taxes and government spending as being irresponsible or unfunded upfront changes. With the changes announced yesterday, Labour no longer has the right to accuse the Conservatives of making unfunded tax cuts and trying to make political capital out of it.

Labour has found a short-term response to a more long-term problem. Out of a Budget of over £550 billion, the Chancellor couldn’t find the money to redirect to the increase to the personal tax allowance, an increase which will count for this financial year only. Come next year the personal tax allowance will be cut back, leading to increased tax bills for all. This is a one year con by the Government, the same trick pulled off with the one year Council Tax rebate for pensioners before the General Election of 2005.

As I’ve proposed before, a radical cut back on the waste in Government spending would allow for a solid and permanent reduction in taxation on the working poor, without damaging frontline public services. But did Darling want to go anywhere near that strategy? Of course not. The strategy utilised by Labour through this apparent giveaway is to distract the public from its anger over the initial policy in order to get some stability. But in doing so, they’ve just bottled up more trouble for next year. The public know they can’t trust Labour and that there is always small print to watch out for, as ever Labour doesn’t let down on that regard.

This story has one moral. Don’t Trust Labour.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Doubting direct democracy

As part of the post election analysis, a number of senior Labour figures have commented in the papers. Hazel Blears is one such Cabinet Minister, coming up with some ideas for getting back on track in last weekends papers.

She preaches the mantra of direct democracy and ideas related to it like holding cabinet meetings in community centres and talking to the people. Such a series of ideas are silly since for one they aren’t genuinely meant.

I’m rather sceptical about direct democracy. I can understand the arguments in favour of mayors, but I disagree that having elected police commissioners will be of significant benefit to the community. Yes, it’ll mean that the winner of the election can be held to account against their promises, but unless there is full turnout, or at least a majority turnout, the commissioner will be selected by a very small number of people. Furthermore, the police commissioner will be spending more time doing public relations rather than dealing with crime. The police already get involved with communities, for example in nearby Salmestone Ward through PACT. Surely the point of a police force is to police communities, rather than constantly having to explain itself. As long as the selection procedure is rigorous, what is the point of a directly elected police commissioner? There is also the risk of having too many elections for too many things.

Hazel Blears talks about the use of petitions and how action can be in effect forced upon local authorities and even Parliament if enough signatures are received. The idea could have some going for it but on the other hand it could lead to some atrocious legislation coming before Parliament. I don’t agree with a recall mechanism for MPs, as proposed by Blears where for example if say 20% of the electorate agree, an MP can be forced to be re-elected, a situation which would mean highly marginal seats would be in constant election time.

Holding cabinet meetings outside of Downing Street is a non-starter and will never see the light of day. I’m certain the idea has already been dismissed by Gordon Brown. It would be a security nightmare and the public should have nothing to do with it. It’s an impossible gesture.

As for greater openness with the public and listening to what the public have to say, I don’t trust them for a second. They’ve been in Government for 11 years and they didn’t need to talk to the public to realise that abolishing the 10p band was a seriously bad idea. If power gets passed down, it gets passed down with conditions and restrictions upon the use of such powers, under the pretence of ensuring that abuse of such powers do not occur. Passing down power very often doesn’t actually happen.

I don’t think the problem is one of not listening, as the Government has had a ream of inquiries, white papers, consultations, the Big Conversation, green papers, Commissions etc while in office. Their problem is one of competent action. They talk so much about radical action to deal with serious problems, but the implementation is often so shoddy, it spoils the point of taking action in the first place.


Frank Field is one of a handful of Labour MPs I pay attention to, others being Gisela Stuart (spoke very eloquently on Europe earlier this year), John McFall (Labour Chair of Treasury Committee who took no prisoners over the Northern Rock collapse) and the late Gwyneth Dunwoody. He has been the key Labour MP pressing for compensation over the 10p band and he is the only reason open revolt hasn’t occurred, having held back the angry MPs before the local elections from ripping down the doors at 10 Downing Street. He talks a lot of sense and honestly believed Brown was being genuine about compensation and has rightly spoken out against any breach of the promise. If Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling fail to find adequate compensation, a case could be made for a vote of no confidence, this issue being at the heart of Labour thinking.

So what does Brown do? Try to ensure that this compensation is as comprehensive and reaches as many people as possible and to keep in touch with MPs to ensure that they do not lose faith, or alternatively send out an underling to attack Frank Field as a loner and to doubt whether his “intentions were honourable” regarding the campaign? Yes readers, he went for option number 2 as Children, Schools and Families Secretary Ed Balls and Communities Secretary Hazel Blears attacked Frank Field. Normally such attacks by them pass without trouble, but this attack could lead to serious problems because Frank Field is respected by backbenchers. Calling Frank Field a loner over an issue like compensation for those losing out from the abolition of 10p band could bounce back badly since he isn’t the only one unhappy on the issue. Discipline in the Labour Party cannot and must not be established through ganging up on those with differing views. That leads to dictatorship of the Party and to certain defeat at the next General Election, should Brown make it. It’ll keep Labour out of Government for over a decade. Frank Field is a good man and doesnt deserve this treatment.

UPDATE: This morning Alistair Darling briefed the Cabinet on some of the compensation plans. As Ive said before, I am very sceptical that the compensation offered wouold be good enough. Itll lead to more people joining the Governments welfare state and having to go to HMRC like Oliver Twist.

Friday, 9 May 2008

Counting thrice

As I’ve commented before, further discussion of the Mayoral Ball incident isn’t necessary as the Standards Board had decided to take no further action. It implied that the parties concerned should sort it out between themselves, as grown ups do.

Both sides have had their fill over this incident, which I remind readers, occurred over a year ago, and I assumed that after the open letters from Cllrs Hart and Watkins which made serious separate unsubstantiated allegations about Cllr Ezekiel, that would be it and normality could be restored with Labour returning back to looking at the issues facing Thanet residents. Last nights Annual Council Meeting proved I was wrong.

Cllr David Green led a Labour challenge to Cllr Ezekiel’s re-election as Leader of the Council on the basis of his behaviour at the said incident. If the challenge was made on the basis of policy, of if Cllr Ezekiel's behaviour was sufficiently bad for the Standards Board to recommend action should be taken against him, I might be minded to agree with Cllr Green. Unfortunately this was not the case. He had to be interrupted at one point by the Chairman of the Council and reminded that the incident was a matter for the Standards Board who had come to a final decision.

If Cllr Clark for example feels so seriously about Cllr Ezekiel’s behaviour that he is unsatisfied by the decision by the Standards Board he should launch a lawsuit for defamation of character. Since this does not seem to be forthcoming, I hope Cllr Clark will speak to his colleagues and try to persuade them to back down their campaign. Cllr Green does not appear to have been involved in the incident at the time and when challenging Cllr Ezekiel’s re-election last night seemed rather reluctant about doing so, perhaps as if he didn’t really want to do it. I’ve not known Cllr Green to be reluctant before so such behaviour is highly unusual.

Some may consider my comments in the past on this issue an example of my Tory bias, a view I do not agree with. Cllr Ezekiel’s behaviour, if what the Standards Board has said is accurate, was unprofessional and shouldn’t have happened. I don’t consider it cause for the sack though. He had an election three weeks later and was re-elected. Does Cllr David Green disagree with the decision of the voters of Cliftonville East? A sincere apology is good enough for me. If there is a repeat of this, then further action could be justified.

There have been three attempts to revisit the incident since the Standards Board made their final decisions, three attempts too many. Labour, while making these moves, have ignored the issues mattering to Thanet residents, showing that their priorities are askew. I would like to see Labour explain what their alternative plans for regeneration and tourism in Margate are or how their financial proposals add up. They proposed a 2.1% council tax increase, obviously funded by cutting the staff budget by 10%, which indeed would raise more money than needed for the Council Tax cut itself, but since the £2.3m would not just suddenly appear out of thin air, Id like to know when the council tax shortage would be paid off and how the cutting of staff would be dealt with. How would housing policy be different under Labour?

Id like to see a positive local Labour, with ideas on how to improve Thanet, without any pretence to gaining political advantage, or being cynical about it and just criticising ad nauseum without a coherent strategy. I say this as serious advice to local Labour. Stick to the core issues, ignore peripheral ones, show the residents what Labour stands for and how it would improve Thanet. Move on from the distractions of some time ago and get back on track.

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Catching a break

If Gordon Brown thought that an announcement on cannabis will blow off the press and MPs wanting to continue its highlighting of Labour screw ups, it seems to be failing. New Labour architect Peter Mandelson has come out saying that scrapping the band was “a very big mistake”. Along with this the Mail has been fanning the flames over reform of abortion laws (I personally disagree that an issue as serious as abortion reform should be tagged onto the current HFE Bill which some are trying to) and Labour’s Scottish leader Wendy Alexander (International Development Secretary Douglas Alexander’s sister) tactical mistake in calling the SNP’s bluff over a referendum on independence. Newsnight also had a story last night about poor security at airports and how foreign workers do not require a CRB check to work airside (the relevant Minister did not like having to answer the questions). Labour’s only saving grace has been making the right call on cannabis, a decision they should never have made.

The SNP bluff was a strange situation because Wendy Alexander has operated completely independently of the rest of the Party and caught everyone off guard making an apparent U-turn on Labour’s previous refusal to support a referendum without even asking Gordon Brown for support. She made it very clear that she would now support a referendum immediately to sort the issue out, arguing that the SNP is delaying its pledge to hold a referendum, even though the delay will be till 2011, so still within the current Scottish Parliamentary term. She has clearly tried to jump the gun to pin the SNP down on anything to gain some initiative, but has been caught and knocked back badly. This is not the first time she’s been in trouble, having been caught taking an illegal Party donation. Brown did not give her his full support on the referendum issue so it seems she has some explaining to do. Furthermore, he seemed to have a different view on what she said to what everyone else seems to have heard

David Miliband desperately tried to avoid talking about his obvious leadership ambitions on Newsnight, even though he’s been doing speeches outside his own brief, a clear signal of intention. He cowered back into his seat and got very defensive. If he isn’t harbouring ambitions to be the next Labour leader then I’m Brad Pitt…

Monday, 5 May 2008

Reviewing reviews

While the public were out voting on Thursday and giving the Government a pounding at the ballot box for the abolition of the 10p tax rate, Ivan Lewis (Minister for Health) published a list of 7 Common Core Principles to Support Self Care. Apparently “The principles aim to help health and social care services enable people to have better control over and responsibility for their own health and well-being, working in partnership with health and social care professionals. The Common Core Principles are intended to support self care in its broadest sense by helping staff across health and social care develop the skills needed to provide people with access to appropriate training, information and support networks. They are aimed at, but not limited to, staff supporting individuals living with a long term condition or with complex needs”.

The 7 principles are:
* Ensure individuals are able to make informed choices to manage their self care needs
* Communicate effectively to enable individuals to assess their needs, and develop and gain confidence to self care
* Support and enable individuals to access appropriate information to manage their self care needs
* Support and enable individuals to develop skills in self care
* Support and enable individuals to use technology to support self care
* Advise individuals how to access support networks and participate in the planning, development and evaluation of services
* Support and enable risk management and risk taking to maximise independence and choice

So, the Government spent all that time, holding a consultation and doing the White Paper and their final list is the above?! This is an example of the waste which occured regularly in all departments. Is it really the case that social care workers at present don’t take the interests of the patients as the core issue and dont communicate effectively with the patients to let them know what choices they have? Was this consultation really necessary? Reviews like the above just waste time and resources and distract those on the frontline from doing their jobs. The list could have been rustled up pretty quickly by anyone with common sense.

This is symptomatic of a bigger problem for the Government inherent in its core thinking. It tries to do everything for everyone and in doing so becomes a controlling State. The Government protests that it is an enabling or empowering one which acts to help the most disadvantaged and most needy, but the Government is very slow to trust professionals, thus these reviews and this governing by committee style which leads to very slow action. While Im not advocating a return to sofa Government, there are times for reviews and there are times for action. The above example is perhaps a minor one but it’s a case in point on this.

Of course Governments should listen to public reaction, which it gets through its support base in the Party and press commentary which plays a key role as opinion leaders, but the first role of a Government is to act on the basis of its key principles and policies as set out in their manifestos or other documents. This dithering and delays before taking even common sense decisions just damages the Government.

Friday, 2 May 2008

Taxing alternatives

A short while ago I posted an article proposing a solution to the abolition of the 10p tax rate of abolishing tax credits and investing all savings into boosting the personal tax allowance substantially. Cllr David Green has proposed his own alternative solution to the abolition of the 10p rate, through a 7p increase on the 40p upper income tax band and giving the personal tax allowance a modest increase, or alternatively a lesser increase on the upper income tax band and an increase on capital gains tax.

The key flaw is that it is the ideologist rather than the more sensible and thoughtful part in Cllr David Green driving the policy, retaining high spending and high taxation, aimed directly at the ‘rich’, whose crime has been simply to have more money than the ‘poor’. Why should the Government punish those earning over £36,000 simply for earning a fair salary? I suspect he is falling into the same trap as Brown did by abolishing the 10p rate in the first place. He thought it’d be OK because of tax credits without having the foresight that there were so many who do not and cannot claim them. Taxing the rich is as ever a blunt instrument that will bludgeon everyone in that tax band, not just those City bosses who make up a tiny proportion of that section of Britain. He argues that the tax increase “won’t much damage the wider economy”, an argument that given the current financial climate could be seen to be optimistic. Lower incomes will get their tax relief but will have to spend that on paying off their own domestic bills or the credit cards such is the high cost of living. Those on higher incomes may well be able to cough up the taxes but they will have the same problems as those on lower incomes. It also ignores the economic rule known as the Laffer Curve where above a certain level, kicking up taxes can actually lead to lower tax revenues. Everyone is finding it hard, not just the poor and it is wrong to ignore those on middle earnings.

A key issue ignored is that of high levels of spending requiring such high taxation in the first place. We need effective public services and they need to be funded by the taxpayer, but that investment must be targeted where it is needed, rather than sprayed everywhere without consideration of the potential damage being caused by such profligacy. The Government plans on spending £618 billion of taxpayer’s money on the various departments in this financial year, with an eye wateringly high £169 billion on social protection. That’s over 27% of all Government spending going on benefits and other such spending and the equivalent of spending on defence, education, transport, housing and the environment combined. A radical spending review and sensible cutting back on the fat in public spending could lead to tens of billions freed up to allow changes to reinvigorate the economy. Furthermore, such changes can be made without hurting frontline public services.

Where is the ambition? An increase to the personal tax allowance of £1200 will undo some of the damage caused by Labour and will pay off some of the money the Treasury has stealthily taken from them through fiscal drag but effectively its just putting things the way they were and for some it will take a long time to get full recompense. In the meantime, Labour has blown the extra tax revenue already and has moved onto eating heavily into borrowing.

Cllr Green’s idea is based upon a flawed and outdated political concept and does nothing to tackle the frittering away of billions of taxpayers money by this Government. Back to the drawing board