Balls on Thatcher

Ed Balls blathered on Radio 5’s drive-time show last night. You can hear it here – http://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b01mk8w8/5_live_Drive_11_09_2012/

This is the transcript (testing my audio typing skills) of the closing part of the interview, at around 45 minutes. This deals with the “dancing on Thatcher’s grave” t-shirts which are doing very well thank you very much amongst Trade Union Conference stalls and websites.

Is this Ed Balls condoning the t-shirts until being backed into a corner?
In this transcript I’ve used (-) to indicate a significant pause, and italics to indicate any significant stress.

Approx 43:00
Ed Balls (EB):… George Osborne is preventing this Government doing anything to kick-start our recovery, to get growth moving. That is why this year, as I said at Treasury Questions, Government borrowing is up this year compared to last year…
Peter Allen (PA): Yes….That’s…
EB: …and his plan’s failed….
PA: I mean….you’re…..you’re talking about boosting public spending which is what got us into trouble in the first place. I mean…demand is something rather different isn’t it?
EB: Well….Peter….Peter…
PA: It can come from all sorts of things?
EB: We are talking about a cut in VAT, temporarily for a year. Bring forward infrastructure and investment because unless you get the economy growing and creating jobs you don’t get people paying tax, people are on benefits and borrowing goes up. Now for two years you and I have debated this and I have been saying for two years if they choke off recovery the borrowing will get worse. And it’s up by a quarter this year compared to last year. Because, in an economy, if nobody is spending and nobody is investing and we’re in recession things get worse. So Vince Cable, I think, I said this on Sunday, in his heart of hearts, Vince Cable, the Liberal Democrat  Business Secretary, knows the Conservative Party strategy for the economy is flawed  and failed. He’s not allowed to say that.  And he won’t go out and say that, (-) he’s tinkering around the edges (-) with, as John Pienaar was saying, finding different ways to repackage inactivity and no action.  And it’s not good enough, and we need a new change and I understand why the Trade Unions are very frustrated at the moment because their members are having such a hard….
PA: Okay….
EB: …Such a hard time….But….What you can’t do is deny that the next Labour Government will have some difficult decisions to make and I said that to the Congress in those terms today.
PA: Mmm. What would you say to somebody at Congress who wore one of these t-shirts saying “A Generation of Trade Unionists will dance on Thatcher’s grave”?
EB: (-) Well…I…I actually said at the Congress today that nobody wants to go back to the hatred and division of the 1980s. Nobody wants to go back to the (-) lost days and strikes. Seven times more days lost in strikes in the 80s than under the Labour Government. Nobody wants to go back to the high unemployment and the terrible NHS waiting lists…
PA: …I was talking about the t-shirts….
EB: ….
PA: Not…not the….
EB: I think the T-shirt…..Expresses a view of that division…
PA: Are you condoning it?
EB: …which I reject entirely….Completely, completely.
PA: Completely.
EB: I don’t want to go back to the division of the 1980s. Er…(-) I don’t like that kind of politics.
PA: Yeah. So you would say to people “Don’t wear that shirt”? Don’t wear that t-shirt?
EB: (-). Yeah. I would say to people (-) do not wear that shirt.
PA: Thanks very much. That’s Ed Balls….

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Good PR

Constitutional reform is the train spotting of politics, soliciting a response from anyone buttressed by enthusiasts against a wall at a party somewhere between pity and panic. It was said that Tony Blair, once part way through House of Lords reform in the early 2000s, suddenly acquired the look of a first date forced to sit through a three-hour subtitled German film on hairdressing, eyes like marbles and thumbs rolling over each other in tedium.

Most ordinary folk agree that tinkering with the constitutional machinery is a bit of an obsessive’s game, often undertaken by civil servants bored with their lot and in need of a map to scribble over. Local government in the UK is proof of this, entire counties destroyed and resurrected at the swipe of a sharp HB. Anything more significant – such as House of Lords reform, say – tends to become bogged down with more politics than, for example, carving up counties into manageable chunks, a consequence of Westminster being considered very, very important and provincial towns being regarded as very, very not. It’s little wonder that divvying up England into regional chunks or constantly jiggling about with the councils of Wales or Scotland tends to go along on cycles compared with dealing properly with a national democratic deficit, because the former is seen as necessary maintenance and the latter brain transplant territory.

As you may have noticed, it’s the realm of Westminster and its village which is occupying the time of the Coalition and its occasional bursts into behaviour more suited to a well-heeled couple going through a messy divorce. Not that I’m subscribing to the opinion that the Coalition has as much chance of getting to Christmas as a plump turkey. The issue comes down to what exactly was understood by both Cameron and Clegg as being agreed upon in those long ago hazy days of the post-election glow when the new world of Coalition government looked to the weary nation as so much unparalleled brilliance. When those feelings faded (about a week later?) constitutional reform was refreshingly high on the list of priorities, as though the LibDem influence on Cameron was a revelation on par with that experienced by a bored housewife at an Alpha course.

Sadly like the Alpha course, what burst out in bright lights and speaking in tongues (characterised by crowds of Liberal Democrat activists attempting to explain AV to bemused shoppers in town centres) fizzled out to drab coffee mornings. Whilst Fixed Term Parliaments passed without too much bother, everything else was fought over within an inch of its life – boundary changes and Lords Reform amongst them. The Coalition fought within its each other on the basis that the AV referendum and reducing the size of the Commons were the ends of the same see-saw, whilst Lords Reform was the hastily constructed barbecue at the back of the garden overseen by a slightly drunk father with lighter fluid and an indifference to food hygiene. Whilst Clegg was able to say “We took the voting referendum to the people, and the people didn’t like it”, Cameron could assure his backbenchers that a smaller House of Commons with equal size constituencies would be of benefit to them and the country as a whole. Fewer MPs, less cost, for the spin on one side, safer Tory seats and less in-built Labour bias amongst the urban cities, for the spin on the other. Nothing could be easier to get through.

And yet here we are, with House of Lords reform dead again, Clegg determined to paint his defeat as a matter of Conservative dinosaurs having a whinge about the possible end of the guaranteed retirement home. The Prime Minister, meanwhile, has started to look like a man approaching the Tony Blair stage in is attitude towards reform – the glare in the eyes, the deep sighs, the doodling hangmen on the back of his hand with a pairing knife, that sort of thing. For boundary changes/Commons reduction to go through – and it really should – he needs to force the hand of a Coalition partner fuming and an Opposition party gleaming. Of course Labour were never going to agree that equal sized constituencies are a good thing, shrieking “gerrymandering” all over the place as though they knew what it meant, but the messy way that the Coalition has got here has made Cameron’s work immeasurably harder.

There is a way out of all this, I think, though it means having to say goodbye to both Lords reform and equal sized constituencies. It’s one of those trainspotter obsession things, though, so people of a nervous disposition might want to make themselves a brew.

As we’ve seen in Scotland, local government elected under a system of proportional representation has made little though significant improvements to the democratic deficit there. Now into their third cycle of PR elections, Scotland’s local councils have seen former Labour citadels turned into coalition-led rainbow Town Halls, or at least in the case of Glasgow allowed local newspapers to save on red ink when reporting election results, blobs of Tory blue and and SNP yellow appearing in sporadic splotches. Perhaps more importantly, PR in Scotland gives people far more power at the ballot box – no longer forced to make a compromise themselves, people can vote how they really feel, spreading their vote amongst a number of candidates whilst remaining loyal to their favoured party.

English councils could go the same way if the Clegg and Cameron compromise position is to ditch the two contentious issues for something positioned in the middle. LibDems get PR on a significant level, Conservatives are given a chance for representation in northern cities (and, of course, Labour can make more of a headway into bits of the south which turned away from them post-Blair).

But it’s not just party political reasons for local council PR. As most fule kno, local government is dying on its proverbial, Town Halls robbed of investment over a number of decades, turnout in elections dragging along the bottom of the teen-percentages, drab debates wrung out over a number of successive days in newspaper letter columns. Despite the best efforts of various Commissions, local government is hardly representative of the people its purported to represent, with the scandal of uncontested wards in hundreds of elections every year only making matters worse.

By allowing voters the right to break out of First Past the Post and its horrific damage to democracy, there’s chance for a last minute CPR job to local councils. It’s more than party political concerns about Knowsley or Manchester being “one party states”, council areas in which only one party returns councillors, as Barking and Dagenham did having slain the BNP. The current position means complacency and arrogance sets in amongst councillors who don’t feel the breath of contest on their necks at election time, whose debates only fall amongst themselves. The less chance of an election, or at least an interesting one, the higher chance of discord or apathy. Local government is more than just ballot boxes, of course, but if that element isn’t fixed everything else falls apart.

Lords Reform can wait another few years, having been on the boil for so long anyway. Reducing the size of the Commons is much more important, and should happen if at all possible, though clearly it’s going to be a tight fight between the Whips and their charges.

Compromise then is reform where it’s noticeable – on the streets, at the Town Halls, in cities robbed of vibrant and relevant democratic debate. Allow people to have a real say in who represents them, as Scottish voters currently do, and allow Town Halls to become more reflective of the voters outside. It’s not right that some of our largest towns and cities are effective “one party states”, that some council wards have not seen a contested election in years, or that turnout in FPTP elections can be lower than 15%. A form of PR at council level will help push greater and wider reform. Any other position might make a lot of things much worse, at national level as much as local, and neither Coalition partner wants that. It might mean an early general election, for one thing….

Round-table tradition

Read the published diaries of almost any former MP – Alan Clark, Gyles Brandreth, Chris Mullin – and amongst the common themes is one ‘absolute’ which links through every political era and will doubtlessly do so for the foreseeable. If “reform” means anything to the Coalition government, the annual parlour game which distracts MPs, obsesses journalists and distracts even the most ardent policy-wonk from the finer points of the issue at hand. It is, but of course, the Cabinet Reshuffle, the one element of British political life which shared with football, and the one tradition no government has ever considered could be worth putting to bed.

Prior to the election – and reiterated last year both Cameron and Clegg have tried to distance the Government from the annual charade. If only anyone would believe them. It’s not necessarily their faults – football fans know that the merry-go-round will one day stop turning, and one of the chosen few will be back in a job not long before or after Christmas.

Only in the realm of politics could there be similar employment attitudes to the chairman of football plcs. The MPs I mentioned above cannot avoid writing – and enjoying – the sport of promotion and demotion, the rise and fall of backbench stars or Cabinet flops. Clark relished every chance to insult those who passed him on their way up the ladder or to scoff when they fell back to earth. Brandreth recalls the need to stuff the Ministerial red box of Stephen Dorrell (newly promoted at the Department for National Heritage as it then was) with videos of British film classics as he was in a position for which he had no understanding. Chris Mullin regularly recalls how ministers across Africa and Europe could not make strong relationships with British counterparts because, amongst other things, the 13 years of Labour rule saw over 30 different MPs given the jobs of Minister for Europe, or Minister for Africa.

The Reshuffle is enjoyed and endured as a consequence of the Old Boys Club attitude within Westminster. The most conscientious constituency representative becomes enslaved to the system – will the call from Downing Street come this year? Next?

Who would care about the Whitenslade Scouts Summer Fayre when there’s ministerial responsibility just around the corner? Mullin admits that even the most lowly promotion is grasped with both hands. He also writes very well about how sharp and short the experience can be; the Minister who has spent a year building relationships and strong reputations can be out the door in the morning to be replaced by someone who has to start the whole thing from scratch.

Reshuffles are outdated, outmoded, and clearly straight out of the Great British political traditions dressing up box. They are very expensive – Department names are changed and re-named at whim (“Department for Children, Families and Schools” lasted just over 3 years before returning to “Department for Education”. One has to ask – why did it have to change at all?). Ministers suddenly become experts in their new field (and did we have any faith in Margaret Beckett as Foreign Secretary? Really?).

Cameron, as ultimate hirer-and-firer, should take a lead from the rest of Europe on this (and for that matter, the US, where such pack-shuffling is almost unheard of). To allow Ministers and Secretaries of State to get on with their jobs, the constant ticking clocks must have their batteries removed. Cameron has made some unfortunate ministerial choices, but whilst in other jobs (especially in business) time is allowed for improvement, the Westminster attitude leaves sharpened knives at the door. Policies which are not delivering need focus and concentration. The delivery of policy is stifled if the carousel is whirred into action by pressure from every lobby hack with impatience and deadlines on their mind.

To show the wider public that the Coalition really does understand “new politics”, Cameron should avoid anything remotely close to a full-scale Reshuffle until at least next year. Another glut of traditionalists doubtlessly feel angered, another reem of right-wing Tories will huff and howl, though it’s all for the good. Few people in the real world see as much pointless, expensive, repetitious, duplicating japery as members of parliament. It infects their brains, alters their thinking. Any MP who knows their thing will tell you the same – and it has ultimately damaged our political culture.

One could argue that the only way to fix the Reshuffle bug is a wholesale revolution within our political system, cutting the link between constituency MP and Ministerial job (as happens in so many parliamentary republics), increasing the number of appointed Ministers who are not accountable to voters. Others could argue that no Reshuffle should happen at all between elections, giving voters the right to compare like-for-like over a parliaments life-time.

Some traditions are hard to break. The dinosaurs who want to keep First-past-the-Post (because, you know, an MP needs only 33% of the vote in their constituency to become Foreign Secretary) are the same who lap up the “fun” of the Reshuffle and all it represents. Football is rightly criticised for giving second, third, and forty-eighth chances to the same old dwindling number of ex-managers. Politics really should have the same fingers pointed in its direction. Cameron should lead by example and leave the parlour games for another year.

Oldham East and Uphill Struggle

Tomorrow morning, in front of Oldham’s Civic Hall, Labour leader Ed Milliband and his newest backbench MP Debbie Abrahams are holding their victory press conference in the open air surrounded by shipped-in supporters of all shapes, sizes and religions.

“A new dawn has broken, has it not?” asks the younger Milliband, holding onto Debbie’s wrist with his left hand. (Her left hand is flat and by her side, as focus groups find female candidates doing the thumbs-up “too Palin”. She is permitted two (max) little waves of the hand, like the fattest bridesmaid at the wedding reception.)

“This result is a sensation that rocks the heart of the ConDemNation!” barks little Ed, to the choreographed delight of the invited crowd. By the end of the evening, Oldham East (and Saddleworth, “like attaching Coronation Street to Last of the Summer Wine” as described by Michael White) would be thankful for never being asked to vote on anything, again, ever.

All being right and reasoned with the world, the good burghers of Oldham East and Saddleworth will put Labour back with a handsome-ish majority. LibDem Elwyn Watkins is a damn fine candidate, and I would prefer him winning after running Phil Woolas so close (one-hundred-and-three votes) in 2010. My smart money is on Abrahams; this is Labour’s to lose, not the Liberal Democrats to lose.

Doubtlessly, the combined forces of the on-line Labour keyboard Corps. will hed asplode at 11pm when the Returning Officer takes to the stage. It would certainly wobble the Coalition, just nothing like as hard as Labour think it will. This is more “finger poking a cheesecake” than “hammer against a balloon”.

Ed, for one, has yet to strike a name for himself. Though his stance has advanced from “opposition for the sake of it”, he appears to have given up reminding his Shadow Cabinet colleagues of his Conference plea to ‘grow up’ and ‘do Opposition differently’. Labour MPs appear confused, still, over the best way to deal with Coalition Britain; pointing out divisions between the two partners is counter-productive. Of course there’s going to be differences, that’s what “coalition” means. On the deficit reduction plan, Labour have yet to define exactly what they would do differently (if we sidestep the inevitable reminders of Liam Byrne’s “there’s no money left” note, there’s Alistair Darling’s “cuts worse than Thatcher” quote whilst still Chancellor to bring to mind….).

I’m not as rabid pro-Coalition/anti-Labour as some notable interweb commentators appear to be, clearly frothing at the mouth at every whisper of Westminster gossip about early elections, splits and divisions, as though ‘new politics’ means the same tedious parlour games that turned off voters years ago. Labour, it has to be said however, are not addressing the nation as a “Party prepared”. In the fast-forward news agenda world of today, the Opposition are expected to be primed for action; more mature and reasoned opposition would stop chasing the spotlight and dictaphones (and, indeed, some members of the Government could do well to stop acting like newspaper commentators, too….)

Labour must be careful what they wish for. Unsettling the Coalition, even pressing for an early election, would be a disaster. Ed’s profile is negligible. His position on the student protests was shaky, uneasy, and even now his reputation amongst the growing numbers of youthful protesters and anti-cuts groups seems weakened and wary. An early election would underline the under-cooked centre of his strategy, splitting his internal coalition – Brownites and Blairites at opposite ends of the Shadow Cabinet table ready to pounce.

Opinion polls are two a penny at the moment, bringing Labour some cheer with their constant and growing lead. Annoyingly for Ed, the polls show much less obvious support for not making so many cuts so quickly. His “squeezed middle” has yet to permeate beyond the hacks in the Lobby. They are also within the margin of error; and after the 2010 election you can forget ‘uniform swing’, it no longer exists.

A snap election would doubtlessly “do” for the LibDems…but for Labour? They’re constant House of Commons “bantz” as they ridicule the Coalition without putting up answers themselves could backfire. An electorate who accept the need to keep tight hold of their pursestrings don’t want to hear about spend, spend, spend. An outright Tory majority is statistically more likely than an outright Labour win. Coalition is currently putting the brakes on the worst Conservative excesses (see how angry the 1922 Committee is getting with their allegations of ‘tickling the LibDem tummy’). Coalition is working, and Labour know deep down how realistic an outright Conservative victory really is.

Playing the long-game annoys MPs, especially now, when the news agenda demands quick-smart reactions and fast-forward changes. It would be far better for Labour to play the slow game, make the subtle and considered moves of the poker player. Ed may win in Oldham tonight, but lose the long-term battle. That’s the gamble at the foot of the Pennines. Whatever happens, it only matters what moves Labour makes next…

Fringe thinking about binge drinking

A professor at Chicago University has advised the Government on how to deal with binge drinking.

I suspect this guy – Richard Thaler – knows nothing much about the British drinking culture….

But that is just one factor of this story. I thought this kind of ‘State knows best’ advice mindset had been deposed at the last election. “Behavioural economics”, as the story calls it, is questioning what is not merely ‘tradition’ but polite, ordinary behaviour. Rounds at the pub is probably the best way to keep checks on outgoings – the additional cost of buying for a small group should persuade most sensible people out of drinking excessively. If you don’t want to ‘keep up’ with the people you’re drinking with, then don’t.

Pubs are closing at a record rate, and whilst I don’t want to encourage people to get ratted just to keep the local open, I can’t see how previous or current Government policy is helping to stem the tide. There are numerous threads to the problem – the smoking ban, the Licensing Act and its tangled bureaucracy, increased duty on alcohol and little support for small/micro-breweries…I am against ‘minimum pricing’ on booze because the costs can be soaked up (if you will) by supermarkets whilst hitting publicans hard. There’s no incentive for landlords to stay open outside city centres, and even within busy towns traditional pubs are shutting at an alarming rate.

This professor seems to be interesting in ‘engineering’ social behaviours. If I’m out with some mates around town, it’s up to us to decide when the next ales are bought. I don’t see suggesting some kind of tab system in a city centre pub is feasible for this situation, never mind the endless combinations of groups going out for a quiet ‘un or an all-day bender. This idea seems targeted at young first-time drinkers, but as ever with Government advisers, is stretched out to fit everyone. “Prevention is better than cure” shouldn’t be advice outside the Department for Health.

I understand why Governments need to deal with ‘binge drinking’, and the related problems of pubs closing and supermarket buying power. It seems, as ever, the best advice tax payers are ultimately charged for is ‘micromanage’. Tab systems in British pubs as a ‘solution’ to a round-buying ‘issue’? It must be a slow news day. It just has to be. The sour taste in my mouth after reading this just won’t go away, I need a stiff drink…

Speak your brains

When Tony Blair introduced the Number 10 petition site, critics and plaudits arranged themselves in formations not too dissimilar to those now reacting to the Coalition’s proposals to allow Parliamentary debate and even Bills from a website-based scheme whereby 100,000 signatures could be the gateway to Commons scrutiny. “This could open up Westminster”, claimed those in favour. “Magnet for obsessives and saddoes” decry the antis.

In reality, the Number10 scheme was not a total disaster. It did encourage debate; over 1 million people supported the proposal to scrap road tolls and vehicle monitoring, something the Labour government was forced to carry-out and something the Coalition has pledged not to introduce. I recall the issue coming up in conversation in the office at the time, which led to people spending a lazy afternoon creating and signing petitions of their own interests and persuasions. Although the Number10 model was flawed (and in some cases open to this sort of tin-hat oddity), it opened a door which subsequent Governments will find difficult to close.

(Labour have been very good at laying ‘traps’ for subsequent Governments, I notice, they may have been economically illiterate but they were as cunning….)

As Mark Pack points out over at LibDem Voice, the scheme proposed by the Coalition has some in-built ‘checks’ against viral campaigns and trouble-makers; the 100,000 minimum signature level should deter some of the usual suspects, and even then only those ‘deemed appropriate’ would make it to the floor of the House. I worry about how those which cross the 100,000 line would be ‘chosen’, and whether orchestrated campaigns for extreme or frivolous suggestions would be themselves encouraged by MPs who want the scheme ended, but from the groundwork of the original site I think a sound building has been proposed.

Asking our MPs to debate awkward subjects – maybe an immigration petition, possibly abortion law reform or tax evasion – cannot have a down-side. There is all to play for if the scheme allows the country to put pressure on MPs to debate those subjects which attract the attention of the increasingly politically inclined Twitterati and Facebook group creators?

There is something of the ‘novelty’ about all the recent attempts to – horrible word alert – ‘engage’. Nobody seems to have responded to “The Big Conversation”, and Nick Clegg’s ‘freedom from’ or ‘freedom to’ website has only been given a prod today thanks to the Independent on Sunday running a front page feature (with highlighted proposals running from the legalisation of cannabis and relaxing the Licencing Act, to scrapping the Racial and Religious Hatred Act. Out in the country is a genuine hunger for debate and discussion, one which is fired up with every newspaper comment column and phone-in. Petition sites with the ‘prize’ of a Bill at the end could be a great idea (I hope is it), though the path getting here is littered with forgotten schemes and redundant websites.

Democracy has not been fixed since the general election; schemes like this won’t repair everything, and must be attached to such ideas as the referendums in the Localism Bill and genuine work on fixing broken relationships between people and elected representatives. Has anything come from the Labour idea to make creating parish councils gone anywhere? “Estate Councils” would empower disadvantaged people build their local area far more than pressing ‘Like’ on the proposal ‘Give checkout girls nurses wages!’.

Critics bemoan all these ‘devolution’ schemes as gimmicks. They underestimate the power of the internet to collect and organise, to frame and focus debate and lobbyists. There’s a lot of constitutional reform being pushed through this Parliament, and the main focus seems to be on returning power to the people through direct democracy. This could be a massive opportunity for reform, one which will shake the certainty of ‘the establishment’, one which will test the doubters if its allowed to happen.

Doubters have valid concerns – the cost, the feasibility, how the valid petitions will be chosen, how much of this is ‘buck passing’. One interesting idea from the comments section of Mark Pack’s blog post is to have a “NO” vote reduction on the scheme, reducing the total of supporting signatures. That could dampen the viral campaigning of the troublemakers.

I have tentative support for the ideas, all told. It would encourage debate of some tricky subjects, introduce to the House the subjects so often called ‘those our MPs never want to discuss”. There’s a heap load of logistical nightmares to overcome, though I’m one for siding with the opportunities it encourages. Dealing with difficult truths could be Blair’s petition legacy…

2011 – reading tea leaves

It’s the end of Christmas but not quite January, that ‘no man’s land’ between family meetings, food stuffing and New Year champagne popping. You could spend the days watching old Warner Bros cartoons on YouTube whilst dunking Fox’s biscuits into endless rounds of brews (like…ooh I dunno….me) or fall back on that trusty standby of the festive period; the new year prediction game. It’s right up there with the elderly relative favourite, “Guess Which Programmes the Familiar Faced Actors Starred In”, available every Sunday afternoon from ten minutes into the episode.

It would be very easy for me to start with “LibDems will enjoy a massive resurgence in support when the knee-jerk anti-everything reactions die down a bit”. HOWEVER, I have stepped a few paces back to view the picture with a little less bias and have decided instead to predict….

It’s goodbye from Nick, but not the LibDems

Britain’s attitude to the Coalition has been interesting, as this is the first real experiment with coalition governance since the Second World War (it could be argued both cases were created through different definitions of ‘necessity’). There /is/ knee-jerk opposition for the sake of it from certain quarters, the type of “We wanted change from Labour but not this kind of change” blather which fills the comments sections of newspaper websites. The Coalition has achieved a lot since its formation (no, really, look beyond the blather and see what’s been done.)

Unfortunately (and this not going to be a diatribe), all that the Coalition is doing well has been overshadowed by the one big issue it has got completely wrong. On tuition fees for University students, the new Browne report influenced policies will have a detrimental effect on the finances of aspiring students. It’s not quite the Hell and Brimstone “class war” I’ve been hearing, but it’s not quite the place any LibDem supporters wanted to find themselves.

For putting us into Government and threading our fairness agenda through the Conservative-led programme for government, Nick Clegg has to receive a lot of credit. He has taken us supporters somewhere we never thought possible. But, and it’s a biggie, the way he has dragged over our party’s reputation such a large and dark shadow that no further ‘good’ can be completely out of this shadow of ‘bad’. Clegg remains an electoral liability when we need certainty and credibility; we cannot win the AV referendum with a man who called it “a miserable little compromise” leading the charge.

I therefore make the first prediction – that the man who took us into Government will step down before May to give us the best chance of coming out of that process with decent results and a referendum win.

(Okay, so…one-plus-a-bit predictions there, there’s no hard and fast rules about the constraints and such round here…)

Clegg is not the only “Nick” in politics, nor the only one whose leadership is mired in controversy and criticism. Having kept close eyes on the court cases and on-line reactions (always pays to lurk on internet forums), my next prediction has to be…

The slow, certain demise of the British National Party

This is a BIT ‘wishful thinking’ but forgive me. The BNP have been in serious decline for years. Their two victories at the European Elections (Nick Griffin in North West England, Andrew Brons in Yorkshire & Humber) was not followed up by any serious attempt to make hay while the country grumbled. In front of the Question Time audience, Griffin was an embarrassment, firing off his oft-rehearsed anti-everything rhetoric without once hitting a valid target.

The court cases brought against the BNP tell only one part of the story of its certain demise. At the general election, Griffin finished 3rd in the Barking constituency he targeted with more effort than any other. Running parallel to the cases, a general sense of malaise and leadership doubts, has been the upshoot in support for unelected protest groups such as the English Defence League (EDL). Rather tragically for Griffin, his attempts to rebrand his party as electorally credible has been compromised by the attraction of stomping through provincial town centres chanting “You’re Not English Any More” at anyone within ear-shot. The irony can’t be too easy to miss within the BNP.

My prediction therefore is for Griffin to downgrade the BNP to a lobby-group around May (when his party will suffer terribly at the polls, there’s another extra-prediction), though he will remain as an MEP. I suspect the many splinter groups who will come from the BNP before, during and following May will almost all disappear from existence before 2011 is out, leaving the far-right as electorally feckered as the far-left.

The world’s political scene is messy enough now so I darem’t poke a toe into any prediction waters. There are countless potential flash points – unrest in Korea, Obama’s reputation within and beyond the US borders, how the eurozone breaks out of the economic quicksand, Russia (….pretty much everything related thereto….) I’ll begin with…

Africa is the place to turn…towards Asia

Unrest in Côte d’Ivoire, almost certain unrest in Sudan even before the South Sudanese referendum is put, uncertainty in Egypt’s leadership, continued problems in Somalia and Eritrea….Maybe there is always going to be ‘easy pickings’ from looking at Africa and assuming there will be disquiet and disharmony.

2011 will be different, I think; there is increased international financial investment in African states with much to give (China, of course, being the biggest donating country). The ‘pull’ of northern, Arabic Africa from the rest of the continent must seem immense.

A reshaping of political and economic powerhouses is inevitable, as the move away from ‘the West’ to ‘the East’ continues. Europe especially will struggle to meet the challenges of the tipped balance. I worry that, militarily, the West will be pressed into action where there may not be obvious requirements yet today. Economically, Africa will look east.

Economic and political uncertainty across Europe has already manifested itself in riots and protests. I cannot see these dying down over night. There is fear and there is anger, vocal opposition in Ireland, France and the UK towards their Governments, and across Western Europe generally a mood of change is fresh on the wind.

Protests – but not revolution – will still be on the march

The nation states of Europe brought into ‘the age of austerity’ will continue to battle internal pressure and external economic constraints. Storms of uncertainty and unrest will feed the flames, so I cannot see London or Dublin or Paris or Madrid coming out of 2011 without serious and violent protests. The ‘long term’ view, espoused by some in Britain, that the protests are a curtain raiser for forms of ‘uprising’ are particularly silly (and just as “ideologically led” in their dreaming as the protesters allege are the cuts being proposed by government.)

Change and entrenchment of opinion is on the way, that is undeniable, though it seems still to be much light and little heat. Unions and protest groups such as “UKUncut” must keep public sympathy on their side. Similarly, the police will be under more pressure and scrutiny than before, and need to keep both the politicians and public confident in their ability and behaviour.

My prediction…predictions…That an event next year will fundamentally change the relationship between both protesters and public…and possibly between different elements of the protesters too….Not necessarily for the worse or better, just….altered. I am also very sure the police will make another severe mistake in their handling of the protests, one which changes the relationship between police and politicians, police and protesters, and importantly (most fundamentally) between police and members of the public.

(I am not anti-protest at all, looking with a wider view on the recent London protests shows there’s many subjects being stirred around the pot, from tuition fees specifically to anti-establishment generally. I’m not about to suggest that a National-Anarchist revolution is around the corner, heaven forfend…The amount of antagonism and how it manifests will be highly significant next year)

Right, so we have the politics out the way, what else do we have to occupy our time? Oh yeah, the Internet….

Google buys Twitter, Facebook fades, and as for censorship…

Twitter is what you make of it, just follow ‘slebs and you get what you pay for. Well, indeed, that’s the whole point. For all the real-time reactions and ‘two-screening’ (I’m not making that up) the cost is….nil. Though it’s not likely to increase from nowt next year, the business model missing from the centre of Twitter will need to be filled; I predict Google will realise it is missing out from all that lovely search revenue and put in a serious bid for the 140-character blogging bird before the days get shorter.

Whilst Twitter continues to advance, Facebook stumbles and stutters. There’s something not quite….all there with the social network that has spawned a film and a step-change in how we interact with friends and family. Its constant tinkers, complicated security and privacy settings and never ending hunger for more personal info (“It won’t be long before you can email your Info tab to future employers,” as a friend put it), has turned Facebook from the first visit of the morning to something fast becoming an afterthought. Got a Tumblr yet…? Just asking….(I haven’t, but if there’s anywhere to go after Facebook, there’s one very obvious place next….)

I predict further problems and issues as Facebook begins to lose its grip on the world’s social networkers.

Issues of net neutrality, and tighter whips for ISPs to crack (see what the UK passed prior to the election and proposals to restrict access to pornography show that the State has not yet managed to exhaust itself in the pursuit of greater control of its citizens on-line. China may be the “archetypal” national guard against the world wide web; I predict however that Western countries will put down their collective fists in 2011.

(It will be interesting to see how the ‘protest movement’ vibe runs into the ‘restricted internet’ debate, will “UKUncut” take on an additional meaning?)

And finally….There’s the small matter of sport and all that jazz, so in a roundup roundabout sort of way….

I’m assuming the Best Film Oscar will go the way of Inception (no, I’ve not seen it), though a cheeky fiver on Toy Story 3 wouldn’t go amiss for a curveball (no, I’ve not seen that one either). As this year seems to have been ‘the year 3D came back from the dead…again’, next year shows to signs of stopping. I’ll go for a 3D film winning the majority of Oscars in 2012, for a long-term pitch.

This season’s Premier League will be won by Manchester Utd…Yes, I know, it’s a bit obvious a shout, but all credible challengers are having a stumble and Utd have previous in making good when the opposition look away temporarily. So it makes me sound a bit Lawro, deal with it…..

…Right, so 2010 was a right old messy one, for all manner of reasons. Who can possibly predict what will come?

Thanks to all my readers, vistors and comment scribers. Here’s to the Missives still being the place to be next year…

We’re all in this forever

James Bond and Victoria Coren make gambling look sexy. George Osborne has spun the Roulette Wheel with all the allure of knitting phlegm. His Spending Review was sprinkled with good news, in the same way a paper-cut finger wafted around a bit splatters blood on the walls.

(There will be blood on the carpet following the SR. If any LibDems are pushed into on-coming traffic there is still a chance Charles Kennendy could be called upon to top-up Osborne’s water with Islay Malt. Or cyanide).

Such is the breadth and depth of the SR that the reaction has seems breathless and confused. The BBC having its life effectively guaranteed for 6 years is news nevertheless greeted with utter incredulity. “Save The BBC!” doesn’t sound quite so logical when the review has done just that. Over the six years, a freeze is as good as a cut, so expect Match of the Day 2014 to feature unrivalled coverage of the Zamaretto Midlands League.** But still they shout it, like football fans cheering for a player they hadn’t noticed substituted (which, incidentally, reminds me of a recent Burscough game which involved a young fella continually cheering a player who wasn’t even on the bench. Oh how we laughed…).

Much as been made of the (pre-announced) proposal to remove child benefit from higher wage earners. Cue the most bizarre through-the-looking-glass political arguments in modern times. “The lowest earners in society should not fund the child benefit of the well off!” cries David Cameron. “The most well off are entitled to handouts no matter how middle class they are!” bellows Ed Miliband. If Gordon Brown’s removal of the 10p tax rate made you question the known-knowns of British politics, welcome to Kafka Plus…

The SR was neither rape upon the nation or reasoned treatment for an ill patient; the truth lies somewhere in the muddle. Over 100 pages of mindgasm explain each Department’s budget in terms Sir Humph could not disagree with. Everything is covered; from a new suspension bridge over the Mersey to a Universal Benefit (one handout to unite us, etc. and so forth). In truth, of course, no politician truly denies the scale of the problem faced by the Chancellor; the nation is in mammoth debt, and so are its people.

The Osborne Agenda is pithily labelled “ideological” by critics who, on the whole, are exactly as ideological. Union leaders dust off their placards, Labour members fill up with nostalgia for childhood lost in demonstrations and marches. Thought ideological divides in politics were dead? Welcome to the most significant divide between sides since the introduction of the Community Charge.

The review comes at the very end of what could be called “the age of entitlement”. With a benign economy, low interest rates and banks throwing mortgages and credit cards around like samples at a supermarket, it is little wonder so many millions of people took advantage. I certainly did, maxing out the credit card on long weekends and (most shamefully of all, perhaps) Domino’s pizza. But years of 100% mortgages, holidays and flatscreen televisions did not build the debt mountain bequeathed by Labour; the two tales of national and personal debt run parallel, and one is disguised as an elephant. The demise of Woolworths, near demise of Wedgewood, epic scales of economic catastrophe across all the professional football leagues; they too wore the elephant suits. There are only so many ‘known knowns’ we dare acknowledge, no?

The review touches us all. With such drastic cuts in local council funding – council tax frozen for at least one year, though not necessarily across the country I suspect, notice the Sir Humph lexicon in the Report – every library, swimming pool and elderly care centre will suffer from the sharp pencil. Councils may learn from this sharp slap across the buttocks, scrapping the ‘non jobs’ which soak up so much money. “Audience development officer” for £30 grand a year? £19,000 a year is a decent enough wage for anyone – but for a “street football co-ordinator”? Does it sound patronising to draw attention to these jobs, or instructive? Is this another trip through the looking glass? When the Daily Mail covered the “non-job” story, a council spokesperson explained that money was spent on “everything from lollipop ladies to librarians”. Good, how it should be, and unfortunately such roles may be curtailed by the council funding slash-and-burn. There is something rotten with the system if – and, alas, I am not making this up – “teeth cleansing instructors” are on the Town Hall payroll.

Within the lifetime of this fixed-term parliament – if we ever get there – the Spending Review will soak into our wallets, our skin, get under our hair, interrupt our phonecalls with a high-pitched noise like a cat being tickled by an ovengloved hand. The size, depth and generosity of the welfare state must be tackled. Ditto the inexorable pouring of Government borrowing. And the size, nature and behaviour of our police force in their ‘war with fear’ must be altered. In short, the Coalition are tasked with achieving reform through force; it doesn’t make me feel easy or comfortable, but neither do Northern Rail’s damp and frosty Pacers and I have to put up with them too….

**You thought it didn’t exist, eh?

Labouring the Point

Traditionalists within Labour, and those malcontents on the Left generally, like to recycle their slogans. Having labelled one prominent politician a “betrayer” of traditional supporters, a closet-Conservative, of being too fond of Thatcherite economic policies, they have now moved onto using the same language for another.

Tony Blair, who took an axe to Clause IV on his way to repositioning Labour as a European style social democratic party before the 1997 landslide election victory, would never be left-wing enough for every Labour voter. Blair was a Labour leader but not a Labour man, whose attempts to re vigour Britain’s political landscape for good was ultimately thwarted by the inherent conservatism within and without the political establishment. Nick Clegg is now suffering the same brickbats, labelled a betrayer and a turncoat, as much from the same disgruntled left-leaning voices who mocked Blair. It is, if you will, a case of ‘same difference’. Clegg has made a brave step, a leap far beyond that which Blair took, and doubtlessly there are many who feel that the trust they put into the Liberal Democrats has somehow been thrown away.

When Blair took to the country for his first election as PM, in 2001, he did so amongst the clutter and bother of disgruntled supporters who tried their hands at launching splinter groups in electoral opposition to ‘New’ Labour. They all failed – Socialist Labour Party and Socialist Alliance almost immediately, George Galloway’s Respect ultimately fell to internecine warring. His re-positioning of Labour, much like Clegg’s leap of faith within the Coalition, was an uneasy act for activists and councillors. When Gordon Brown told the party’s Conference “we are best when we are Labour”, he spoke with the socialist voice he would use throughout his own Premiership. Little wonder Lord Mandleson is speaking out against Ed Milliband’s bid for Labour’s leadership. Wrapping Labour values in conservative clothing has proven to be the winning formula for Blair and future followers of Blairism. Ickle Ed’s socialism would not.

Clegg’s Conference speech today, his first as Deputy Prime Minister, settled some nerves. The Coalition agreement has already made real many LibDem election manifesto pledges – higher income allowances, banker’s levy, changes to corporation tax, reforms to the voting system, possible good news on Trident renewal, end of ID Cards, scrapping Section 44, reform of the National DNA database. I blogged some time ago against the VAT increase, a move I still feel is regrettable. It will be difficult, these 5 years of fixed term governance. Clegg will have much harder rides, as the Cleggmania which followed the leadership debates gave his and the Liberal Democrats similar levels of expectation that Blair received in his landslide year. Coalitions are alien to Britain, which seems to be the sticking point for Labour and leftists; how can two opposing forces come together? How can political parties not be tribalist? Clegg is not one of “us”, he must be one of “them”.

I don’t pretend that the Coalition will make choices which run counter to my liberalism, or the ideas of the Liberal Democrats. I just feel far more strongly against the traditional he-said-she-said stick to your guns tribalist nonsense streaming from Labour since the election. Nothing done from their side which suggests they understand why they lost the election, nor how the Coalition has managed to agree to its terms and policies. The real opportunity from this Coalition is less of the same red/blue nonsense which Clegg campaigned against during the election. As he told the Party Conference this afternoon, if nerves are held, the LibDems won’t just talk about change, we’d be the agents of change.

If you wanted the country to be different, you put faith in the Party that was different. That party has not changed. I just hope that the two sides can fulfill the early promise of these past 4 months. I fear Labour are set for the ugliest campaigning in British politics. Their acting like a bitter divorcee should do for their credibility. New politics? Yes. But Blair found it impossible to take the country down that route. Will Clegg, similarly maligned by the same anti-Blair lefties, suffer the same fate?

Devil is in the Ballot Box

As a Liberal Democrat supporter and defender of the Coalition, I was surprised to read the results from a ConservativeHome poll that pointed to a slim majority of Conservative supporters feeling positive about a “non-aggression deal” with LibDems at the 2015 general election.

Those LibDems with long enough memories will shudder at the memory of the Liberal/SDP Alliance and the subsequent trouble with ‘electoral pacts’. Democracy was not served well; loyal activists from both sides felt let down by the agreements from the opposite side.

For the Tories and LibDems to agree standing down in tough marginals would be a gift to Labour. Suddenly Rochdale would never seem like a LibDem target again, ditto both Oldham seats. What would happen in Southwark, where Labour have been denied ‘one of their own’ for decades? How would Wales react – Cardiff has a LibDem MP and both sides of Newport almost did. Would Conservative supporters in, say, Westmorland and Lonsdale [a LibDem stronghold, ex-Tory] really want to vote for Tim Farron? Would LibDems in Harrogate vote Conservative?

One consequence of a ‘pact’ which has been barely mentioned is the sudden rise of UKIP. Despite being trounced from every angle, latest figures from the Electoral Commission point to the UK Independence Party being the only mainstream group to enjoy an increase in membership. Both Tory and Labour voters would merrily troop into the UKIP fold, even with AV, if a dodgy deal is agreed betwixt Coalition partners.

LibDem voters at the last election knew that the introduction of STV (our ultimate goal) would have meant a future of coalition governments and compromises between parties. Lord Mandleston in the brilliant “5 Days That Changed Britain” hinted at his realisation that majority governments of the size enjoyed by Thatcher and Blair are things of the past. Britain doesn’t do mammoth mandates anymore. This Coalition could be the start of something big, even if AV is not introduced.

However, I agree with Nick Clegg’s words from before the election; the LibDems are not to become an annexe of the Conservative Party. Any electoral pact would start laying down the foundations. Clegg should publicly dismiss the idea. There are many LibDems who have tasted such agreements before – we tend not to return to a tree if the fruit tastes sour (and from oak trees grow acorns, and they are awful….)