Thursday, June 28, 2007

Not his finest hour

Richard Younger-Ross has a not entirely enviable record round Westminster for being an object of fun and derision.

He made himself a laughing stock yet again yesterday.

This was Tony Blairs departing question time, an emotional yet light-hearted fond farewell to a man who has been brilliant at PM questions for a decade. This was Mr Blairs very last official engagement as Prime Minister before handing back the Seals of Office to Her Majesty.

All of the MP's called -from every side of the house - had taken the opportunity either for some light-hearted banter or for a fullsome tribute, and why not?

But Mr Younger-Ross instead chose to ask a convoluted question about the role of state and Church.

As ever, Mr Blairs put-down was simple but effective.

"Errr, I don't think I'm going to bother with that one..."

Monday, June 25, 2007

So this is it.

Brown & Harman at the top of Labour.

Against all the odds (literally) Harriet Harman will now be at Gordon Browns side as deputy leader of Labour.

What is so interesting is that, like her leader, she has spent her entire career - 25 years - in the bubble that is Westminster politics. Harman, just like Gordon Brown, (and Jack Straw and Alistair Darling) is a lawyer elected to Parliament as a young activist in the 'old Labour' doldrum years has been a senior Labour politician ever since.

So we are set to have a Government dominated by a small clique of life-serving parliamentarians who, just like Gordon himself, lost what little touch they ever had with the real world more than twenty years ago.

Because make no mistake, as soon as you enter the palace of Westminster 'normal' becomes a thing of the past; MP's are instant VIP's everywhere they go outside the Palace and inside the Palace the 'real world' is a million miles away.

That is not a problem to begin with; but over time MP's memories of being 'ordinary citizens' begins to fade. Just like the famous or the super-rich they quickly take for granted that they get invited to every party, show opening or product launch, sit at the head of every table, always get upgraded on airlines and always travel first-class on the train.

But think about it. When they were still among us as ordinary citizens Human League were in the charts; Pacman was the latest thing in computer games, you could still buy a brand-new Ford Cortina, Brezhnev was in the Kremlin, Spain still had no border with Gibralter, Breakfast TV and Channel 4 were yet to arrive and EastEnders was still three years away.

I wonder how a group of people who have not lived like you and I since before the Falklands war 25 years ago are going to make decisions today?

Wednesday, June 20, 2007

A Cabinet job for Ming?

The media is alive with the news that Menzies Campbell and Gordon Brown have held talks over the possibility of Lib Dems joining Gordon Browns new cabinet.

This confirms persistent rumours at Westminster that Labour and the Lib dems are as keen on co-operation as ever. Menzies and Gordon are compatriots of the Edinburgh law network, travel frequently on the same plane to and from their neighbouring constituencies and, by all accounts, are socially very close; so the probability of informal talks has always been accepted; but what really is new is the idea that formal talks have been happening.

This is tricky for both leaders; some in the LD's will be horrified at the implications electorally for them of this; revelations at the LD conference that they could co-operate with Labour but not with the Tories in a hung parliament were hotly contested and considered deeply damaging.

And Labour activists in seats where the Lib Dems are challengers - where they have launched their usual brand of very personal attacks on sitting Labour MP's will be hurt by the revelation that their leader has been dancing with the enemy in this way.

But the truth is there for all too see, Menzies Campbell to his credit has never denied his left-wing credentials and it is very clear indeed where he wants the Lib Dems to end up; Brown on the other hand has made it his lifelong mission to re-align British politics of the left to try and keep the Tories out of power for as long as he can.

Will it help keep Lib Dem MP's in place by squeezing the Labour vote more? Or will it galvanize floating Lib Dem voters into switching to Camerons Conservatives?

It's a tough call.

Monday, June 18, 2007

Vote 2007?

Will Brown be tempted to go to the Country early?

Speculation is mounting that Gordon Brown is planning a snap General Election this Autumn; although the vast majority of pundits think this is highly unlikely.

If his past performance is anything to go by he will shy away from an early General Election; this is the man who, after all, waited fourteen years for the top job to be handed to him on a plate rather than to fight for it.

BUT (and it’s a big but) I can’t rid myself of the nagging doubt that because that is the accepted wisdom (not least by a very large majority in my own party) and because it is exactly the opposite of what has gone before Brown may yet surprise us all.

GB is a wonk when it comes to political history. He knows more than anyone the lamentable record of previous leaders in his position when they wait to the last moment and are seen to be hounded to the polls like Major and Callaghan.

He knows, too, that the longer he leaves it the stronger the Conservatives become, organisationally, financially and image-wise, with more time for the public to become used to seeing Cameron as ‘Prime ministerial’ (the one area at the moment where brown has a significant advantage).

There is another important angle, the Lib Dems.

Brown can work with Menzies Campbell and a hung parliament with Labour the largest party is very workable from Browns point of view provided Ming the Lefty is still in charge at Cowley St.

But if there is no Autumn/Winter poll I don’t thing Ming will still be leader by mid 2008 and who knows after that… a takeover by the right of centre 'Orange Order' MP's could scupper lingering hopes of a resurrection of the ‘third way’ re-alignment of the anti Tory progressives for ever.

So there are powerful reasons tactically for an early election aside from the political impact of coming out fighting this Autumn and potentially winning his own mandate, and a possible historic fourth term in power for Labour.

I doubt peoples ability to change, I believe that past behaviour is the best guide to future behaviour, so I must agree with the collected wisdom that the chances are low of an early poll.

And yet....

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Anne Milton MP our front bench spokesperson for Tourism and Licensing (and gambling) came down to see us yesterday.

Anne and I are friends from before the last election - we were PPC's appointed at about the same time in 2002; and I was delighted that she won her seat and even more pleased when she was elevated by David Cameron into the Shadow Cabinet.

We invited a coupe of dozen people from within the local leisure industry to have a working lunch with Anne so that she could take account of their views as part of the Tourism Task Force programme set up by our party and due to report by the Autumn.

This will map out a range of policy options that a future Conservative Government could enact to help make our Tourism business (One of Britains biggest industries for both employment and foreign exchange) more successful and more sustainable.

Like most Conservatives I am suspicious and a bit cynical of Governments abilities to 'help' industries, it usually amounts to a new quango, a new business levy, and a wasteful generic 'public information' campaign.

In this case we were therefore very pleased to hear the line of thinking being adopted by Anne and her committee which revolves much more about enforcing some proper joined-up thinking across all Government departments about the impact (positive and negative) of their decisions on anything from immigration to fire regulations on our tourism industry.

The invited guests I think enjoyed having the opportunity to put their thoughts to Anne directly and we will hopefully repeat the exercise again soon.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

You can tell when Summer has finally arrived.

Ascot has it's Races, Henley has the Regatta, Torbay has... the Chartered Institute of Waste Management Conference.

Every June the Green at Paignton is converted into an international showcase for recycling and waste management technology in what has become a familiar and for local hoteliers quite lucrative few days.

Sadly, rumours are circulating that next years event may be the last to takle place here. Word reached me yesterday from a business contact at the show that the CIWM are planning to relocate the event to somewhere 'more convenient' for delegates to get to; Chester has been mentioned; from 2009 onwards.

If true this would be yet more hard evidence of the damage not having the Kingskerswell bypass is doing to the local economy as the main reason they seem to be giving is the time it takes for delegates to get here.

I hope very much that this rumour is incorrect and I have already contacted the CIWM to seek clarification and await their reply.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Is their any real opposition?

There have been more headlines in the last few days concerning opposition to the long hoped-for Kingskerswell bypass.

Political parties quite rightly have to publish details of who they are and where their money comes from; spokesmen from political parties have usually been elected; and represent a formal membership viewpoint.

On the other hand anyone can set themselves up as a 'pressure group'. Totally unregulated, unsupervised and undemocratic these groups often turn out to be little more than one or two individuals working from a front room somewhere.

The Kingskerswell Alliance - or at least it's Chairman Ken Pegden have been busy bagging headlines and writing letters; but I wonder how representative are Mr Pegden and his band of public opinion locally?

After years of activism their support remains tiny, compare their recent petition (2,000 signatures) with the consistent 85% of Torbay residents (about 119,000 people) in survey after survey who want the Bypass urgently and you get the picture.

Meanwhile many more Kingskerswell residents will benefit than will lose out when the road is built, not just because they will get their village back but because they, too, will benefit from the improved transport links in each direction and reductions in noise and pollution.

There can be few -if any- residents backing on the proposed route who did not know about the by-pass proposals when they bought their homes since the proposals have been in the public domain for thirty years or so.

I fear the 'Kingskerswell Alliance' is not really a serious pressure group representing a substantial level of public support as they would wish us to believe, but a handful of anti-car environmentalists in disguise.

Wednesday, June 06, 2007

Is the 'Britishness' debate entirely healthy?

I have an uneasy feeling that a long running virility contest is on the cards over the summer between our party and New Labour about, for want of a better word, "Britishness."

Partly this is a rearguard action by Gordon Brown to get his reply in first to likely criticism about the fact that both he a good proportion of his new cabinet will be Scottish MP's; able to pass laws that affect us in England, but not affecting their own voters in Scotland; but partly it is a response to rising divisions in our society.

Apparently, according to New Labour we are supposed to be proud to be British; but without in any way celebrating British history, ignoring (or even apologising for) the British Empire and not showing any sign of nationalism or jingoism. So 'Britishness' has become a vacuous catch-all term that no-one relates to.

In the real world nationalism and regionalism is on the rise, religious intolerance is rising and more and more citizens say they are 'English', 'Scottish' Welsh' or even 'Muslim' before they would say they were 'British'.

This is a problem of Labours own making. The tendency of the left to only listen to you if you are a member of a minority group have created a society that has become obsessed with what divides us, instead of what unites us.

Instead of being seen as a single nation Labour (ably assisted by the BBC) have been forcing citizens into seeing themselves categorised as 'pensioners', 'gays', 'single parents', 'disabled' , 'immigrants' or dare I say it, 'Scottish' or 'Welsh' instead of being one part of a whole nation of British citizens.

And more divisive still, minority groups keep benefiting from a disproportionate share of attention from Government to the extent that many people feel that the tail has been wagging the dog.

A national identity is the by product of a set of values that apply to all citizens of that nation.

Sadly for the last few years we have been applying different values to different sets of people. Is it any wonder that our national identity is in crisis?

Friday, June 01, 2007

Have The Lib Dems Popped the balloon idea?

I heard the now familiar sound of cartwheels and horsewhips again this week.

Yes, yet another Lib Dem political bandwagon is rolling into a newspaper near you.

Not content with having been completely on the wrong tack about the Casino, a Lib Dem campaign is now underway to sink the Abbey Sands Balloon proposal put forward by Lindstrom Technologies.

This is an idea to moor a helium balloon to a base station in Abbey Meadows and to provide sightseeing lifts to paying customers.

Like many ideas it has it's fans and it's detractors but once again the Lib Dems seem to have hitched their wagon firmly to the 'NO' campaign.

While they had control of the planning committee earlier this year the council refused to grant permission even though generally the feedback was very positive. But since losing power last month the Lib Dems appear to be moving into full 'NIMBY' mode (Not In My Back Yard); which is rapidly becoming the Lib Dem default position on everything.

The public had already formed an impression that the Torbay Lib Dems are simply the 'No' party - a kind of constant but unrelenting negative force in Bay political life; and I can't help thinking that this latest campaign only adds to that impression.

The local community on the other hand want a brighter, more prosperous future and I am sure that they are looking for new ideas and positive messages from their political leaders.