Friday, May 30, 2008

I took all five of these photographs on a short walk from my house in Torquay to the Station the other day.

What struck me is the sheer scale of investment going on at the moment. Whatever your views about the various schemes there is no doubt that some long overdue money is at last being invested in both the private and the public infrastructure of the Bay.

And right across the Bay - the fish quay in Brixham, the business park, the Casino, the new Travelodge, the Carey Arms development and round the seafront there is a feeling -long overdue- that Torbay is not 'in decline' but moving forwards with confidence.

When I first came here the general consensus amongst the political class was that we were in a long-term period of what council officers term 'managed decline' as the market for UK holidays slowed and the traditional family customers dried up.

This defeatest attitude was bad for residents and appalling for the local economy. Even if it's true that seaside bucket-and-spade holidays have gone out of fashion the idea that somehow the record millions of visitors pouring into Devon every year couldn't be attracted to choose Torbay as their resting place was clearly absurd.

And the long term indicators are that in fact UK holidaying is in for a resurgence. A combination of global climate change, fashion, security health and environmental concerns will mean a massive boost for staying in the UK come holiday time.

Torbay has it's best years to come, provided we are willing to make happen the improvements to the facilities locally and regionally to keep us up to date.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Getting personal doesn't work.

Labour strategy in the Crewe by election was clearly based on discrediting the Conservative Candidate Edward Timpson. It failed badly and and once again the whole question of personal attacks and negative campaigning is the story as much as the scale of Conservative victory.

Firstly I think there is a clear distinction between negative campaigning and personal attacks; when instead of pointing out the bad points of an opponents policy you are trying to damage your actual opponent by attacking them for who they are or where they are from.

Negative campaigns are common amongst oppositions -it is almost inevetable that some elections become a judgement on the Government of the day and in those cases as an opponent you have little choice but to make the basis of your campaign "Look, the other side have done this wrong or not done something they promised, and therefore you shouldn't vote for them again..." I make no apology for running a negative campaign against the Lib Dems here in Torbay at the last election - pointing up the catastrophic mistakes they had made in running Torbay was ligitimate and relevant to indicating what a Lib dem Government could be like should we ever have one.

In fact the best negative campaign I have ever been involved with was the full page ad we took out in the Herald Express just before polling day in 2007, the advert banner said 'The Lib dems have run this town for 14 of the last 17 years and this is what we have got to show for it: ' and then the whole page was blank.

However there is a fine line between legitimate attacks against another party or it's leaders for what they do; which is OK, and criticising them for who they are, which is wrong. Criticising Mr Timpson for being the son of successful businessman is unfair, criticising him for having had a good education is wrong.

My opponent at the last election got very exercised with us for criticising his party's position on drugs, Europe, law and order - accusing me of being 'negative' in his speech at the count; yet throughout the campaign his people had gone out of their way to always call me 'the man from Windsor' even though by then I had been living in Torbay for two years. It was a blunt attempt to portray me as an unworthy outsider; and like Crewe and Nantwich it failed to impress the voters; Lib dems votes fell to their lowest ever in the current constituency.

At the next election we are going to have to expect more of the same. David Cameron is prepared for a very personal and unpleasant campaign and I have been warned by several people from the 'other' side to expect more of the same here.

But it didn't work last night and it won't work at the next election, whenever it comes.

Monday, May 19, 2008

What has happened to the LibDem by election machine?

For as long as I have been active in politics the only game in town at by elections were the Lib Dems. For years and years some of our safest seats fell to them : Eastbourne, Ribble Valley, Newbury, Christchurch, Eastleigh, Littleborough, Saddleworth, Romsey; these by election defeats map out the decline of the Tory party from the heights of Thatcher to the lows of IDS; the Liberals creamed us as our more, (ahem) unpopular policies were exploited ruthlessly.

In the Blair era they made equally spectacular gains from Labour: Brent East and Leicester South, and most recently, Dunfermline; successfully switching from being the 'anyone but the Tories' choice to 'anyone but Labour'.

When they didn't actually win, you could be forgiven for thinking they had; given the fuss they made. In Bromley, for instance, they came a close second to us and claimed it as a massive 'victory'.

But lately they seem to have lost their way, Southall and Sedgefield were unremarkable results for the yellow team after coming nowhere in the London mayoral contest. And the word from Crewe and Nantwich is that they are going to be beaten into a very poor third there.

I am told by a well-placed Lib Dem source that the reason that they aren't doing well in Crewe is because activists are concentrating on the upcoming by election in Henley-On-Thames caused by the election of their MP Boris Johnson to mayor of London.

Lib Dem strategists are briefing journalists that they believe that Henley has the potential to be 'Bromley MK 11' and there is much excitement about the possibility of... coming second.

Faced with the most unpopular Government since John Major at the nadir of his fortunes the Lib dems are targeting... Henley on Thames? - the ex seat of Michael Hestletine, the Blue Blazer capital of Europe, the home of the Royal Regatta?

I used to live in Henley On Thames, in the days when people crossed the road to avoid you if you wore a Blue Rosette Henley remained the one place where you could be sure of a warm welcome as a Conservative; the one place where you could share your Thatcher memories without shame.

Why would anyone choose to deploy resources to a rock-safe Conservative seat, at a time when the Conservatives are riding high in the polls, in preference to giving Labour a good hiding in a seat they are expecting to lose?

If this strategy is real it suggests either that delusional Lib Dems are living like faded Hollywood stars, unaware that the political world has changed; or that their activists -in spite of constant assurances about 'equidistance'- are only really motivated to come out when its Tory-bashing time.

I'll take the latter explanation.

Friday, May 16, 2008

MP's will have to disclose their expenses after all.

The Speaker, Michael Martin, has lost his high court battle to stop the exposure of the details of second-home expenses claimed by 14 prominent MPs. The Commons authorities had challenged the Information Tribunal's demand that a detailed breakdown of MPs' additional costs allowances had to be provided under the Freedom of Information Act.

The allowances cover the expenditure incurred when an MP is away from home on parliamentary duties, including the cost of running second homes and general household bills. A total of 14 MPs and former MPs, including former prime minister Tony Blair and his successor, Gordon Brown, Tory leader David Cameron and the former Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, will now have to disclose a detailed breakdown of what they claimed. MPs can claim up to £23,000 a year on expenses for costs associated with running a second home; a sum that is also paid tax-free.
This is the most contentious of the various allowances that MP's can claim because it includes mortgage interest on a second home. MP's have to 'claim' a sum each month up to the maximum; they can't just get the cash, so their is a whole list of other claimable costs such as plasma screen TV's and so on that gave rise to the much publicised 'John Lewis List' earlier in the year.

Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, for instance, has spend £7,000 of taxpayers money renovating a home in his Sheffield constituency - decorating costs, carpets and so on were paid for through his ACA.

I should point out that Mr Clegg is not breaking any rules and is only doing what hundreds of other MP's do. He at least has pre-empted this ruling by voluntarily publishing his expenses last week. But the thing is that when the property that Mr Clegg has so nicely renovated is sold, the profits will remain his.

In my view calling this an 'allowance' is a chirade; it's part of MP's pay and they should be honest enough to admit it; the trouble is if they were to add enough to their salaries to replace this allowance they would need a headline salary of £100,000 - and they don't think the public will wear that much.

As I say in business to candidates all the time, if you can't justify the salary you are asking for; you are asking for too much.

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Relaunch # 4 in serious trouble already.

Gordon has spent the last few days in another 'relaunch' of his premiership, first with a £2.7bn tax 'borrow-and-giveway' ploy then with yesterdays string of new policy announcements (can you remember any of them? No, neither can I) and today he has been touring the newsrooms trying to repair his decimated public image; and judging by the reactions in the press, he has completely failed.

Brown just cannot help making pledges and promises to ‘fix’ things that, in all honestly, aren’t his problem.

House prices are a good case in point. Having for years promised to ‘do something’ about the level of house prices Brwon as adopted responsibility for an issue that is not in his control. Consequently when house prices became too expensive he took blame for it and now that they are due to nosedive he will get the blame for that, too.

As private homebuilders (over whom Brown has no control) mothball new building sites he will get even more blame for miserably failing to meet ‘his’ 3m new homes target.

I have pointed out before saying you had brought an end to boom and bust in a free economy is about as realistic as saying you have ended summer and winter.

From as soon as he said it a ticking clock to his own doom was started; it’s not a question of if there is a bust it is only a question of when, and the longer the boom, the bigger the bust that must follow.

Banks have been lending recklessly as they always do as a boom reaches maturity and they go chasing market share with their swollen reserves; this time it has been in housing; in 1929 it was in share speculators, in the 1980’s it was South America - whatever the case the outcome is always the same; bad debts and a credit squeeze.

Its banks who cause recessions, not Governments. Governments may make them worse (or mitigate them if they can) but its the desisions made by millions of consumers, thousands of investors or hundreds of bank managers that makes our economy grow or shrink not what Gordon decides.

If he still doesn’t understand that at his age he really isn’t fit to be PM.

Monday, May 12, 2008

Browns Troubles continue.

Another weekend of torrid headlines for the Prime Minister as ex ministers and others close to him spill the beans on his temper, his moods, his inability to make decisions and various other supposed chracter flaws that all add to the feeling that he is the wrong guy to be running our country.

This is all getting very like 1995 all over again ....

I don't remember a time since then when there has been such an unstoppable deluge of bad news for a Prime Minister with more and more of it sourced from his own side. In 1995 John Major was forced to issue his own MP's with a 'put up or shut up' challenge and although he was re-elected overwhelmingly that summer the damage was done to his authority and from then on the Tories were a one-way bet for the 1997 election.

Like many commentators I now don't believe there is a viable way out for Gordon Brown - I think he, too, is a one -way bet to lose office; and in his case it could be even worse because he suffers from three distinct disadvantages that Mr Major didn't have in 1995:

1) In 1995 the economy was rapidly coming out of recession, house prices had just started rising and inflation was falling. Today inflaton is rising and we are just entering a likely recession.
2) John Major had been elected as leader of the Conservatives and subsequently elected as Prime Minister in 1992. Gordon Brown has only ever been elected by the good people of Kirkcaldy and Cowdenbeath.
3) In spite of his troubles John Major was generally liked as a man and trusted by the public; he had come from realtive obscurity to the leadership and had no 'history' of unpopular decisions. Gordon Brown on the other hand has eleven years of history as Chancellor and is neither liked or trusted by the vast majority of people in this country.

... or pehaps even a bit like 1979....

Of course the Labour Government could even fall apart completely before the next election is due in 2010.

The Blairites will get much more aggressive if they think there might be a challenge to the leadership before the election while the young turks will manouvre for advantage after it has been lost. Those marginal seat backbench MP's need to appeal 'across the spectrum' - following a Blairite agenda while the safe seat lot only worry far more about keeping the core vote happy; calling for taxes on the rich and more 'socialism' in their policies.

And now we have the Scottish question coming up, and another bloc of Labour MP's in safe Scottish seats suddenly find the uncomfortable possibility of full devolution (and a P45) hoving into view. The last time Labour fell from office in 1979 Scottish Devolution was the issue; the Government lost a vote on it and then lost the subsequent vote of confidence motion.

It could be the 10p rate, Scottish Devolution, or something else, but this Government has all the ingredients in place for a sudden and terminal collapse.

Wednesday, May 07, 2008

Referendums? - everywhere exept where we want one.

I learned yesterday that Wendy Alexander, Labour leader in Scotland has decided to back calls for a referendum on Scottish Independence. This cynical exercise is a desperate attempt to stave off further losses north of the border to the SNP who have been making life very uncomfortable for the Labour Party there. Labour desperately need their Scottish heartlands to stick with them at the next General Election to stay in the game at all; having lost the overall vote in England to the Tories at the 2005 Election; and the Welsh vote in this years local elections.

Now we learn that influential Labour members are calling on Gordon Brown to launch a referendum to scrap the pound and join the Euro (no surprise that that issue would arise as soon as the UK economy started to look shaky; the last recession was the only time this idea was seriously considered, too.)

Yet we have been denied a voice on what is far and away the most important matter of all of these, the EU constitution.

It seems unbelievable that on the one hand the Labour party readily accepts the need to hold referenda over Scottish independence and the pound/Euro question, but not about whether our basic constituitional rights are controlled from London or Brussels.

If the cabinet and Gordon Brown knew and agree with Ms Alexanders decision their position over the EU referendum looks impossibly inconsistant.

If Labour 'trust' the people over Scottish Independence, then why not over the EU constitution? Could it be that polls suggest that 66% of Scots would vote to STAY in the United Kingdom while suggesting that 70% would REJECT the EU constitution?

Is the lesson here that we can only have a referendum if we give Labour answer they want?

Sunday, May 04, 2008

.... And the turnout was over 45%, a postwar London election record.

Who says the Mayoral system is bad for local democracy?

The adoption of the directly elected mayoral model for local government has been a running sore with cthe Lib Dems ever since ex party member David Scott started his campaign to have one way back in 2004. A consistent claim by MP Adrian Sanders has been that the mayoral system itself is bad for local democracy and unpopular with the public.

The evidence in London fully supports my alternative view that having a directly elected mayor is the best way to regenerate local politics and re-engage the public in this vital tier of Government. I don't remember any local election with this level of interest; in fact I can't remember any political contest outside of a General Election that has garnered such fascination and detailed analysis from the media and in turn from the public. For several weeks now the London Mayoralty has come second only to Gordon Browns woes in the column inches and media time which is measured daily on Politics

There have been half a dozen televised debates, passionate arguments about congestion charges, bendy buses and community support officers; as well as a constant analysis of the problems and potential solutions to Londoners complaints and frustrations which would have been unimaginable had these elections been for the old GLC.

Londoners have been given clear, alternative options fronted by clear, alternative personalities to vote for refreshingly free of the kind of petty-minded, "yes he did; no he didn't" squabbling that epitimises most local election contests. And as a direct result the turnout was significantly higher than at any London local elections for decades.

From the democratic standpoint, the Boris has had his policies thoroughly analysed and publicisied so there will be no wriggle room for backtracking later. This is terribly important because one of the alarming side effects of low interest/low turnout local elections has always been that ruling administrations usually win with very few of their electorate having a clue what it is they actually promised to do, making it impossible to hold them accountable for failure.

It is true that the mayor has control of the main levers of power and yes, the Mayor doesn’t have to engage in the kind of committee compromise and smoke-filled room bargaining that went on under the old system - but surely that is one of the main benefits? Clear, accountable and above all open leadership is infinitely preferable to unaccountable fudge and compromise behind closed doors.

By endlessly complaining that the mayoral system is no good, by determining to abolish it and return Torbay to the cosy cartel that existed pre 2005 (when anonymous and unaccountable councillors felt free to increase their pay by 65% while slashing services and piling on taxes with impunity) the Liberal Democrats are playing with fire. They have put themselves in the same impossible situation that we Tories did in Scotland; having rubbished Scottish devolution for so long the Tories completely lacked credibility there - and when devolved elections eventually happened, they were virtually obliterated.

In short the evidence shows that the public engage more with a mayoral election, they understand more clearly what a Mayoral candidate wants to do with the power he is asking for, and once elected voters can judge him on his performance more easily.

And at the end of his or her term, if they are not happy, they can chuck him out and elect someone else.I think that is surely good for democracy and good for local Government.