Friday, June 27, 2008

Living in the Past

In 1993 there was a by-election in the very safe Conservative seat of Newbury following the sudden death of the MP Judith Chaplain.

Newbury had been a safe Tory seat held at every election since 1924. At the general election only the previous year Judith Chaplain had polled 37,000 against the Lib Dems 24,000.

The shock result that night was that the Lib Dem candidate David Rendel won in spectacular style; the Tory vote collapsed to 15,000 and Rendel got in with 37,500 votes - a massive swing of over 28%

The Newbury by election marked the beginning of the end of the Major Government and just as relevant started a domino of by election losses by the Tories in formerly safe seats to the Liberal Democrats, a process that continued right through to the mid 2000's.

Latterly the Lib Dems have found the going much tougher in by elections, indeed the last one or two victories they have had were against Labour in the North. This year their progress has been almost exclusively backwards. In Crewe and Nantwich they came a very poor third but their people at the time were saying 'we didn't think we would do well here anyway, we are targeting Henley...'

Indeed the Lib dem publicity machine has been in overdrive for weeks claiming variously that Henley was "Bromley Mk 2" (Bromley was a by election in 2006 where the Lib Dems came uncomfortably close to winning) and "another Newbury" - indeed as recently as last week our own Lib Dem MP was enlightening his blog readers that Henley would indeed be a repeat of Newbury.

Well it was not to be. Having had a very bad poll published yesterday (Lib dems down to 15% again) the actual result was a bitter blow to the hard working activists who had been led to believe all the hype; the Lib Dem vote went down; and there was a significant swing away from the Lib Dems and to the Conservatives; in an election that saw the Labour vote collapse completely (the came fifth behind BNP and the Greens).

So where does that leave the fabled Lib Dem by election machine? Not 'winning here' anymore thats for sure.

Why did they target a safe Conservative seat when the Conservatives are riding high in the polls? Why go for Conservative votes just at the time when Conservatives are on the up? Why did they target Henley instead of Labour held Crewe and Nantwich?

I have no idea, but as a strategy it makes about as much sense as the Charge of the Light Brigade.

I couldn't put it better than the following contributor to

'I think it’s pretty clear the Lib Dems have become fixated by their past successes, and believe that all they have to do is repeat the familiar formula to reproduce them. Worse, it appears that some of their activists think that all they have to do is talk about the formula for the ‘magic’ to happen.

There seems to be no understanding that the situation has changed. As Stuart Dickson notes at the top of the thread, the public now want change, and the Lib Dems are not going to be the agent for it - certainly not in their present form anyway.

The voters aren’t interested in kicking the Tories any more, or looking for a ‘Labour-lite’ party, nor are they jaundiced enough about politics in general to want to vote for a ‘b*gger all of them’ party (UKIP’s decline also reflects this).

The Lib Dems rose with Labour and will fall with them too unless they do something to radically differentiate themselves.'

Monday, June 23, 2008

Principled stand or ego trip?
Many people have asked me why my colleague and friend David Davis is apparently throwing away his political career as Shadow Home Secretary over the issue of 42 day detention. His battle is not about that, it is about the much wider erosion of our basic civil liberties that has been sneaking up on us for years.
We are already living in a surveillance society: 600 public bodies (including Torbay Council) have authority to bug your phones and intercept your emails and post - they can also carry out surveillance operations and do so- 1000 a month at the last count.

Officials in Poole spied for weeks on a family taking their children to school to check that they lived inside the catchment area, for instance. The State is treating everyone as a suspect, changing the fundimental principle that they are there to serve us into something much more sinister.If you buy something, or withdraw or deposit more than about £5000 in cash your bank or the seller of the goods has to report you to the aurthorities for 'suspicious behaviour.' As solicitors and accountants know all too well the law has changed to oblige them to spy on their clients as never before, if they fail to report you, they can be prosecuted.our child may already have had his or her DNA sampled and held on the largest database in the world, without your permission or knowledge.
Thousands of teenagers having been given an 'informal caution' for which they have had no right of a hearing are now finding they have a police record; in fact millions of people are now routinely 'CRB' checked without realising that you can have a record without ever having been convicted of anything - disclosures show not just convictions, but cautions, reprimands and warnings - even completely unfounded suspicions can be recorded and later reported without your having any right of redress. The Government are planning a national ID card system that will be the most intrusive in the world; and which will allow the authorities to gather even more information about you, again without your knowledge and beyond your control. And to cap it all, our government has granted itself powers to lock it's citizens up for six weeks without even knowing why, let alone being charged with anything. As David Davis himself says "None of this has made us any safer. Violent crime has doubled in 10 years, and the Government continually briefs blood-curdling assessments of the terrorist threat. It is a myth to believe that we can defend our security by sacrificing our fundamental freedoms."

Even as I am writing this I am realising just how far the road of 1984 we have gone under this paranoid Government. I thought I lived in a country where the state institutions exist to serve me and not the other way round. I thought I lived in a country where I would be considered innocent until proven guilty; David Davis' stand has made me realise I don't, which is why I will be strongly supporting him at the by election and I urge all of you to do the same.

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Railways - a throwback.

I have spent fifteen hours in the last two days on an ill-fated business trip to Manchester.

In my work I have to travel a fair bit, in fact I drive about 20,000 miles annually on business - mostly conducting interviews for clients as part of my work as a head-hunter for industry.

Every so often I try and use the trains instead, partly because I keep getting bouts of green conscience and partly because people keep telling me I am 'mad' to drive all the time and that the train is less stressful.

And every time I do I am left with the same feelings of puzzlement. How could anyone think that a trip on Britains railways isn't more stressful than driving - or flying, even? Train times, platforms and routes were changed at will, with no warning and often no annoucements. My return train was delayed, then cancelled without apology or alternative being offered so my trip stretched from 5 hours (already an hour longer than driving) to seven and a half hours.

The entire infrastructure is ancient and out of date. The best any Government has managed to do at a cost of billions is slap paint over a few stations and smarten up the trains - it's like putting lipstick on a pig.

This trip yet again refreshed my long held view that the railways are an outmoded, inefficient, inflexible and pointless form of public transport.

We happily dumped the canals when a cheaper and more efficient form of transport arrived, so why did we maintain the railways when they were in turn superceded by the automobile and the plane?

Why do we insist on maintaining thousands and thousands of miles of ancient, crumbling Victorian infrastructure - the platforms and the rails dictate that in the 21st century we are still using heavy, steel wheeled train sets that are inefficient, expensive to run and terribly inflexible?

Most of the train sets operating today were built in the 1970's - just think how far the car has evolved since then; how much more efficient and economical thay are. Our trains are Austin Allegro's in a Toyota Prius age.

Steel wheels and ancient track signalling means massive gaps between trains for safety so while a motoroway is utilised all the time a rail line spends most of it's life empty, all that precious land wasted for 90% of the time.

Wouldn't it have made sense years ago to rip up the tracks and points, and instead lay tarmac roadways along the routes, and put large bendy-bus style road coaches on there that can overtake each other, turn round, stop quickly and where you could introduce real competition and flexibility?

Yes, we need public transport, perhaps more than ever before. But unless we are prepared to allow the public transport system to evolve properly we are doomed. Instead of letting the train take the strain we will continue to drive and let the earth take the strain instead.

And that would be much worse in the long run.

(The last time I suggested this -at a dinner- the audience went berserk with indignation. I am only partly serious but would love to hear a spirited defence of the train network from someone out there.)

Sunday, June 15, 2008

Record numbers for Forsyth

After the success of the Norman Tebbit dinner last year I decided to ask his Lordship who he might recommend as a future speaker, and he suggested his friend the novelist Frederick Forsyth.

Now Freddie is famously outspoken on everything from the Royal Family to Europe and I just couldn't wait to ask him along, luckily for us he readily agreed to help on the basis that any friend of Normans was OK by him, I think.

We sold out of the original tickets but very fortunately the Grand have 'stretchable' banqueting suites and nothing else on this Thursday so we have been able to enlarge the room and fit everyone in; so it will be the biggest dinner in Torbay since William Hague came here as leader and hopefully raise lots of money for my growing election fund.

I have a bottle of House of Commons whisky, personally signed by Lady Thatcher only last month, to auction off at the end of the evening along with several signed limited edition copies of Freddies latest book.

I am looking forward to a highly controversial evening, Freddie was also a leading supporter of David Davis' leadership bid and I am busting to find out what he has to say about his unexpected 'stand and fight' decision over civil liberties.

If you haven't already got a ticket you can go on the waiting list by calling the office on 01803 557753 - we have a table of ten (paid for) who have warned us they may have to cancel.

Friday, June 13, 2008

Blimey, they say a week is a long time in politics but this week seems like an age.

In a blur of politics it looks likely that by this weekend we will have a new law on it's way that says innocent British citizens can be locked up without charge, without even knowing why, for six weeks.

The Northern Irish will gain several hundred millions of taxpayers money for supporting the above.

Meanwhile the Southern Irish will have had the referendum that we were denied over the EU constitution, sorry, I mean treaty (and probably said 'No' to it).

We may well be all queing for our petrol for the first time since the 1970's

House sales are down by a third since last year.

Another three businesses within walking distance of my house in Torquay have closed.

Oh yes, and the shadow home secretary has resigned his seat to fight an election on the erosion of our civil liberties.

I knew David Davis quite well 'before he was famous' and know him to be an exceptionally principled guy with talent; I didn't support him for the leadership because I preferred David Camerons style and politics.

I think David Davis is doing a rare and valuable service to the country in proving that politicians will take a stand on matters of principle. I agree with him, support him and would like to see him back in the Commons and on the front bench as soon as possible.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What could they possibly have in common?

It's really, really hard to think what these two men may have in common with one another.

One of them is an ex Guards officer and traditional Conservative MP, a devout Catholic who is in the history books for being one for the three shortest-serving Tory leaders ever. In fact he is the shortest serving Conservative opposition leader. His poll ratings got so bad that his political colleagues felt obliged to sack him after an unprecedented two years and two months in the job.

The other is the son of Scottish Presbyterian preacher who was first a left-wing student activist, then lifelong Labour MP, deputy to John Smith, architect of the New Labour project, Britains longest serving Chancellor of the Exchequer and now Prime Minister.

Their common link? I'll let the Times explain:

"Gordon Brown’s leadership standing has now fallen below that of Iain Duncan Smith during his short-lived and unhappy period as the Conservative Party leader, according to the latest Populus poll in The Times today.

The poll underlines the seriousness of Mr Brown’s position as he faces a knife-edge vote in the House of Commons tomorrow evening on extending pre-charge detention for terrorist suspects from 28 to 42 days."

According to Peter Riddell "Moreover, Mr Brown no longer enjoys the benefit of the doubt among voters. His leadership rating (on a 0 to 10 scale of very bad to very good) has fallen for the fifth time running, down from a peak of 5.49 last July to 3.9 now. This is lower than any of the other seven leaders of the main parties since the index was introduced five years ago. The previous low of 4.00 was for Mr Duncan Smith in 2003."

"Labour’s rating has fallen by four points since last month to 25 per cent, with the Conservatives up five points to 45 per cent. This is one of Labour’s worst poll ratings and the best Tory one since 1997. The Liberal Democrats are up one point at 20 per cent."

So perhaps in due course they may share another characteristic, as well as being the most unpopular leaders of their respective parties they may also both end up being the shortest-serving.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The Economy - Just how bad could things get?

I have become very worried about the state of the UK economy. For all the talk about recession and falling house prices for much of the last fifteen years or so the British economy has been doing well and it seems that a generation of business people have grown up in a world devoid of inflation and awash with cash.

When I was starting out in business in the early 1980's the most difficult thing to find was any money at all.

In 1981 most people could only qualify for a mortgage of a maximum two and a half times earnings, you had to save with your chosen building society for at least two years to be considered for a mortgage at all, and if approved you then had to join a queue and wait for your money to become available, sometimes this could be for several months. Taking out a second mortgage to fund a business was a non-starter in those days.

A business looking for start up funding would be lucky to find a few hundred pounds from a bank or institution, the majority of what you needed you were expected to have saved up yourself or borrowed from friends and family; and unless your business was profitable pretty much from the off you could forget further funding.

I once asked my bank manager to help me grow my loss-making wholesale business bigger so that I could become profitable through economies of scale. He said: "Mr Wood, small businesses losing small amounts of money tend to grow into large businesses losing large amounts of money; we prefer to support small businesses making small profits in the hope that they at least might pay us back one day".

The point is money was limited and investors and banks had only so much to lend or invest, and as such had to be very picky about who they lent it to. That is an economic fact that many people seem to have thought no longer applied in the modern world - aided and abetted by a Chancellor who was boasting that he had banished boom and bust from the economic climate forever.

Sadly, the frustrating yet sage advice of my bank manager in those days is all too absent from modern business; where decisions are made not by local managers with personal knowledge of your business but by computer 'scoring' designed by wizz-kids a million miles away from the front line.

In recent years there has been way too much money in circulation, years of boom (sorry, but that is what it is) mean that banks and building societies have had to take aver larger deposits from companies and individuals and then find people to lend it to (banks have to pay you interest on money you deposit immediately, leaving it sitting there is very expensive) with the result that in the business world all you have had to do is say "please" and desperate banks and investment funds have fallen over themsleves to stick cash in your business, profitable or not.

But the economic climate has radically changed. One recent startup I have been assisting was promised funding of several millions and when we all went to sign up the contract a couple of weeks ago the fund involved had withdrawn their offer - because they didn't have the money any more!

Major corporations like Somerfield and Boots have been bought on borrowed money; instead of being financed by non-repayable shares they are finded entirely on loans that may well not be renewed causing exactly the same crisis as Northern Rock suffered.

Why does this matter? Because there is the potential for hundreds of these businesses to close down, and close down very quickly. There are untold thousands -possibly millions- of people in Britain today whose jobs are dependent on companies that are deeply in debt and whose bankers may no longer have the will or the cash to keep them going.

That could bring a rapid rise in unemployment, which could feed the growing recession causing more job losses and in turn bringing more businesses into trouble and feeding the deepening recession further.

If you abolish bust then what you are left with is a boom - in my view what we have had is an unseasonally long boom that has gone on from 1995 to 2007 and I fear that what we might be faced with is a very big bust as a result.