Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Engine Room to Bridge

"Its worse than I thought, Captain"

The Times has this tomorrow:

"The economy slumped at its fastest pace for 50 years in the first quarter, plummeting by 2.4 per cent, according to revised figures released by the Office for National Statistics yesterday. This is far worse than previous estimates which had showed an already savage 1.9 per cent decline. "

It might be worse than the Treasury thought, but not to those of us operating in the real world.

My business is executive recruitment, we manage jobs in the £50-£150,000 salary range. On-an-off I can trace the history of my firm back to 1964 so we have plenty of other recession experience to fall back on.

The number of speculative unsolicited CV’s sent to us has gone up eightfold in the last 18 months. Traffic to my website pages offering ‘redundancy advice’ is up 288% on this time last year, which was already up 200% on the year before.

We have become blase about listed companies going bust recently, but until last year it had never happened to us. I can think of at least four of my own clients -all major plc’s- that we used to do business with who have gone bankrupt last year alone, and I know of several others in retail and the pub/leisure sector who are a gnats whisker from closure.

One of my biggest clients trades in residual (unsold) FMCG stocks. They buy all the unsold batteries and cleaning materials and sweets and crisps that manufacturers made but can’t sell, and sell them on to bargain stores. Their business is dependent on a supply of excess stock being available. Last year was all all time record (they have been going since the war) because manufacturers had record unsold stocks; they expected a slowing of availability this year as manufacturers slashed production while demand levelled.

Manufacturers have indeed slashed production, as we know by the unemployment numbers, but very worryingly for the economy residual stocks are still piling up all over the place and my client is breaking new records week after week. This means only one thing, as fast as production is falling demand is falling faster.

New Labour have been the most nakedly partisan Government this country has ever had. They set out with a clear mission to stamp out the Conservatives forever and they damn near succeeded.

And now the strategy has failed they are operating a scorched earth policy in the vain hope of destroying anything and everything that could aid an incoming Conservative Government.

They are like the tenants from hell who having already wrecked the flat and stripped it's fittings when they were finally evicted stuck rotting fish under the floorboards to contaminate the place for years afterwards.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Are minorities self-segregating?

For all of my adult life the goal of Governments of all political persuasions has been to encourage social cohesion by integrating all citizens into a single, classless, British Society of equal opportunity. In my book this means encouraging all British citizens to live alongside each other regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, disability, religion or colour; giving them an equal opportunity to make the best of it, and then celebrating success on merit.

Great efforts have been gone to over the decades to ensure that no minority suffers discrimination, or that no-one is disadvantaged or prejudiced against. By and large this is a job done, in law at least.

In our own English way this has led to many politically-correct rules and tortured language designed to avoid embarrassing anyone by highlighting a difference, but it has also led to an infinitely better quality of life for many minorities, whether you are a disabled person needing the loo or a black person needing a job.

In recent times we seem to have moved on to a new stage, though. The buzzword when talking about minorities has been a classic New Labour phrase: 'celebrating diversity' which by my reckoning seems to be a short step away from saying: 'staying different' .

An example of this is Gay Pride events. It seems to me that having told the world how proud you are to be gay you are inviting the population to treat you differently to someone who is straight. Having spent 100 years demanding the right to be treated the same as everyone else some gay people are creating a gay society that demands not just equal, but special treatment.

The National Black Police Officers Association was formed in 1998 with the express aim of promoting the interests of Black Police Officers. This is creating a distinction that up to that point didn't exist (there has never been a White Police Officers Association in this country thank God) and has subsequently led to a far greater resentment and tension amongst officers than ever existed before because some white officers now feel that Black officers have special advantages.

Make no mistake I don't think there is anything wrong with being different, nor about celebrating it. Where I have an issue is when people choose to celebrate being different and then complain whenever anyone notices. There are lots more examples, the BBC's Asian Network and 'Miss Black Britain' contest are two more that come to my mind of where 'celebrating diversity' comes dangerously close to segregation. The acid test is would it work the other way round? What would be the response to a 'Miss White Briton' contest for instance?

Some of the more belligerent pressure groups have been the tail wagging the dog for a long time - there is a very real danger that this Governments total inability to say 'no' to any minority campaign will end up creating the very state in society we have spent the last 40 years trying to get rid of.

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

"You want to sit down during your flight? That will be £30 extra, Sir."

I have had yet another irritating experience booking a flight on line with a local well known budget airline. Imagine my surprise when the credit card debit was £30 more than the quoted price because, it turns out, I had been charged an extra £15 each way for..... my seat.

I have always seen the need for businesses to treat consumers fairly and honestly and I am becoming concerned that many are failing to do so, although they are obeying all current legislation.

I am specifically concerned that a large number of online and call centre based commercial activities including financial services, online booking sites and air and train travel booking services are creating a new class of 'unfair trading'.

One example is the practice of quoting 'typical' APR in finance adverts. There is now widespread blatant misleading going on, a very low 'typical' APR quoted on adverts to draw applicants who then find a much higher interest rate quoted "in their case" - by which time they are already partly committed (having agreed to a credit check) creating unreasonable conditions for a fair deal to be struck in my view.

The whole area of variable pricing as pioneered by budget airlines like Easyjet and now frequently employed by hotel companies, train operators, car hire firms and especially credit card and loan companies is also becoming a minefield for consumers in my view. I accept the principle that some firms may want to create bargain basement fares by charging extra for regular services (like going to the toilet!) on the basis that those who don't want to pay for these luxuries(?!) shouldn't have to subsidise others that do but at all times the pricing needs to be fair and clear.

The basic principle of the open and transparent price offer enforced by the earliest consumer legislation is now being routinely bypassed and that many consumers simply aren't able to make comparisons, or even determine accurately what price they will be paying for a service, especially when booking or buying on line, before making a binding commitment.

I also have a concern over the practice of making additional charges to change or cancel bookings even when the customer may have either made a simple mistake, or not quite have clicked all the right buttons. I suspect that some organisations are now routinely making their booking procedure unnecessarily complex in order to catch out the unwary and increase their margins in this way. There should be an opportunity for consumers to change or amend online bookings without charge after they have received confirmation of them.

I have taken this up with the Trading Standards Institute but their main focus seems to be on rogue traders and criminal activity, they complain of not having the resources to deal with campaigning for fair trading legislation as well as trying to enforce the existing law.

They have a point, fair trading rules were written originally to protect local people from local rogue traders, and the law is enforced via local authorities with town hall sized budgets. This is wholly inadequate for policing multi-national companies often operating via call centres on other continents or virtually on the web.

In the meantime, 'buyer beware' remains the best advice.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Vital Matters of State.

Ever wonder why your MP needs a staff of five?

Here we are in the middle of the most important economic crisis for sixty years, with unemployment skyrocketing and many local residents facing financial ruin.

Our local economy is desperate for a share of the dwindling Government economic stimulus package. The EU seems hell-bent on ignoring our fishermens plight and forcing even more of them onto the dole, and what industry we do have left is being strangled by high taxes, low skills and red tape.

What many people want to know is what is our MP doing about it, and so I was somewhat surprised to find out that
Adrian Sanders thinks that the plight of rabbits (yes, those white furry things with big ears) is the most pressing issue on his constituents minds just now.

The MP for Torbay asked this of the Department of Agriculture and Rural Affairs yesterday:

(1) what recent assessment he has made of the effectiveness of regulations governing the welfare of farmed rabbits; and if he will make a statement;
(2) what recent research his Department has conducted and evaluated on the rabbit farming industry;
(3) if he will bring forward proposals to increase the minimum requirements for space allowed to farmed rabbits

And his reply?

"The welfare of farmed rabbits is adequately provided for by way of the general provisions of the Animal Welfare Act 2006 and the Welfare of Farmed Animals (England) Regulations 2007, which has a specific schedule relating to rabbit welfare. DEFRA also has a welfare code for rabbits which provides good husbandry advice, which producers have by law to be familiar with and have access to. DEFRA has not carried out any recent research on what is a relatively small rabbit farming industry. The Council of Europe's Convention on the Protection of Animals Kept for Farming Purposes is currently developing recommendations for the welfare of farmed rabbits, which will include provision for space allowances."

By the way, the cost of our MP, his staff, office, housing and allowances has been in the region of £4,000,000 since he got elected in 1997.

The Labour recipe for disaster:

What you will need:

Several student politicians who have gone straight from university to Westminster with nothing in between.
A very large quantity of spin
A sprinkling of spite
One or two ready divided opposition parties
A thriving economy left over by a previous Government

The method:

1) Make your economy hopelessly uncompetitive through high taxes and ant-business legislation
2) Mask this by inflating property prices and encouraging a consumer boom financed by credit
3) Disassemble your banking regulator so that the right hand doesn’t know what the left hand is doing, thus allowing your banks to recklessly expand
4) When it all goes bust borrow trillions against future tax revenues, nationalise the banks and print lots of money
5) Fall out with your colleagues, split the party from top to bottom and render the government completely paralysed by internal feuding and positioning for power.
5) Fight a series of increasingly pointless and bitter battles with public sector trade unions causing widespread disruption and bringing what is left of the economy to a grinding halt
5) Quickly leave office so that someone else has to clear up the resulting hyper inflation, unemployment and public debt.
6) Spend twenty years in opposition
7) Repeat endlessly.

Monday, June 15, 2009

EU shame.

This is how 'democracy' works in the European Parliament.

Since becoming leader in 2005 David Cameron has stuck to the decision he made at the time to pull our MEP's out of the centre-right European Peoples Party coalition in Europe.

The EPP is a convenient grouping for Conservatives, the largest (and therefore controlling) coalition is made up of the right and centre right parties of all the main EU states like France and Germany, most of whom are currently running Government in their own countries. You would imagine that Conservatives would share much with them; and by and large in national politics we do. However a founding and central principle of the EPP is a commitment to ever closer European Union leading to a single, federal state. David Cameron felt that remaining in the EPP was incompatible with our party's belief in decentralised Government and an EU made up of independent nation states co-operating for mutual benefit so he declared that unless that part of the EPP's constitution could be changed, we would be leaving.

The EU are, frankly, terrified of the implications of this. At the moment virtually every mainstream political grouping in the EU is pro-federal. The one thing that the European Parliament never says when facing a new piece of legislation is "actually is this a power that we should give back to the nation states" because none of the groupings oppose the march to centralise power in Strasbourg and Brussels.

On our own there is little that British Conservatives can do. However many in Europe recognise that their own polulations are heavily split over the direction the EU is taking. In France and Germany significant minorities of the population oppose greater integration but their views are not being represented by their mainstream political elite. The fear amongst the European political class is that if Cameron goes ahead there will be a large number of MEP's from all over Europe and spanning the political spectrum, who may be sympathetic and tempted to join the fledgeling group eventually creating a proper 'opposition' in their midst to the relentless drive to centralise power.

So everything is being done to prevent the Cameron project. Firstly there were the scare stories about some of the initial potential partner parties being 'extremists' - when that didn't work they changed the rules. Standing orders requiring politicians from six countries to be in a grouping for it to qualify for official recognition were upped to seven as soon as Hague found six partners, for instance.

Now we read, according to press reports, that even this may not be enough. The Observer had this yesterday:

Leading figures in the EU assembly said he would not be allowed to form the group unless he could show that its members had a deep political "affinity" and shared the same basic principles. Martin Schulz, chairman of the socialist group in the parliament made clear Cameron could not expect to cobble together a group of disparate rightwingers and claim its members were broadly of like mind in order to secure group status. "We will be looking carefully at the formation of this group. It is very early and I do not have a clear view as to what they will do. But the contraditions on the right wing are obvious."

So never mind that democratically elected politicians want to form a group of their own. Consensus politics obviously means in Europe that unless there is a consensus amongst the cosy cartel already there to 'let you' form a new group or do something new you will 'not be allowed to' go ahead and do it.

And people wonder why we get frustrated at the lack of democracy in Europe!

Monday, June 08, 2009

Labour, RIP

I have been reflecting on Labours performance last night down here in the South West. Perhaps someone better at maths should check this but from what I can see:

Labour were on 7.7% - that is just one in thirteen voters - but only a third of eligible voters turned up and bothered to vote.

Which means Labour secured only about 2.5% of the voters eligible to vote.

So of the people who *could* have voted Labour on Thursday only one in 40 actually did so; to support the party that is running the country.

Friday, June 05, 2009

Is it the end?

Many cruel comparisons have been drawn between the way Gordon Brown operates and the manner in which dictators grab and retain control.

Stalin, Hitler, Mao, and Tito, I have heard Gordon Brown compared to them all (for dramatic or humorous effect, of course, in reality Brown is nothing like them) but in recent days I think Gordon Brown is beginning to resemble ( in more than just appearence) Rumanian president Nikolai Ceauşescu.

Wikipedia says this about the last days of that regime:

"By 1989, Ceauşescu was showing signs of complete denial of reality. While the country was going through extremely difficult times ... he was often shown on state TV entering stores filled with food supplies, visiting large food and arts festivals where people would serve him mouthwatering food while praising the "high living standard" achieved under his rule.

Some people, believing that Ceauşescu was not aware of what was going on in the country, attempted to hand him petitions and complaint letters during his many visits around the country. However, each time he got a letter, he would immediately pass it on to members of his security. According to rumours of the time, people attempting to hand letters directly to Ceauşescu risked adverse consequences, courtesy of the secret police."

Labour Veteran Barry Sherman was on the radio this morning complaining that, having yesterday called on Labour backbenchers to demand a secret ballot vote of confidence in the PM, his constituency committee were bombarded with phonecalls from No 10 Downing Street overnight urging them to take action to get rid of him.

The resigning cabinet members and anyone else who has dared to publicly criticise the PM have been subjected to vicious and repeated character assasinations and hostile media briefings, and then of course there was the secret 'McBride' smear unit until fairly recently.

Of course the Ceauşescu regime came to a sudden and decisive end:

"On December 21, the mass meeting, held in what is now Revolution Square, degenerated into chaos. The image of Ceauşescu's uncomprehending expression as the crowd began to boo him remains one of the defining moments of the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe. "

Is it possible the dear Gordon is as out of touch and uncomprehending as Ceauşescu was in his final days? Or is it that his iron grip on the Labour Party has not weakened sufficiently and the party will fail in it's bid to unseat him, in which case there may be genuinely hideous retribution meted out to the revolutionaries and 'enemies of democracy' who have dared to show their insolence?

Either way, the Labour Government is headed for oblivion. Sooner or later the party will face the voters and as things stand today they may well be facing the kind of once in a generation wipe-out that could really change the political landscape. Gordon Brown might not just make history as the shortest serving Labour Prime Minister ever- he could be the last.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

What can we expect on Thursday?
Will we be celebrating or commiserating?

The European elections loom this Thursday and we have been busy for weeks canvassing for votes.

Have we been 'stirring up apathy' as Willie Whitelaw once said in a famous gaffe?

I think the appetite to vote at all for the European Elections is very low indeed. It's never a particularily passionate election and since the PR system was introduced, breaking the remaining link between the voter and candidate, it has become even more uninteresting.

This time we have the added disincentive of the expenses scandal, which has meant that votes are currently simply turned off all politicians. We have had a good team out canvassing and when we talk about national politics and the next General Election we are getting an exceptionally good response, but if the conversation is based on the Euro's (and for obvious reasons at the moment it is) we get mostly apathy.

To be honest that is hardly suprising. The European Parliament seems completely irrelevent to most voters. It's powers are limited, it's debates boring and the place hardly ever makes the news, and when it does it usually falls into the 'Euro madness/straight banana' category.

The only people who seem to get excited about the EU elections are -bizarrely- anti EU campaigners like UKIP. Why on earth do people who oppose Britain being in the EU want to spend millions of pounds and hours of campaign effort to get elected to it's Parliament?

Even the count is a huge washout. As a political activist finally getting to the count is one of the best bits, seeing the slow but steady emergence of the result - the judgement of your work - is exciting and invigorating even if you lose; but the Euro count is a complete let down.

Firstly it doesn't happen after the election on Thursday, but on Sunday when the rest of Europe have finished their voting, and then the 'result' is not announced here in Torbay but a hundred and fifty miles away in Bournemouth by TV link, meaning that all that has happened locally is an administrative function.

And in the end most of us who are there just don't care what the result is, the PR electoral system uses a complicated mathematical formula that means, unless there is a revolution, the outcome is a certainty, the winners and losers long ago pre-determined by their rankings in their own party hierarchies.

I suspect for the record that UKIP will do well on a dismal turn out. I doubt either as a vote share or vote number they will come close to the 12,000 or so they racked up in Torbay in 2004 but then I don't think we will come close to our 2004 figure either.

The Lib Dems locally and Labour nationally will once again be humiliated and once again dismiss their poor showing as irrelevant - citing previous years when they did abysmally at the Euro's and then went on to win the General Election that followed.

The real political action in Devon this week is on the County Council side, where Conservatives are hoping to take control of Devon, but we in Torbay are standing on the touchline of that particular battle.