Tuesday, October 26, 2010

Simon Wright : Not A Single Voter Switched Over Unitary Decision

I am having some time to catch up with the Local Government Bill going through the House of Commons which ends the defunct Norwich City Unitary plans. Indeed the ending of those plans gave me the time to watch it ... but never mind ... moving on!

During the debate, Norwich MP Simon Wright (whom to his credit along with Great Yarmouth's Brandon Lewis and Broadland's Keith Simpson turned up to the debate) was asked by Labour MP Ben Bradshaw if he thinks he would have won his seat had he admitted to being anti-Unitary before the election.

Simon Wright's great weakness if the widespread perception that he flip-flops. For something before the election (e.g. Unitary) and against afterwards. Or against something before the elections (increased fees, VAT rises, old folks facilities) and for them afterwards. So this was quite a tricky question when you are dealing with a 310 vote wafer thin majority.

No, he said, not a single vote switched as a result of unitary.

Rubbish, I say.

I met plenty of voters who moved to my campaign on the basis I was the only anti-Unitary candidate (including 2 of Mr Wright's near-neighbours who work for Norfolk County Council and had voted LibDem in the past). I didn't keep a count but the issue was raised time and again and I was always honest about where I stood (no point in doing otherwise - my views are easily googleable).

I don't know if 310 people or more switched to the LibDems on the basis of his then-held-views but I can say it was a campaign issue and it did cause people to alter their voting habits.

A Better Way; a Plan or just a Slogan?

One of the great ignored aspect of the CSR (why, I hear you cry---) was the launch of a new online tool by Labour to help them with their policy making.

At Prime Ministers Question Time, Mr Cameron enjoyed a good win which included a line I think we'll hear again and again - that Labour can't criticise unless they have an alternative plan for the economy. So, what is Mr Miliband's plan? Seeing as the last plan was rejected by the British people at the ballot box, he is pleading with the voters for their ideas. The brilliant www.yourbetterway.com is a way of crowd sourcing the CSR.

Now, it doesn't help that Labour's example of a better way is the awful bland line of "My better way is to make sure that an ordinary family like mine gets treated fairly." Errr ... what? We need to make cuts, even Labour admit that. The argument is about who, where and when. If the Chancellor rose and came out with this sort of line, he'd have been rightly laughed out of the chamber.

Labour want 20% reductions in spending - so the question is, for every coalition cut they oppose, what else would they cut or what tax would they raise to compensate for this?

The stuff written on the website is a list of things people don't like about the CSR. Now, that's fine - the public don't have to come up with the detailed answers themselves, but for Labour to try and spin this website as an crowd-sources alternative CSR is beyond parody. I only read the submissions from in and around Norwich but it seems a lot of people don't like a lot of the cuts. OK then, Labour, what else is it to be? You wanted to make 20% cuts - let's hear them.

Where are they? What cuts are you going to make? What taxes will you raise?

It is easy to list things you oppose - much harder to have a credible economic policy and plan for government. The website is a campaign tool; a slogan; and let's not pretend it's anything more.

The (Necessary) Dark Arts?

The Whips divide opinion in British politics, usually depending on which side of the fence you sit on. Those on the frontbenches think they are vital to allowing the machinery of government work; they offer a necessary stability to the uncertain world of the legislature and provide the oil required to make the machine work. For some on the backbenches they represent the "old politics", whom wish for there to be no dissent, stifle freedom of speech and clamp down on the honest plain speaking that out politics, so distrusted by the public, needs.

Whatever side you sit on, this article from former Tory MP Paul Goodman on ConservativeHome.Com, with the current government Chief Whip is outstanding and really helps us to understand who the whips are and what they do.

If the electoral system is up for debate, and the number and size of constituencies, why should the fusion of the legislature and the executive not be up for debate too? Because therein lies the real debate over the dark arts of the whips.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

It just doesn't look very good ...

The Mirror were, loyal to HMV "Red Ed", on the lookout for stories for the whole of the Tory Conference and used some pretty low, bordering on illegal, tactics to get them. They need not have bothered - this revelation about a Tory Council Leader using a £500-a-night hotel on the taxpayers when he lives just 4 miles away from the ICC in Birmingham (and has a chauffeur anyway) - trumps anything they may have about young Tories falling over, vomiting or having a crush on David Cameron.

Read the article here for all the details, but I would say this. I absolutely agree with Cllr. Whitby that getting through security was often long winded and could delay you anywhere up to a half hour. I agree that if somebody, like a cabinet minister, wanted to see you it meant there and then and could often be into the small hours of the morning. But ... there is absolutely no excuse for this because it just doesn't look very good to the taxpaying public. Spending this amount of money, no matter what the offset costs are, make politicians (of whatever party) look very much out of touch. Whatever the excuses he may have, think of it this way - the political class are about to make some very tough decisions that will leave people out of jobs, financially struggling, cutting benefits and the like - they don't want to see their elected representatives in posh hotels whilst they finalise those decisions.

And anyway, I doubt Uncle Eric would approve ...

Saturday, October 09, 2010

Conference: Then & Now

One of the BBC Reporters I was speaking to during the conference made the observation that everybody ought to go to at least 1 party conference at least once, just to experience it. He's absolutely right; it is an experience like no other and I would urge people, especially those who are not political to give it a go. This was my first conference in ten years; the last time I went we were in the doldrums of opposition and with things unlikely to get any better. Here are my thoughts on what has changed, got better or worse and stayed the same in the 10 years I was missing from conference.

The Conference Facilities: I have to say I was very impressed with Birmingham; an easy drive from Norwich and the ICC/Hyatt were simple to find and get to. The only problem we had was finding our way to the hotel after the police cut off most of the major roads! The ICC itself was an excellent facility and the staff were very friendly and helpful. My one big criticism in the main hall itself; it was very small and meant that we were unable to get into some of the major speeches including George Osborne's. However, if I were a cynic (heaven forbid) I would say that the excellent facilities have therefore diminished the role of the conference hall itself - there is so much else to see and do that the speeches almost got in the way!

The Platform Speeches: I have watched a few back on iplayer and BBC Parliament and you get a very different sense of a speech in the hall itself. I didn't think, for example, Eric Pickles came across half as well on TV as he did in the hall. Michael Gove was, for me, the darling of the conference and the whole session on public services was very well put together. We have a lot of excellent speakers in the cabinet and government. My one problem, though, was the stage managed element of this. We were asked to put forward questions and make submissions but the number of opportunities was very limited and even when I went to do this well in advance, all the slots had been taken. Such a shame that wasn't more an opportunity for the membership to "own" the conference hall itself.

The Fringe: And so that led to the best bit of the conference, the amazing fringe meetings. There were hundreds to choose from, very diverse topics and well put on. I did a full day, every day - from breakfast meetings to lunch time, early evening and then night time fringes. The debate was free-flowing and, actually, very respectful of people's opinions. At one fringe, I spoke to defend the principle of mixed ability teaching after a half dozen others spoke up for setting and streaming in schools. I expected to be savaged, but not.

The Lobbyists / Media: One thing which has changed massively is the number of lobbyists and media present now we are in government. Many of them dominated fringe meetings to spread their cause or deliver a message. I'm OK with this, but not if it drowns out the members having their say. One fringe I went to had lobbyist, after lobbyist, after lobbyist, speaking. A massive industry has been sparked in the last 10 years. One estimate I received is that only a third of people there were actually Tory members / delegates.

The Minister's Mind: One thing I had forgotten is what amazing access you get to Ministers, MPs and even the media themselves. I bumped into most of the senior BBC staff and spoke to them and probably half of the cabinet. You forget how human some of these people are - I ran into Transport Secretary Phillip Hammond, Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, Leader of the House Sir George Young, Education Secretary Michael Gove amongst others ... all just looking around the conference or having a drink at the bar. No wonder this kind of event attracts lobbyists!

The Exhibition: Now wasn't that good! The conference exhibition was massive - much bigger than 10 years ago, with various groups having stands and trying to engage the delegates and each other. CCHQ put on a good range of training, I enjoyed Red Ed's Beer & Sandwiches, stands with the latest in technology, Conservative friend groups, printers, shops (ASDA and M&S were there), unions & public sector groups. It was vibrant, noisy, engaging and never dull. When I had a spare half hour, a wander around the exhibition was a great way of bumping into people.

The Parties: Something which hasn't changed is the Tory capacity to drink and eat!! The food was good but got very samey towards the end as most parties / fringe meetings had the same caterers! Best booze award goes to the teaching unions for their wine stocks and to the Conservative Friends of Cyprus for having decent beer! Best food award goes to Barnardos for their Fish 'n' Chip supper! The National Autistic Society had a cocktails party too! The Eastern Region Reception was very well attended and great fun and the Norfolk Tories tried, and failed, to eat the hottest curry known to man.

The Security: 10 years ago you pretty much were able to stroll into conference with a swipe of your library card. Now we've in government the security was amazing; it sometimes took a good 20-30 minutes just to get into the ICC; which as you have the PM and cabinet around must be a good thing! The security staff were all very good natured and even the policemen with guns cracked a smile!

The Splits: In short, I didn't spot any. The Freedom Zone, outside of the conference center, ran a number of very good events where the more radical elements of Tory thinking were explored. Quite right too - good on them. Debate is important, especially as we weren't allowed any in the main conference hall.

The Stamina: I had forgotten that Conference is a stamina event; either that or I could manage it 10 years ago and can't now! Getting up for an 8am fringe, going to bed at 3am and drinking for 15 hours straight can make things difficult (at my age). But it was so good natured and happy. There was, above all, a real sense of enjoyment about the conference.

The Conservative Party seemed more professional and much more organized than I ever remembered. It was a really good event and hopefully I may be able to do it again, maybe within the next 10 years.

I'll finished with another word from a BBC reporter; they do 3 weeks of this, on the road, from the LibDems to Labour to the Tories. The LibDem event was muted, the Labour get-together was stunned and the Conservative conference was just more fun.

Friday, October 08, 2010

Ed's Loose Change

New Labour Leader (oops - he won't like me saying that!) Ed Miliband has today announced his first Shadow Cabinet and I have to say that I share the view of many that a lot of his appointing are, frankly, bizarre.

I know that he has his hands tied by having to have Shadow Cabinet elections rather than just appointing who he likes - although apparently he can also appoint some places too (more on that later) - but his allocation of jobs goes from the boring to the bonkers (copyright, Labour MPs).

A lot has been focused on the role of Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor, but to me the most fascinating role is that given to Harriet Harman. Hattie is a Shadow Cabinet certainty given her directly elected role of Deputy Leader. Under Mr Brown, Harman also doubled (or quadrupled) as Commons Leader, Labour Chairmwoman and Minister for Equalities. No doubt she'll be grateful to be down to just the 2 extra jobs ... Deputy Leader and Shadow International Development Secretary. Odd, I think, but maybe explainable. You see, Harriet's standing has rocketed after her stint as Acting Leader. Share prices in HH Ltd. have gone through the roof. The reception and plaudits she won at conference show us that. Like Margaret Beckett in1994, Harman's political reputation has been enhanced no end. In fact to the point where I know a lot of Labour members who wished she had gone for the top job herself. So given her massive popularity and status within the party, why dump her off on the relatively low status cabinet job of Shadow DID? Most people expected at least Shadow Justice (taken by Red Ed's main man Sadiq Khan). I am not saying that International Development isn't important - it is, as shown by the fact it has a ring fenced budget - but that the cabinet role doesn't involve the great partisanship and media role that Harman would thrive on. Ed has showed her into the background, maybe fearful of the power that a resurgent Harman has in the party. I'm afraid this role, to me, makes Ed look weak. He should have exploited Harman rather than demolishing her.

So onto the top jobs. Johnson for Shadow Chancellor is a sound move in one way - he is a loyal, union man and will serve Ed to the end with undying-bunker-mentality. He is also an extremely effective Commons performer (one of Mrs Little's favourite MPs actually) and will give the Chancellor a real run for his money (no pun intended). But Johnson is the compromise candidate; a man who will show the imprint of the last leader to sit on him. Ed can mould Alan in his own image. And so, because he doesn't have the guts to choose between Ed Balls and Mrs Ed Balls, Alan will do for now. Somebody on the Beeb suggested he was a caretaker appointment - I think so too. I saw Johnson doing an interview on Sky and was, frankly, terrible. He avoided all questions about policy, or even opinions, and sidestepped the issued of public sector pensions and strike action. But I guess he won't find his backbone until Ed tells him where it is. And that leaves Balls and Cooper like fish out of water in their new roles. Economists both, and both yearing for the top economic portfolio, Yvette Cooper now has to shadow the Foreign Secretary William Hague and Ed Balls is opposite Home Secretary Theresa May. I would suggest that Mr Hague will sleep more soundly than Mrs May, but neither Labour spokespeople have the experience or knowledge - yet - to lay a glove on the government.

The LibDems in the coalition may too be breathing a sign of relief that they will not have to face Labour's big guns - maybe a sign on the big thaw between the two parties. Danny Alexander, Chief Secretary to the Treasury, will face charming former Treasury Minister Angela Eagle. I am no fan of Mr Alexander but he dwarfs her and won't face much of a Commons challenge. John Denham, for Labour, will be opposite Vince Cable. Mr Denham, who clung on by his fingernails in his Southampton constituency, is a good and clever man but Vince is there to be wound up a treat by Labour and Denham isn't the man who can do this. Chris Huhne now faces Meg Millier - who? - a fairly anonymous former Minister who doesn't seem to have much going for her. Ann McKechin is now Shadow Scottish Secretary and given her deep rooted socialist links, it'll give LibDem Michael Moore plenty of scope for attack. That leaves Sadiq Khan opposite Nick Clegg. What a let down - Jack Straw used sheer gravitas and intellect to regularly crush the hapless Clegg at Commons Questions and I would suggest that the DPM will relieved to have some of the political heat taken off. Mr Khan is a man rewarded for his loyalty and way, way out of his depth. The LibDems in government look like they have survived the worst of Labour's "new generation".

That leaves Andy Burnham - my pick for Labour Leader - at Shadow Education. Although I think Mr Burnham will be a tougher opponent that many Tories think, the fact is that Michael Gove has intellectual rigour on his side and Burnham's button-down-the-hatches view of education (the it's all fine just chuck some money at it approach) won't work. John Healey is a well respected MP but he'll have to put in some work to deal with Andrew Lansley who has had the Health portfolio in and out of government for six years now and is considered a formidable expert on the NHS now.

Labour's election guru Douglas Alexander is Shadow DWP opposite Iain Duncan Smith. Duncan Smith has the edge on thinking and until Labour formulate their own ideas for welfare reform, his policy of oppose-oppose-oppose (I am guessing that's what it'll be) won't be enough.

Caroline Flint, who definitely isn't window dressing, is back at Shadow Communities and I cannot wait to see her come up against Secretary Pickles, public chum number one! It is the one Commons clash that I am really looking forward to!

I think shuffling Hilary Benn off to Shadow Commons Leader is a bit premature as that role involves lots of HoC work rather than letting Mr Benn loose on one of the big spending departments. I am glad Lima Byrne survived, shadowing Francis Maude, as a certain "note" may make regular reappearances in debate!

And then there is Peter Hain (Shadow Wales) and Shaun Woodward (Shadow NI) - the two men who now they didn't get into the Shadow Cabinet by rights. How can they go to work in the morning knowing they shouldn't be there? Mind you, I suppose Ed has to do that too!

All in all I don't sense a thread running through this; rather more like a collection of panic appointments. Very few of them backed Ed in the first place and for a new generation they look rather a lot like Brown's old generation. I am afraid not good enough, yet, and I would expect Ed to be re-shuffling again in about a year.

Friday, October 01, 2010

In Praise of Dan Cox

I am very sad to see that Dan Cox has resigned as Conservative Leader and County Council Leader. He is doing so for the right reasons, working with VSO in India to provide for some of the very poorest. That's taking "Social Action" to a whole new level! Dan has been a keen champion and a good friend for the last few years. He led the party to a massive victory in the 2009 elections and has steered the authority through the turmoil of Labour's failed unitary bid. He has led the council through economic choppy-waters and remained a focused, decent guy. I, and I am sure politics as a whole, will miss Dan Cox - "a good guy".

Busy Life

Apologies for the lack of blogging - I thought that being out of politics would give me more time, but sadly not! I am taking on one or two very exciting projects, more to come later, but they are outside of the Conservatives!

But the no-politics diet is about to come to a crushing end because on Sunday we are off to conference in Birmingham. I am pleased that Norwich will be very well represented at the conference and I am going to some very interesting fringe meetings as well as a number of sessions in the main hall. I am very much looking forward to this - my first conference since 2000; I wonder how things have changed in ten years!

I have my bagged packed, my conference badge on standby and ready to go - I don't think I'll have time to blog but keep an eye on my Twitter to see updates!