The Thick of It


Thursday, October 27, 2011

Nick Clegg calls for referendum on Europe

The big story of the last week has been the potential rift in the coalition between the anti-Europe Tories and the pro-Europe Lib Dems. Driving a wedge between his party and his location partners  Nick Clegg said to the Daily Telegraph: 

"For as long as I've been in politics, the Conservative Party has had a bee in its bonnet about Europe.
"I think eurosceptics need to be careful what they wish for. We as a country are massively dependent on a successful Europe for our own prosperity, British jobs, for money in people's pockets. Every step towards the exit sign will lead to lower confidence in the British economy.
Given that and how the media continually portrayed the Lib Dems as the only party united on Europe, in favour of great British participation in the EU and against a referendum on membership, many will wonder why Clegg was pledging a referendum himself just last year. 
This is not just a surprise for everyone who thought Clegg was against a referendum on EU membership but also highlights, if we really needed to do it again, the duplicitous nature of Clegg's "i'll do anything for a vote" Lib Dem opportunists. 
Remember that the same 2010 election was the one in which Clegg and his candidates personally signed pledges not to increase student tuition fees. No this. Voters will be left wondering what Clegg really stands for? It certainly isn't clarity or consistency.

Homelessness could rise

Housing minister Grant Schapps today launched his social housing "swap" scheme. What struck me about that was the obvious questions, isn't there already a swap scheme? There is indeed.

There is an acute housing shortage. In places like Islington there is a huge lack of family sized affordable homes. Private rents are the highest in London. Overcrowding is rife.  More housebuilding is needed, yet the Tory government has cut capital finding to build new social homes from £8.4bn to £4.4bn this year

The average age of first time buyers has now reached 35 because of high prices and a lack of credit from banks.

Fewer homes will get build while a return of right to buy will mean an ever diminishing supply. The problem will only get worse under the Tories. Worsening economics, higher unemployment, will this also mean more homeless people?

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Racist Tory rumours

The Barnet Eye blog reports that a Tory Barnet councillor, John Hart "BA (Hons) MA" has been hauled before the borough's standards committee for allegedly making racist comments to constituents at the  Hendon and District residents' forum.

That sounds unwise, out of touch and very stupid. Why is it that there still seems to be a catalogue of Tories who believe this rubbish? Why is it that they think it is OK to spout such nonsense in public?

If he is found guilty, what punishment will the standards committee bestow on him? What about the Tory party? There have been far too many Tories caught making similar comments, who have apologised for being either misquoted, misunderstood or unaware that what they said is wrong.

It is time to draw the line and show that the Cameroons are different. Unlike many of the Tory party's representatives.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Should we have a referendum on EU membership?

Every time I hear a Europhobic Tory MP tell us how the country is crying out for a referendum on the UK's continued membership of the EU I wonder which people they are talking about. I really don't think most ordinary people worry about it that much.

Tory MPs are not ordinary people though and they are absolutely obsessed with the EU. The last two elections have seen a marked increased in anti-Europe MPs being elected for the Tories, making them a much more anti-party today than they were in the 1990s when the issue ripped John Major's government to pieces. That and the sex scandals.

Just after the 2010 election I appeared on a LBC radio debate. I sat opposite rather smug looking Tory and Lib Dems. They congratulated each other on how the coalition agreement was going to lead to seamless and untroubled governing. I thought otherwise. There is only so much you can pro-actively predict. I suggested then that something would come along, divide the coalition and the Tory party. That would be Europe.

They laughed at me.

How I laugh now.

Whenever opinion polls have asked people whether they want to pull out of the EU, as those Tories calling for a referendum do - this isn't about "choice", it is about going solo - they show a spit country. Today that shows 49% in favour of pulling out and 40% want to keep the status quo. Whether that result would stay the same once people were properly educated about the pros and cons of EU membership is quite another matter.

What we can be certain of is that David Cameron is going to have to waste significant political energy on the issue. This will eat away at energy better spent on fixing a rather broken EU and a creaking British economy. And for him, on trying to stop becoming an ever more unpopular prime minister.

Those anti-European Tories probably don't care about damaging their leader, because in their eyes, he betrayed them by signing up with the Lib Dems.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Crime up again under the Tories

In the 1980s and 1990s crime kept going up. At the time we thought it was just the way society was going. Then in the early 2000s crime started to go down. In the last year, crime has started to go up again. There is a common theme here:

1980s: crime up under the Tories
1990s: crime up under the Tories - peaking in 1992
2000s: crime down under Labour
2011: crime up again under the Tories

When I was growing up the Tories were meant to be the party of  law and order. How is that so when the reality is so starkly different?

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Two polls, two stories

Opinion polls can't decide whether the Tories are unpopular or not. At the weekend YouGov, the most accurate at recent elections, put Labour and the Tories only three points apart. If that is so, Labour could be screwed. Unless things get a lot worse, which they look like doing.

According to Populus for yesterday's Times, Labour has romped to an eight point lead over the Tories, leading 41% - 33%. What does this all mean?

Polling isn't accurate. We know that already. We also know that the election isn't for several years. In that time Ed Miliband will or won't make an impact with voters. The economy will get worse and might, but probably won't get better again.

Economic pain and the unpopularity of the Tories and Lib Dems won't be enough for Labour. The big problem is that while people don't like government cuts and hate recessions because it means they get poorer and could lose their jobs, they might not blame the Tories.

Labour is to blame for the economic mess. That is what many will say. The Tories freely offered that line time and again, backed up by the Lib Dems. When they talk about the problems we face now, as things get worse, this is somehow related to a different global economic slump to the one we found ourselves in 2008/9. The Tory message has stuck and Labour hasn't been able to shift it.

Lots of voters still blame Labour. Until an alternative message sticks Labour's poll leads will look vulnerable, especially when boundary changes loaded in favour of the Tories come into effect. Labour is skint too. That means a decent election campaign is beyond the party as it simply can't afford the staff.

Both Labour and the Tories leave much to be desired in the eyes of voters. We have an unpopular government and an untrusted opposition both fighting to get heard. Labour has reasons to worry, as Mark Ferguson and Olly Parker outlined at Labour List, while the Tories do too, as outlined by Tim Montgomerie.

Does this mean Labour supporters should be depressed? Of course not. It simply means that there is everything to play for.

Monday, October 17, 2011

The unknown world of political lobbying

Today's newspaper headlines about attempting to uncover what is being painted as a "murky" world of political lobbying actually says something quite stark about politics. Lobbying isn't new and is a big money business. 

Every major company in the world employs lobbyists, as do all the major charities. Some of the biggest PR firms also have specialist lobbying functions, such as Edelman and Weber Shandwick. What these headlines reveal is an ignorance to the reality and perhaps a faux naivety about the level of business involvement in politics. 

A quick glance at the Association for Professional Political Consultants (APPC), the lobbying trade body for the UK lists 64 member companies and hundreds of staff. While it purports to "ban on any financial relationship with politicians" though clearly we can all see that the lines are blurred. What counts as a financial relationship? A politician might not be getting paid by a lobbyist but will be receiving information, briefings or hospitality. As a £2bn industry, the money has to be paying for something.

As someone who has lots of friends who work as both politicians and lobbyists I've been slightly surprised by the public's shock about this. I thought everyone knew. Clearly that isn't so. I've worked in PR for a number of years, before my recent move into advertising, and it was clear to me that the PR industry, often at the hand of the same companies that lobby politicians, was responsible for influencing journalists to write nice things about them. Yet I don't think most people realise this. 

There is a big difference between the rather unpleasant web of influence that Liam Fox and Adam Werrity's close working relationship through Atlantic Bridge has revealed, and that of companies or charities seeking to inform the policy making process legitimately through lobbying. 

When David Cameron predicted that lobbying would be the "next big scandal" he was right. Though I don't think he hoped it would afflict his own party. He then said he wanted politics to "come clean about who is buying power and influence." As that picture starts to reveal a rather sinister edge to his party, is he so sure he wants the public to know?

The public need to be educated about what actually happens. Politicians then need to decide whether they are happy to continue as they are. The more people learn about lobbying the less they may like. I hope that the legitimate side of lobbying that really does improve and inform government policy making, isn't thrown out with the bath water. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Liam Fox and Dave the ditherer

Every day this week has seen a new litany of allegations against defence secretary Liam Fox. His boss David Cameron says that he is doing a "good job", as if that matters when he has been involved in some seriously questionable behaviour.

Today The Times details the people who have funded Adam Werrity's globe trotting trips to be at his chum Fox's side. The Guardian outlines how Fox and Werrity went to Dubai for Fox's official special advisor Luke Coffrey's stag do, funded by the taxpayer. When Fox is sacking thousands from the military, despite their service to the country, this is deeply offensive.

The big question that leaves a rather dirty stench around the whole affair is why was Werrity a health "expert" when Fox was shadow health secretary, then suddenly changed to become an "expert" in defence when his idol moved to defence?

There is so much circumstantial evidence that should worry Cameron. That this has now been joined by a litany of rich businessmen and foreign officials who have provided concrete evidence to firm this up means Fox has to go.Or the growing list of activities that directly oppose official Foreign Office policy in Sri Lanka that he has supported.

Cameron has spectacularly failed to show himself to be any better than his predecessor, Gordon Brown. Cameron made great political capital out of dubbing Brown a "ditherer". Given how long Cameron dithered over firing the corrupt media man Andy Coulson and now the questionable Fox, who is the ditherer now Dave?

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

David Cameron, Liam Fox, Andy Coulson: spot the difference

David Cameron is resisting rising pressure to fire his Defence Secretary Liam Fox. The allegations that Fox and his associate Adam Werrity had a rather unhealthy working relationship continue to dominate the news and to undermine Fox's initial claims that there was nothing in them.

Cameron is trying to divert us all by highlighting what (he believes) a good job Fox is doing. That is irrelevant when Fox has lied and broken the ministerial code. It also marks a distinct change of approach from former PM Tony Blair's management of scandals.

Under Blair and Alistair Campbell's rule, anyone who was making bad headlines for more than two days had to quit. It happened to Peter Mandelson despite him later being found to have done nothing wrong. Fox has whispered a hugely caveated apology, that he clearly felt no reason to give.

The question here is how long will Cameron hang on to a minster in Fox who is now responsible for more than a week of damaging headlines? Cameron has form, after employing Andy Coulson in the first place and then clinging on to him by his fingernails despite a growing storm around him about phone hacking.

What was Cameron's defence? At the time he said Coulson was doing a "good job."

We've heard this before. How many more times will a less than convincing Cameron utter them before cutting his losses with Fox?

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

London Olympic stadium farce

The London Olympic Legacy Company is no longer selling the 2012 stadium to West Ham. Cue sigh of relief to West Ham fans. Cue worry from Spurs fans. Cue a sigh of relief and worry from Leyton Orient fans. As a football whore I fall into the latter two categories.

Fans of none of the clubs want to watch football behind a running track. Spurs fans don't want to move to East London and Orient fans deserve better. Having a bigger club dump themselves on your doorstep and then give away thousands of free or reduced tickets to fill an overly large stadium threatens Orient's very existence.

The football authorities should know better. They got it badly wrong in letting Wimbledon "move" and become a new club, with a ready made football league place, with MK Dons in 2004. Letting either West Ham or Spurs move in just a mile away from Orient would be a disaster. Orient are a fantastic example of a community club, having won awards for their work with the locality.

Spurs are playing a game of high brinkmanship. They want to get as much money provided from the public purse for improvements to the Edmonton area to make their own Northumberland Park stadium project "viable". At the same time they don't want anyone else getting a helping hand. They are of course technically right that Newham's proposed £40m loan to West Ham looks very much like a "state aid" (government hand out) to a private company, which is banned by EU law.

The mayor and Olympic legacy company won't want an empty stadium to rot after 2012. That looks likely if a deal for West Ham to rent the stadium doesn't come through. That leaves the same problems, that will be unpopular with fans because the running track will remain and threatens the future of one of London's oldest clubs.

Throughout the whole saga nobody has successfully argued how a 60,000 capacity athletics stadium would be viable in London. I just don't believe there are enough people in London that would want to pay to watch athletics live more than once or twice a year.

The scramble for the Olympic stadium is a race that will have losers whatever the outcome:

  • West Ham move in: Orient struggle, Hammers fans bemoan lack of atmosphere
  • Spurs move in: Orient struggle a bit less, Spurs fans upset at move east
  • Orient move in: Orient struggle in huge stadium
  • Athletics only: huge, over capacity stadium rarely used, taxpayer loses

Friday, October 07, 2011

Racist Tory weekly: issue #7

Two updates this week. First up is an old "friend", Dover councillor Bob Frost, who posted that rioters were "jungle bunnies" on Facebook. This was enough to see him leave his teaching job, but not enough to get him kicked out of the Tory party.

He has this week been reprimanded and warned about his future conduct. Is that it? Someone who doesn't understand that sort of statement to be deeply offensive without having it explained to him doesn't deserve to hold office. It is insulting to the people of Dover that the Tory party are letting him.

Frost himself said, after the event:

"“Looking at the dictionary it would appear that the term jungle bunnies is pejorative and is a racist slur relating to African-Americans. I did not mean to use any offensive racist term and was referring to the urban jungle. As for the bunny bit it was originally ‘animals’ but I thought people might object to me calling fellow humans this so I chose something I thought was innocent and also cuddly.”

Can anyone really believe that?

Next up the one of the faces of the Tory become a councillor campaign. I can't claim the "scoop" here, that is the excellent Political Scrapbook's. Southend councillor Blaine Robin was called out and praised at a meeting of Southend EDL:

When will someone clear out this rubbish from the Tory party or does the leadership not care?

Thursday, October 06, 2011

#cpc11 Cameron & Osborne have no plan B, sort of

The key messages of this week's Tory conference were that the government will stick forthrightly to its debt reduction plan. There will not be any loosening of the purse strings in an attempt to stem the nosediving growth figures.

That much was to be expected. The deficit reduction programme overrides everything else. It seems that it does even when the IMF, economists suck as Irwin Stelzer and the public think it is the wrong approach. Put simply, cutting government spending so sharply has turned off the life support to may parts of the economy. That  means companies lose income from government contracts, rising unemployment means government is paying to support people rather than having them pay taxes.

That George Osborne has allowed the Bank of England to enact another raft of quantitative easing today is very surprising. I'm pleased he did, but it is far from expected. Osborne's single track approach to our economic woes has been to focus on cutting spending and getting the deficit down. Nothing else. He hasn't shown much concern for collapsing consumer demand, so anything like this that seeks to stimulate is, isn't from his manifesto.

Politically this shows Osborne's weakness. While we've seen a show of confidence and strength from the Tories in Manchester this week, scratching the surface reveals a worried party. The Tories are worried that the economy won't get better by 2015. If that happens then nobody will thank them for their harsh medicine of austerity.

Their worries about popularity have led to U-turns on the NHS and now quantitative easing. In 2009 Osborne said:

"(quantitative easing)  an admission of failure and carries considerable risk"

You can see for yourself what Osborne thinks of his own policy on the Conservative Party website. At the very least you'd have thought someone would have thought to take it down to hide a bit of embarrassment before announcing their U-turn and show of weakness wouldn't you? 

Wednesday, October 05, 2011

#cpc11 Nothing new from David Cameron's big speech

David Cameron focused his attention on Labour and Ed Balls in particular, again dubbing him, and Labour, deficit deniers. Balls was the only Labour politician mentioned. This narrative has already stuck and will continue to do so. Labour's fightback is important and very necessary. Cameron tried to tarnish Labour with creating a poor education system, poor immigration and housing systems.

He tried very hard to tarnish Labour's fairness image. The Tories,according to him, are the party of fairness. I doubt anyone will actually believe that. Nevertheless, it is remarkable to hear all the major parties talk about housing so much when it has been ignored for so long. The message from implementing gay marriage was important as it means to show that the Tories are still compassionate.

Unfortunately for all the grand ambition of Cameron's words to make Britain fairer, I just don't believe it. The toxicity of the Tory brand continues and many others won't believe Cameron either.

His delivery was impressive. That sets him apart from Ed Miliband, though the robustness of their respective policies will be what sets them apart in the end, especially when much of their rhetoric was the same.

There wasn't a great deal of substance in his speech.The messaging was more important. Responsibility, for country and community. Unlike the Blair/Brown years we don't seem to get politicians reeling off lists of new initiatives in their big speeches any more.

There was precious little that suggested how Britain's economy will start growing again. This is the major issue facing the country and the answers he gave were weak. Deficit, deficit., deficit. That is all Cameron and the Tories care about. This supersedes helping people struggling with unemployment and rising cost of living.

The expected lack of anything new means we're in for more of the same. The slog is just beginning. A stuttering economy. Party leaders battling over the same, centre ground. Ordinary people struggling. Tough and arduous times are ahead. 

Latest polling shows Labour and Tories unchanged

The latest YouGov poll for The Sun shows that the party conference season has done nothing at all to change support for the main parties:

This reinforces my expectation that we're in for a long, muddy, groggy, slog over the next three and a half years. None of the main parties has hauled themselves away from the 2010 election that they all lost. Each has major reasons to worry and as yet, none are showing that they have the answers to haul themselves clear of their rivals.

Of course, this matters very little. The election isn't tomorrow so there is plenty of time left for the Tories to become more unpopular and to regain popularity if the economy somehow gets better. There is plenty of time too for Ed Miliband to start landing blows on the Tories and to gain credibility with the electorate.

All we know at the moment is that there are a lot of unknowns still there and there is a lot of work to be done to resolve that.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

#cpc11 The Tory band is toxic

The Tories spent a long time telling us all that they had learnt from their mistakes in power. That usually meant saying that they had learnt from their mistakes when in power. Little else. Once they got their swagger back and were given a bit of power they reverted to type.

David Cameron put so much effort into trying to build a compassionate Conservative brand. Remember "hug a hoodie"? Yet when it comes to proving it by what you do in power they show themselves to be a very different beast. That beast is very similar to the one we all remember from the 1980s and 1990s. People didn't like it then and they don't like it now.

New Statesman research suggests that up to 60% of voters would not vote Tory at the next election.


This follows a recent Guardian survey with similar results. That found that 42% of people would never vote Tory, while only 30% would never vote Labour:

IPPR/YouGov poll on voting intentions

Add in the toxicity of the Tory brand to females, who are bearing the brunt of most Tory cuts to family support and benefits and the picture isn't that rosy. The Tories will swagger, but underneath is the nervousness that shows in the frequent U-turns and falling public confidence.

Monday, October 03, 2011

The Tories: slick, confident, in government and unpopular

George Osborne's Conservative Party Conference speech today, like yesterday's press interviews exuded confidence. The Tories are presenting themselves in a slick and confident manner. They know where they are going and they won't flinch or falter. They have more money from a wide range of rich financiers, as shown over the weekend, and they are using it to put on a thoroughly polished show.

What you won't hear this week is the anxiety they clearly feel about the worsening economy. Worse still, the effect that will have on the likelihood of them winning in 2015 will not reach our screens.

Being in power gives the Tories a confidence that was missing from 1992 until about 2008. The money that follows power boosts it further. Many of their front bench are also much better TV performers than many in Labour's front bench.

All of this public schoolboy self assurance though doesn't mean they are confident about either the economy or their own prospects. Neither look good. The economy has flat-lined, the unpopularity of their policies will deepen.

People shouldn't be fooled by Tory bravado. I don't expect them to. They exuded this almost complacent sense of triumph before the election as Labour stuttered and they controlled the news agenda. Yet it didn't let them walk into power with the automatic victory they expected.

The Tory compromises and U-turns over the NHS, quantitative easing and whatever else comes up (there will be more) shows they worry about their popularity. It also shows that their "plan" isn't cast iron. Talk of sticking to "plan-A" is the public, conference line, but the reality shows a weak and vulnerable government.

This only matters if Labour can rebuild its own strength up to a position where it can take advantage of Tory weakness. There were many occasions during New Labour's reign when it was weak but continued to govern, almost unchallenged, because the Tory opposition was completely ineffective.

To find that out, we will have to roll on to the next six months and see whether Miliband can strike repeated blows against his cocky opponent, Cameron. Only if that happens do I think the smile will be wiped off Cameron and Osborne's faces. Otherwise they'll continue to exude that public confidence that belies the worries within.

Sunday, October 02, 2011

Three and a half years is a long time in politics

The coalition is committed to spending a full I've years in power. They are unpopular and the economy is getting worse. Thy have little option but to hold out for as long as possible in the hope that things get a bit better and that voters thank them for that. This also gives Labour plenty of time in which to sort itself out and to regain credibility. All three parties lost the last election. Labour lost power, the Tories failed to win the election and the Lib Dems failed to take advantage of Cleggmania and lost many seats. At the moment voters are yet to be convinced by Ed Miliband, dislike the Tories and ate struggling to see the point of the Lib Dems. The economy means Labour has to come up with something credible and popular that doesn't cost money they were not able to do that very often in government when Brown was keen to announce new spending on a regular basis as the economy continued to grow. The Tories have little wriggle room. The economy is getting worse. This deprives them of their hoped-for recovery that would erase the bitter memory if austerity from voters' minds. Cameron, like Milband, needs to show radicalism to fans a chance of winning in 2015. That would in turn risk the ire of his own party if he was deemed to be too left wing. It would pease the Lib Dems and also expose them by showing that heir influence is unnecessary to achieve radical policies. Radical would be something we wouldn't normally expect from Tories. More council homes could be the one though given the time it takes to plan and build them I doubt it. Could 2015 follow 2010 to be the election nobody wants to win?