The Steamie

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Caron's Musings: Where the Parties stand on Political Reform

Political reform was the theme of the day today as David Cameron and Gordon Brown responded to Nick Clegg's speech on the subject. This includes issues like cleaning up party funding, so that parties aren't beholden to any paymaster. The Labour Party is bankrolled to the tune of millions by the Trade Unions. As for the Tories,I find it bizarre that a political party in a modern democracy is comfortable with allowing one of its major donors to hold high office within the party and to sit, unelected, in our Parliament when he is domiciled in Belize for tax purposes.

There have been some all party talks going on since 2007 to try to iron out a way forward on party funding, the Hayden Phillips talks. Recently published minutes show that neither Labour nor the Tories were willing to cut their ties to their respective paymasters, something that Nick Clegg raised with Gordon Brown at the last PMQs of this Parliament yesterday.

Gordon Brown announced what he called "the most comprehensive programme of constitutional reform for a century". A century ago, we were on the verge of the introduction of the Parliament Act which directly came out of Tory Lords refusing to pass the Liberal Government's People's Budget of 1909 which started the process of introducing the Old Age Pension. The bland package announced by Brown today tinkers at the edges - fixed term parliaments, and, get this, a referendum on a mild change to the voting system (which they had themselves dropped in Parliament hours before) and getting rid of hereditary peers. Labour seems to forget that it got a fairly whopping mandate in 1997 for an elected House of Lords - and didn't bother to do anything about it. And Brown was very wrong when he said this was the greatest reform in a century. I reckon women getting the vote was a bit more of a game changer myself.

What I find interesting about Labour is that it's generally considered changes to the way Westminster runs as something to be held at arms length, at the end of a very long spoon which you only use when you go to sup with the Devil. Anything that gives away real power from the centre is regarded by them with great distrust. However, it seems to me that the reason for Labour's interest in political reform is because they want to win back Liberal minded voters who left them for the Liberal Democrats over the Iraq war. That's right. It's a cynical, politically opportunist move generated by data from focus groups. End of.

Oh - I forgot to say that Labour also want to stop MPs lobbying. If you're wondering why, google "Stephen Byers cab."

As for the Tories, bless them, they've decided they want to give people the right to sack corrupt MPs. If they're so committed to that idea, why did they not vote for it when the Liberal Democrats proposed it in Parliament? They want a "mainly elected" second chamber. Oh, and they want to cut the number of MPs by 10%. That seems to be that. This is the party that had to be dragged kicking and screaming to accept the devolution that Scotland and Wales desperately wanted. By their nature, they don't really want to change the old established power. Anything you hear from them on political reform is from a desire to be seen walking the walk and is only skin deep. They will reform as little as they can get away with.

As for the SNP, as far as I can see, they don't have a policy for reforming Westminster. Their 2005 manifesto (remember that snappy title If Scotland matters to you make it matter in May) is silent on these issues. I can't imagine this year's will be any different - if it's not independence they don't want to know. Yet another reason they are irrelevant in this election in Scotland.

Finally, we Lib Dems are for fixed term Parliaments, real proper Single Transferable Vote which gives maximum power to voter, minimum power to party machine and will breathe new life into our political system, transparent and open party funding, giving people the right to sack corrupt MPs and a fully elected House of Lords. Thing is, when I first got involved in politics during the 1983 election, all but the sacking of corrupt MPs were our policies then. And they weren't new ideas 26 years ago. The principles of decentralisation, giving power to people, increasing the legitimacy of Parliament, stopping the Government manipulating constitutional matters to its advantage - all that is in our DNA as Liberal Democrats. Nick didn't make up these policies on the back of a fag packet after listening to a focus group - it's part of what the Liberal Democrats and predecessor parties have always stood for.

His speech today outlined these issues and again emphasised how the real choice in this election is between the Liberal Democrats and those pesky Labservatives.

He raised this issue at the last PMQs of the Parliament amidst a cacophany of catcalls, with the occasional crash of toys being thrown out of prams and the popping sound of dummies being spat out, on both Labour and Conservative benches in the Kindergarten of Commons. "You've failed. It's over. It's time to go." he said to Cameron as much as Brown. Amen to that.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

David Maddox: No place on the Tory front bench for Scotland

David Cameron and the Conservatives have been painfully aware of their lack of support north of the Border. In a radio interview recently Mr Cameron admitted his party would not win many seats, even though they are targeting 11.
For this reason Mr Cameron and his party (at least in Scotland) have been keen to promote the so-called "respect agenda" should they win power in the UK without much of a Scottish mandate.
The details of this are well known and often repeated - ministers regularly visiting, an annual PMQs with MSPs, post Pre-Budget and Budget briefings, the Scottish Secretary giving a verbal report to MSPs on the implications of the Queen's Speech etc.
But respect needs to be symbolic as well, which brings us on to the last Scottish questions in the Commons before the election. This was my second since transferring from Holyrood to Westminster and today, like the last time, it was noticeable that shadow Scottish Secretary David Mundell (pictured) was shunted off the front bench to make way for other (more senior) colleagues for PMQs which followed immediately afterwards. today he was shifted before Scottish questions had even finished.
On both occasions poor Mr Mundell was forced to sit awkwardly on the steps between the back benches.
In comparison Jim Murphy remained on the Labour front bench throughout PMQs.
The sight of the frontbencher responsible for Scottish affairs being pushed aside so unceremoniously is not exactly the sort of respectful image for Scotland that the Tories have been so keen to claim is their own.

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Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Eddie Barnes: Cameron takes early lead

And they're off.

Best start goes to David Cameron. He spoke before Brown this morning and chose an airy setting outside County Hall on the banks the Thames, symbolically on the other side of the river from Westminster, and all the sleaze therein. He spoke crisply and clearly about the need for change, although I thought his line about wanting to speak for the "The Great Ignored", sounded a little too close to comfort to the phrase "The Great Unwashed" which I doubt is quite the image the Tories want Old Etonian Dave to conjure up.

At least you could hear what he was saying. Gordon Brown was let down by the BBC who got his sound all wrong so that when he starting speaking outside 10 Downing Street, it was as if the election was being called by the platform announcer at Queen Street station.

Meanwhile, Alex Salmond kicked off the campaign in a rain-lashed Edinburgh alongside former Scotsman columnist and now SNP candidate George Kerevan. The difference in the weather between stormy Edinburgh and sun-dappled London was highly symbolic. There are going to be two completely different election campaigns fought over the coming weeks: the simple straight fight we see on our TV screens between Brown and Cameron, and the more cluttered contest up here involving four parties all fighting for our attention.

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Thursday, 1 April 2010

Chris Mackie: Won't get fooled again!

Hands up who fell for an April Fool gag this morning.

Aside from the humourous efforts in our national newspapers this morning (including The Scotsman - see if you can spot it, hoax fans) only one political party has come out to play on this, the day of japery and laughter.
The Tories put out an April Fool press release, backed by a rather impressive looking spoof website (http://www.dogw.co.uk/) advertising the entirely fictional Whitehall office - the Department of Government Waste.
Headed by the enigmatic minister Robin Ewe (geddit?), the DoGW was apparently set up in 1997 and has the mission statement:

“At the Department of Government Waste, spending your money is not just a privilege; it’s a duty. Our track record over the last 13 years is one of goal-realisation, spending-prioritisation, and waste-maximisation. And we will go on developing further waste streams if Labour win the next election. So if you want 5 more years of government waste, make sure you vote Labour on Polling Day.”
Today's press release purported to highlight a new report from the DoGW that, unlike many ministerial departments in the UK at present, its civil servants had hit all of their targets contained within their "challenging delivery agenda".
The department's achievements include - wait for it - "a systematic lack of competence"; "diseconomies stemming from over-reaching Government"; "challenging the belief that taxpayers’ money should be respected" and "pushing the boundaries of wasteful spending".
While the website and release do eventually help any sleepy hacks by revealing the entirely fictional nature of the department, the Tories do make the point that all of the examples of wasteful spending included within, are drawn from the last 13 years of government.
It's easy to groan about such lame gags as Robin Ewe, but as a way of pushing a political message its playful nature is certainly more engaging than some of the petty tribalism and points-scoring-at-all-costs we occasionally receive in our in-boxes.

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Tuesday, 30 March 2010

David Maddox: Pizza and beer for the new political blockbuster

They may well be seen as boring men in grey suits talking about dull economics but it seems that the Chancellors' debate last night drew amazingly high viewing figures.
According to one of the Tory spindoctors 7 million people, more than one in ten people in the UK, tuned in to Channel Four to watch Messrs Darling, Osborne and Cable talk about the economy. The peak viewing according to figures they received was 2 million.
This compares to the normal Channel Four News viewing audience of 1 million and Dispatches audience of 1 million.
It would be a good omen for interest in the political process and the forthcoming election.
However, perhaps a more accurate assessment of the viewing audience appears in the Guardian Media Guide which reports that there were 1.6 million viewers, a 6.6 per cent share of the total UK TV audience.
Let's hope that the Conservative estimates on potential savings they can make are more accurate.
Whatever, the truth of the figures, it seems that the Tories at the party's London HQ at Millbank Tower decided to have a night of it with the debate and ordered in pizza and beer before settling down to watch the first political blockbuster of the election campaign.
The choice of cuisine is largely because there is a Pizza Express nearby, but perhaps it is a sign of how far David Cameron's party has come from the days of champagne and caviar, just as Labour is returning to its traditional beer and sandwiches union tucker.

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Eddie Barnes: The Future's Bright; the Future's Orange (Tony)

JUST finished watching Tony Blair. Even Tommy Sheridan has never managed to match the extraordinary orangeness of Blair's skin colour. I've never seen anything like it in my life.

As to the content of his speech, it amounted to a Man of the World summation of the global crisis, and a full-on critique of the Conservative strategy. The Tories were, he said, caught between what they believed in and what they thought they had to say in order to win. Hence the confusion over their policy on the NHS, law and order, Europe, and the economy. This, of course, was in total contrast to New Labour of the mid-90s. All those changes weren't motivated by the desire to win an election but because Tony and the gang believed in them all.

All very interesting, but there's something bigger going on here, evident both in Blair's speech today and the Chancellors' debate from last night. Today, Blair focussed relentlessly on the record of Brown and Darling during and after the financial crisis. Meanwhile, last night, Darling, Osborne and Cable all similarly discussed everything in the context of the crash - the deficit, the coming public sector squeeze, tax cuts, etc, all are explained by the credit crunch that preceeded them. The point is that the big crash of '08 has become the ground zero of this election campaign. Nothing before it matters a jot. In fact nothing else matters period.

This is good news for Labour, as it is helping them to obscure the main campaigning point of the Tories: that this lot have been in for 13 years, and that therefore we need change. But when October '08 is the base line, they've only been in for one and a bit years, and the change message becomes weakened. It be interesting to see how the Tories are going to challenge this.

NB. There will be a lot of talk no doubt about whether Labour is wise to have wheeled out Blair today, but I get the impression that this isn't so much a calculation, as the fact that all these Labour die-hards just want to be part of their cause's Final Campaign. This, as they will see it, is their life's work now being challenged - not just by the Tories, but by a new, younger, generation of politicians. It is their last hurrah - the final time any of them will get to taste the thrill of the fight, and they want to be here at the End. You can almost picture Blair et all as the characters of a classic war movie where the soon-to-be-defeated heroes rally for one last battle. "Wouldn't want to be anywhere else but right 'ere, sarg......it's been an honour serving with you Corporal....we've 'ad some good times, ain't we, Sarg?....Bloody good times, Corporal." (heads towards gunfire...patriotic music plays....credits roll....The End)

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Monday, 29 March 2010

David Maddox: The Numbers Game (29) - Bookies' Balls up

As regular readers may know, The Steamie has at times tried to help you add a few pounds to your pockets by offering a tip on the political betting front with mixed success.
Those of you who put money on Iain Gray to become Labour leader may appreciate The Steamie's advice, while those who went for Ann Widdicombe to be Speaker may not.
But we've had some interesting odds regarding who will be the next Chancellor to give a Budget from our old friends at Ladbrokes. Please note these odds are ahead of tonight's debate and may change at 9.10pm, I'm reliably informed.

George Osborne 2/5 (fav)
Alistair Darling 5/1
Ed Balls 10/1
Vince Cable 16/1
Ken Clarke 16/1
Philip Hammond 20/1
Gordon Brown 100/1

So tip of the day would be to put your money on Balls.
With Labour closing the gap there is now a decent chance it will be the biggest party and may even have a majority.
If that were to happen Gordon Brown has already made it clear that he wants to replace Alistair Darling with Ed Balls, despite the fact that many people now believe the current Chancellor is the last remaining minister with any credibility and certainly could claim to have won an election for Labour.

This also applies to the newly published odds on the next Labour leader with the very same Ed Balls at 14/1. Again this tip is based on the fact that the Brownites would support him against the Blairites' David Milliband (the 5/2 favourite). He would also probably have the backing of the major unions including the dreaded Unite.

I'm not just saying this because he is a fellow Norwich City fan, but while Ed Balls is reportedly incredibly unpopular in the Commons he has enough powerful supporters and hangers on to make both sets of odds from Ladbrokes look pretty generous.

Perhaps the clever bet is to actually back Ed Balls on both. Whilst it is extremely unlikely but not impossible to clean up on both it makes a decent each way bet on Mr Balls' ultimate fate based on whether Labour win or lose the election.

Here are the rest of the runners and riders to replace Gordon Brown as Labour leader:

David Miliband 5/2
Ed Miliband 5/1
Alan Johnson 6/1
Harriet Harman 8/1
Peter Mandelson 8/1
Alistair Darling 12/1
Ed Balls 14/1
Jon Cruddas 14/1
Jack Straw 25/1
John Denham 25/1
Andy Burnham 25/1
Hilary Benn 33/1
Yvette Cooper 33/1
Shaun Woodward 50/1
Jim Murphy 50/1
Douglas Alexander 66/1
Peter Hain 66/1
John McDonnell 66/1
Liam Byrne 66/1
Hazel Blears 100/1
Tony Blair 100/1
Alastair Campbell 500/1
Cherie Blair 500/1

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