Monday, 30 June 2008

One in the eye for Gordon!

Disaster in Henley as just 1066 voters stay Labour

Serious doubts about Gordon Brown’s leadership must now be beginning to assail the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Before the Henley bye-election, there was some speculation that Labour might lose their deposit. Or they might even slip into fourth place. Henley was never going to be an easy ride for them.

On the night, the result was worse even than their worst nightmares. Labour came fifth! Behind the Green Party. Behind the BNP.

A mere 220 votes saved them from the ultimate ignominy of sixth place, trailing UKIP.

The question now must be not whether – but when the first challenge to Gordon Brown’s leadership arrives – and in what form. A stalking horse challenge at the annual conference in September is a distinct possibility. But the scale of defeat, following on from disastrous local government results and the loss of Crewe and Nantwich, make it not impossible that the “men in suits” will be calling even sooner.

In fact, insiders suggest, the man most likely to call could be young David Milliband. At odds of 9/4, David Milliband is also reckoned to be the favourite to succeed, just pipping John Denham and Alan Milburn at the post.

Is all doom and gloom? A YouGov poll in today’s Telegraph provides the tiniest crumb of comfort, as it suggests the Tory lead over Labour may have fallen to a “mere 18%”. However, that, too, must be a measure of the depths to which Labour have sunk: when trailing 18% in the polls can be considered to be an improvement.

Sadly, though, YouGov offer no further comfort to Gordon Brown. 61% of those polled now say that he is a liability – and 49% say he is doing a worse job than Tony Blair.

The result in full was:
• John Howell (Conservative): 19,796 (+3.2%)
• Stephen Kearney (Liberal Democrat): 9,680 (+1.7%)
• Mark Stevenson (Green Party): 1,321
• Timothy Rait (British National Party): 1,243
• Richard McKenzie (Labour): 1,066
• Chris Adams (UK Independence Party): 843
• Bananaman Owen (Official Monster Raving Loony Party): 242
• Derek Allpass (English Democrats Party): 157
• Amanda Harrington (Independent Candidate): 128
• Dick Rodgers (Common Good): 121
• Louise Cole (Independent Candidate): 91
• Harry Bear (Fur Play Party): 73

Turnout was 34,915 (50.5%).

Will Hazel Blears resign?

(And did a large pink porcine object just fly past the window?)

In another era, this might have been the case. Once upon a time, the UK had a doctrine known as “Ministerial Responsibility”. According to this, Ministers were responsible for the actions of civil servants within their departments – whether they
were aware of those actions or not.

In 1954, Sir Thomas Dugdale famously resigned over the actions of his Civil Servants in the Crichel Down case. There was no suggestion of personal complicity. In similar vein, in 1982, Lord Carrington resigned from his post as Foreign Secretary over the Argentinian invasion of the Falklands. A subsequent inquiry attached no direct blame attached to him.

But “Ministerial Responsibility” was always more pious aspiration than constitutional fact. Over the years it has been watered down even further.

First has been the hair-splitting attempt to divide it into “operational” and “policy” areas. This declares that failures due to policy are the responsibility of the Minister: those due to purely operational factars are not. Thus it was that the loss of Child Benefit Data in November 2007 may have resulted in the departure of a few civil servants – but left the Minister untouched.

Then there was the astonishing case of Stephen Byers, who appears quite clearly to have misled the House of Commons about the resignation of his Communications Director, Martin Sixsmith.

According to the Ministerial Code of Conduct, issued in 1997, "It is of paramount importance that ministers give accurate and truthful information to Parliament, correcting any inadvertent errors at the earliest opportunity."

In this case, Stephen Byers appears to have misled the House of Commons and then, in an extraordinary reversal of accountability - excused himself on the grounds that he was misled by his civil servants.

Of course, it is not just Labour who don’t resign. A few weeks back, the Scottish Public Health Minister , Shona Robison presided over yet another security lapse. Sensitive details of former patients were discovered at Dundee’s Strathmartine Hospital three years after it closed, despite the fact that she appears to have had knowledge that it was there. She has not resigned.

In fact, the only significant acknowledgment of personal responsibility in recent months appears to come from Canada. There, the Foreign Minister, Maxim Bernier, resigned last month following revelations that he had left classified documents at the home of his former girlfriend.

So what of Hazel Blears? She appears to have held confidential information on a laptop, which was kept at her constituency office in Salford. At one level, there are a number of very good reasons for expecting a resignation. Cabinet Office guidelines suggest that the Data Controller for Government Departments is the relevant Secretary of State.

As Secretary of State for the Department of Communities and Local Government, the buck, for DPA issues, theoretically stops with Hazel Blears.

Then there is s.8 of the Official Secrets Act 1989. According to this, a Crown Servant commits an offence if they “fail(s) to take such care to prevent the unauthorised disclosure of the document”…as they “may reasonably be expected to take”.

This is not trivial stuff: it’s a criminal offence and, if Hazel Blears is guilty, she could expect a short spell in jail, as well as a fine.

But never fear: prosecutions of this type require the say-so of the Attorney General. So the chances of a Minister being prosecuted are slight.
Meanwhile the Conservative Party continues to dig. Shadow Home Secretary, Dominic Grieve has asked for urgent clarification of the facts in this matter – and is expected to do so until the full story comes to light.

Friday, 13 June 2008

By-election Perils

Oh dear. Has David Davis REALLY thought this through? Has anyone for that matter?

For those who haven’t caught up with the news since yesterday evening: Shadow Home Secretary and erstwhile contender for the Tory Party leadership, David Davis has resigned.

Not for reasons of scandal or out of any noble desire to spend more time with his family. But because he wished to take a personal principled stand against the extension of the period for which terrorist suspects may be held without trial .

He described the government’s 42-day law as a "monstrosity": part of the "slow strangulation of fundamental British freedoms".

As a result, he is standing down from parliament and his seat in the constituency of Haltemprice and Howden – in order to restand at the subsequent bye-election for the same constituency.

One can see the logic. Six parties stood at the general election. The second placed Lib Dems have already said they will not oppose Mr Davis. Ditto the BNP. Which leaves UKIP, who MIGHT stand if they dislike what Mr Davis has to say on Europe. And Labour. The latter, with a poor third place and just under 13% of the vote, have about as much chance of winning any bye-election as a certain Mr Bin Laden has of becoming the next Pope.

Political analysts are already viewing this as either masterstroke or farce. It is masterstroke if you accept the logic that this impales Labour on an impossible choice. Fail to stand and they are, as Margaret Thatcher once famously desribed another Labour leader, “frit”: afraid to stand up in public and defend their principles. Stand and be routed – as seems likely – and their case for a public mandate for 42 days vanishes. Allegedly.

Against that, their spin merchants are already trying to characterise this action as pure farce. Comic Opera, according to one spokesperson.

Clearly, none of the above have heard of Murphy’s Law, which states that if anything can possibly go wrong, it will.

First, Mr David will not be re-elected unopposed. By-elections are famously the stomping grounds of self-publicists and the politically grumpy. It doesn’t matter who did or didn’t stand last time. Someone else will this time. Even if its only the Monster Raving Loony Party.

In one sense, by-elections matter very little. Stunning victories are often reversed at subsequent general elections, as the Lib Dems know to their cost. On the other hand, they can mark the opening of a new chapter in politics. It was Hamilton, in 1967, that turned the Scottish Nationalists into a serious political force, just as Carmarthen, the previous year, had heralded the arrival of Welsh Nationalism.
Orpington in 1962 revived a near dead Liberal Party. Lincoln, in 1973, foreshadowed the creation of the Social Democrats.

But there are two other places that today’s strategists ought to bear in mind. The Oxford bye-election of 1938 was fought on a single issue: appeasement. The failure of those opposed to appeasement to unseat the Tory candidate was arguably a significant factor in giving Hitler a green light for European expansion. The message, loud and clear, appeared to be that the British people had no stomach to take him on.

Last but by no means least in the bye-election Hall of infamy comes Bootle. In May 1990, the good Lord Sutch, of Monster Raving Loony fame stood – and smashed the SDP into seventh place. A day or so later, David Owen – not yet a Lord – acknowledged that the game was up: if the SDP could not even beat the Loonies, the time had come to call it a day.

No. By-elections are bizarre and unpredictable things. The only sure thing about them is that they have a nasty tendency to backfire and blow up in the faces of all who thought they could predict their outcome. Sometimes with hugely important consequences.

Friday, 6 June 2008

And whilst I'm in a mood...

...just what is it with the forelock tugging, knee bending, take my trousers down and insert-a-large-cucumber-up-my-backside Brits that they have such reverence for authority?

My father - God rest! - had a sensible respect for authority. He was born to relative affluence in between-the-wars Poland: had a nicely privileged upbringing; and saw at first hand what authority did to those who disagreed with it. When he was still young enough to do so, he went on marches. So he was able to witness how the Nationalist Police dealt with those who challenged governmental wisdom. Batons came into it somewhere.

Almost 50 years later, my cousin was active in Solidarnosc (Solidarity). When General Jaruzelski decided to "save the country" by imposing martial law, we spent a few days in real fear for what might have happened to her.

The story is much the same across the rest of Europe. In the last few decades, it has really mattered what you thought and said.

The wrong word in the wrong ear could see you picked up in the middle of the night and removed to some anonymous prison for interrogation. Or worse. France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Spain, Italy. Not one of them escaped the viciousness of authoritarian tyranny.

As for Eastern Europe! Whatever the West suffered, they endured ten times over.

Which may be why, across most of Europe, people are rather wary of trusting their Governments. Because they know what they can do.

Unlike the UK. We have never quite seen authority in all its awful splendour. So we have no sense of self preservation in the face of New Labour encroachments.

Elsewhere, I have railed against New Labour as the puritan, nannying bossy-boots tendency that it is. But that is only half the story. The other half is that no matter what inane and half-baked scheme they come up with to make us even "safer", a large proportion of the British public will go along with it every time.

Because (see last post): if you've done nothing wrong, you've nothing to fear.


Let's all watch...

I am reminded tonight - courtesy of my partner - of one of those catchphrases that do so much to sum up all that is wrong with the present age.

"If you haven't done anything wrong, why would you mind...?"

The dots, of course, represent any one of a number of current government idiocies. ID Cards. National Databases. CCTV.

The theme, though, is always the same: if you haven't done anything wrong, why would you mind yet one more intrusion into your private life.

Well, just don't.

Don't use that phrase in front of me ever again.

Because if you do, I'll be round to your bedroom in a trice. I'll sit on the bottom of your bed and WATCH. I'll lurk in your bathroom and WATCH. Give me half a chance, I'll even hide in your fridge.


Because if you haven't done anything wrong, why on earth would you mind?

Tuesday, 3 June 2008

Cake-eating and aubergine exclusion

“Let them eat cake”. If you remember little else about the French Revolution, you will probably recall those words as proof of regal insensitivity.

I have another theory.

Food, in the reciprocity household, is fast becoming a minefield. It starts with teenage daughter who, having watched avidly some TV chef revealing the grosser practises of the meat industry, now resolutely refuses to eat any meat.

This is in sharp contrast to son. He is of the firm opinion that the only proper diet for a growing three-year-old is meat and ice cream. Vegetables are an insult, fit only to be hurled in the general direction of his sisters.

Ah. Which brings us to sister number two/stepdaughter. She has renounced evil multinationals and all their works: not least, any pre-processed snacks with which formerly they tried to tempt her. So nothing from Tesco. Or Sainsbury. Or Morrisons.

Aside from bread. She still eats their bread.

For a brief moment, she wobbled over Waitrose. Then the stiff upper lip re-asserted itself, and the clear message is “no supermarkets”. Well, except maybe the co-op.

Then there’s the other half who “eats anything”. Apart from too many vegetables. Or fruit. Or salmon. Or…. You see where this is going?

And finally, yours truly. I, too, would like to say that I eat “anything”. This might once have been true. Sadly, a grumbling heart and a life-time ban on high cholesterol mean I must bid adieu to the days when I would perturb check-out girls with my purchase of disgustingly deep red offal. Brain omelette? With onion. A rare delicacy: but no more. Not even bacon sarnies.

Nope. Cooking is a nightmare. Devising menus requires a skill and level of negotiation that would put those running the Middle East Peace Talks to shame.

The closest we have got to common ground so far is the humble aubergine. Even there, the boy is demanding an exclusion zone.

“Let them eat cake”? Royal insensitivity, perhaps.

But in our household, its about the only substance that all concerned still agree on as a valid foodstuff. Perhaps Marie Antoinette – with a fussy husband and associated princelings to feed - was less insensitive than we think.

Monday, 2 June 2008

Those who live by the rules...

Those who manage by numbers all too often end up being managed by them.

Set anyone a target - and they will do their utmost to meet it. Just don't expect them to do it the way you intended them to. Punctuality targets on the railways? Certainly. Now watch, as the rail companies rejig their timetables to give their trains more time for each journey.

Shorter waiting lists on the NHS? Absolutely. So long as you don't count the waiting list you go on to, just to get on the waiting list.

Targets. They have been an obsession for this government. This week, two items on the news show how foolish this obsession has proven.

According to a report by Civitas, the Police are targeted on "clear-up". Unfortunately, little distinction is made between serious crime and trivial. So they achieve as much recognition for arresting a sweet stealer as a murderer.

More broadly, this creates a culture in which the police are going to focus on easy-to-clear crimes - and therefore target "soft criminals" (aka the Middle Classes). Short term success - and longer term undermining of support for the police from those whose whole-hearted support they need.


Meanwhile, midwives are leaving in droves. Not for the pay. But because they are sick of a culture that so ties their hands with petty rules, many no longer feel able to do the job they signed up for.


The worrying thought is that those that remain must, presumably, be those types who find petty hand-tying rules a pleasure to work with. Would you want a baby delivered by one of them?

So there you have it. Perhaps the most lasting New Labour legacy of all: the removal of initiative and goodwill from those who ought to be defined by those very qualities.