Thursday, January 31, 2008

Question Time Review

Tonight's Question Time was predictably dominated by the Derek Conway affair, but there was also a great question from the audience on whether the most revolutionary outcome of the US election would be the election of the first black president, the first woman president, or the oldest president.

Here's my verdict on the how the panel performed.

Shaun Woodward – Quietly impressive, though at times almost too smooth. Said MPs should publish details of staff salaries, and backed Hillary Clinton for the White House. It was not clear whether he was speaking for Gordon Brown on either question. Daringly suggested at the end that both Philip Green and Richard Branson should emulate the Sainsbury family by giving more to charity.

Ken Clarke – A class act, showed once again what a great Prime Minister he would have been. Came out with the best line of the night on the US presidency question – “Ming Campbell and I are going for John McCain" - prompting Amanda Platell to ask whether he was mounting another leadership bid.

John Sessions – Amusing in parts but inconsequential. Looked as if he was reading out his answers.

Amanda Platell – The only one to directly call for Conway’s sacking. Was she settling old Tory scores?

Bonnie Greer – Appeared to be a makeweight but came good on the US question, giving a compelling justification of why as a black woman she was for Hillary and not Obama.

I will be endeavouring to make this review a regular feature of the blog over the coming year.

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Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Liberal Conspiracy and God

As someone who badly wants to see a really successful liberal-left blog to counter the right's contunued dominance of the political blogosphere, I was delighted to be asked to join the Liberal Conspiracy group blog when it started up last year. But I always feared that as a Christian I would find myself in a distinct minority when it came to issues such as abortion and embryology.

I accept this, much in the way that pro-life Labour MPs have always accepted their party's majority position on such issues, in the interests of building a broader coalition on the kind of society they would like to see.

I do however take the view that when it comes to faith-related matters, people should be careful not to use inflammatory language and to try to respect the other's sincerely-held point of view. Up until now, this has by and large been the case on LC.

However yesterday I was finally moved to protest following an intemperate post by Kate Belgrave entitled Jesus H. Christ Rides Again which referred to Christians as "Jesus freaks" and "Holyrollers" and likened Christ to "a made-up figure like Big Bird and Po."

As you will see from the comments thread, the consensus on the site appears to be that LC bloggers should feel free to make such attacks on the grounds of "free speech," which is, after all, a perfectly respectable liberal point of view. After sleeping on it for a night, I've decided to go along with that and let it lie for now.

But if the general verdict is indeed that freedom of speech is king, I will of course expect the same degree of licence to be shown to anyone who criticises the adherents of any other faith in similar terms. Not that I have any particular intention of doing so.

Jan 31 Update: Mike Ion has now written this excellent piece on LC explaining much more eloquently than I ever could why so-called "progressives" need to be more ready to engage with people of faith.

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Tuesday, January 29, 2008

The best of times, the worst of times

The Today Programme this morning featured a fascinating discussion between two historians on whether it was possible to come up with an objective criteria to find the worst year in UK history. It followed a claim by one of them that the answer was 1812, not because the Prime Minister got assassinated in that year but because there was such a general level of anger amongst the populace that the news of his assassination was actually greeted by cheering.

I can't find a link to this, although Iain Dale has taken it up and got a bit of a discussion going as to worst years of people's lifetimes.

In a comment I left on Iain's blog I named 1979 as the worst year, but this was deliberately provocative. If it was a bad year it wasn't so much because it was the year Margaret Thatcher came to power as the fact that it was the year we handed Zimbabwe-Rhodesia over to the tyrant Robert Mugabe.

Politically speaking I think you would have to say that 2001 was the worst year in living memory. The first half of it was dominated by the sight of plumes of smoke going up from the funeral pyres of millions of dead cows, the second half by the sight of plumes of smoke going up from the World Trade Centre.

I think the best political year I can recall was probably 1977, the year of the Queen's Silver Jubilee. It was a period of benign and enlightened government under Jim Callaghan and David Steel and I recall a general sense of national uplift around this time, though sadly it didn't last.

But what of my personal good and bad years? Here's a potted history of the four and a half decades of my lifetime with the highpoints in blue and the lowpoints in red.

* 1963 - BAD. I am told this winter was the harshest in living memory, and that on one occasion when my mum tried to bath me I turned blue.

* 1970 - GOOD. The year of Mungo Jerry's "In the Summertime" as well as the last real White Christmas I can remember.

* 1972 - BAD. My first pet, a goldfish called Highfield, was eaten by the cat.

* 1974 - BAD. My grandad died - my first, and deepest, bereavement.

* 1979 - GOOD. Fell in love for the first time, with one of the bridesmaids at a family friend's wedding.

* 1983 - GOOD. Fell in love again and went on a memorable camping holiday to Ireland.

* 1987 - GOOD. Celebrated my 25th birthday with a legendary party at my flat in Nottinghamshire that still gets talked about occasionally.

* 1990 - GOOD. The summer of Italia '90, Ambient House, and beer. Enough said.

* 1995 - GOOD. Achieved my career ambition and became a lobby correspondent.

* 1997 - BAD. A real belter. I got dumped by a long-standing partner and my landlord tried to attack me during a period of drug-induced psychosis.

* 2001 - GOOD. Got married.

* 2004 - GOOD. My son George was born, and we moved to Derbyshire.

* 2006 - BAD. My American brother-in-law Mitch died in a road accident.

* 2007 - GOOD. Little Clara arrived, and we moved again to a new home we now hope to stay in for a lot of years.

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Devolution Department latest

In my weekend Column I speculated that the appointment of Paul Murphy to the Welsh Office might turn out to be rather short-term and that the creation of a Department for Devolution incorporating the territorial posts might still be on the cards. Lee Waters on the Our Kingdom blog poses the same question and comes up with a similar answer.

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Derbyshire memories

For those who are interested in local stuff - and I know there are a few of you out there - here's a link to a piece I wrote about Derbyshire political personalities for a local history site with which I am involved called You and Yesterday. Edwina Currie, Phillip Oppenheim and David Bookbinder are among the names mentioned.

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Loyalty still counts for something

Although Tory MP Derek Conway is clearly in the wrong over his generous taxpayer-funded payments to a family member - he is by no means the only MP who does this by the way - I have to admire Iain Dale for his refusal to join the braying pack demanding his instant hanging, drawing and quartering. Conway is a friend of Iain's and he says loyalty should still count for something.

And so indeed it should. Which is why you won't find me calling a decent and honest politician like Gordon Brown a weirdo just because he chews his fingernails.

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Sunday, January 27, 2008

Britblog round-up nominations

As promised here are my nominations for Britblog Round-up 154 which will appear later today at Philobiblon.

First, Dizzy for his revelation that a new Whitehall department is being created which will involve significant "legacy issues." This can only be a Department for Devolution taking over from the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland offices and the fact that it didn't happen in this week's mini-reshuffle probably meant no more than they aren't quite ready to do it yet.

Second, a great piece from Hopi Sen refuting the silly but oft-heard argument that it would be good for Labour to lose the next general election so it can renew itself in opposition.

Thirdly, I'm nominating Anthony Barnett's response on Our Kingdom to my own post about the Tories' personalisation of the battle against "that strange man in Downing Street." Anthony's argument is that you have to be pretty strange to be Prime Minister anyway.

"Brown maybe getting things wrong. But he is a serious political figure in a land steeped in superficiality - if that is not a contradiction in terms....The fact is that to be a driven politician today demands a personality defect. The proof of this is Thatcher. She was respected even though her popular vote always declined. But everyone knew that she was as strange as a bat out of hell."

Finally, it would be impossible to conclude a round-up of the blogging week without mention of Guido Fawkes and the spat over whether or not he is working for Conservative Central Office (not, as it happens.) In the week in which he was widely credited with bringing down Peter Hain (my view is that his investigative work certainly played a part) Mr Fawkes appears to have put one over on the MSM yet again.

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Saturday, January 26, 2008

No to Milburn, and no to electoral reform

This week's column in the Newcastle Journal focuses on two stories - Peter Hain's resignation and the subsequent Cabinet reshuffle, and as flagged up in the previous post, the government's decision to rule out PR for Westminster following the review of electoral systems across the UK.

Both of these, in my view, go down as yet more missed opportunities by Gordon Brown. He could, as I have argued in recent week, have used the departure of Mr Hain to strengthen a distinctly middle-weight Cabinet line-up by bringing back a heavyweight from the Blair years, preferably Alan Milburn. Interestingly James Forsyth on Spectator Coffee House takes a similar view. He comments:

"A quick check on the health of a party is whether there is more talent on the back benches than the front bench. Labour are close to that tipping point with Charles Clarke, Jon Cruddas, Alan Milburn, Stephen Byers, Denis MacShane, David Blunkett and Frank Field all out of the front line...If Labour is going to win the next election they have to get their A team on the field. This limited reshuffle suggests that Brown hasn’t grasped this."

In my column I also argue that Brown should have used the review of elctoral systems to order a fresh look at PR for Westminster, as a pre-emptive strike against the Tories for Nick Clegg's hand in marriage after the next election. The piece can be read in full HERE.

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The great men of Tower

Like most people who have lived or worked in Wales at some point, I was sad to hear about the closure of Tower Colliery, the last deep mine in the principality. It's a story that has a particular poignancy for me because I was covered the mine's initial closure as a reporter on the South Wales Echo in 1994, as well as the subsequent triumphant campaign to reopen it.

Tyrone O'Sullivan, the South Wales NUM leader turned mine owner, was a top contact during the whole saga and is one of the few people I met in my career in journalism whom I would describe as a genuinely great man. The story was later included in a special publication called Heroes of Coal which is still the single piece of work of which I am proudest in my whole career.

The 270 men of Tower who sank their £8,000 redundancy cheques into keeping the mine open will now share the proceeds of the sale of the land at Hirwaun for redevelopment. I hope they get top dollar - they deserve it.

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Friday, January 25, 2008

The story everyone missed

Or maybe it was the story the government buried, I'm not quite sure. But amid all the excitement of the Hain resignation, the fact that Nu Lab has once again appeared to knock electoral reform on the head has inevitably received little attention.

I'll be saying a lot more about this in my weekend column in The Journal, which will be posted on Behind the Lines at some point tomorrow, but I have to say this goes down as a major, major missed opportunity by Gordon, both in terms of his attempts to restore trust in the political system, and in terms of positioning his party ahead of an election which in my view has hung Parliament written all over it.

Yesterday's announcement from Justice Minister Michael Wills stated that the review of electoral systems across the UK had found that voters in Scotland and Wales were "confused" by proportional representation, and ruled out its introduction for Westminster.

This was one of the areas where I and many others hoped that Brown would display more radicalism than had been the case with Tony Blair. Slowly, inexorably, those hopes are fading.

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Gordon goes for youth

Gordon's first enforced reshuffle is now almost complete and it is clear he won't be doing either of the things that I urged in my previous post - abolishing the almost-meaningless post of Welsh Secretary along with the other territorial posts, and bringing back a heavyweight from the Blair years to bolster his flagging administration.

Instead, he seems to have taken the opportunity to underline one of the key themes that marked his first attempt at Cabinet-making last July - that we are now in the throes of the transition from one Labour generation to the next.

James Purnell, Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper, the three main beneficiaries of today's changes, are all in their 30s. All have been spoken about at one time or another as potential leaders of the party, and to paraphrase Tony Blair, clearly they are the future now.

Brown had the opportunity to bring back Alan Milburn, or David Blunkett, or Charles Clarke, and he passed on it. It means they are almost certainly now not returning to the Cabinet table.

I know very little about Andy Burnham, and I am indifferent to the charms of James Purnell, but Yvette Cooper is someone I have always rated highly. Regular readers of this blog will know that I regard her as the premier politician in the Balls household, and the likeliest to make it to the top of the greasy pole.

It is reasonably well-known that Blair spitefully delayed her promotion to the Cabinet as a way of getting back at Ed Balls, but what is less well-known is that her early career in government was hampereed by chronic fatigue syndrome. To successfully come back from that is no mean feat in itself.

The predictable choice of 59-year-old retread Paul Murphy to the Welsh Office appears to fly in the face of the accent on youth, but it just may be the case that this is intended to be a relatively short-term appointment.

I still believe that a restructuring of the territorial posts into a "Department for Devolution" is on the cards at some point, if only for the reason that the current situation is pretty indefensible.

A couple of other aspects of the reshuffle have thus far passed relatively unnoticed, so I shall briefly mention them. Stephen Timms, a member of the Blair Cabinet who was unaccountably excluded by Brown, returns in Caroline Flint's old role of Pensions Minister.

And finally....there's a new role in the Cabinet Office for blogger Tom Watson, the man who once said he would never return to government, although it later became clear he was taking the michael.

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Hain quits - but what happens next?

Well, I said it was only a matter of time.

The interesting thing now is to see how Gordon responds to this, his first, enforced reshuffle. Will he do the boring, obvious thing and promote Andy Burnham to Work and Pensions Secretary and bring in a trustie like John Healey as Chief Secretary to the Treasury? Or will he do the imaginative thing and bring back a heavyweight like Alan Milburn or David Blunkett to run the DWP? And will he finally scrap the territorial departments as Dizzy and myself both speculated last weekend?

Fundamentally, is Brown seeing the departure of Hain as an opportunity, as Blair would have done, or a threat, as Major would have done? The answers could tell us a lot about the kind of Prime Minister he will ultimately turn out to be.

5pm update: So far, it's looking fairly obvious and predictable - Purnell to DWP, Burnham to DCMS, Yvette Cooper to the Treasury, Caroline Flint to Housing Minister. Still no word on Wales though.

6pm update: It's Paul Murphy for Wales and no restructuring of the territorial departments. This is the very boring, as well as the very shortsighted option. More later.

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Wednesday, January 23, 2008

This Not-So-Charming Man

A couple of weeks back, the right-wing columnist Richard Littlejohn made a vile attack on Gordon Brown in which he made reference to his "kiddie fiddler smile." That estimable blogger Paul Burgin was one of those who were suitably outraged, expressing the view that Littlejohn should not be allowed to get away with such a "joke."

I left the following comment on his blog:

It's not a joke, Paul, it's a deadly serious attempt by the right to fix the idea of Gordon as a "weirdo" in the public mind. It's not just the likes of Littlejohn who are doing it, you can see also see it happening on all the leading right-wing blogs.

When I wrote this, I had in mind a particularly disgusting post on Guido in which a sock-puppet called "Stanislav" claimed the Prime Minister was suffering from chronic mental illness as a result of having repressed his homosexuality, and that marrying Sarah and having children as the prospect of No 10 drew closer had essentially been a front.

Of course, David Cameron would never utter such contemptible rubbish. But nevertheless, it's clear from his interview with the new Times editor this morning, in which he describes Mr Brown as "that strange man in Downing Street," that portraying his opponent as somehow not one of us is a key part of the Tory leader's political strategy.

Mr Cameron clearly wants to portray himself as This Charming Man, and Brown as (to quote) This Strange Man, but if the public has any sense it will backfire. What on earth gives Cameron the right to describe another man as "strange" and by what measure of "normality" does he seek to judge the Prime Minister?

We are all individuals, and the fact that, like Esau, Gordon Brown is not a "smooth" man does not necessarily make him a bad man. Increasingly, for the political and media class, it seems that the worst crime is to be different.

  • Cross-posted on Liberal Conspiracy and also featured on "Best of the Web" on Comment is Free.

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  • Three Little Pigs "offensive"

    Yes, sadly true. And in a further development, Pink Floyd have been forced to rename the opening track of their classic 1977 album, Animals, as Cats on the Wing.

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    Tuesday, January 22, 2008

    Ken - a flawed political genius

    Much comment on the blogosphere today over Martin Bright's adept character-assassination of London Mayor Ken Livingstone on Channel 4 last night. Iain Dale makes the perfectly reasonable point that if even the Political Editor of the left-leaning New Statesman is joining what appears to be a concerted media campaign against him, it leaves the Labour Party with something of a problem.

    For me, the key question is the one posed by Sunny Hundal on Liberal Conspiracy, namely is Ken still the best candidate on offer for the liberal-left, particularly in view of the need to block that frivolous twit Johnson. The consensus on the site appears to be that Brian Paddick is now their best option, but knowing his view on drugs I cannot possibly go along with this.

    As it happens, the question is academic for me as I no longer live in London and won't have a vote this time round. But I voted for Ken at the first two Mayoral elections and in view of what he has achieved for the capital, I don't regret having done so.

    Ken is a flawed character, to be sure. But without wanting to get all preachy about it, we all are.

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    Sunday, January 20, 2008

    Could Hain's demise mean the end of the territorial departments?

    Yesterday Dizzy speculated that the government was about to create a new Department for Devolved Affairs from the existing Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland offices.

    By complete coincedence I said much the same sort of thing in my Saturday Column in the Newcastle Journal, arguing that the departure of part-time Welsh Secretary Peter Hain would create an opening for such a structural reshuffle.

    The Prime Minister would have done better, in my view, to have acted more decisively and used the departure of Mr Hain as an opportunity to strengthen his beleaguered administration.

    Firstly, it would have freed up a Cabinet berth for Darlington MP Alan Milburn, bringing much-needed fresh thinking into the government and enabling Mr Brown to stage a public rapprochement with the Blairites.

    Secondly, it would have created an opening for a long-overdue structural reshuffle, combining the territorial Cabinet posts under a single Department for Devolved Affairs.

    Why Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland still need a Cabinet minister each when they all now have their own elected First Ministers is not just beyond me but many other observers besides.

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    Britblog roundup nominations

    This week's Britblog Roundup will appear later today at Liberal England. From now on I'm going to try to make a practice of nominating the five best posts I've seen anywhere on the blogosphere each week, so here without further ado is this week's list:

    A slice of sheer genius from Tim Ireland

    Cranmer is not impressed with the idea of Blair as President of Europe

    Melanie Philips reckons the MSM are ignoring the story about the plot to kill the Queen.

    Ben Brogan puts the Tories on the spot over Northern Rock

    Justin McKeating wonders if it's worth Peter Hain carrying on living

    You are also allowed to nominate something from your own blog, and this week I've gone for my warm welcome back for King Kev.

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    Friday, January 18, 2008

    The dangers of employing SpAds

    Excellent and disarmingly honest post from Guido earlier today in which he admits that the unhelpful and hostile attitude of Peter Hain's special adviser had spurred him on in his attempts to get the bottom of the permatanned one's financial affairs.

    I think if we are all equally frank about it, this is a fairly common occurence in journalism. Most journalists would agree that if an official or press officer is being obstructive or difficult about something, it makes them all the more convinced there's a good story there, and hence all the more determined to get it.

    Since train stories are all the rage in the blogosphere at the moment, I will relate an incident that occurred some years ago on a train journey from Newcastle to London in which I found myself sat opposite the special adviser to the then local government minister, Hilary Armstrong.

    The man in question - I won't bother to name him as he no longer works for the government - sat in front of me with a briefcase on his lap and said words to the effect of: "There's something in here you'd really like to know about but which I'm not going to show you," and then preceded to spend the rest of the journey taunting me about it.

    It was stupid behaviour on two counts. First, it was hardly calculated to endear me to his then boss, Ms Armstrong, and second, it alerted me to the existence of a report which I would not otherwise have known about, and which I eventually obtained by other means.

    Only a few years earlier, the adviser in question had been a local councillor who was happy to use the regional press as a platform. It was clear that as soon as he graduated to national politics, the power went straight to his head.

    Alastair Campbell aside, the very worst example of all of a spAd who did huge damage to her boss's cause was of course Jo "bury bad news" Moore, although this was not something particular to me.

    Long before that shameful incident on the afternoon of 9/11, the woman brought in to soften Steve Byers' media profile in the hope of making him the next Labour Prime Minister had managed to alienate most of the Lobby, and there were very few tears shed over her spectacular fall from grace.

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    Thursday, January 17, 2008

    I would love it if they win something

    Eleven years ago last week, I travelled up to Newcastle to take up the job of Political Editor of its morning paper, The Journal. The idea was that I would spend my first week up there quietly getting to know the region and its key personalities before starting in earnest at Westminster the following week.

    Three days later, Kevin Keegan resigned as manager of Newcastle United, and the whole of Tyneside went crazy.

    I found myself pulled off some worthy feature about what Mo Mowlam would do if she became Northern Ireland Secretary to do a ring round of local MPs for their reaction to the Geordie Messiah's shock departure. It was clear that very few people were going to be interested in reading about politics that week.

    So the equally unexpected return of King Kev to St James' Park yesterday has brought back a few poignant memories for me.

    KK was lambasted at the time for having lost a 12-point lead in the 1995/96 Premiership race - and for "losing it" with Sir Alex Ferguson during a TV interview, although I've always though that clip showed him in his best, most passionate light.

    But the club has meandered terribly since he left, and Kenny Dalglish, Ruud Gullit, Sir Bobby Robson, Graeme Souness, Glenn Roeder and Sam Allardyce have all failed not just to bring in the silverware, but also - equally important to Newcastle fans - to replicate the excitement of Keegan's reign.

    The gap between the Premiership's so-called Big Four and the rest has widened during his time away, but he will enjoy the challenge, although he will have to strengthen that rather porous defence that leaked five goals to Man U last weekend.

    Keegan? Defence? Well, maybe not.

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    Wednesday, January 16, 2008

    The Diana non-story

    Like most rational human beings, I gave up on the Princess Diana "story" a long time ago. Although my very first reaction when I heard about her death was to assume that the secret services had bumped her off, the idea of the Duke of Edinburgh as some sort of murderous eminence grise is simply not credible.

    So I reckon Roy Greenslade's call for editors to stop reporting the increasingly tedious Diana Inquest is probably quite timely.

    But it seems to me there is a slightly deeper issue here to do with the nature of modern journalism which I am surprised that Greenslade, as a media commentator, does not address more fully. It concerns what I would term "journalism without context."

    Only this week, for instance, we have witnessed newspapers and broadcasters alike getting all excited over the second-hand "revelations" from the Princess's allies that she did not think Charles would become King, ignoring the fact that this ground was extensively covered by the Princess herself in her notorious 1995 Panorama interview.

    Similarly, there has been much made in recent days of the infamous "Mishcon letter" in which the Princess aired the fear that her car would be tampered with in order to cause her to have an "accident." This too has been in the public domain for a number of years.

    Maybe the press and broadcasting organisations think that the British public really does have the attention span of a gnat, and that after a certain amount of time has elapsed, any old rubbish can be presented as news on the basis that we'd all have forgotten about it first time round.

    Maybe they are adopting a "year zero" approach to journalism, where everything that happened before a given date is simply ignored. I have known this to happen on papers, for instance when the editor changes, and unscrupulous news eds try to hoodwink the new guy by presenting an old story as freshly-minted.

    Or maybe it's just that news organisations everywhere are still in thrall to the idea - almost certainly mistaken if the sales figures of the Daily Express are anything to go by - that Diana still sells papers.

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    I'm a voluntary regional collectivist

    Or at least so says the Political Compass website which places me firmly on the left of the economic debate and slightly south of the libertarian-authoritarian divide. I've no idea what voluntary regional collectivism is - I suspect it's a sort of cross between libertarian socialism and anarcho-syndicalism but let's not get bogged down by labels. Interestingly the international figure to whose views mine come closest, according to the site, is Nelson Mandela, which can't be bad.

    I was tagged to do this by South Tyneside's only Tory, Curly of Corner Shop fame, for which thanks. I'm not going to tag anyone else because this one has been round the block a few times already, but if anyone wants to have a go and let me know how they got on in the comments, feel free.

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    Tuesday, January 15, 2008

    Who cares if Cameron likes a puff?

    Charles Kennedy was famously caught smoking on a train after numerous unsuccessful attempts to give up, and now Kevin Maguire and Friends are speculating that David Cameron may be back on the evil weed. But even within the current climate of health fascism, does it really matter?

    Mr Cameron certainly wouldn't be the first to transgress in this way. I won't name the Labour health minister who told me in 1997 that he'd given up, only to be spotted on the Terrace having a crafty one a year later.

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    Hansard cleans up

    Armed Forces Minister Bob Ainsworth has reputedly had to be censored by Hansard after saying "bollocks" during a parliamentary debate.

    Of course, he is not the first holder of his post to have to rely on the good old Parliamentary Reporters to come to his rescue in such circumstances.

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    Is Gordon Brown a Thatcherite?

    Join the debate over at Liberal Conspiracy.

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    Monday, January 14, 2008

    The only way is down

    Little time tonight for any more detailed blogging on the Peter Hain story but I've not departed from my view that the real reason he's finished is because he spent 200 grand coming fifth behind Harriet Harman in the deputy leadership contest. However things pan out with the donations story, Hain has been living on borrowed political time ever since that dismal result and the only way is down from now on.

    Justin McKeating expresses this rather more bluntly, on Chicken Yoghurt:

    "Two hundred grand to be beaten in a popularity contest by Harriet bloody Harman? If I was him, I wouldn't be wondering if it was worth carrying on in politics, I'd be pondering whether it was worth carrying on living."

    I also strongly agree with James Forsyth on Coffee House that Brown's attempt to dress-up this morning's Sun article as a "vote of confidence" when in reality he has left Hain swinging in the wind hardly shows the Prime Minister in his best light.

    As I have previously advocated, if he showed some decisiveness, fired Hain and offered his job to Alan Milburn, he could yet salvage something from this situation.

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    Saturday, January 12, 2008

    Gordon the grinder

    Today's weekly Journal column focuses on Gordon Brown's relaunch over the past week and his apparent determination to "play it long" in the hope that his reputation can recover over the next 18 months to two years.

    "What is clear is that, having decided there will not be an election this year or maybe even next, the Prime Minister is now digging in for the long haul.

    There is a clear political logic to this. Possession is nine-tenths of the law and as things stand, Mr Brown does not have to give up the lease on 10 Downing Street until May 2010.

    Even if he were to go on until then and lose, he will still have had nearly three years as Prime Minister in which to lay down some kind of long-term legacy, in the hope that history might judge him rather better than his contemporaries.

    And of course, there is always just a chance that he might win, if he can govern competently and sensibly enough for the public to change their mind about him again."

    The piece can be read in full HERE.

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    Friday, January 11, 2008

    Hain's time has been and gone

    I have, in the past, been a great admirer of Peter Hain. Up to about 2002/3 he was a strong progressive voice within government who was occasionally given licence to challenge the orthodoxy, as when, for instance, he advocated a higher top rate of tax.

    There is a plausible counterfactual argument for saying that, had he resigned with his old ally Robin Cook over the Iraq War in 2003, as his former admirers on the left would have expected him to, he could conceivably have mounted a successful challenge to Gordon Brown in 2007, standing as an experienced former minister on an anti-war ticket.

    But it is clear that at some point around that time, Hain lost his balls. He failed to speak out against a war he must in his heart of hearts have opposed, and gradually, his left-field contributions to government policy-making dried up.

    Never having been entirely trusted by the right and with his credibility on the left now badly compromised, it did not surprise me in the least that he performed so poorly in last year's deputy leadership election, when he found his whole USP had been successfully purloined by Jon Cruddas.

    For me, that is what is so tragi-comic about Hain's current predicament - the fact that he spent £200,000 on a campaign which ended in near-humiliation for a man who once entertained serious aspirations to, if not the premiership, then certainly the Foreign Office.

    Since then, he has gone on to win one small but important victory as Work and Pensions Secretary, overcoming Treasury objections to secure a £725m rescue package for 125,000 workers who lost pension rights when their employers went bust or wound up their schemes.

    But even had the row over his campaign donations not occurred, I think it likely that he would have left the Cabinet at the next reshuffle, and hence I cannot help but think his time at the top of British politics is now drawing naturally to a close.

    Who knows - if it meant Gordon could bring in Alan Milburn as Work and Pensions Secretary and stage a public rapprochement with the Blairites, then this is one crisis that the government might even be able to turn to its advantage.

  • Cross posted at Liberal Conspiracy

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    Sir Edmund Hillary 1919-2008

    I can't let today pass without mention of Sir Edmund Hillary - probably not the greatest technical mountaineer in history, but without doubt the most important. In the days when it was a great newspaper, the Daily Express greeted his ascent of the world's highest mountain on Coronation Day with the memorable headline "All this and Everest too."

    The expedition members had trained beforehand in Snowdonia, basing themselves for several weeks at the Pen y Gwryd Hotel, a favourite fellwalking haunt of mine. I'll bet they'll be raising a few glasses to Sir Edmund in the hotel bar tonight.

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    Heaven knows I'm fashionable now

    Tory leader David Cameron has apparently been paying homage to his "musical hero" Morrissey again, this time with a visit to Salford Lads Club.

    We already know that This Charming Man is one of Dave's faves, but which other Smiths/Morrissey classics can be found on his iPod? Here's a few suggestions:

    Sweet and Tender Hoodie Hooligan
    I Started Something I Couldn't Finish
    Miserable Lie
    Please Please Please Let Me Get What I Want
    Nowhere Fast
    A Rush and a Push and the Land Is Ours
    Stop Me If You Think You’ve Heard This One Before
    Margaret on the Guillotine (Okay, maybe not this one...)

    Meanwhile a fellow Smiths fan emailed me with the following comment which may or may not be pertinent.

    "Presumably Cameron chose This Charming Man on Desert Island Discs in the hope that people would think the title suited him. Of course, anyone having found the time since 1983 to listen to the lyrics with anything approaching care will have wondered whether he saw himself as the boy on the desolate hillside with his punctured bicycle, waiting for nature to make a man of him, or the charming man who happens by in his charming car, where the leather runs smooth on the passenger seat."

    Does anyone know the answer?

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    Thursday, January 10, 2008

    Nuclear power - an apology

    With apologies to the Eye, here's how John Hutton's announcement on the expansion of the nuclear power industry this afternoon might have read....

    "This government, in common with the whole of the UK media, may in the past have given the impression that nuclear energy was the biggest threat to the future of humanity since the demise of Hitler. We were encouraged in this view by the disastrous safety record of the civil nuclear power industry dating from the numerous radiation leaks at Calder Hall Windscale Sellafield from the 1950s onwards to the explosion at Chernobyl in 1986 which left large parts of the former Soviet Union, along with most of the sheep in the Lake District, contaminated.

    We now realise that this view was in fact totally erroneous, and that the real threat to the future of humanity comes from global warming caused by the burning of fossil fuels. We further realise that because nuclear energy leaves absolutely no discernible carbon footprint - well, except of course for the whole business of building the power stations, and then transporting the uranium half way across the world to burn in them - it is therefore by far the safest and "greenest" way to meet our future energy needs.

    It will also save us the embarrassment of having to resurrect our own indigenous coal industry and give new jobs to all those grubby miners who were so sensibly and cleverly got rid of by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s, despite the fact that billions of tonnes of coal still lie untouched beneath our feet and notwithstanding the fact that developments in technology since then could probably extract the energy from this source without actually releasing any C02 into the atmosphere.

    This will remain our policy until there is another Chernobyl, in which case we along with everyone else will of course change our minds again."

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    Wednesday, January 09, 2008

    Nick Robinson and the US elections

    Earlier this week I took BBC political editor Nick Robinson to task on this blog for focusing on the frankly irrelevant question of whether Gordon Brown is "enjoying" being Prime Minister. The debate on this continues in the comments to the original post.

    Today, Nick was back with a post listing eight reasons why Hillary Clinton's victory in the New Hampshire primaries will reverberate through British politics over the coming weeks. And as the excellent Hopi Sen has already pointed out elsewhere, most of them are complete piffle.

    I don't want to appear as if I'm running a campaign against Nick. I actually like the guy and remember him from my time in Westminster as one the few senior political journalists who actually spoke to members of the regional lobby. On one occasion he even agreed, at my wife's request, to take a mobile phone photograph of her and me outside No 10 which she still shows off to her mates occasionally.

    Nevertheless I am beginning to wonder whether he is falling into the trap - an occupational hazard for all very influential journalists - of seeking to shape the political agenda rather than interpreting it for the benefit of his audience.

    The last paragraph of today's post says it all:

    "Those who insist that there cannot be any read across from the votes of small American states to British politics will be ignored because they simply don't get it. The political classes are gripped by this campaign. It will continue to feed into commentary, oratory and prediction all year - sometimes absurdly, occasionally aptly. The battle between Clinton and Obama, McCain, Romney and Huckabee is, like it or not, a part of Britain's electoral struggle."

    Roughly translated, this means:

    "Because, in the absense of a UK general election, I and my senior colleagues in the world of political journalism are gripped by this campaign to the point of obsession, the poor bloody viewer, listener and reader will continue to be forced to listen to us all trying to draw spurious analogies between it and the UK political scene whether or not this is actually justified."

    The job of BBC political editor has always involved striking a delicate balance between reporting and punditry. For all his all-round excellence, Robinson's predecessor Andrew Marr occasionally fell off that tightrope, for instance when he publicly commiserated with Alastair Campbell over the death of Dr Kelly.

    Far be it from me to teach the man at the top of my former profession how to suck eggs...but Robinson would be better-off in my view following the example of John Cole, who never forgot that the reporting role came first.

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    It's be nice to Clegg day/week/month/year

    Todays PMQs was chiefly notable for the spectacle of David Cameron and Gordon Brown falling over themselves to be nice to the new Liberal Democrat leader Nick Clegg. Expect this to be a central theme of British politics over the next two years as we approach a General Election that currently has hung Parliament written all over it.

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    Farewell Caroline

    A belated farewell to Caroline Hunt who has called time on her blog. We had our disagreements - well, she is a Tory after all - but I always rated her highly as one of the most individual voices in the blogosphere.

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    Tuesday, January 08, 2008

    Attack puppies called off?

    Last week both Iain Dale and the equally insightful and reputable UK Daily Pundit were confidently predicting that the government would declare "class war" on David Cameron.

    Dale went further and named the three so-called "attack puppies" who would be unleashed against the Tory leader - Tom Watson, Kevin Maguire and, oddly, Denis MacShane, who hardly fits the same stereotype.

    Well, it hasn't happened, but this doesn't necessarily mean the story wasn't true. It may just be that Gordon Brown has thought better of employing such a low-grade tactic at a time when he is once more trying to project himself as a serious and purposeful national leader.

    The British public are a funny lot. The one thing that might make them more inclined to vote for an Old Etonian than they might otherwise be is if someone sought to make an issue out of his Old Etonianism.

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    Bill Richardson is my man

    Courtesy of Iain Dale I couldn't resist having a go at the Electoral Compass USA test designed to see which presidential election candidate comes closest to your views.

    The answer in my case is the Democrat outsider Bill Richardson, with Hillary Clinton not far behind. The candidate whose views I am furthest away from is the Republican, Fred Thompson.

    Bill Richardson would be a good vice-presidential candidate to Clinton or Obama in my view - despite his English-sounding name he's actually a Hispanic so would draw the large Spanish vote in.

    I also expect Fred Thompson to end up on the ticket as a running mate to either John McCain or Rudy Guiliani.

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    Monday, January 07, 2008

    It's about service, not "enjoyment"

    Nick Robinson today returned to blogging after a lengthy Christmas break to pose the burning political question of the moment, namely is Gordon Brown enjoying the job?

    Leaving aside the question of why the BBC political editor chose to focus on this aspect of the Prime Minister's Today Programme interview this morning rather than discuss the actual content, I would have thought the answer was pretty obvious. Because for the great majority of people engaged in it, politics is about public service, not enjoyment.

    If you are the kind of person who "enjoys" power, you are almost certainly the wrong kind of person to be exercising it. If on the other hand you look on leadership as a responsibility, as Gordon does, then you might one day make a half-decent manager, or chief executive, or even Prime Minister.

    What surprises me about Nick's comments, and for that matter the whole line of questioning from Jim Naughtie in the first place, is that examples of the kind of self-sacrificial public service I am talking about abound in voluntary organisations, charities and public sector bodies the length and breadth of the land.

    Did my wife "enjoy" being chairperson of our local National Childbirth Trust branch last year? Not especially, but she did it because she believes in the NCT's work and wanted to see awareness of it growing in our community. And there are various unpaid jobs I've done, in the NUJ, in the Lobby, in my local church, which have brought me little but hassle but which similarly needed to be done.

    By following this politics-as-enjoyment agenda, Robinson and others are not only failing to understand what it is that makes Gordon tick, but failing to understand the motivation for much of what makes for civil society in this country.

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    Sunday, January 06, 2008

    Blairites can offer Brown fresh thinking

    A week ago today Stephen Byers wrote a piece in the Sunday Times declaring that Tony Blair was "history" and it was time for the Labour Party to get behind Gordon Brown. I thought this was a significant development, but didn't blog on it at the time because it was New Year and we had people staying and I had loads of cooking to do etc etc.

    I did however devote my weekly column in the Newcastle Journal to the story, and this can be read in full on the companion blog.

    The digested read is that this olive branch by Byers is intended to lay the ground for other key Blairites such as Alan Milburn and David Blunkett to bring forward new policy ideas without that interpreted as some sort of leadership challenge to Gordon.

    I argue that this fresh thinking is what the Brown administration now desperately needs, and that the Prime Minister should accept such help wherever it is being offered.

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    Friday, January 04, 2008


    I'm with Justin on this. Have a good weekend.

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    The US elections

    I'm no great expert on American politics. Indeed I have never really understood it, how for instance someone who couldn't remember the name of the Pakistani president in a live TV interview (I'll bet he can remember it now) could ever be elected, or how someone who lied about not having had "sexual relations with that woman Miss Lewinsky" could have remained in office after being found out. It's clearly a political culture where different sorts of rules apply to that of our own.

    Nevertheless, I do know enough about politics in general to know that elections are generally won and lost in the centre ground, and enough about the USA to know that for many Americans, Hillary Clinton remains a dangerously divisive figure. It is my strong hunch, therefore, that if Clinton emerges after Iowa, New Hampshire and "Super Tuesday" as the runaway favourite for the Democratic nomination, the election is the Republicans' to lose.

    Realistically the presidency is going to go to one of six men and one woman. Although there are a number of fringe contenders, the serious candidates are, on the Republican side, Rudy Guiliani, Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and John McCain, and on the Democrat side, Barack Obama, John Edwards and Mrs Clinton.

    Tonight's Iowa caucuses are likely to be won by Obama and Huckabee. That does not, however, mean they are likely to be their party's nominees. In fact it will mean little in the bigger scheme of things besides giving them some temporary momentum going into the more important battles over the coming weeks.

    So who do I think will emerge victorious? Well, with the Republican nomination more wide open, and hence less likely to be resolved by Super Tuesday, I have a view that that party's eventual choice may well depend on who ends up as the Democrat front-runner.

    If that is Clinton, my hunch is that the Republicans will plump for the experienced and reassuring figure of McCain. If however Obama emerges victorious on the Democrat side - I think Edwards has probably left himself too much to do - the Grand Old Party may feel that it, too, can gamble on a younger and less experienced candidate such as Romney or even Huckabee.

    The key question for the Republican Party in this election is the one rather inelegantly posed by a lady at one of John McCain's campaign meetings, namely: "How do we beat the bitch?" The (rather obvious) answer is to choose the candidate with the greatest appeal to swing voters, and that is McCain.

    It is early days, but I am convinced that if Clinton is the Democratic nominee, then the Arizona senator will go on to win not only the Republican nomination but also the presidency.

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    Wednesday, January 02, 2008

    The blogroll 2007

    Thanks to everyone who linked to my blog during 2007, including those who managed to accidentally delete me from their sidebars. For the record - and because we all love a good list - the Top 30 referrers for the year (excluding Google searches) are set out below. Sadly three of these blogs - Labour Watch, British Spin, and the much-missed The Daily - are no longer with us, but the rest continue to thrive.

    1. Iain Dale's Diary
    2. Guido Fawkes
    3. Political Betting
    4. Turbulent Cleric
    5. Jane's the One
    6. Witanagemot Club
    7. Dizzy Thinks
    8. Tom Watson
    9. Comment is Free
    10. UK Daily Pundit
    11. Liberal England
    12. Chicken Yoghurt
    13. Mars Hill
    14. Kate's Home Blog
    15. Labour Watch
    16. Bloggerheads
    17. w4mp
    18. British Spin
    19. Praguetory
    19. Skipper
    21. Obsolete
    22. Bob Piper
    23. Rachel from North London
    24. The Daily
    25. Croydonian
    26. Conservative Home
    27. Politaholic
    28. Liberal Conspiracy
    28. Mike Ion
    30. Tim Worstall

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    The New Year lambs

    It's been a busy time in the Linford household over the past 10 days with family staying for Christmas, friends up from the Smoke for New Year, and a housewarming party sandwiched somewhere in between, but although I could probably do with another week off work to recover, I'm pleased to say a thoroughly good time was had by all.

    Of the many nice surprises over the holiday season, perhaps the best and most unexpected were the new-born lambs that appeared in the field adjoining our garden - ten of them at the last count. They certainly didn't tell us about that in the estate agents' blurb.

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