Thursday, November 30, 2006

Russian risks

We hosted Pizza and Politics last night. Dr Alan Riley came and delivered a most learned speech on the effect of the Russian energy situation. He argued that Putin's Russia is attempting to use her vast reserves of natural gas to build up her great power status and influence over neighbouring countries. The danger for Russia was that a fall in energy prices, possibly compounded by a decline in Russian production driven by under-investment, would greatly weaken Russia. This would be Russia's 'Suez' moment and would help expose her decline as a world power. The impact of that on the country would be bleak.

His paper on this can be downloaded from

Recent events involving poison have obviously made everyone far more aware of Putin's Russia but I was still delighted by the turn out to discuss the topic. A spirited conversation covered everything from the impact of Russia's energy situation on the rise of China, to the future of Qatar's gas fields, to new technology's impact on the environment to how we could use less energy in Islington.

I am especially concerned about the impact on Russia's democracy. Rising national wealth means that the population are more willing to turn a (short term) eye to the Government's increasing illiberal ways, whilst the sheer volumes of cash associated with natural resources will increase corruption ( In Russia this is compounded by the nature of the corporations in the energy industry who have been snapping up the Russian media to make them more biddable to the Kremlin. I used to work with Izvestia - a then-independent Russian newspaper - it is now part of the Gazprom group. That one potential Kremlin candidate for the Presidency is rumoured to be the current Chair of Gazprom (Russia's quasi-Governmental energy titan) tells its own story.

However, Russia's greatest wealth is its people - who are energetic, often embarassingly well-educated and not shy about saying what they think (my wife is Russian...). They will not put up with poor Government for ever. On those grounds at least I am less pessimistic that Alan.

Still the fact that I took away from the meeting was that Russia is estimated to flare (the burning off of surplus gas produced when oil is being pumped from the ground) nearly as much gas as the UK consumes. Thats a lot of energy conservation in Islington...

Monday, November 27, 2006

Afghanistan matters

Had dinner with a couple of (civilian) friends recently returned from Afghanistan, where they have been working in pretty tough circumstances. Not only are there the obvious threats from hostile action - and appalling traffic safety - but there are more insidious dangers. There is little to do but work - so work they do every hour that God gives. When usually energetic people fall asleep on your sofa mid-sentence you know that they may just have been pushing themselves a little bit too hard. Or, alternatively, I really need to brush up on my conversational skills...

Although there is much press concern at recent casualties in both Afghanistan and Iraq it is important that we do not treat the two engagements in a similar way. The Iraq invasion was a misconceived, illegal and foolish act of over-reaching arrogance on the part of the US and UK Governments. In Afghanistan by contrast, there was some justification for external involvement (if nothing else there was a link to September 11th terrorists), and this was a country that desperately needed a fresh chance.

The tragedy is that the urgent race in to Iraq means that we wasted critical years (and resources) better devoted to helping the new Afghan Government. Afghanistan's strong clan system, weak central institutions and multiple (bribe-able) guerilla warlords means that it is a place where to overthrow and replace the central Government is remarkably easy. But to then hold everything together is almost imposible. The Soviets, various warlords including the Taleban and now Americans have discovered this to their peril.

Everything from historical antecedents (one 19th Century British army had but one survivor - a doctor - when they tried to fight their way back to India from Kabul) to what is amongst the most rugged (and beautiful) geographies in the world suggests that we are in in for hard time. But try we must. The last time we abandoned Afghanistan - after they had forced the Soviet withdrawal (and added a pretty huge nail to the coffin of the Eastern Bloc) - we ended up with the rise of the Taleban - and the road to September 11.

The challenge though is to decide what we are aiming to do: is it to stabilise the country, to defeat the drug-traffickers, to destroy what remains of Al-Quadea, to capture Osama bin Laden or to bring development and support to a nation that badly needs it? Clarity on objectives - and a sense of humility and understanding that we can only achieve what the Afghan people want us to achieve - is vital if this is not to turn in to another Iraq.

The Council can manage Housing, Only Gov can fix it

As a Liberal I welcome diversity. And Islington is one of the most diverse places in London, possibly the world. But it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

As the Guardian reminded us last Friday,,1955770,00.html the rising cost of private housing and the shortages of social housing mean there is a real divide opening up in the borough. On current trends only richer and richer people can afford to move in to new private homes (although the costs of mortgages mean that they get considerably poorer). Meanwhile the point system run by Islington Council rightly rewards those most in need, those furthest away from the average. So Islington gets more 'diverse' - read 'divided'.

This is exacerbated by the refusal of successive Governments (Tory and Labour) to fund renewed Council house building. Those that do go up are usually the end result of developers being forced by the Council to build them as part of planning permission (now expected to be 50% of new units for developments over 10-units large).

All this means that the Islington I grew up in - with lots of people "in the middle" - is increasingly far away. And this is true all across London - the net effect of being a key hub in the global economy (with huge increases in the numbers of wealthy people from all over the world attracted to the City), strong limits on housing development and poor transport links (which mean that everyone wants to live as close to the centre as possible).

The Council does what it can. According to Terry Stacy, responsible for housing on the Council, there is no one in temporary accomodation and key public sector workers are OK. Although the Council point system rewards those who grew up here it is only a way of rationing what there is a shortage of: housing. We still have 13,000 people on the waiting list for better accomodation. And only the Government has the financial clout to deal with that.

I am lucky, I can afford to remain in Islington. Many others who grew up here cannot - and that is not good enough. Islington needs a Liberal MP who will fight for proper Government investment in new housing stock. And a little less diversity.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

View from the top

Visited the Camden Council byelection again today. I went to a nearby comprehensive so its good to go back to the neighbourhood. A good candidate, a great team and the most amazing campaign headquarters perched on the rooftops of London. Also a real chance to build on all the great work that the new Camden Council are up to.

Friday, November 24, 2006

Write to your MP, maybe

Our local New Labour lawyer MP, Emily Thornberry, is not yet famous for her love of hard work. is a site that allows people to write to their MP - and get an answer.

Their published statistics for 2005 show that Emily managed to come 679th amongst the MPs for her ability to reply to letters. And they only ranked 687 of them...
Even Tony Blair - for this at least he has an excuse - managed to pip her to the post at 678th.

This means that she answered 8.9% of the 152 letters she received within 2-3 weeks. Not quite sure what she spent £13,169 of postage and stationery on then for last year's expenses. Anyone have any ideas?

Tory Campaign To**er

You could not make it up.

The rise in personal debt is a really important issue that Vince Cable, the LibDem Shadow Chancellor, has been campaigning about since before the last Election. As with many LibDem issues the Tories have recently caught up with it and - in typical Notting Hill style - have launched a "Toss out the Tosser Inside" web campaign at

According to the Press Association report, cited by Iain Dale

"David Buonaguidi, creative director of Karmarama - the advertising agency which created the film - said: "Every Christmas we toss away millions of pounds on things we don't really want or need. We wanted to confront people with this behaviour and help them realise that this kind of spending just isn't very smart. "The Tosser Inside is a wake-up call designed to appeal to an audience that usually screens out this sort of message.""

What exactly does Mr Buonaguidi think that he is in advertising to do?

Letter in the gazette

I had another letter published in the Isligton Gazette this week, talking about the November 15th article in the Evening Standard about rises in London Council tax. Apparently it has risen by 86 percent in the past decade - which is more than double the rise in pay over the same period.

What the sidebar added was that Islington Council has had the second lowest rise in London over that period - coming in at 37.2%. Labour controlled Camden was 65.6% and Hackney was 43.8%. Just shows how sensible management can make life more bearable for the people of Islington. According to these numbers Islington Council tax grew more slowly than pay rises.

Friday, November 03, 2006

A world of haves and have nots

I'd like to recommend the Gapminder website. This includes a brilliant presentation that lays out the huge development gaps that continue to plague the developing world.

It illustrates two things very clearly:

As East Asia pulls itself forward through rapid economic expansion (the largest single surge out of poverty in a single generation that history has ever seen) the development challenge is increasingly focused on Africa. I used to work as a teacher in rural Zimbabwe. This was a hands-on education on both the path forward for Africa (increased education, a diversified economy backed up by clear ownership rights, the roll out of basic health provision, provision of clean water and enough infrastructure to allow access to markets and services for all) and the challenges (particularly governance issues in the form of an increasingly corrupt and autocratic governing elite, the dangers of foreign entanglements - i.e. the civil war in the Congo in search of plunder - but also the external factors of world commodity prices and poor weather that can hit agriculture- based economies). The world owes Africa all the help it can get. But African leaders owe their people even more.

The second thing it shows is that differences (economic and health) within countries are at least as large as those between countries. The income differential between the bottom 20% and the top 20% in Namibia, for example, is the same as that between Sierra Leone (one of the world's poorest, war-torn countries) and Japan (where robots are increasingly being primed to take over household duties). I remember hitch-hiking on UN vehicles through the beauty of Namibia as it got its Independence from South Africa; its sad that that so much remains to be done.

What strikes me even closer to home though is that in Islington we face the same issue: the rich are getting richer and the poor, poorer. Tony Blair's Government has presided over increasing wealth disparity. It never was right in Zimbabwe - and it sure is not going to create a healthy society in the UK.

I look forward to a UK version of