Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Crisis at Christmas

I am volunteering at Crisis at Christmas, the homeless charity, again this year.

An early start this morning so I won't write much now (its well past midnight) as I've another early start tomorrow but a few thoughts from today:
  • Volunteers do a variety of tasks. My first job was an outside job making sure that everything was orderly in Leadenhall square next to the shelter. On one side of the square is the Lloyd's building, dating from the City's last great boom in the 1980's. On the other is the 'Erotic Gherkin' Swiss re building squarely from the current boom. Quite a contrast to the makeshift shelter housed on two floors of what was an M&S mini-market and London branch of an Italian merchant bank until recently. The square was full of people bustling to work as the City awoke from its Christmas slumber - speaking the myriad languages that are the hallmark of one of the world's leading financial centres. Inside the shelter this is reflected in the thick set of pages at reception telling volunteers how to greet homeless guests in a dozen different languages. London's contrasts - linguistic, financial and personal - never cease to amaze, worry and inspire me.
  • Working at Crisis at Christmas always restores in me real faith in the fundamental quiet decency of so many of my fellow citizens - whether guest or volunteer. If you want to help Crisis (or better yet volunteer!) go to
  • Speaking to guests, and hearing their stories of how they ended up on the streets I always am struck that, but for the grace of God, there go I. The gap between living in a stable, secure home (often with family) and the life on the streets is scarily narrow.

Now to bed, much to do tomorrow.

Thursday, December 21, 2006

Education and the Environment

The ongoing weakness of British scientific education - engineering, physics, mathematics and natural sciences - has been widely discussed. The seeming inability of Britain's businesses to harness the inventive power of the UK's scientists and engineers is also much lamented. These issues are usually seen in the context of the decline of Britain's long term international economic competitiveness.

However, they may be even more important than this.

The UK has long been a hub of scientific advance - the Industrial Revolution was born on these shores and the proportion of recent inventions is significantly higher than our population, or relative GDP would warrant. A recent BBC webpage lists the computer, the pill, the photo-copier, aspirin, television, the mobile phone, the jet engine and the flushing toilet...

It may well be that there is something in the British education system or character that means that - even though we struggle to organise the latest in cutting edge manufacturing processes - we have an inventive streak that few others can match.

If so, the decline of our science grad output may mean that the pool of inventors who might just help save the environment is getting smaller. Less scientific grads means less inventions means less chance for useful inventions for the environment. This alone obviously will not be enough to tackle climate change (indeed it sounds rather like a George Bush policy). The Liberal Democrats have the right set of tax policies to begin to move in the right direction, but break-through technology would surely help.

Then again, my first degree was in medieval history so what do I know?

Caroline, or Change

Had a lovely family outing to see 'Caroline, or Change' at the National Theatre Its a somewhat surreal opera - the opening scenes include bursts of song from a washing machine and a dryer - but one that powerfully evokes a time (and characters from); the South of the US in 1960s. It shows how fundamentally good people can be propelled to speak evil through no real fault of their own; and the challenge of how to live a life well.

And Tonya Pinkins who plays the title role can both act - and really belt it out!

Tuesday, December 19, 2006

Reid back tracks on ID database

John Reid has just announced that they will not, after all, be building a giant computer database for storing all our ID card information:
They will still gather the information but it will be on a variety of existing databases.

So we go from an overarching, overweening white elphantine waste of money with significant implications for individuals' privacy to the mere wastage of moderate sums, marginal impact on our privacy and mundane inefficiency.

A typically 3rd rate fudge from a Government whose management abilities never cease to underwhelm.

If only I could believe that someone had had a twinge of conscience about the impact of their ID project - instead it will be a simple realisation that they were staring down a black hole, financially and technically. They will portray the amount not spent on the system as a "saving".

PS Not a bad day to bury the news as the Ipswich murders spring back to national headlines...

Oops, he did it again

Iain Dale, one of the godfathers of political blogging, has just posted about my General Election opponent in Rotherham in 2005, Denis MacShane under the title of "Denis MacShane Falls Foul of Mr Speaker". (

In asking Margaret Beckett the question:
"Next year, Britain will celebrate two great acts of union—that with Scotland and that within the European Union. May I invite my right hon. Friend to take off her sober Foreign Secretary garb and, now and then, return to Margaret the great campaigner and campaign against some of the rancid rabble on the Opposition Benches who reject both the EU and the Act of Union with Scotland?"
he apparently strayed off her Ministerial scope and in to the overtly political.

As a strong supporter of both the EU and the Act of Union I happen to agree with Denis. In questioning if we can ever have a "Scottish" Prime Minister the Tories are playing with fire for the sake of short term political gain against Gordon Brown. And their anti-Europe stance runs profoundly counter to the country's long term interests.

Denis' best point, but a pity for the country, is that he is probably the staunchest ally of the European Union in the Labour Party. It was a combination of Brown's irritation at this - and his repeated hunt for media airtime, sometimes at the cost of caution - that hastened his departure from the role of Europe Minister after the last General Election.

But its hard to keep him down - only Denis would treat the 9% swing I got against him at the last General Election as something to celebrate in his acceptance speech. The reason? For the first time since World War I the two "progressive parties" had put the Tories in to 3rd place.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

Sad Ending

Watching the closing days of the Blair regime I am torn between anger and sadness.

Anger at the squalid little scandals that are causing long term damage to the fabric of our democracy; cash for peerages, dodgy decisions on corrupt arms dealing probes, lies about Iraq, vast sums squandered on ID cards... The list is long.

Sadness because in 1997 Blair had a once in generation opportunity. A massive majority, an awesome political machine, a huge wave of popular and media goodwill, a discredited opposition - he could have done anything.

Anything. Rebuilt our education system, re-engineered Britain's relationship with Europe, created a thorough (and properly thought through) reform of our political set-up, delivered an NHS for the 21st Century...

The gamble he chose to take was Iraq.

And he could have done anything... How can you not be sad?

Thursday, December 14, 2006

How NuLab works

If you want to see how New Labour runs the country then switch on your telly now.

As the media focuses on the unfolding tragedy in Ipswich and flashes back to the death of Princess Di they have chosen today to slip out a whole bunch of news.

  • 2,500 post offices will face the axe.
  • There will be a third runway at Heathrow (doubtless the "very last" such development...).
  • The Serious Fraud Office probe in to British Aerospace's questionable sales relationship with the Saudi Royal family when they purchased Eurofighters will be closed down. (According to the BBC the SFO said "No weight has been given to commercial interests or to the national economic interest.")
But then the bubble burst on them - and Inspector Yates' team had a chat with the PM so at least that will probably head the news.

Despite all this the story that heads the BBC website's most read list is rather more fishy:

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Obama fever

The emergence of Barack Hussein Obama brings hope to those depressed by American politics. This from the nation that gave the world George Bush.

The decline of American influence and prestige around the world is not ultiamately to the world's benefit, however much it has been abused by the current President. There are precious few world problems that America is not critical to help solve. I have monitored two elections in Kosovo (raw, inspirational, hectic affairs for ultimately disappointing electoral results); a province that Europe was not willing or able to intervene in alone. And the powers seeking to fill America's place in the world rarely inspire great confidence.

Bush's misguided pursuit of American unilateralism has simply revealed its inherent futility. America was key to the creation of the post-war multi-lateral UN for good reason. Now the US military has learnt the hard way that their overwhelming power, once used, is spent. And America's enemies have learnt to go nuclear as fst as they can - it is no accident that it is on Bush's watch that the number of nuclear nations has practically doubled.

And at home America is more divided than ever. The incompetence and indifference revealed during Hurricane Katrina was simply the thin end of the Bush wedge: massive tax cuts for the rich, a grotesquely unblanced budget and widespread corporate favouratism.

And lets not get started on his environmental record.

Obama might just be an over-hyped media flash-in-the-pan. But wouldn't it be nice if he wasn't?

PS Although the idea of a female President is incredibly attractive it is not clear that Hilary Clinton's current favourite status will carry her through. Besides a Presidential line up that has gone Bush - Clinton - Clinton - Bush - Bush and then Clinton - Clinton (by when George's brother Jeb will ready for another Bush - Bush?) has a certain nepotism to it. How grateful must we be that neither Carol Thatcher or James Major looks set to take up politics....

Monday, December 11, 2006

Ticketless Tory

See that there is a small story in the press today about David Cameron losing his ticket on the way to Wembley. He allegedly got off with buying a new one for £3 rather than paying the £30 fine.

Ok, so what. Man forgets ticket, ticket collector treats him decently. Big deal.
Except that...

"His spokesman said: "David did buy a ticket. He was even able to produce the receipt for it when he arrived at Wembley Park. ""

Who exactly gets a receipt on the Tube for a £3 ticket when they are travelling for personal reasons? Have you tried to get a receipt on the Tube? Most odd.

Crunch time for Cameron?

I'd keep an eye on Cameron in the coming months.This is make or break time - and it may be coming faster than expected.

His plan has always appeared to be to spend Year 1 re-positioning the Tory Party away from its "nasty" roots by surprising us all with his 'liberal' acts and comments. That his first interview post-elevation as Tory leader was in The Observer has always struck me as a class move. The year since then has been somewhat haphazard - and occasionally disastrous as when ambused by Douglas Alexander who dubbed his comments on youth crime as "hug a hoodie" - but the implicit promise has always been that we should withhold judgement until his policy commissions began to report.

Well, they are beginning to report. The Tax Commission made various suggestions (£21bn in tax and spendings cuts, no suggestion of green taxes) that the leadership recoiled in horror from. Now Iain Duncan-Smith has delivered his views on poverty in Britain and - behind what probably was not a snear at gay families - there are some familiar themes emerging. Family break-down, growing debt, declining social mobility under Labour even as the sums spent on benefits rise inexorably... Good of the Tories to finally catch on to what has been happening to this country that they used to run.

But the challenge for Cameron is where to raise his policy standard. Is it on a liberal position that will increase the number of disaffected Tories turning to UKIP's "commmon sense" and continue the sniping that he has received from the Daily Mail. Or will it be on traditional Tory ground?

The NuTory answer would presumably be the former, but there must be some concern within the senior echelons of the party over the potential disaffection of the rank and file activists. Blair's great triangulation success included a love / hate relationship with the Labour front line: he would alternatively bate them (to satisfy Murdoch / the Daily Mail) and then throw them nuggets like the ban on fox-hunting. Cameron's biggest effort to deliver to the rank and file: pulling the Conservatives out of the EPP Group in the European Parliament ended in tears. Now we hear almost daily reports of unrest in the shires:

And the press are beginning to tire of the 'Cameron is a darling' storyline. Expect more references to Eton; who knows, even some scandal on one of his inner circle? Opinion polls are inconclusive but trending away from a clear Tory victory. Tony always looked like a winner, hence his party stuck with him almost whatever he did. Cameron may never get the luxury of such treatment.

Policy is the right way to judge Cameron - but this moment is fast approaching. I suspect that there will be far less "I don't know"s about him in six months time. If not, he is in trouble.

Sunday, December 10, 2006

Pinochet's Death

I suspect that there'll not be many tears - apart from those of Margaret Thatcher - at the death of General Pinochet. What is sad is that he never properly faced justice for the 3,000-odd people who "disappeared" during his dictatorship.

In this country, Pinochet will be remembered for definining the high point of New Labour's "ethical foreign policy" when he was placed under house arrest in the UK. And then the end of it when he was released by Jack Straw.

Friday, December 08, 2006

ID nightmare

Where the Government's new ID database might just take us...
Make sure that you have the sound turned up.
(hat tip to Iain Dale)

... And for some political balance here's one on the same subject recommended by Labour blogger Recess Monkey

Camden triumph

Great news for the Liberal Democrats in the Kentish Town bylection where we came through to victory last night. Two key results: Labour's rout continues in Camden, once a flagship Council; recovering from this will be hard. Secondly, the Greens' candidate Sian Berry is their "national principal speaker" [translation: Leader] - so this makes for a pretty high profile defeat.

The full result was:
Ralph Scott (Lib Dem) 1093
Green (Sian Berry) 812
Labour (Reverend Sam McBratney - who I last campaigned against when he lost to the Liberal Democrats in the Bunhill ward in Islington earlier this year) 808
Conservative 198

So well done Ralph and team (amongst many others Ed Fordham, Janet Grauberg, David Simmons, Jeremy Ambache, Dominc Mathon, Pete Dollimore, Nick Russell, Philip Thompson and Patricia Hutton). The campaign had a great feel to it, good literature, massive support from across London (Islington got a special thanks for Marisha Ray's telecanvassing operation) and - it is apparently on the market - the fanciest campaign HQ I have ever seen.

Tuesday, December 05, 2006

Unsung soldiers of democracy

Running local parties must be one of the least lauded jobs in Britain.

Its hard work. There are (rightly) increasing numbers of checks (especially on the money), some with potential legal implications. Its not as glamorous as being a Councillor, and there is no allowance attached. And if you're a Tory, there's a high chance that CCHQ will come down on you if you fail to live up to their view of the world

I was reminded of this when I attended the London New Local Party Officer training yesterday. I was impressed by both the calibre of the trainers - in the case of Treasurers the estimable David Allworthy - and the enthusiasm of the various participants (its still early days!).

Ultimately getting good local party Execs is critical to both the ability of a party to campaign - but also to the political health of the UK as a whole. They are the ones who sweat to make things happen, who ensure that the right candidates get selected to (ultimately) run the country and whose day-to-day activity keeps the whole democracy show on the road. And these are often the same community-minded people who might also run a local charity or the village fete.

PS I had a follow-on question for David Allworthy today to which he responded incredibly quickly (if not yet with the answer I was hoping for!). This sort of thing makes all the difference when you are a volunteer Treasurer trying to get the fiddly paperwork done in the spare moments between campaigning and the day job. It will mean some extra time for Kentish Town over the next day or two.

Sunday, December 03, 2006

One last push

Another visit to Camden yesterday. One final push - hopefully there'll be something to celebrate this Thursday.

If you can get there to help in the last week of the Council by-election then contact the team at campaign HQ, Flat 17, Apollo Studios, Charlton Kings Road, London, NW5 2SB. The views from HQ make the visit alone worth it.

A year of spin

Its the anniversary of David "call me Dave" Cameron's election as leader of the Tories. Much has been made of both his various PR stunts (some of which have hilariously back-fired such as the chauffeur-driven car that follows his bike to work) and the difficulties Labour appears to be having deciding how to deal with him. As an admirer of Tony he has definitely copied those subtle arts of spin.

He has had an impact in Islington. The rise in Tory support at the last Council Election - although never within a million miles of electing a Tory - definitely helped the Labour Party. Dave promised 'Vote Blue, Get Green'; in Islington that was very clearly a case of 'Vote Blue, Get Red'.

And he has moved some political journalism on from yet another retelling of the latest developments in the ongoing soap opera that is the Tony-Gordon relationship.

However, the simple question that I find it impossible to answer is this: whatever your view on the set of problems facing the next Prime Minister - and there are many - how can the answer ever be someone whose only discernible skill is PR?

Friday, December 01, 2006

World AIDS Day

I used to be an English Language and Literature teacher in a rural school in Zimbabwe. Every morning I used to read out a roll call for my classes, names eagerly answered by kids who might just have run several miles barefoot to be in class.

Since then Zimbabwe has been through a rough patch. But overshadowing the combination of poor weather and disastrous government has been the terrible curse of AIDS. Even when I was teaching there nearly two decades ago we were aware that AIDS was a menace – but now around 1 in 5 people in Zimbabwe are infected with HIV. Today is World AIDS day:

The uniquely devastating impact of AIDS is that it hits the most productive, dynamic and attractive segments of society – quite literally those most able to have multiple sexual partners. So attractive, well educated and rich young people are the group with the highest chance of suffering. Most historical diseases by contrast – like the medieval plagues or the 20th century influenza – would typically cut down the old, the very young and the weak. AIDS does the opposite.

So a country that desperately needs economic development, that has invested so much in the education of its youth faces the tragedy that these are the very ones being cut down. The children I taught were the ones most likely to move to the cities in the hope of getting a job to match their new education, the ones whose lifestyle changes left them most open to this most insidious of killers. And abject misrule means that anti-retroviral drugs that could keep people alive are just not getting through.

A couple of years ago I was working in Africa again and I went back to my old school for a brief visit. It was at the time of an election so signs of Mugabe’s misrule could be seen in scorched patches on the road (from tyre-burning road blocks) and the occasional burst of tear gas as the ZANU-PF Womens’ League rampaged across Harare.

But infinitely more chilling was the huge sign that had been erected over the local township where I had taught. It only had three words: “Coffins For Sale”.

A former student told me of some of the people who had ‘passed away’ – some I knew, some I did not. I dread to think what would happen if I started that roll call today.