Just days after the County Council elections and as we begin to look forward to the 2014 elections, which include all of the London Boroughs, one of the ruling Labour Groups in London has split. Harrow is one of those authorities which has switched between Labour and Conservative control.
In 2010 Labour won back majority control from a Conservative administration which had been in place since 2006. However, the ruling Labour Group has long been riven with factions and personal feuds. This has culminated in “a significant number” of Labour Councillor resigning from the ruling Group to form an “Independent Labour Group” including the Leader of the Council Cllr Thaya Idaikkadar. This break follows a successful Group leadership challenge from Cllr David Perry who was elected Labour Leader last month.
The Independent Labour Group claims to hold true to Labour value and principles but the personality clash which has led to the split surely means that the two rival Labour Groups will not work together and that the Council must now be considered under “no overall control”. Before the split Labour had 34 Councillors, Conservatives 25, Independents 3, and the Lib Dems just 1.
It is not clear how many Councillor have formed the breakaway Independent Labour Group but my sources tell me it will be “between six and ten”. It will also be interesting to see what happens in next year’s London elections. Will the Independent Labour Group run candidates against the official Labour candidates?
UPDATE: I have been sent this link which indicates that NINE Labour Councillors have resigned to form the new Independent Labour Group. The Official Labour Group therefore has the same number of Councillors as the Conservatives!
The elections on Thursday were the subject of much speculation in advance and the post-result analysis has not been any less comprehensive. I set out my thoughts and predictions here. So how did each of the parties do?
Overall it is UKIP which grabbed the headlines with its gain of around 140 seats, well ahead of what most pundits (including me) predicted. The average expectation was for gains of 40-50 seats, but the gains in three authorities alone busted through this number. UKIP did especially well in four Councils in Eastern England: Lincolnshire (16), Cambridgeshire (12), Norfolk (15) and Kent (17). They also did well in Hampshire (10) and West Sussex (10), Suffolk (9), and Essex (9) but failed to gain a single seat in Bristol, Cumbia, Derbyshire, Durham, Hertfordshire, Lancashire, Northumberland, Nottinghamshire, Oxfordshire, Shropshire, and Warwickshire. They put in a very creditable performance in the South Shields by-election, coming in second place with 24%, but failing to match the 28% they achieved in Eastleigh.
The Lib Dems did about as badly as expected, losing around 130 seats. They managed to hold on reasonably well in some of their stronger areas such as Cornwall but were badly depleted in Bristol (-10), Cambridgeshire (-9), Northumberland (-15), West Sussex (-13) and Durham (-18). They had no outright control of any of the Councils up for election and ended the count with none. Of more significance in the longer term is that they have lost their largest party status in Bristol and Northumberland, and their position as the official opposition party to UKIP in Buckinghamshire, Kent, Norfolk, and West Sussex. In the Parliamentary by-election in South Shields the Lib Dems were pushed into a humiliating SEVENTH place, behind the BNP and some Independents.
Labour made modest gains, with a net increase of just 291 seats. This was fewer than even the most pessimistic forecasts suggested. The independent local government analysts Professors Ralling and Thrasher suggested around 350 gains would be the minimum Labour needed to suggest that they were making decent progress from their 2009 nadir. I expected around 400 gains, and others predicted 500-600 gains. Labour was expected to at least regain the four Councils they lost in 2009, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire, Derbyshire and Staffordshire, with Cumbria being a possible bonus. In the event they only managed to gain Derbyshire and Nottinghamshire, the latter with the narrowest possible margin. Cumbria remained No Overall Control, Lancashire went to No Overall Control, and, most surprising of all, Staffordshire remained Conservative with a decent majority. The only authority where they swept the board was Durham where they already had a majority. Labour made small advances in most Councils but still ended the count with fewer than 10 Councillors in most southern authorities. Labour won the South Shields by-election with a reduced majority and also won the two Mayoral elections in Doncaster (Gain from Ind) and North Tyneside (Gain from Cons).
The Conservatives were expecting a kicking in these elections from both Labour and UKIP. Rallings and Thrasher predicted losses of around 310 seats, I expected losses of around 400, and others predicted losses of over 600 seats and all but 2 authorities. In the end the net seat losses were constrained to just 335 and the Conservatives retained most of the Councils they were defending. In those they lost to No Overall Control most have the Conservatives as the largest party and will therefore likely retain control as a minority administration or as part of a coalition. There were a number of surprises in all respects: the Conservatives kept control of Somerset and Staffordshire against all expectations but lost Lincolnshire and Norfolk to No Overall Control as a result of the UKIP surge. They even managed to increase their Councillor numbers in Surrey and Northumberland! The Daily Mail produced the swingometer (right) which suggested that losses of around 300-350 would be mildly dangerous for Cameron but well below the level which would be considered a catastrophe. The black spot for the Conservatives was the loss of the North Tyneside Mayoralty where Linda Arkley had done an excellent job and was a useful example of a Conservative winning in a northern urban area.
At the end of the counting process the Conservatives won over 1,100 Councillors (-335) and 18 Councils (-10), Labour won 538 Councillors (+291) and 3 Councils (+2), Lib Dems won 352 Councillors (-124), Independents won 165 Councillors (+24), UKIP won 147 Councillors (+139), and the Greens won just 22 Councillors (+5). The BNP were wiped out with zero Councillors elected. Conservatives control County Councils in all parts of England, North, South, East and West, while Labour has just two in the northern Midlands and one in the North.
Undoubtedly UKIP did very well on a turnout of just over 30%, but is it a “breakthrough”? We have seen similar surges before which have turned to dust. We only have to think of the SDP in the 1980′s, the Greens in 1989, the BNP in the last 10 years, and previous UKIP gains in Euro elections. Almost certainly UKIP will come first or second in next year’s Euro elections but to make a real impact on British politics UKIP will need to gain control of a number of higher tier Councils (town and parish councils don’t count!) and/or several MPs. It is therefore premature to talk of a “four-party system” or Nigel Farage taking part in a series of Parliamentary Leaders debates in a General Election.
Of more interest is the debate over how the major parties should respond to UKIP’s success. I profoundly disagree with friends like Dan Hannan and Nirj Deva who argue for some sort of electoral pact. Even if that were possible what could UKIP bring to the party? They have no MPs and are not likely to win any in 2015. Such a pact would mean the end of the current coalition and would alienate some Conservative members and supporters without delivering any tangible benefit.
The best thing that David Cameron can do is to stake out clear and consistent policy positions which unite the Parliamentary Party and the wider membership and stop pursuing policies which alienate our natural supporters. There are signs that this is the path which will be followed in the run up to the General Election with tougher stances on immigration, law and order, and welfare benefits. He could do more on making an EU Membership referendum a guarantee rathen than an aspiration, and he must stop allowing the Chancellor to cut Defence spending while wasting it on Overseas Aid. He must also swiftly ensure that Equal Marriage proposals get onto the Statute Book and avoid picking any more fights with his own side. It is also time to say thankyou and goodbye to Kenneth Clarke who has long outlived his usefulness. If he combined this with a Cabinet reshuffle which reduced the number of people attending the weekly Cabinet meetings he might lead a more focussed and coherent government.
Overall I am optimistic following last week’s local elections. Labour has failed to make any meaningful recovery from the dark days of Gordon Brown’s administration and the Lib Dems are greatly weakened. UKIP will prove to be an irrelevance come the General Election when the turnout will be much higher than last Thursday. A revitalised and emboldened Conservative Party can therefore win the next General Election with a working majority provided that the leadership leads and the Parliamentary Party unites and stops bickering in public. There is everything to play for!
UPDATE: There is a really sensible and reflective piece by Martha Andreasen here.
There are a number of elections taking place tomorrow. They are being held in 27 traditional County Councils in England, 8 Unitary Authorities in England and 1 in Wales (Anglesey), 2 Mayoral elections (Doncaster and North Tyneside), and one Parliamentary by-election in South Shields.
There are over 2,300 seats up for election. In the same Council elections in 2009 (minus Anglesey) the Conservatives had a landslide winning 1,531 seats, Labour won just 178, the Lib Dems 484, UKIP 7 and the Greens 18. This time around only the Conservatives and Labour are standing in virtually every seat. The Conservatives are putting up 2,263 candidates, Labour 2,168, the Lib Dems 1,763 (down from last time), UKIP 1,745 (more than double last time), Greens 893, BNP 99, and English Democrats 38, with around 900 independents.
In 2009 the Conservatives won all bar one of the County Councils with a vote share of 38%, the Lib Dems were second with 28%, and Labour third on 23%. This was at the depths of the unpopularity of Gordon Brown’s Labour government and therefore the Conservatives swept the board. Losses are now simply inevitable in the mid-term of a coalition government implementing austerity. It is the likely scale of the losses which are the subject of much debate. The additional factor which makes it more unpredictable is the fact that UKIP has become the repository for the protest votes which used to prop up the Lib Dem support base.
In the Unitary Authority elections the Lib Dems would like to be taking majority control of Bristol Council but more likely face losses to Labour. Cornwall is another Unitary where the Lib Dems will be hoping to take back largest party status from the Conservatives even if the authority remains hung. In Northumberland the Lib Dems are all but certain to lose their position as the largest party in the Civic Offices. In the only election in Wales, the Unitary Authority of Anglesey is likely to remain dominated by Independents.
The respected local government analysts Professors Ralling and Thrasher have made an attempt to predict the likely gains and losses based on current polling compared with 2009. Their estimate suggests Conservative losses of around 310 seats, Labour gains of at least 350 seats, with Lib Dems losing around 130 and UKIP gaining just 40 seats.
Others have suggested that UKIPs intervention may help Labour to gain more seats and the Lib Dems to defend others, whilst UKIP fails to pick up more than a few tens. Some others believe that UKIP will exceed all expectations and gain up to 100 seats.
My personal view is that the Conservatives will lose around 400 seats net, Labour gain around 400 seats net, the Lib Dems lose around 100 seats net, and UKIP gain around 50 seats. The balance will be accounted for by Independents, Greens and others. Labour is expected to regain councils like Derbyshire, Lancashire, Nottinghamshire and Staffordshire but their biggest test will be whether they can make any impact in the South of England, or whether they are confined to areas in the north and midlands which were gained by the Conservatives in 2009.
There are executive Mayoral elections in Doncaster and North Tyneside. In the latter, Conservative Mayor Linda Arkley faces a tough fight to hold on against a strong Labour challenge.
Tomorrow the South Shields Parliamentary by-election will also take place. This will be an interesting test of whether UKIP can make a dent in what is a Labour heartland, or whether their appeal is largely confined to areas which are usually Conservative voting. UKIP is playing UP its chances of “giving Labour a bloody nose”, so they will look pretty silly if they don’t manage a good share of the vote.
Much has been made of UKIP’s rise in the polls over the last year. Partly as a result the party is fielding a record number of candidates in the local elections next Thursday. However, it seems that in their rush to find as many candidates as possible basic checks have been neglected. As a result, candidates have been embarrassing the party in the last few weeks, some of whom have subsequently been disowned by UKIP.
Sue Bowen was selected and nominated to stand for UKIP in the Tintagel ward of Cornwall Council. However, it came to light that as well as having been a member of Cornish independence party Mebyon Kernow, she had also once been a paid up member of the British National Party. UKIP has now withdrawn its support for her candidacy but she will still be on the ballot paper as it is too late to withdraw.
Up in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, Caven Vines has been selected and nominated to stand in the Rawmarsh ward of Rotherham Council. Vines used to work closely with the BNP’s Rotherham organiser in a campaign group called Council Watch. He wrote a semi-literate blog when standing for re-election in 2009: “If are a Muslim in Britain you can almost do what you want with the good old Labour Governments blessing. Muslims go to war warring the same cloths as ordinary people who they hide behind they cover their faces, they hide behind women and children they set up rocket launches in school yards they use children to push wheel barrows into crowds and soldiers then detonate it killing innocent people SO WHO ARE THE COWARDS. Its about time the Government and the Police stopped pandering to these so called British Muslims and other foreign nationals”. To date UKIP is standing by Vines!
Another candidate in trouble is in Crowborough, East Susssex, who has been caught out making appallingly offensive remarks about the Holocaust. Anne-Marie Crampton reportedly wrote, “Holocaust means a sacrifice by fire. Only the Zionists could sacrifice their own in the gas chambers. The Second World Wide War was engineered by the Zionist Jews and financed by the banksters to make the general public all over the world feel so guilty and outraged by the Holocaust that a treaty would be signed to create the State of Israel as we know it today.” She has since claimed that her account was hacked but clearly even UKIP don’t believe her as they have suspended her.
Just today David Nixon, the candidate in Stone Rural ward in Stafforshire, has been found to be distributing a highly misleading and homophobic leaflet as part of his election campaign.
It should not be a surprise that UKIP has some oddball and unpleasant candidates. In May 2012 UKIP Stocksbridge Town Councillor and former PPC, Grant French, was exposed as having some nasty anti-semitic and homophobic views. UKIP MEP Tom Wise (elected in 2004) was jailed for two years for fiddling his expenses in the European Parliament; UKIP MEP Ashley Mote (elected in 2004) was jailed for fiddling benefits; and in 2012 UKIP MEPs Derek Clark and Graham Booth were forced to repay expenses they had wrongly claimed.
UKIP has also lost quite a few more of its elected MEPs for a variety of other reasons. In 2010 Nikki Sinclaire MEP won a sex discrimination case against the party when they expelled her for refusing to sit with a homophobic party in the European Parliament; in 2011 David Campbell-Bannerman MEP defected to the Conservatives; and earlier this year Martha Andreasen MEP also defected to the Conservatives citing Nigel Farage’s “Stalinist” leadership style.
Some of UKIP’s party officials have also been found to have close associations with extremist groups. The Chairman of UKIP in the London Borough of Hillingdon, Cliff Dixon, has been shown to have close links with the anti-Muslim English Defence League; and the UKIP Chairman in Oxford (and former Council candidate), Dr Julia Gasper, was removed from her post for comparing homosexuality to bestiality and paedophilia.
On the other side of the argument, earlier this year UKIP officials removed the party’s youth wing Chairman and one of its Parliamentary candidates because they supported Equal Marriage. Many younger members resigned in disgust at the reactionary stance of the party. It has done nothing for the image of the party and reinforced the impression that it is becoming an intolerant refuge for racists, homophobes and some who are just frankly weird.
Party leader Nigel Farage MEP has even admitted this week that other candidates with links to the BNP or criminal records could have slipped through the party’s cursory selection process. All parties have some unpleasant candidates but UKIP seems to have more than its fair share! When considering who to vote for next Thursday voters should reflect on UKIP’s recent history of dodgy candidates, expenses fiddlers and some outright racists.
UPDATE – Police have been called in to investigate alleged electoral fraud by UKIP candidates in Norfolk and the Isle of Wight. They are investigating allegations that signatures have been forged on candidate nomination papers. If this is proven then candidate and/or agent could be going to prison!
UPDATE – 27 Apr 13 – UKIP candidate for Kent County Council Geoffrey Clark has been suspended for publishing a leaflet which calls for “compulsory abortion when the foetus is detected as having Downs, Spina Bifida or similar syndrome which, if it is born, could render the child a burden on the state as well as on the family. “
Readers will recall that after Gordon Brown stepped down in 2010 the Labour Party held a leadership election in which the party membership and MPs voted for David Miliband but the votes of the Trades Unions pushed David’s brother Ed over the winning line. The Labour Party was therefore saddled with a leader who had not been voted for by its members or its elected representatives. Since Ed’s election the Trades Union funding for the party has amounted to more than 80% of all donations received and this generous support does not come without strings.
Until now the strings have not been very visible. The Labour Party has become to all intents and purposes a policy vacuum but the mood music has been pretty left wing, opposing every reform and every attempt to tackle the huge deficit which they left behind. It has been an oppositionist strategy which may score some points in the short term but does nothing to enhance the party’s, or Ed Miliband’s, image as a potential government in the eyes of the electorate. This has been reflected in recent opinion polls which have shown a narrowing of Labour’s lead, two-thirds of the electorate saying Miliband is not fit to be Prime Minister, and Labour falling behind the Conservatives on a number of key questions.
More interesting recently some of the key figures behind “New Labour” have broken cover and begun to speak out against Miliband and the party’s left-wards drift. Even three-time election winner Tony Blair has spoken out. He sounded a note of caution about the party’s tendency to “tack left on tax and spending or tack right on immigration and Europe”. His intervention was supported by other senior figures such as David Blunkett who criticised Miliband’s appearance of building policy “built on grievance”.
However, the real evidence of Union influence surfaced this week with a massive internal row over the selection of Labour candidate for the European Parliament elections next year. Party members are up in arms over attempts by major Trades Unions to stitch up the top seats on each list for themselves. Popular local candidates have been discarded leading to some members to resign from the party and others to raise complaints with the leadership. It is thought that the major unions the GMB, Unison and Unite have been working together on selection panels to stitch up the selections for their own people. As major donors to the party they are entitled to be part of the process to select candidates. One of my local Labour contacts tells me that there are concerns about the process in the South East region.
We will have to wait for the final selections to be published but the early indications are that Labour is going to have to deal with some unhappy members and possibly further resignations. The Unions are flexing their muscles and seem determined to extract their pound of flesh. Not a good start to their Euro election campaign!
UPDATE 25 Apr 13 – Arch left-winger Len McLusky, leader of the Unite Trade Union, has demanded that Ed Miliband sack Blairites from his Shadow Cabinet or face the loss of millions of Pounds of his union’s donations.
Margaret Thatcher became leader of the Conservative Party in 1975 and Prime Minister in May 1979 as the first British woman to hold that office, with a majority of 44 in the House of Commons. She won re-election by a landslide in the 1983 General Election and again in 1987. She was deposed as Conservative leader in 1990 by members of her own Parliamentary Party who feared for their re-election chances following the Poll Tax riots and controversy over her approach to Britain’s membership of the European Community.
Margaret Thatcher was the reason that I first joined the Conservative Party in 1983. Her leadership in 1982 following the invasion of the Falkland Islands by the Fascist junta then ruling Argentina was inspirational. She showed true grit in ignoring the faint-hearted and taking the word of the Admirals who told her that they could muster a task force and recover the islands for their people and British pride. She did not flinch when things went wrong and was rightly able to take the credit when the islands were successfully recovered.
Despite her opposition to all forms of Socialism she was one of the first to recognise the potential of new Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev as someone “we can do business with”. She stood shoulder to shoulder with US President Ronald Reagan as he built up the US Armed Forces and in so doing bankrupted the Soviet Union but as a firm supporter of the “Special Relationship” she also persuaded Reagan and his successor George Bush Snr to talk to the USSR and its leadership about reform and arms control. It was the Soviet leadership which christened her “The Iron Lady”.When the Warsaw Pact and Soviet Union collapsed she was a keen supporter of bringing in the newly free nations of Central and Eastern Europe. However, she was vehemently against the emerging plans for a federal European superstate. She fought many battles with the EEC/EU despite starting out as pro-EEC at a time when the Labour Party wanted to withdraw.
At home she took an economy which was on its knees and turned it around with a firm belief in classical Monetarism and the importance of sound money. She ignored the large number of those who stood against her and told her that she should accept the inevitability of British decline. She believed in helping people to help themselves and she despised the statist socialism of the Labour Party of the day. Her economic approach was the principal component of what became known as Thatcherism. It was one of liberalising the markets, reforming the Trades Unions, privatising state industries and encouraging personal aspiration.
She gave many people the means to achieve their aspirations and to hand something on to their children. Her policy of selling Council housing to those who had lived in them for decades brought home ownership to people who had never dreamed that they might own property. The same was true of the privatisation of formerly state-owned companies like British Telecom, British Gas and British Petroleum by selling shares to ordinary citizens. Whilst exciting deep opposition from some parts of the country her policies were able to garner support from sections of the country which previously had not voted Conservative.
Her speeches in the House of Commons and at Party Conferences were legendary. I was at the 1986 and 1987 Conferences listening in awe and admiration as she spoke, with the memories of the 1984 Brighton bombing still fresh in the minds of those present. She had the adoration of ordinary Party members but sadly not of all of her Parliamentary Party. I well remember the shock and anger amongst ordinary Party members at the actions of Conservative MPs who stabbed her in the back. It left a scar in the Party which was an open sore for years afterwards.
Margaret Thatcher was undefeated in a General Election and even in the 1990 leadership election she got more votes than her opponent, just not enough to win outright on the first ballot. It is no exaggeration to say that she put the “Great” back into Great Britain after decades of decline, the chaos of the 1970’s and the humiliation of having to be bailed out by the IMF.
She was a controversial figure at home, adored by many and loathed by others. I was privileged to meet her on several occasions and remember how her face lit up when I told her that I had served in the Falkland Islands. She never lost her interest in the people of the islands and I know that they worship her as a national saviour. She was also personally very kind to people working for her and took a close personal interest in their circumstances and any difficulties in their lives. The people she was hardest on were her political colleagues and opponents who she considered should be able to defend their views and argue their case convincingly. She had no time for those who wilted in the face of challenge to their arguments and thoroughly enjoyed political debate and argument.
In my view she was undoubtedly the greatest post-war British Prime Minister, winning three elections in succession, liberating the British economy, taming the Trades Unions, and restoring pride in our nation. She is a towering figure of 20th Century politics who leaves a legacy head and shoulders above her successors.
Her funeral will be at St Paul’s Cathedral on Wednesday 17 April.
May she rest in peace. She will be greatly missed.
The inadequacies of Labour’s economic policy have surfaced with a scathing attack from former Blair loyalist Peter Mandelson on the posturing of Labour Leader Ed Miliband and Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls (left).
Last night in a speech to the Confederation of British Industry (CBI), Lord Mandelson launched a scathing attack on Ed Balls’ borrowing plan accusing him of ‘predictable party political stuff’ for not supporting the Government’s plans to cut the deficit. The unprecedented attack came just a day after Ed Balls and Ed Miliband’s weak and content free response to the Budget which at one and the same time criticised the government for cutting too much and borrowing too little.
Lord Mandelson said: “The whole argument about whether we’re cutting too far and too fast, it’s in the past. It is rather predictable party political stuff from over the dispatch box, and it is a bit tiring to the public… We need to focus on how to redevelop our economy rather than fight about the past and fight about what’s too far and what’s far enough. The Labour party has got to offer more than that”. He also attacked the record of Gordon Brown’s time in Government saying: “I can’t quite remember which member of the government it was who claimed to have abolished boom and bust. Well, we abolished boom!” (Of course it was Gordon Brown himself who made this claim!)
As Shadow Chancellor Ed Balls has failed to develop a credible economic alternative to the government’s plan to cut the deficit through a mix of spending cuts and selected tax increase. Labour’s strategy appears to be to criticise every cut without explaining how they would fund essential deficit reduction. It is this basic dishonesty which Mandelson has highlighted.
Even under pressure Ed Balls has been reluctant to admit that his approach would lead to a bigger deficit and therefore more borrowing. In February Balls was asked 7 times by John Humphreys on Radio 4 whether Labour would borrow more than the Government’s plans. On the 7th time, he admitted he would be borrowing more: ‘JH: It shouldn’t be hard should it for you to be able to say “there is no growth, the only way to do that is to expand the economy and therefore…EB: Yes. JH: …we, I, Ed Balls, if I were Chancellor, would borrow more”? EB: That is what I would do right now’ (Ed Balls, BBC Radio 4, Today, 23 February 2013).
According to the independent Institure for Fiscal Studies (IFS) borrowing would be £200 billion higher under Labour. The IFS estimated what borrowing would look like under the plans inherited by the Government from Labour (the Darling Plan) given more recent economic forecasts. These show that ‘in the absence of the additional fiscal tightening announced since the general election’ by 2016-17 borrowing would be £52 billion per year higher, and that the cumulative impact of higher borrowing would increase debt by £201 billion (IFS, Green Budget 2012, 1 February 2012, Table 3.1, p. 57).
Nationally and locally Labour continues to try to con the electorate that there is some easy way of cleaning up the mess they made of the economy. Looking at the motions before the Reading Council meeting next week they have learned nothing and are still seeking to rely on scares, lies and deceit. As usual Conservatives have to take the painful decisions to clear up after Labour has wrecked the economy! They should take a leaf out of Lord Mandelson’s book and come clean with the electorate.
I was not expecting much from today’s budget. The Chancellor did not have much room for manoeuvre with the economy failing to meet growth forecasts and therefore tax revenues coming in below expectations. Last year’s budget was derided by the commentariat as an “omnishambles” and did much to undermine George Osborne and the government’s economic reputation. As a result the Labour party has opened up a consistent lead of around 10%.
The government has also not exactly exuded competence in recent months. Too many open goals have been left to the opposition and the government has failed to convey a consistent message to the electorate. However, unlike last year, the budget contents were not widely trailed or leaked, and other than an unfortunate mistake by the Evening Standard, the surprises were kept under wraps.
The confirmation that projected growth has been cut to 0.6% for the current year was no surprise. With the continuing troubles in most of the UK’s export markets it would be amazing if we were immune to the difficulties in the Euro-zone. As it is we are better placed than many and I expect that later this year the 2013/14 growth figure will be revised upwards just as the “double-dip” recession is revised away.
The Chancellor was helped by under-spending in some departments and saving £3.5bn on EU contributions thanks to the agreement negotiated by David Cameron. Against the tough economic background George Osborne delivered some good changes with cuts in Corporation Tax and National Insurance, abandoning Labour’s planned increases in fuel duty and beer duty, and helping guarantee loans to help homebuyers. All of these make good economic and political sense. The first two help businesses and the last two help consumers. The freezing of fuel duty helps everyone!
I do not see the sense in cutting beer duty by 1p. I think that this may come back to bite the government and there is no sense in cutting duty when every penny of existing tax revenue should be used to reduce the deficit. I also do not agree with the planned new tax credit for childcare. This will cost £750m which could have been used to cut the deficit. The Chancellor should take a leaf out of Nigel Lawson’s book and use every budget to simplify the over-complicated tax system and reverse many of Gordon Brown’s ridiculous measures. A good vision for the government would be to abolish as many loopholes, credits and exemptions as possible and move towards low flat rates of tax wherever possible. This would save a fortune, raise more revenue, make the UK more attractive to outside investors, and minimise tax avoidance.
On the spending side I cannot comprehend why the government persists with the ridiculous policy of pumping billions more into overseas aid in order to meet the arbitrary target of 0.7% of GDP. Too much aid is wasted and it is indefensible to be sending money abroad while cutting defence, police and other domestic budgets. Protecting the health and education budgets makes sense provided that both are subject to far more rigorous scrutiny.
Overall though, I am impressed with what George Osborne managed to do today. Most of the measures will be effective AND popular. No mean feat! It was noticeable that Ed Miliband had nothing constructive to say in response. He was left looking like a petulant, whining 6th former who had come unprepared to a balloon debate. The tweets of some of his supporters (such as the Labour Reading West candidate) illustrated how far Labour still has to go to regain any credibility on the economy. They seem to think that attacking everything, calling for more spending more quickly, and ignoring their own responsibility for the fact that “there is no money”, constitutes an economic policy. Silly slogans like “Mums not millionaires” are vacuous and based on profound ignorance and untruths.
Today George Osborne set out a plan to boost business and restore confidence and I commend him for it! It will be interesting to see how it plays in the country and whether there is any impact on the polls. The omens are promising.
Over the last 24 hours or so the three main parties at Westminster reached agreement on a way to respond to the Leveson Report and introduce a new system of ensuring that the national print media does not abuse its massive power.
The context of course was the abject failure of the previous system of self-regulation which did little to support individuals who had been wronged by the papers and the appalling revelations of widespread criminality by members of newsrooms of some national newspapers. Before anyone cries that it was just a rogue reporter or two at the “News of the World” they should pause to consider the recent arrests of Mirror reporters, the past hounding of Lord Ashcroft by The Times, the abuse of innocent Christopher Jefferies and the fabrication of “Nazi” allegations against Max Moseley. I also have personal experience of disgraceful conduct by the Daily Telegraph towards a friend of mine some years ago. Whilst some people, like Lord Ashcroft and Max Moseley, may have the resources to defend themselves and pursue costly legal action, the vast majority of the public does not. To take any civil case to court is tough and beyond the scope of most ordinary citizens. That is why it is important to have an effective and independent body which can ensure fair play and redress.
All too often elements of the print media have been content to smear and abuse innocent people, or to fabricate stories which they cannot otherwise justify. The resources behind most national newspapers are immense and they have counted on the fact that taking a defamation or libel case to court is expensive and time consuming and that therefore they will most likely get away with it. The Press Complaints Commission has been a largely toothless tiger and when apologies have occasionally been grudgingly printed they have been buried on page 26 in a two inch square story, when the original story was high profile and in a very visible location in the paper.
Of course there are stories which the newspapers have broken and which have been very much in the public interest. The Parliamentary expenses scandal is an obvious recent case. However, even then facts were often confused and misrepresented. For example most people remember “duck islands” and “moats” and yet both of these were claims which were never paid out because they were rejected by the Parliamentary expenses authorities at a time when the rules were opaque and often misunderstood. What should be remembered are the cases where MPs deliberately deceived the authorities, fabricated invoices, and lied. However, duck houses and moats were a useful motif for the press of an “out of touch” elite regardless of the facts.
The essence of a completely free press is an institution which is prepared to investigate stories, is not afraid to criticise those in authority, and is free from censorship and government interference in what it prints. These broad elements exist now and will exist under the proposed new regime. The difference is that when the press gets it wrong or deliberately misrepresents the truth individuals will have a much better chance to have things put right by the new independent regulator. This might also help to ensure that newsrooms stick to facts and do not allow corrupt and criminal behaviour to become a normal way of doing business.
The idea of a new system of regulation established by Royal Charter (as used to establish the BBC) is something which David Cameron proposed from the start. It was initially derided by Labour who wanted a statutory basis to a tough new system of regulation. This was fiercely opposed by the press who feared a structure which would seriously restrict their freedom to print stories inconvenient to politicians.
David Cameron stuck to his guns and eventually both Labour and the Lib Dems accepted the concept of a Royal Charter without “statutory underpinning”. The only concession was a non-specific clause preventing a simple majority in Parliament from tampering with the terms of Royal Charters. In future, changes to Royal Charters will require a two-thirds majority in both Houses. This was a sensible compromise in the circumstances and allows a new system of self-regulation to be established with all party consent.
The new body, when it is created, will have the power to impose major fines (capped at £1m) on newspapers which unfairly malign individuals and insist that they print an apology of equal prominence to the original offending article. It is not surprising that having had things their own way for so long, some newspapers are protesting! No one will censor what the papers print; they are free to investigate and print stories provided that they are justified in fact and in the public interest. Only if they revert to fabrications, smears, and other criminal behaviours will they incur punishment. Those papers which do not wish to sign up to the new system will be free to opt out but they will face possible unlimited exemplary damages if they are found to be in breach of the law.
The reaction to the political agreement from some quarters has been nothing short of hysterical. Some newspapers have thrown their toys in all directions, claiming the end of three hundred years of press freedom, while some people on Twitter have been claiming that this is the start of press censorship and the death of the free press; none of which are remotely true! In fact press and media freedom have long been qualified.
There is a system by which the Government can categorise some information as sensitive to national security (DA Notices) and by agreement newspapers will not print it. There are also the various Official Secrets Acts which can be used to prevent publication, with stringent penalties for their breach. There are Labour’s Terrorism Acts of 2000 and 2006 which make it an offence to publish any information which could “glorify terrorism”. During the “Troubles” in Northern Ireland Ministers regularly intervened to prevent publication or broadcast of documentaries or stories unhelpful to the Government and national security. During WW1 and WW2 the Ministry of Information censored news and information that could be deemed to be helpful to the enemy.
To suggest that this agreement is somehow “crossing a Rubicon”, “the end of our free press”, or Government “censorship” is laughable nonsense, unworthy of people who claim to be democrats. The truth is that a system which can properly hold the national print press to account will enhance the freedom of most citizens to enjoy life, knowing that if they are defamed, libelled or lied about they have a course of redress and compensation which will be accessible to them and have real potency. Perhaps also newspaper reporters and editors will refrain from hacking, smearing, and fabricating stories for fear that they will face very real and very expensive consequences.
It is a good day for the ordinary citizen!
Last night the people of the Falkland Islands held their first referendum on whether or not to remain an overseas territory of the United Kingdom. In a completely free and fair ballot there was a huge 92% turnout of the 1,650 eligible voters. 1,513 voted to remain British, with only 3 voting no. That is 99.8% in favour and just 0.02% voting against.
Now the bullying Argentine President should back off and stop demanding that the islanders hand themselves over to their larger neighbour. In 1982 Argentina turned its threats into military action when it invaded the islands and Britain sent a huge task force to recover the islands with loss of life on both sides. Prime Minister David Cameron has pledge to support the islanders in their wish to remain British and this vote will give the UK a clear mandate in World forums.
Apart from the brief Argentinian occupation in 1982 the islands have been in British hands since 1833 and the majority of their residents are of British descent, with a small number of South American and other origin. There is a significant British military presence on the islands to deter further Argentine military adventure and I was thrilled to spend six months based on the islands in 1994.
Around the size of Wales, they have a fantastic wildlife presence with vast colonies of penguins and seals, and some rare birds. The islands are rich fishing grounds and earn a significant income from fishing licences in addition to the more traditional sheep farming revenue. There are bright prospects for oil finds around the islands and initial tests have proved positive but problematic. It is interesting that Argentina’s rhetoric has only ramped up in recent years since oil exploration began.
I am thrilled that the Falkland Islanders have voted so overwhelmingly to remain British and I hope that one day I will be able to get back there again.
I have not posted for a few days due to being away and also spending some of my free time at Eastleigh campaigning in the by-election campaign. This was always going to be an interesting by-election whatever the result. As the campaign developed it became clear that what was already a close contest between the Conservatives and Lib Dems would be hard fought and uncertain until the end.
The background to the by-election was not exactly good for the Lib Dems, having the sitting MP resign after admitting lying over a speeding conviction, and an unfolding national scandal over allegations of former Lib Dem Chief Exec Lord Rennard. However, the Lib Dems have historically been very good at fighting by-elections and they hold every single Council seat in the constituency, giving them an organisational and activist base which was unrivalled by any other party.
On our side this was the best organised by election campaign I have been involved with. Some I have been to have been frankly shambolic and I have left the campaign centre with despair. That was not the same this time. The team running the show always had plenty for the hundreds of visiting activists to do and good quality literature for us to deliver. Maria Hutchings was a down to earth local candidate who had fought the seat in 2010. Despite some alleged “gaffes” I found good recognition and support for her on the doorstep. I do think however that she should have been at the two hustings meetings, thus avoiding the media storm around “missing Maria”.
I refrained from posting on the campaign because I found it impossible to come to any firm conclusion as to the likely outcome. Of course I hoped for a win and was encouraged by the straws in the wind. The areas where I was helping out were well covered with posters for Conservative candidate Maria Hutching, with very few for the Lib Dems. Interestingly there were more for UKIP than the Lib Dems!
However, it beacme obvious that the constituency was behaving in different ways in different parts. Colleagues helping out in Eastleigh town centre reported strong Lib Dem, Labour and UKIP support, with signs of late switching from Lib Dem to UKIP. In the areas I was knocking up there was pretty solid support for Maria with just a few former Conservatives saying they had voted UKIP.
The eventual narrow Lib Dem win on a 58% turnout was in line with the betting and polling findings and holds lessons for all the parties:
Liberal Democrats – they held onto the seat that they had held for almost 20 years since the 1994 by election but with a greatly reduced vote share and actual number of votes, despite the higher than normal turnout for a by-election. It would be churlish to deny the fact that a win by one vote is a win but to see their vote fall by 14.5% will be a cause of concern in party HQ. The narrowness of their lead over both UKIP and the Conservatives means that the seat remains a top Conservative target for the 2015 General Election, when UKIP’s vote share will almost certainly fall back very significantly.
UKIP – they did much better than I and most commentators expected. They seem to have had a late surge to achieve a very respectable second place with around 28% of the vote and their best result in a Parliamentary by-election to date. With the Lib Dems now in government UKIP appears to have become the repository of mid-term protest votes; the old role of the Lib Dems. Lord Ashcroft’s polling of electors who had already cast their votes suggests that UKIP took votes pretty evenly from the Conservatives and Lib Dems, as well as from previous non-voters.
Conservatives – a disappointing but not disastrous result. The difference between the Conservatives and Lib Dems was about the same as at the 2010 General Election with the difference being the surge in UKIP support to push the Conservatives narrowly into third place. About half of the 2010 support appears to have either shifted across to UKIP or stayed at home. This is hardly unusual in a mid-term by election but will be disappointing to the huge army of party volunteers who descended on the constituency to help. The 14% fall in vote share was about the same as experienced by our Coalition partners.
Labour – despite claims of being a “One Nation” party and picking a minor celebrity candidate, Labour performed no better than in their disastrous 2010 General Election campaign. Their vote share was up just 0.2% despite being the main party of opposition at Westminster. Whilst no-one expected Labour to win the seat, they might have expected to increase their vote share to demonstrate that they are a national party with appeal in all parts of the UK.
Overall this was an exciting by-election. Rarely is the final result unclear for so long and decided so close to the wire. The Lib Dems and UKIP can justifiably celebrate but it was a solid result for the Conservatives as well. Labour will no doubt argue that this was not their natural territory and they held their vote share. Peter Kellner has a very measured analysis of the by-election here which readers may find interesting.
Does this tell us much about 2015? I don’t think so.
Lib Dem (Thornton) – 13,342 (32.1%) -14.5%
UKIP (James) – 11,571 (27.8%) +24.2%
Cons (Hutchings) – 10,559 (25.4%) -14%
Lab (O’Farrell) – 4,088 (9.8%) +0.2%
Others – 2,056
Turnout – 58.2%
LD Majority – 1,771
The news is just coming through that the UKIP MEP Marta Andreasen has defected to the Conservatives. Andreasen is known internationally for being a whistle blower over corruption in the EU. She was a major recruit for UKIP and added hugely to the credibility of their candidates list and was the sole female MEP for the party. She follows former UKIP leadership candidate David Campbell-Bannerman who joined the Conservatives in 2011.
Marta Andreasen said joining the Conservative Party was not a decision that she took lightly. In a letter delivered to UKIP leader Nigel Farage on Friday, she accused him of treating any views other than his own with contempt. Conservative Party Chairman Grant Shapps said he was “delighted” to welcome her to the Conservative party. He said, “She brings a wealth of experience – and a dedication to fight for what’s best for the British people in Europe”.
Marta represents the South of England in the European Parliament and will be a very welcome boost to the Conservative team. No doubt she will be spending a lot of time in Eastleigh in the next week or so, hammering home the message that a vote for UKIP would allow the Euro-fanatic Lib Dems win the seat, and that only Conservative candidate Maria Hutchings can ensure a Eurosceptic represents the constituency.