Tuesday, 25 November 2008

Is the Tide Turning Again?

I'm beginning to think that the Tories, and George Osborne in particular, have managed to get back on the front foot.

Osborne has, by all accounts, won fulsome praise from the right for his Post-Pre-Budget-Report Performance (PPBRP). Just as the current crisis gave the rudderless Brown a target to aim at, so Darling's PBR has given the under pressure Osborne something to get his teeth into - and he has taken some almighty bites so far.

There is no easy answer to this mess. But it is hard to disagree with the view that the answer to a crisis caused by huge and irresponsible corporate and personal borrowing is not to borrow even more in the hope that it reignites the economy.

I believe that, fundamentally, recessions are a correction for unfunded growth and spending. This recession should be deep because of the huge amount of growth that has been induced through the illusion of increased wealth rather than through real, earned wealth.

My worry, therefore, is that if we somehow manage to stave off a recession or ease the depth of it then the underlying problems won't be fully corrected. The result will be that future growth will be built on an unstable foundation, which will result in further, and possibly more severe, pain later. Like it or not, this sick patient has to take its medicine and that medicine is, unfortunately, unemployment, business closures and the misery that goes along with them.

The problem with that strategy is that it means the economic cycle and political cycle will not be aligned as the Government would like. So, make no mistake, everything Darling is doing is designed to realign these cycles for the benefit of his party. To suggest anything else would be ridiculous just as it would be ridiculous to suggest that any other party wouldn't be motivated in exactly the same way.

My own reading of the PBR is that Darling would have been better doing nothing. The content of the PBR has given the Tories plenty of ammunition to back up what was beginning to look like a faintly ridiculous oppositionist stance. This stance now looks as though it was a gamble that has paid off and they now look very secure in questioning the wisdom of the Government's actions.

However, the biggest problem has been the presentation of the PBR and, specifically, the lack of clarity about possible increases in VAT after it has been restored back to 17.5%. This is like the 10p tax rate all over again and will confirm to many that had started to give them the benefit of the doubt again that Labour is just not capable of telling the whole truth.

It can take years to build up credibility in the eyes of the electors and only a moment to lose it. Brown had been doing a reasonable job of restoring his hard won credibility recently. I fear the PBR may have undone all that good work at a stroke.

Monday, 24 November 2008

There is a God!!!

Much to my amazement, my recent plea was heard and Jim Devine's planned demonstration outside the gates of Gemfire was called off. I can only assume that the good Lord intervened and let it be known that even the West Lothian Courier wouldn't cover such thinly veiled Labour posturing.

In this week's issue, Jolly Jim informs the Courier that the event was cancelled because the company had committed to seeking new funds so that the plant might be re-opened. This all seems a bit strange as that is what Gemfire were saying from the outset. It seems much more likely that the protest was called off as many of the Gemfire workforce felt such a move would make it less likely that new investors would be found. Well, quite.

Apart from fulfilling his highly paid role as MP by distributing benefits leaflets amongst the affected workers, Devine's latest wheeze is to write to the Gemfire Chief Exec. Apparently the Gemfire Heid Bummer has 48hrs to respond ... or else!!! Or else what, exactly, Jim? Who knows, but we can probably hazzard a guess that that it will involve some further PR opportunity for JD.

Happily, while Jim arses about trying to get noticed, it seems that progress is being made in finding alternative funds and it looks like the plant might be recommencing operations shortly. It won't be back to full scale in the short term but at least it is a start.

I have to say that Gemfire seem to have played this with a pretty straight bat. They have been upfront with their employees and genuinely seem to be trying to sort things out as best they can. Whether they will ever get back to where they were a month ago remains an open question but if they do it will certainly be no thanks to Jim Devine.

Sunday, 23 November 2008

The East Lothian Question

The little local difficulty Labour is experiencing in East Lothian takes me back to the good old days when there seemed to be a similar problem in one Scottish CLP or another every other month. The Labour machine always sorted things out in the end with little or no electoral damage.

That was then. The context in which the East Lothian CLP crisis is being played out is rather different and represents a real test for Labour (Scottish and British parties alike).

For one thing, although things may look a little brighter post-Glenrothes, Labour is damaged goods in way it has never been before. Any difficulty reinforces this and cannot be dismissed as a side-show or a spot of local bother in the way it could have been before.

Secondly, there is a definite Scottish v UK angle to this one. The leader of the Labour Group at Holyrood, Iain Gray, is MSP for East Lothian and could therefore do without any internal unrest in the area and could do with keeping in with the local membership.

That particular bridge has already been burned by Anne Moffat, the MP for the area, and she is therefore relying on NEC intervention to prevent her possible deselection by the same local membership.

From my perspective, it seems a no-brainer. The NEC should not intervene and leave Anne Moffat facing the people she should be accountable to. In the process, the NEC would be seen to back the local members and, implicitly, the leader of the Labour Group at Holyrood.

But, should the NEC ride to Anne Moffat's rescue, what message would that send out? To me it would confirm that the status of a backbench, going nowhere fast Westminster MP is more important to the UK Labour Party than its leader in the Scottish Parliament.

Wednesday, 19 November 2008

Depressing News

The thing about business travel is that it forces you out of your daily routine. Today I found myself taking in BBC News 24 and skimming tabloids in various M1 service stations and airport lounges through the course of the d ay.

Both were instructive and re-inforced exactly what is wrong with this God foresaken country. I'll take the tabloids first, because I've posted about this subject before.

There seems to be some kind of competition going on to uncover the piece of evidence that makes Haringey Council most culpable over the Baby P case. The Daily Tittle says 'We've found this piece of evidence - isn't that shoocking?!?'. The Daily Tattle says 'Ah but we've found this piece of evidence - isn't that even more shoocking!?!?' It is all very unedifying, to say the least.

I, of course, did not know Baby P from Adam. But I have been truly sickened by the story and, to be perfectly honest, I have been quite depressed about it when I have allowed myself to think about it. So God only know how this wee boy's father is feeling right now.

My point is that the story has been, quite rightly, reported. It has, again quite rightly, been raised in Parliament (although it would have been nice to see it handled rather more sensitively). And an inquiry has been established.

Why can't the press just let it be now? Let the authorities get on with investigating what went wrong and let them try to sort things out. Give them the space to make the right decisions for the right reasons. But the tabloids will just not let go until they have exhausted every last angle and every last lead. Sensational headline after sensational headline with no thought for the people who have been truly damaged by the whole affair. These papers are an affront to decent society.

And so to BBC News 24 and their unrelenting coverage of John Sergeant's decision to quit 'Strictly Come Off It' or whatever it is.

Why does this even merit a mention on a TV news programme? Sadly, it reflects that our society values celebrity more than equality. It seems entertainment is more important than enlightenment. Gossip overshadows government.

It has been hard to avoid the tiresome debate about why twinkle-toes hasn't been voted off before now. The bottom line is that you can't ask the public to vote and then tell them what criteria they should be using to decide how to cast their vote. If you want to have a competition to decide who is the best dancer then it should be people who are qualified to judge on that criterion that should make the decision alone.

(The same applies to X-Factor, by the way. Simon Cowell puts it nicely when he talks about the likeability factor.)

There has to be something wrong when a TV programme which serves no purpose other than to entertain and adds no value but to help us pass the time on a Saturday night is providing the lead news story for much of the day.

If our society is one that demands this type of news then maybe there's a place for those tabloids after all. There's a rather depressing thought to end a long day!!!

Sunday, 16 November 2008

Can the First 11 Match the First 15?

What a thrilling spectacle our boys served up against World Champions South Africa at Murrayfield.

We should have won and we would certainly have deserved to win. Sadly, the result means that we will lose our position as a 2nd rank team for the next Rugby World Cup and will have to beat a higher ranked team in order to keep our proud record of having reached at least the quarter finals in every tournament.

However, if Frank Hadden can keep the team playing to this form that shouldn't be a problem.

As I'll be away for a couple of days this week, I won't be able to go to Hampden to see if our other first team can serve up a similar performance against Argentina - probably the best international football side at the moment.

We could certainly do with it to generate a bit of belief and momentum for our World Cup qualifying campaign. Personally, I refuse to be despondent about our chances of making it to the finals yet. It looks like we will finish second in the group and, given our very good record against the Dutch, it is not impossible we could yet finish first. Although the latter outcome would require a big improvement in form.

Let's hope we get some sign of that form emerging on Wednesday night. I'm sure we would all be delighted with a similar performance to the one we saw on Saturday.

Friday, 14 November 2008

First Minister, Last Call

Has Alex Salmond pulled off his greatest masterstroke yet?

If anyone doesn't know what I'm talking about, Scotland's First Minister appeared on BBC Scotland's Children in Need tonight in the form of a homage to Rikki Fulton's much loved Rev I M Jolly. He gave a performance of humour and self-deprecation in aid of the cause.

In a week when Gordon Brown demonstrated his total inability to empathise, Mr Salmond reminded Scotland that leadership is not just about executing a rescue package perfectly scripted by mandarins it is also about humanity and the common touch.

The tradition of Scots leaders is that they are first among equals and, based on tonight's evidence, it is one tradition that Mr Salmond understands and intends to honour.

So, three cheers for Eck - although perhaps that dog-collar wasn't the most flattering of accessories!!!

Wednesday, 12 November 2008

God Save Us From Devine's Intervention

Word reaches me that serial self-publicist Jim Devine MP is planning a stunt.

West Lothian has suffered a number of job losses recently and more are on the cards thanks to HBOS/LTSB and Cable & Wireless' acquisition of Thus. The latest high profile casualty is GemFire, a US owned semi-conductor facility, in Livingston.

It seems that, no doubt due to the current economic climate, GemFire has had an investor pull the plug unexpectedly resulting in the closure of the Livingston plant and the lay off of 150 or so employees. However, it also seems that GemFire are determined to find alternative investment to re-open the plant as soon as possible. Hopefully, the local council and Scottish Government are doing whatever they can to help them and I wish them well in their quest.

Mr Devine has decided that the best thing to do is to hold a protest meeting at the gates of the plant this Friday. It's not clear what he will be protesting about. What exactly would Mr Devine have done in the same position? Perhaps he would have just kept everybody working but just not paid them at the end of the month. Maybe he would just not have lost his investor in the first place. It must seem so simple from the Labour backbenches with the Master of the Universe leading them all into the brave new era of responsibility.

Given that there will be nobody inside to see or hear the protest, given that this type of action will result in any potential investors running a mile, it would seem that the only purpose such an event will serve is to generate publicity for an MP who is struggling to appear relevant to his constituents. To hell with the fact that he is putting the resurrection of this valuable local employer at risk, it'll be worth it to get his mugshot splashed across at least the local press.

Mr Devine has a track record of milking campaigns for publicity and then dropping them like a stone. Farepak victims will know what I'm talking about. Not one penny has been paid back to these people and, now that there is no political capital to be made out of it, what is Jim doing about it?

His approach is cheap and irresponsible but typical of the second raters who 'represent' us at Westminster.

I'm sorry to say that the despicable show at today's PMQs only serves to confirm my view of the quality of your average MP.

Tuesday, 11 November 2008

How Many More Baby P's?

It's late but while I've been working away on my laptop tonight, I've seen snippets of BBC News, Sky News and Newsnight. All were leading on the tragic tale of Baby P, a 17 month old boy murdered by his parents after enduring a short life of merciless torture.

This poor little mite had been on the Child Protection Register for around half his tormented life but was let down time and time again by supposedly trained professionals.

By far the worst instance seems to have been the GP who, 2 days before Baby P's death, did not detect that he was suffering from fractured ribs and a broken back. How is that even imaginable never mind possible?

His mother was given the benefit of the doubt time and time again despite being arrested twice for neglect. Over and over, Social Workers failed to spot injuries, apparently, in once case, because Baby P had been smeared with chocolate.

I am so angry about this. What is the point of having all these highly paid professionals if they can't protect these most vulnerable of people? Why is nobody losing their job over this? Shouldn't that GP be summarily struck off?

My suspicion is that these professionals are prevented from acting on instinct because of a combination of political correctness and fear of reprisals, formal or otherwise. They find themselves protecting themselves rather than their clients because the rights of offenders seem to be more important than the rights of victims in many cases.

Our criminal justice and social services systems are failing the very people they have been put in place to serve. It's time for a radical rethink - for the sake of all the Baby P's out there.

Raising the Self Interest Rate

Events aren't half moving fast these days. The LTSB / HBOS merger, whose approval looked nothing more than a formality barely a few days ago, is now starting to creek under scrutiny.

First we have the George and Peter letter, now being backed up by an 'online petition' to gather support amongst HBOS shareholders. Then the Bank of China seem to be interested in funding an alternative bid. And to top it all the Financial Times editorial ridicules the merger plans as hasty and against the public interest.

This final phrase is key, for it was the venerable Lord Mandelson who decided to wave aside regulatory concerns because the merger was in the public interest. Perhaps the Business Secretary would like to explain how the loss of thousands of jobs and the reduction in choice for savers and borrowers alike can possibly be in the public interest.

May I venture an explanation? For 'public' read 'HBOS board members, LTSB board members and Institutional Investors'. HBOS board members get a nice fat pay off as a reward for their incompetence, LTSB board members move a step closer to earning juicy bonuses as a result of growing their business dramatically and Institutional Investors will see their HBOS shares bought for an inflated price (versus the market value) and their LTSB shares rocket in value as the efficiency programme strips cost out of the business.

Who loses out of this? HBOS employees (especially), potential HBOS savers and potential HBOS borrowers. Or let's use a useful collective noun for these people - taxpayers. That's right folks - Brown, Darling and Mandelson think it is right to use the taxes that HBOS employees are paying them to force them out of a job. It is simply disgraceful.

If these guys are serious about entering an age of responsibility it's about time they acted in the public interest on this matter rather than protecting the same old vested interests their complacency has been serving over the last decade.

I urge anyone who has any influence whatever to use it to save HBOS.

Monday, 10 November 2008

Tax Cuts for Sale

It seems that anyone who aspires to take power at Westminster is now queueing up to offer tax cuts.

The LibDems have already suggested a cut of 2p on the basic rate, paid for by cuts/savings apparently.

The Tories are hinting at a range of targetted measures; VAT holidays, freeze in Council Tax (presumably with substnatial Barnett consequentials for Scotland?), cuts in payroll tax for small business. Again this would be paid for by cuts/savings.

What Labour are thinking is anyone's guess. It seems that they have not learned their lesson on trailing their intentions. Surely if this is really going to be good news, the impact would be bigger if it was just announced in all its glory. My suspicion is that they are attempting to get the biggest PR bang for their buck by drip feeding a range of modest measures.

It is difficult to see what room for maneouvre the Chancellor has. Up to his scalp in debt on our behalf, can he really suggest he extends his borrowing further? On the other hand, what savings can be made in his current spending plans? The last I heard, spending was to be increased Keynesian style to 'kick-start' the economy.

The only answer seems to be to live for the moment, take out a shiny new BoE Corporate Card and spend, spend, spend. You have to admire the sheer brass neck of a Government who claims to want to end the age of irresponsibility while selling our children, their children, their children, their children, ..., and their children down the river. Then again, this is the party that remains in love with PFI and therefore thinks nothing of massive interest payments, as long as it is not them that has to pay them.

I find myself wondering when the media in this country will start to question the actions of this Government instead of just printing their press releases. With a few honourable, but mostly obscure exceptions, we are being extremely poorly served by the lackeys of the Fourth Estate at the moment. Maybe it's just too much like hard work.

Friday, 7 November 2008

Is the Transformation Now Complete?

Scottish Politics has been turned on its head in the last two years. I believe the campaign and result in Glenrothes demonstrate that the SNP and Labour have now swapped roles in that time.

By that I mean that, in Scotland at least, the SNP are now seen as the party of Government and the Labour Party are now seen as the party of protest. More importantly, the approaches that they settled on for the Glenrothes campaign confirms that the parties see themselves in those roles too.

The SNP may have been able to win Glenrothes if it had seen the threat of the home care issue earlier and dealt with it. They didn't. Although this was a costly tactical error, the strategy of pushing the positive and aspirational message was the correct one and will stand them in good stead for the future. The SNP stood as a party of government, being judged on its record and pointing the road to a better future.

This used to be the role of Labour as the SNP used the luxury of opposition to stir up grudge and grievance against the incumbent. More often than not it didn't work but occasionally when a powerful mix of circumstances conspired, a spectacular and unexpected result was delivered.

This sounds remarkably similar to what Labour achieved and how they achieved it in Glenrothes. Under a different political narrative the same campaign would not have worked. In a different constituency the same campaign would not have worked. At a different time the same campaign would not have worked. And, ultimately, it certainly won't work at a General Election.

Labour's only purpose in Scotland now appears to be to oppose the SNP. The comments of the increasingly objectionable Jim Murphy pretty much confirms that. Incidentally, the way that man can keep a straight face when he calls Alex Salmond smug is a lesson to us all in brassneckery.

For the SNP, the challenge is to accept the Glenrothes result as a likely hazard of incumbency and resist the temptation to return to the past days of grievance politics. It must remain positive but there is a certain political naivety that needs to be addressed too.

It should have been possible for the SNP to have identified the home care issue as a likely threat at the outset. Had it done so, the selection of Peter Grant (solid candidate though he was) might not have seemed such a good idea. This may sound like hindsight but can the SNP put its collective hand on its heart and say that there was a comprehensive analysis of the political risks and threats before the candidate was selected?

My summary is that the SNP need to stick to their current strategy but try to build a bit more political maturity into their campaign planning. Labour, on the other hand, look destined to remain on the back foot, trying to exploit tactical opportunities as and when they come along in the hope that it buys enough time for them to see out the economic storm.

Thursday, 6 November 2008

Back in Time for Glenrothes Result

Having been indisposed for a few days, I've missed all the blog fun relating to events across the pond. But I was back in time for the Glenrothes result which, in my view, is possibly even more fascinating than the widely predicted outcome in the States.

Congratulations to Lindsay Roy and Labour on what, by any measure, was a very impressive result. By all accounts, Labour found a chink in the SNP armour on home care charges and exploited it to the full. There are some interesting observations to be made about this.

Firstly, I don't have a lot of sympathy with the SNP cries of foul play - the bottom line is that the SNP failed to recognise the threat of the attack and did not do enough to neutralise it.

Secondly, this type of 'negative' campaign would not have been effective had Gordon Brown's stock not risen substantially recently. Rather than attribute the result directly to his handing of the (at least in part) self induced financial crisis, his efforts gave Labour the context in which they were able to get their chosen message over.

Thirdly, the SNP vote advanced - even compared to last year's Holyrood election. So this type of campaign did not really impacted the popularity of the SNP Government but it did enable Labour to build a protest coalition against the SNP.

As I suggested a few posts back, this result may not be good for the Labour Party in the long run. I had to laugh when various Labour representatives on the TV tonight were accusing the SNP of being arrogant and taking the result for granted. The margin of Labour's win could very possibly see them slip back into their usual complacent ways as they reassure themselves that the last 18 months has been a temporary blip.

I am sure that many in the SNP would have thought that polling over 13,000 votes would have been enough for them to win. And, while there will be a lot of spin pointing to an end to what the media have described as a honeymoon, the reality is that the result demonstrates that the SNP are still as popular as last year, as well organised and well placed to profit from any downturn in Labour fortunes.

Jim Sillars suggested that the result might be a reality check for the SNP. Certainly, Alex Salmond could do with being reined in a bit. He is extremely effective when fighting Scotland's corner on genuine issues of substance. But he starts looking a bit high and mighty when he starts pronouncing on matters where there is no real need. Further, the result demonstrates that the SNP is as vulnerable to a protest coalition as Labour.

For the other parties, the Tories probably got about as much as they could have expected in the circumstances. The real losers, however, were the Lib Dems who couldn't even top the 1000 vote mark.

For me, this shows that the LibDems are nothing more that a vehicle of protest and their relevance is dwindling by the day. Yes they can win where they are the only obvious challenger to Labour but where they are not, their vote simply disintegrates. Contrast this with the SNP in Dunfermline 2006 where. despite the LibDem mega-win over Labour, their share of the vote actually increased.

Beyond all the by-election hoo-hah, what remains clear is that Labour still do not have much of a positive message. If the IMF are right, and the UK descends into the worst recession of all the developed economies, it is difficult to see what Labour will be able to do to hold back the tide at a General Election when it is their record alone that is being judged by the electors.