Archive for June, 2011

Pub quiz question: who is the leader of the Labour party?

30/06/2011, 08:42:14 AM

by Peter Watt

I don’t know what’s wrong with me this week. I just feel miserable. I have even got to the point that I can barely be bothered to tweet, and that really is a bad sign. But why am I feeling flat now? I mean, for months now, I have been worried about what seemed to be the direction of travel of the party with dog whistles to the left. For months I have worried that the outcomes of the party reform debate would be a damp squib. And for months I have worried that we seemed to be all but leaderless.

So on that basis, surely in the last few weeks things have started to look up? Ed has begun to define himself and his philosophy of “social justice with a hard edge” and an end to the “take what you can culture”. And he has shown real leadership on party reform by demanding an end to elections to the shadow cabinet and hinting at reforming the relationship with the trade unions. For me, these still don’t go far enough and probably could have, and should have, been said months ago. And, crucially, we still have little or no credibility on the economy.

But it absolutely has to be welcomed, and with four years to go until the next general election it is a start. Despite some people feeling uncomfortable about the new approach, on the whole the party seems buoyed after a difficult few months. David Cameron has looked rattled at PMQs and the U-turn taunts hurt because they reflect a very real problem for him and his government. We can probably relax just a bit until conference season. The beach beckons. (more…)

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Thursday News Review

30/06/2011, 05:53:38 AM

Strike day

Thousands of furious workers are staging a mass walkout today to fight Government plans to savage their pensions. The strikes by around 750,000 teachers and civil servants will be the biggest day of industrial action since Margaret Thatcher was PM in the 1980s. Hard-pressed staff have already been hit by savage Coalition cutbacks and are incensed over proposals to hammer their pensions. Thousands of schools in England and Wales will be closed today while ports and airports will be disrupted. Driving centres, courts, job centres and even Downing Street will also be affected. Last night Dr Mary Bousted, general secretary of the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, said the Government was morally responsible for the strikes because it was trying to steamroller through unfair changes to pensions and had failed to negotiate. She added: “Deciding to strike is not a decision we take lightly. This is the first time ATL members will be involved in a national strike in our 127 years. – Daily Mirror

The coalition government faces the first industrial uprising against its austerity measures today as up to 750,000 public servants strike over planned changes to their pensions. A third of schools are expected to close and two-thirds of universities have cancelled lectures. Benefits will go unpaid, court cases will be postponed, police leave has been cancelled in London and airports are bracing themselves for backlogs at immigration. Mark Serwotka, leader of the Public and Commercial Services union, said it was the most important strike in his union’s history. “Everything we have ever worked for is under attack,” he added. The government was trying to avoid inflaming the situation. David Cameron told the Commons: “What we are proposing is fair: it is fair to taxpayers but it is also fair to the public sector because we want to continue strong public sector pensions.” He said Labour was avoiding the issue, accusing the party of being “paid for by the unions [so] they can’t discuss the unions”. None of the four striking unions, with members in schools, colleges, universities and the civil service, is affiliated to the Labour party. Nearly every other union is poised to move towards strike action by the end of the year if the bitter standoff over public sector pension reforms is not resolved. Roads in central London will shut as thousands of people march in demonstrations that will be echoed across the country. Police leave has been cancelled so officers can cover for striking police community support officers, call handlers on the 999 lines and security staff. – the Guardian

As many as 750,000 teachers and civil servants are expected to join today’s strikes. Millions of others face severe inconvenience or financial loss: from parents who stay at home because their children’s schools are closed to people wanting to enter or leave the country. It should be stressed that not all public-sector staff will be striking. Many NHS staff, transport workers and others are not involved, although their unions do not exclude action in future. This is nothing like a general strike, nor even a strike by the whole public sector – though there are those on both sides of the public-private divide with an interest in presenting it as such. There is no doubt that many public sector workers are angry, frustrated and disillusioned on the very specific issue that is the focus of today’s protest: moves by the Government to change the terms and conditions of public-service pensions. And they are not completely wrong when they argue that long-standing terms of employment are threatened or that pensions have been a plus for the public sector in recruiting and keeping staff. But these arguments ignore the bigger picture. In pension provision, Britain is rapidly becoming two nations. One nation can look forward to a pension which, while not necessarily qualifying for the description “gold-plated”, is secure and bears a predictable relation to salary and years of service. The other nation – which comprises the vast majority of the working population – increasingly cannot. In most private companies, secure final-salary schemes are a thing of the past. Contributions are higher, the returns mostly lower, and the pensionable age higher than in the public sector – if there is a pension scheme at all. – the Independent

Prezza hits the campaign trail as election day looms

Former deputy prime minister John Prescott put tackling unemployment at the top of the agenda as he joined Labour’s Inverclyde by-election candidate on the campaign trail on Wednesday. Speaking just hours before the polls open, Mr Prescott said Iain McKenzie’s message was “jobs, jobs, jobs”. He added: “I am delighted to be out and about in Inverclyde today supporting Iain McKenzie to be a strong, local voice in Westminster. He’s a local man who knows this area like the back of his hand. Iain didn’t just arrive in Inverclyde for the by-election. It’s about jobs, jobs, jobs. Unemployment here is too high. The Tories are ruining the economy, punishing families and hurting decent people just looking for work. Inverclyde needs a local champion to go down to Westminster and fight the corner. That’s why I’m here to back Iain.” –

Voters in Inverclyde go to the polls later to elect a new member of the UK Parliament. Polling stations in the constituency will be open from 0700 BST until 2200 BST. Labour is defending a 14,416-vote majority in the Westminster seat, also being contested by the SNP, Tories, Lib Dems, and UKIP. The by-election is being held to find a replacement for David Cairns, who died from acute pancreatitis in May. Sophie Bridger is standing for the Liberal Democrats, Iain McKenzie for Labour, Anne McLaughlin for SNP, Mitch Sorbie for the UK Independence Party and David Wilson for the Conservatives. – BBC News

EU budget grab

David Cameron is facing pressure to veto the latest ‘ludicrous’ cash demand from Brussels after it  announced plans to slap three new taxes on Britain. The European Commission yesterday revealed budget demands which would cost UK taxpayers £10billion. In what Treasury officials viewed as one of the most outrageous power grabs in recent memory, they demanded the right to raise a Europe-wide sales tax. Brussels bosses also called for a new financial transaction tax, which critics say will hurt the City of London and leave consumers with higher borrowing costs.  And they unveiled plans to let Brussels grab a chunk of green taxes which are already being levied on polluters. In total, the commission demanded nearly £100billion extra for the EU’s budget between 2014 and 2020. British taxpayers would have to pay £10billion more over the seven-year period – an increase of £1.4billion a year on the current British annual payment of £13.3billion. – Daily Mail

Which one are you again?

One in four people thinks Ed Miliband is his elder brother David. A similar proportion of voters believe that David is actually Ed. Nine months into his leadership of the Labour Party, the findings of the ComRes survey for The Independent do not paint a flattering picture for Ed Miliband, as he steps up his efforts to convince the people that he is a prime minister-in-waiting. Other members of his Shadow Cabinet are even more anonymous. The only good news is for Ed Balls, the combative shadow chancellor who stood against the Milibands for the Labour leadership last year, and who appears to have made more of an impact on the electorate than the two brothers. He was correctly identified by 68 per cent of the 2,000 voters who were shown photographs of eight senior Labour figures and asked to put one of five names to their face. Ed Miliband was named accurately by 64 per cent of those questioned but 23 per cent thought he was his brother David. David was identified by 61 per cent but 26 per cent thought he was his brother. The other five Shadow Cabinet figures tested by ComRes were recognised by only three or four in 10 voters, suggesting that the Opposition team is struggling to be noticed and many Shadow Cabinet members remain in the shadows. – the Independent

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David Miliband – a geek tragedy

29/06/2011, 03:30:50 PM

by Kevin Meagher

Let me save some time and skip straight to my conclusion: the vicissitudes of David Miliband’s political career do not amount to a tragedy. He is a man who stood for the leadership, lost, and the world moved on. As he, of all people, does not need reminding, there are no silver medals in politics.

Yet here we are, nine months on, with Labour still haunted by the rupture in the hitherto relentless rise of David Wright Miliband. The reverberations continue to ring out. Mehdi Hasan and James Macintyre’s book, Ed: The Milibands and the Making of a Labour Leader is but the latest instalment in what has already become a tiresome soap opera (to the less charitable, it is simply a “geek tragedy”).

Enough of this emotional spasm. David Miliband proclaimed that he was “fine” when he spoke after the result had been declared at last year’s party conference. So we can put away the black armbands. There is no need for a period of official mourning. But if this saga is to drag on a bit further, then perhaps there is a need for an inquest into why David Miliband finds himself where he is.

Intelligent, optimistic, hard working and decent: David Miliband’s appeal should have spanned right across the Labour party. Despite also being a bit grand and stand-offish, he really could have personified the post-Blair and Brown generation better than anyone else. He should have been the logical choice, the unifying figure that married free-flowing Blairite pragmatism with Brownite social democratic moorings.


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Commons sketch: PMQs

29/06/2011, 01:15:07 PM

by Dan Hodges

Strikes. Splits in the shadow cabinet over the response to strikes. Anger from the unions at Ed Miliband’s response to the strikes.

Welcome to leader of the opposition’s question time.

David Cameron, helpfully, offered to field some of the questions on Ed Miliband’s behalf. What message, Karen Lumley from Redditch asked, should be sent to the teachers in her constituency who weren’t going on strike. ‘Scabs!’ screamed the prime minister. Actually, he didn’t. ‘I would congratulate them on doing the right thing and keeping their school open’, he said.

Ed Miliband stood up confidently. He knew how to play this game. Week after week he fired questions pointlessly across the dispatch box. Week after week David Cameron refused to answer them.

He wasn’t going to be talking about strikes. He was going to be talking about the issues that really mattered to people. Like how many people under the height of 5 ft 6 were employed in the NHS. Or something like that.

David Cameron looked weary. Of course he didn’t know the answer to that. That was a question on detail. He didn’t do detail. Anyway it wasn’t his job to answer the questions today.

No problem said Ed Miliband. ‘Let me give him the answer to the question’. This was fun. Ed Miliband question time. He asked the questions. He answered the questions. Perhaps if he could catch John Bercow’s eye he’d let him have a go at being Speaker as well; ‘Order! Will the leader of the opposition stop interrupting the leader of the opposition. Let the leader of the opposition speak’.

By now David Cameron was becoming frustrated at Ed Miliband’s evasiveness. Mainly because he was actually proving quite good at it. ‘What the whole country will have noticed’, the prime minister taunted, ‘is that at a time when people are worried about strikes he can’t ask about strikes because he’s in the pockets of the unions’.

Ed Miliband rolled his eyes. Dear oh dear. Was this the best the prime minister could do?

Apparently it was. ‘He can’t talk about the economy, because of his ludicrous plan for tax cuts’, shouted Cameron. There was another first, a Tory prime minister attacking a Labour leader for cutting taxes because he was in hock to militant trade unionists.

Just when it looked as if things couldn’t possibly get any more surreal, up popped someone called Guto Beeb. ‘Would the prime minister agree’, asked the Conservative member for Aberconwy, ‘that Aneurin Bevan would be turning in his grave as he sees a Conservative secretary of state increasing spending on health in England whilst a Labour government in Cardiff cuts spending on NHS’.

He’d love to. But first he had to check with the chair. Was it in order, he asked, ‘to talk about Labour’s record in Wales?’.

On the other side Ed Miliband sat serenely. If the prime minister fancied answering questions about Labour policy he was welcome to.

Leader of the opposition’s question time was proving quite fun. A chap could get quite used to this.

Dan Hodges is contributing editor of Labour Uncut.

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Hague’s retreat from ten years of blood, toil and money in Afghanistan

29/06/2011, 12:00:06 PM

by Khalid Mahmood

The Foreign Secretary, William Hague, believes he has come up with the groundbreaking policy to resolve the conflict in Afghanistan. He now argues that we can negotiate a settlement with the Taliban. Rather, Mr Hague should, as something of an historian, give some consideration to the events that have led us to where we are today.

The Taliban were a product of the Mujahidin’s uprising against the Soviet Union’s forces in the 1980s. Enjoying the support of the Saudis, the CIA and the Pakistani ISI, they caused huge damage to the Soviet forces, killing thousands and fatally undermining the previously fearsome reputation of the red army.  When the Soviets withdrew, the West and its allies left the Mujahidin and its remnants to its own devices. From the ashes of this unhappiness rose the so called Taliban, who wanted to run the Afghan state according to their twisted interpretation of Sharia law. This interpretation led to the summary executions of men, women and children whose behaviour or beliefs fell short of the Taliban’s exacting standards. We all remember the scenes at the national football stadium in Kabul when a woman knelt on the stadium ground and had a bullet shot through her head. This, along with many other atrocities, was the Taliban’s compliance with Sharia law.


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Rise in burglary illuminates the empty space where Cameron’s crime policy should be

29/06/2011, 08:24:09 AM

by Matt Cavanagh

A couple of weeks ago, the media were briefed to expect David Cameron’s first prime ministerial speech on crime. They are still waiting. Crime remains a top-five issue for voters, but Cameron’s problem is that he doesn’t actually have any big ideas on crime, besides cutting prison places (maybe, or maybe not, it’s not quite clear) and cutting police numbers (definitely), and these aren’t policies to which he particularly wants to draw attention.

He could talk about the development of online crime maps (though don’t expect him to admit that Labour introduced them), and of course elected police and crime commissioners, though he has talked about those quite a lot already. He’s in danger of looking like he believes these mysterious individuals will cut crime all by themselves; and, anyway, there isn’t much new to say about them, other than explaining how he proposes to stop the House of Lords scuppering the idea altogether.

He’s already used up a couple of crowd-pleasing pseudo-policies, on knife crime and “bashing burglars“, to distract the tabloids from the U-turn over Ken Clarke’s jail discounts for guilty pleas. There is nothing more to say about these either, and he might even face awkward questions about whether he was economical with the truth in how he presented them, as I set out here last week. (I pointed out that the “bash a burglar” policy simply restates the existing law, as Clarke confirmed yesterday in the Commons; and that the knife crime policy fell far short of Cameron’s pre-election promise, applying only to a small sub-category, and merely hardening existing sentencing guidance, as angry Tory MPs have started to realise).


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Wednesday News Review

29/06/2011, 05:12:23 AM

Spoiling for a fight

David Cameron was accused yesterday of deliberately stoking up tensions ahead of tomorrow’s mass walkout by teachers and civil servants. Labour said Tory Cabinet ministers were spoiling for a fight with the unions so they could rerun the battles of the 1980s. The accusation came after ministers broke off talks on Monday and refused to enter into last-minute negotiations with union bosses. Up to 750,000 teachers, lecturers, civil servants and other public sector workers are expected to walk out in the largest day of strike action since the 1980s. It is thought that more than 3,000 schools in England and Wales will be closed and a further 2,000 partially shut, with a million pupils affected. Hundreds of job centres, tax offices and courts are set to be closed or badly disrupted by the strike over pensions. Driving tests will be cancelled and customs checks will be affected at ports. But instead of trying to resolve the dispute, Mr Cameron outraged unions with an inflammatory speech yesterday, attacking strikers and insisting his public sector pension raid would go ahead as planned. – Daily Mirror

Passengers are being warned to avoid flying tomorrow as airports are dragged into the strike disruption over public sector pension reforms. The walkout is also set to hit four out of five schools, affecting seven million children, as union members defy calls from David Cameron to call off the industrial action. The Prime Minister yesterday told public sector workers strikes were ‘wrong’ at a time when discussions were ongoing, pointing out that their retirement funds are costing every household in the country £1,000 a year and must be reformed. Members of the Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) are due to desert their posts at air terminals, threatening massive queues at passport control. Airport operator BAA which is responsible for Heathrow, Stansted, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen airports, said: ‘Certainly there will be queues at immigration, there’s no doubt of that.’ A BAA spokesman said the strike would affect only arrivals, as checks for departing passengers were carried out by BAA staff, rather than the UKBA. However, passengers transferring  flights in the UK are expected to  have problems. The PCS union’s general secretary Mark Serwotka said attempts to train UKBA managers to take the place of passport-checkers would not prevent delays, adding: ‘It is likely that there will be severe disruptions and delays affecting both ports and airports. – Daily Mail

C’mon back us Ed

Tomorrow’s strikes will nail one poisonous myth: public servants do worthless jobs. Many ConDems, plus a few foolish Labour figures who should know better, demonise staff on the state payroll. Shut schools and closed courts will prove how much we depend on them. If as few employees back action as Cabinet minister Francis Maude argues, he’s got nothing to worry about. Nobody’s forced to strike and the closed shop was ­abolished years ago. But Maude’s jumpy because he fears the public could turn on the Tories if strikes spread. Ed Miliband’s terror of a Tory “Red Ed” tag triggered an ill-judged union denunciation by the Labour leader. At one point I feared Scared Ed might offer to join Michael Gove’s gimmicky Mum’s Army. Miliband should note the poll showing a majority think the pension strikes are legitimate. Appeasing Right-wingers who’ll devour him at their convenience, is a risky strategy. Because when Mili’s feckless friends turn, he might find old mates scarpered earlier. – Daily Mirror

Hypocrisy of the highest order

Campaigners say it is “unacceptable” that an MP who has campaigned for the living wage is recruiting an unpaid worker for her House of Commons office. Lyn Brown, Labour MP for West Ham, is seeking a “voluntary Westminster worker” for duties including policy research and dealing with constituents. Ms Brown said she “would like to pay everyone” in her office, but “did not have the resources to do so”. The Labour Party said staffing decisions were a matter for individual MPs. Ms Brown’s official website states: “Since her election in 2005, Lyn has campaigned tirelessly for a living wage for all.” The living wage is an hourly salary rate – higher than the minimum wage – that campaigners say is necessary to allow a family to meet their basic needs. In London – including Ms Brown’s constituency – it is currently £8.30. – BBC News

A labour MP who has campaigned against low wages was yesterday branded a hypocrite after advertising for an unpaid researcher. Lyn Brown is seeking a “voluntary Westminster worker” to help with constituency and research duties. The West Ham MP has been at the forefront of a campaign for a living wage of £8.30 an hour for workers in London. Her website states: “Lyn has campaigned tirelessly for a living wage for all.” Gus Baker, from campaign group Intern Aware, said: “This is a double hypocrisy. How would someone from a low-income background take that opportunity? It is manifestly unfair.” Ms Brown said: “I would like to pay everyone who volunteers for me and who is ultimately seeking a wage. The reality is that I do not have the resources.” – Daily Mirror

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Exploitative credit: email your MP today

28/06/2011, 02:30:36 PM

by Stella Creasy

For some time now I’ve been challenging this government to take action on the cost of credit, highlighting the urgency of doing so as many families in Britain now find themselves turning to high cost credit lenders to make ends meet. We know the market is stacked against the consumer, and as it strengthens in Britain we are starting to see the consequences. This month R3 found that of the 46% of households that cannot cover their outgoings with their incomings, 10% are falling into debt directly as a result of repayments on high cost credit products.

This is no longer an issue solely affecting the poorest areas of Britain. Whether payday loans, hire purchase agreements or doorstep lending, the high interest rates and penalty charges these firms charge are hurting families in every constituency. These so called legal loan sharks are rapidly expanding their operations in the UK, taking advantage of the lack of regulation and growing demand for finance as the cost of living climbs and wages are frozen.

Ministers from both the treasury and the department for business, innovation and skills agree the way in which this market operates is a problem, but reject calls to introduce caps on the charges these companies can make. Instead they’re hoping the market will reconfigure itself through a growth in credit unions and increasing information on the costs involved to consumers. It would be easy to dismiss them out of hand as uncaring, blind to the plight of families caught in a cycle of debt to these companies.


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For his own good, Ed mustn’t pick a fight with the unions

28/06/2011, 11:30:42 AM

by Dan Hodges

If Ed Miliband picks a fight with the unions, he’ll lose. That’s not a threat or a warning, but a statement of fact.

Just take a look at the trouble he’s managed to get himself into over the past few days. On Friday the Guardian reported that he intended to use the  Refounding Labour review to begin the process of “weakening the grip of the unions”. On Sunday the Observer reported he was “on a collision course” over the block vote and Thursday’s strike action. All dramatic, and seemingly unequivocal, stuff.

Then things started to unravel. On the political breakfast shows two of Ed’s most loyal Parliamentary aides, Peter Hain and Sadiq Khan, did what loyal aides do best: they pulled the rug out from under their man.

“I don’t think political leaders, in opposition or in government, should either applaud strikes or condemn strikes”, said Hain.

“It is a failure on both sides when there is strike action … it’s the last, last thing you do and what I’d like to see over the next three or four days is ministers, trade union leaders, speaking and trying to resolve this dispute”, said the slightly more on message Khan.

Yesterday saw Labour sources working manfully to repair the damage, with differing degrees of success. “The Hain and Khan comments were over-interpreted”, said an insider. Sorry, they weren’t. Ed Miliband’s statement that the upcoming industrial action  was “a mistake” is clearly incompatible with Hain’s statement that political leaders should not condemn strikes. And the signal this sent was not lost on  the unions or the wider party. “If even people like Hain are starting to put daylight between themselves and Ed, he really is in trouble”, said one shadow cabinet source.


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The “new” health bill is a PR fix. Scrap it and start again.

28/06/2011, 09:30:45 AM

by Liz Kendall

This week, some parts of the government’s health and social care bill will go back through the committee stage of scrutiny by MPs.

David Cameron and Nick Clegg say they have listened and acted on people’s concerns. Now we’ve seen the government’s actual amendments to the bill, how does their claim match the reality?

The first problem with the government’s new NHS plans is that they are an even bigger mess than they were before.

Initially, the government wanted to scrap primary care trusts and strategic health authorities, set up the NHS commissioning board, public health England and the new monitor at the national level, and GP commissioning consortia and health and wellbeing boards at the local level.

Since then, new clusters of PCTs have been formed to “manage the transition” and David Nicholson, the chief executive of the NHS, has made it clear that he wants to have regional outposts of the NHS board (SHAs anyone?). Following its listening exercise, the government says that GP consortia will become clinical commissioning groups. It also wants to establish new clinical senates and have a bigger role for clinical networks.

These organisations come on top of the bodies that already exist, including the national quality board, the national institute for health and clinical excellence and the care quality commission.

Confused? You should be. It is now completely unclear who is responsible for taking decisions and leading changes in the NHS.


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