Archive for August, 2012

Three things we learned about Romney when he picked Paul Ryan as his running mate

14/08/2012, 07:00:55 AM

by Nikhil Dyundi

As the immediate buzz around Paul Ryan’s selection subsides the real implications are becoming clear. Suffice to say, they don’t paint a picture of a campaign in rude health. Here are the top three.

1 Romney is still running in the Republican primary

The Ryan pick tells us that Romney is worried about his back.

Neither the Republican elite, as embodied by the Wall Street Journal, nor the tea party base has coalesced around Romney as he would have wanted. Background chatter criticising the campaign and candidate are a constant.

Paul Ryan is the darling of the Republican elite and seen as sufficiently fiscally sound/insane (delete as appropriate) by the base. His choice will firm up these groups’ commitment to the campaign. But this support was meant to be sewn up months ago. At this stage in a presidential contest, the candidate should have swung into the centre, not headed out further into base territory.

By picking Paul Ryan, Mitt Romney is essentially still fighting the Republican primary and just permanently ceded large tracts of the centre ground to team Obama.

2 The current campaign narrative is killing Romney and he is trying to change the conversation

So far the campaign has been defined by two questions: Did Bain destroy American jobs and businesses while Romney ran the show? And, has Mitt Romney paid any taxes, ever?

The facts have been against Romney on Bain. Despite his protests that he left the company in 1999, before they really amped up their mania for outsourcing, documents filed with the financial authorities have one Mitt Romney as the CEO and chair till 2002.

On tax, Romney has signed a blank cheque for the Democrats by refusing to release past tax returns. Whatever the Dems say about Romney, he will not release the evidence to contradict it. Which naturally leads most to think he really must have something awful to hide.

Picking Ryan is a bold enough play to shift the conversation.


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Making Bristol a world class city

13/08/2012, 01:20:54 PM

by Amanda Ramsay

What makes a world-class city? That’s the question on Marvin Rees’ mind right now. Labour’s candidate to be Bristol’s first directly elected mayor, set out his vision to a group of business people and local experts from across Bristol last Thursday, at an event on the Bristol economy chaired by shadow business secretary Chuka Umunna.

Rees wants to see Bristol become “a world-class city”, he told the roundtable last week, the culmination of an illuminating set of events as part of the City Conversation – the Bristol-wide policy consultation being held by Rees.

With the national economy officially flat-lining, after the Bank of England revised down its growth forecast to 0% and the latest trade figures last week show the worst trade deficit since records began in 1997, how to kick-start the local economy was a key topic for discussion.

Umunna pledged that an incoming Labour government would set up a British Investment Bank (BIB) to widen the availability of credit to small firms.

It would be an extension of the recently-launched Green Investment Bank and fill the gap left by the main UK banks. Local branches, with managers in tune with the needs of local businesses, would strengthen local economies.


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Sorry Tessa, there’s no justification for spending more on elite sport

10/08/2012, 07:00:03 AM

by Kevin Meagher

The Olympics provides us with an interesting quandary. Is spending money on our top athletes really a good return for the country?

Tessa Jowell thinks it is. Yesterday she echoed an appeal by Olympic gold medallist Sir Chris Hoy who wants to see continued investment in elite sports.

“Chris Hoy is absolutely right” she said. “It has been the investment in elite training which has created stability for high performance training for those athletes. We have got to make sure that money continues.”

On its website UK Sport says “more than £100 million per annum is being invested directly into the UK’s high performance system’ through a combination of ‘Exchequer and National Lottery funds”.

A further £58 million is spent on “providers of the key services” that underpin elite sports while the “Team 2012” scheme tries to lever-in private funding.

It would be churlish not to concede that Tessa and Sir Chris are right in their analysis: investment in sporting infrastructure and elite programmes has clearly helped Britain to a medal tally few thought likely a fortnight ago.

But apart from the athletes themselves and a small supply chain of trainers and managers, who else benefits from this taxpayer-funded largesse? What’s the return for the county?

I let that theoretical question hang there for a moment because I honestly can’t think what it is. We may all celebrate the achievements of British Olympians and readily pay tribute to their industry and example; but outside the Olympic bubble we continue to face the biggest retrenchment in public spending in a century and an economy in the deep freeze.


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All parties are responsible for the disgrace of Winterbourne View

09/08/2012, 07:00:48 AM

by Peter Watt

Sometimes you read something so depressing and so disheartening that it ruins your day.  I have just had that experience as I read the report from South Gloucestershire Safeguarding Adults Board into the appalling events that took place at Winterbourne View hospital.

You will remember the case; Winterbourne View was a hospital based in Bristol for adults with learning disabilities and autism.  A BBC Panorama undercover journalist secured a job there following a whistle-blower contacting them with concerns about the abuse of patients.  The resulting programme shocked all who saw it and has resulted in eleven former workers pleading guilty to almost 40 charges of abuse and Winterbourne View, owned by Castlebeck Ltd, being closed.

I should declare an interest here.  Two of my children have special needs and may very well need some form of supervised accommodation as adults.  I also have a brother in his early thirties who is in a smallish supervised accommodation unit.  Worrying about what happens when they are older and you aren’t there to protect them is something that all parents worry about.  To be honest, as a parent of children with special needs, the fear is debilitating.

Reading the report into events at Winterbourne View is like reading an account of some of my very worst nightmares.

Remember that we are talking about some of our most vulnerable fellow human beings here who are least able to defend themselves.   The quality of their lives really is in the hands of those entrusted with their care; if bad things happen when noone else is looking then nobody may ever know.

And at Winterbourne View there was certainly abuse (I personally would call it torture) with patients being humiliated, physically restrained, covered in cold water and left outside, hurt and over-prescribed sedatives.


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Standard Chartered: these are the real ills of modern banking

08/08/2012, 12:31:21 PM

by Rob Marchant

Banks, eh? On the British left, we’re often so busy disliking them in general that we don’t always take the time to differentiate between their misdemeanours.

While we’ve been exercising ourselves greatly about irresponsible bankers who have largely been operating within the rules – and where arguably we ought to be looking first to governments, for not having done their jobs in regulating them properly – we miss something else.

And so, much less attention has gone, until recently, on a much more serious problem: those who actively flout the rules. In particular, the illegal transfer and laundering of money.

On Monday the stock of Standard Chartered Bank (SCB), one of Britain’s oldest banking institutions, dive-bombed as it was accused of sanctions-busting with Iran. Accused, because the bank currently denies this. We shall see. If true, it is a sad and ironic tale, which I can perhaps help explain, because I used to work there.

SCB has been, in fact, a real British success story, formed from the merger of two old colonial banks in 1969, although its success was largely due to seeking its fortune in Asia. Although not so well-known to the British public, in Hong Kong and Singapore it is as much a high-street bank as NatWest is in the UK. And although it still keeps its legal HQ in London for regulatory – and perhaps historic – reasons, its real revenue and headcount is in these Asian hubs, as well as, more recently, China and India.

It’s an interesting place to work, because it has a culture which is international, and yet unlike many multi-nationals, not particularly American (its New York branch is actually quite small). Indeed, although it has modernised, and “Asianised”, its corporate culture since the stuffy 1960s, it might also be viewed as a microcosm of what multinationals might look like, had the sun not set on the British Empire during the 20th century: a British-Asian fusion, a latter-day East India Company.

For all these reasons, it surprises me not a jot that one of its British execs might utter the words “You f—ing Americans. Who are you to tell us, the rest of the world, that we’re not going to deal with Iranians?”


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The conventional wisdom is wrong: David Cameron and Nick Clegg are now bound even more tightly together

07/08/2012, 09:00:17 AM

by Atul Hatwal

Another pained press conference from Nick Clegg, another central plank of the Lib Dem’s beloved constitutional reform agenda disappears for a generation.

So farewell then Lords reform, we’ll see you in twenty-five years when all of the politicians who have witnessed first-hand the Lib Dem’s failure on the Lords and electoral reform, have passed from this parliamentary coil.

But, all this was known the moment 91 Tory backbenchers decided to use the Lords as an excuse to attack their leader. The votes weren’t there. The real news from Clegg’s study in sanctimonious defeat yesterday was confirmation of the tit for tat blocking of the Tories’ boundary review.

According to Lib Dem sources, Clegg attempted to mount a damage containment exercise when the extent of the Tory rebellion became obvious, sounding out MPs about the prospect of not vetoing the new boundaries.

As frustrated as Clegg was by the Tories, he privately accepted the position in which David Cameron has found himself. It’s a position Clegg empathises with and experiences himself with his own backbenches.

But the Lib Dem leader had to accept political reality. For all the fanciful recent talk of Vince Cable as a future leader of the party, the message went back to the Lib Dem leadership that there really might be regime change if Clegg did not strike back at the Tories.

The immediate reaction to this spat among much of the commentariat is to conclude that the coalition is headed for the rocks.

Certainly the massed off-the-record ranks of Tory backbenchers have done their bit to promote this notion with blood curdling talk of revenge on Clegg for the boundary betrayal.

But the reality is that the leaders of the Tories and Lib Dems are now bound even more tightly together. Assuming the projections of Tory advantage from the boundary review are correct, then David Cameron will need his Lib Dem coalition partners all the more if he is to stay in office after the next election.


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Why do athletes break the rules? The same reason the MPs and bankers do. It’s the incentives, stupid

07/08/2012, 07:00:50 AM

by Anthony Bonneville

It’s been an eventful Olympics. Joyous victory, heartbreaking defeat and, in a couple of notable instances, newsworthy disqualifications.

First, the Chinese badminton team was disqualified for not trying hard enough to win a game. On the face of it, a sound decision, not least because their opponents were trying to lose as well, resulting quite literally in a race to the bottom, in which the spectators were the real losers.

In that instance, all the teams involved (eight players in total, actually) were disqualified for having breached the rules which state that one must, having shown up for a game, at least try to win.

So far, so depressing for all concerned.

Then Taoufik Makhloufi of Algeria was also thrown out of the games, despite having qualified for the 1500 metres final.  His crime? His team failed to withdraw him from the 800 metres, so he was forced to compete. Presumably keen to avoid exhaustion and/or injury and thereby risking his chances in the 1500, he dawdled around the track before giving up and wandering across the infield, possibly in an ingenious attempt at a short cut to the finish, but more likely because he simply didn’t want to be running that race.

He was disqualified from the games, including the medal hope he was trying to protect, for not giving a bona fide effort.

There are arguments to be had about the rights and wrongs of sporting conduct, but that is not what is most interesting here.

What is interesting is the clear lesson to be learned in the difference between rules and incentives. Specifically, that incentives are far more powerful than rules.


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The Sunday Review on Monday: the Olympic park

06/08/2012, 07:00:55 AM

by Julianne Marriot

A day out in the Olympic park is a bit like being at a brilliant blockbuster exhibition, but with a niggling feeling that you forgot to pick up the guide.

The 2.5 sq km (about the size of 350 football pitches) Olympic park is the backdrop for the business of the day; watching 15,000 people become Olympians and Paralympians. The legacy plan (or is that sustainability?) is that the athletes “inspire a generation” and the park grows into a world-class visitor destination.

In a reversal of history, à la Boyle, the turf here was laid, rather than rolled away. The dark satanic scrap yards were junked and pylons demolished. Meadows, waterways, frolicking ticket holders and “art and culture” were created.

For a park there’s a lot of hard surfacing, but the greenery goes a long way. It neutralises the functional concrete flyovers and the goods trains, cutting through the park, seem congruent, like being in the countryside and spotting a steam train in the distance. Near the Orbit, people bend down to touch the perfectly tousled luxurious grass and admire the regimented randomness of the banks of yellow gold flowers.

Massive screens are anchored into the de-canalised river Lea, watched by people sunbathing or sheltering under umbrellas on the sloping manicured lawns. In the far north of the park the “culture” on offer at the bandstand goes largely ignored. It could be because people aren’t here to see musicians, or these particular musicians, but many probably don’t know it exists. It’s a really secluded spot.

The determination to create a relaxed atmosphere, with a lack of officious “keep off the grass” signs and corridor monitors, allowed people to make little shortcuts through the wild flowers to reach the elevated Olympic rings. Crowd control barriers now corral the wild flowers. The non-interventionist approach is laudable, but trusting people to go the long way round seems naïve. A few extra paths and some gentle reminders may have stopped the destruction.

The narrow, but exuberant, strip of the 2012 gardens, opposite the aquatics centre, is divided into temperate regions. The signs are discreet, so discreet it’s unlikely that most people notice them or the concept.

Looming behind Gary’s shoulder, the blowsy, Marmite, 115m tall Orbit doesn’t need signposting, although it could perhaps do with explaining. RUN, by Monica Bonvicini is less ambiguous. The chunky, nine metre tall, mirrored letters can be seen across the park. But up close they’re subtle, with unexpected reflections that just a handful of people are playing with and capturing for prosperity.


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The Sunday Review: Positive linking: how networks can revolutionise the world by Paul Ormerod

05/08/2012, 08:00:37 AM

by Anthony Painter

There is a strangely diffident sub-title to Paul Ormerod’s passionate and personality filled look at the state of modern economics. In it, he argues quite clearly not simply that networks can revolutionise but that they do. Not only is the force of networks felt in the field of economics but it is felt across society, politics and beyond into the physical and natural world. Network theory is profoundly important for understanding our world. The question is what this means for political economy.

At its heart, the book is the latest corrective to the hubris of economics and orthodox de-humanised economic theory with its dynamic stochastic general equilibrium theories and the like. Paul Ormerod is by no means the first person to venture onto this territory. Yet, since his provocative The death of economics in the early 1990s it is an argument he has consistently made. Neo-classical economic theory is deficient. Ormerod is no Jonny-come-lately.

This makes Positive Linking a very confident book but no unreasonably so. It is not about explaining the latest economic crisis – though he does precisely that in passing. It is about looking at a deep intellectual crisis in a single subject. The problem for us is that the subject – economics – has perhaps more influence on our lives than any other with the possible exception of the bio-medical sciences. This stuff matters.

The key to networks in the economic world is influence. Traditional economics relies on incentives. If Coke reduces its price then it will sell more units. But in a world of overflowing information, advertising trickery, where consumers and producers can interact in a myriad of ways to influence one another, and the “rational” strategy is copy others, the actual outcome becomes skewed away from a “normal distribution”.


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Crime and communities in the spotlight in Bristol’s “City Conversation”

04/08/2012, 08:00:12 AM

by Amanda Ramsay

Thursday night was the crime and communities’ roundtable, the fifth in a series of Marvin Rees’ “City Conversations” which will inform his mayoral manifesto.

Past events have been chaired by shadow ministers such as Stephen Twigg and Hilary Benn with Thursday night’s event featuring Bob Ashford, Labour’s candidate to be the first police and crime commissioner for Avon and Somerset, as co-host.

The focus on Thursday was on how Bristol can build stronger communities to prevent and tackle crime and reoffending.

Attended by youth workers, councillors, crime enforcement representatives and people from victim support groups, community and pressure groups, Rees was clear about his intentions to the audience:

“It’s critical that we get people from across the city working better together.

We must always remember, it’s the most vulnerable who will pay the heaviest price if we don’t get this right. It costs us all of course, but it’s the most vulnerable who pay the most.”

Like or loathe the idea of elected police and crime commissioners they are coming soon, with the poll due on 15th November. Labour need to secure these pivotal roles to protect policing and the public from the type of populist button-pressing right wingers that have emerged in similar US elections. Who knows where that may take British policing?


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