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Sunday, April 20, 2014

Labour as a 'one trick pony'

The Sunday Times reports on warnings by senior Labour party figures if their party continues to base its election strategy on a “cost of living crisis”, it risks becoming a “one-trick pony”.

The paper highlights that the warning comes as polling for The Sunday Times shows that the Tories are closing the gap on the issue, and that Labour now only has a narrow lead on its ability to tackle high prices, boost living standards and provide jobs. The Tories have also extended their advantage over Labour when it comes to questions of economic competence:

A senior Labour frontbencher said that with the election just over a year away, Ed Miliband needed to find something different to say on the economy. “This is the endgame . . . therefore it is really important we are not seen as a one-trick pony on the cost of living. Everyone believes that Labour would tackle that better than the Tories but if they feel that is all we are offering and the economy is doing a little bit better then it won’t be enough.”

The former Labour cabinet minister Alan Milburn also warned that as the economic landscape shifted, so must Miliband’s economic strategy.

“As the economy rebalances Labour needs to rebalance its policy,” he told The Sunday Times.

“Labour wins a majority in parliament when it rewards aspirations and doesn’t just recognise injustice, and when it focuses as much on creating wealth as distributing it.”

The remarks reflect increasing unease among Labour MPs about Miliband’s insistence on making the cost of living the central plank of the party’s election campaign. They fear the improving economic climate could mean it will not be such a decisive issue for many voters by the time of the general election.

Yet more unrest in Labour's ranks as the leadership of Ed Miliband comes under greater scrutiny.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Borderline insanity

It is not often I find myself agreeing with Conservative MPs, but the senior politician who has described the latest wheeze by HMRC to sell the personal financial data of millions of taxpayers to private firms as "borderline insane" has hit the nail on the head,. even if it is David Davis.

The Guardian says that despite fears that it could jeopardise the principle of taxpayer confidentiality, the proposed legislation would allow HMRC to release anonymised tax data to third parties including companies, researchers and public bodies where there is a public benefit. They add that HMRC documents say that officials are examining "charging options":

The government insists that there will be suitable safeguards on personal data. But the plans, being overseen by the Treasury minister David Gauke, are likely to provoke serious worries among privacy campaigners and MPs in the wake of public concern about the government's Care.data scheme – a plan to share "anonymised" medical records with third parties.

The Care.data initiative has now been suspended for six months over fears that people could be identified from the supposedly anonymous data, which turned out to contain postcodes, dates of birth, NHS numbers, ethnicity and gender.

HMRC's chequered record on data is likely to come under scrutiny given historical scandals involving the loss of personal information about 25 million child benefit claimants and 15,000 bank customers.

Critics fear the data could include details about income, tax arrangements and payment history and would carry a risk that people could be identified. Even the perception that this could happen may lead to a breakdown in trust between HMRC and taxpayers, the Chartered Institute of Taxation warned.

Ross Anderson, a professor of security engineering at Cambridge University, said the information could be highly useful to credit rating agencies, advertisers, and retailers wanting to practise price discrimination.

He also raised concerns about any government claims to have made data fully anonymous.

"This is going to be a big battleground," he said. "If they were to make HMRC information more available, there's an awful lot of people who would like to get their hands on it. Anonymisation is something about which they lied to us over medical data … If the same thing is about to be done by HMRC, there should be a much greater public debate about this.

This is yet another initiative that I would look to the Deputy Prime Minister to veto.

Friday, April 18, 2014

Generation rent?

This article in the Western Mail graphically illustrates why the various Government schemes to help people get on the housing ladder are so important.

A lot of attention is being given to the impact of the UK Government's Help to Buy schemes on London and the South East of England, with claims that it will create a housing bubble. It certainly has not done so yet.

However, the biggest impact of these schemes (and the largest take-up) is outside of these areas. We cannot allow UK Housing policy to be dictated by the economy of the South East,  nor can we view these issues just through a London-centric eye. As reported here, three quarters of Help to Buy mortgage applications came from outside London and the South East and eight out of ten were from first time buyers. On average households are looking to buy homes worth £160,000, below the UK average house price of £247,000.
The paper reports that more than 30,000 people quizzed for a survey commissioned by Halifax bank said they accepted they will probably never be able to afford their own home without sacrificing years of financial hardship.

They add that nearly 50% of Welsh people agree Britain will become a nation of renters within the next generation, while one in five of 23-27 year olds have no desire to buy their own home. And yet despite people’s reluctance to climb the property ladder, figures released by the bank last month show buying a house is £124 a month cheaper than renting, making renting nearly £1,500 more expensive a year.

The paper says that these figures expose the largest difference in rent and mortgage prices since 2009, as rents rose by 18% in four years. But for a lot of young renters in Wales, it is simply impractical to consider investing in property because they cannot afford a deposit.

And if you think that those renting may be happy with that condition then there is a Shelter Cymru survey which shows only 15% are content to rent. And given the difference in costs illustrated above that is not surprising.

Thursday, April 17, 2014

UKIP in trouble

UKIP is learning pretty quickly that improved poll numbers leads to imcreased scrutiny and the pressure is starting to show.

The Times reports claims that Ukip members were silenced, ignored or forced out of the party after questioning its use of EU allowances and donations. They say that whistleblowers have alleged that Nigel Farage and other senior UKIP officials traduced colleagues who raised concerns about how the party handled millions of pounds in funds:

Mr Farage called a senior female Ukip official a “stupid woman” and told her to “shut up” when she asked for an independent audit into party finances, according to Delroy Young, formerly Ukip’s only black executive. Another member was allegedly physically threatened. The Ukip insiders spoke out as Mr Farage was confronted by a barrage of questions after The Times revealed yesterday that he was facing an investigation into a “missing” £60,000 in EU allowances

In transparency reports filed on the Ukip website, Mr Farage claims to have spent £15,500 a year solely on utilities, business rates and insurance for his small constituency office in West Sussex. A former office manager said that such costs, which exclude staff salaries, office equipment, phone bills and stationery, amounted to no more than £3,000 a year.

Mr Farage dismissed criticism over his EU spending yesterday as “yet another politically motivated attack from what is the establishment newspaper”. His defence came as:

· The Electoral Commission wrote to Ukip seeking answers as to why Mr Farage’s rent-free office was not declared as a donation for all relevant years;

· The Ukip leader told the BBC that he spent European funds to “push the Ukip campaign” in an apparent breach of EU rules;

· MEPs vote in Strasbourg today on a plan to reform European allowances, amid growing calls for change.

I am not sure that the wheels have come off the UKIP bandwagon just yet, but they are certainly being taken outside their comfort zone.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Tory rift continues

An apparent show of unity at the recent Welsh Conservative conference centred around leader, Andrew R.T. Davies' call for a 'coalition of ideas' to end Labour's rule of Wales, may not have been a sign that things were moving on within the Welsh Conservative group after all.

A column in today's South Wales Argus by leadership rival, Nick Ramsey shows that wounds are still raw as the Monmouthshire AM takes a side swipe at his group leader:

It seems the political silly season has started earlier than usual this year with the re-emergence of old calls to rebrand the Assembly as the Welsh Parliament - and we wonder why the public are disillusioned with politics!

I wish politicians would get on with the job of sorting out the very real day to day problems facing the country rather than wasting time on issues which primarily interest the political “bubble” class. I certainly won’t be supporting any unnecessary and costly changes to the Assembly’s name or any leap towards unrestricted income tax powers.

A fairly standard view from a Conservative one would think until we remember that the call to rename the Welsh Assembly came from Andrew R.T. Davies himself.

As the BBC report, in August 2012 Andrew R.T. Davies said it was time to change the Assembly's name in recognition of the primary law making powers it was granted in the 2011 referendum. It seems strange therefore for Nick Ramsey to bring the issue up out of the blue nearly two years later, so as to accuse the Welsh Tory leader of being a member of the 'political bubble class'.

The four sacked shadow cabinet members have not been readmitted to the inner circle of course, in apparent defiance of the wishes of the Welsh Conservative Party's ruling body. Factions within the 13 strong group of Tory AMs are growing more acute.

It seems unlikely that Andrew R.T. Davies is capable of even convening talks with other opposition parties to forge a 'coalition of ideas' when he cannot even unite his own group.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Looking for scandals

As the Inside Out blog suggests it is certainly starting to get nasty out there, with recriminations flying around the Conservative party over the failed prosecution of an innocent Nigel Evans, unbelieveable and unsustainable mud being thrown at Nick Clegg over Cyril Smith and of course the latest alleged expenses scandal, this time featuring Nigel Farage.

So, in the interest of a bit of light relief here is the latest episode of 'have I Got News for You' in which the UKIP leader bit off more than he can chew:

Monday, April 14, 2014

It's good to talk

The First Minister of Wales started his own personal twitter account over the weekend and was immediately drawn into discussion with a wide range of people on local government reorganisation. When I suggested that he should have come onto Twitter earlier so that we could make progress on these sorts of issues he said: I was afraid it would become compulsive. I'm still afraid.

What is most revealing is that the conversation between Carwyn and the various parties local government spokespeople on twitter is the first time we have really discussed this issue despite the fact that the Welsh Government have said they want to secure a cross-party consensus.

Perhaps next time, he should not rely on Twitter but get in touch directly.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Where has all the poetry gone from politics?

Reading Graham Henry's account of the war of words between Labour and the Conservatives in today' s Wales on Sunday, I was left lamenting the apparent death of oratory in today's poltics. In short the poetry and wordcraft contained in the speeches of William Gladstone, Lloyd George, Aneurin Bevan, Winston Churchill and Roy Jenkins, to name but a few, seems to belong to a long-gone era.

Carwyn Jones has complained that the Conservatives have declared a war on Wales, whilst David Cameron, in what must be the clumsiest turn of phrase ever used by a British Prime Minister, claimed that Offa's Dyke forms a line between life and death. That may have been the case in medieval times when opposing armies sat either side of it, but it is no way to talk of the Welsh health service.

Mr Cameron said Carwyn Jones was “sinking the hopes of a generation”, whilst Welsh Conservative Leader, Andrew RT Davies used an interview before the conference to compare Mr Jones to a “tin-pot dictator from Eastern Europe." Had he honestly thought through that allusion?

The language of politics is being reduced to the level of a school debating society, but without the vision, the carefully-crafted metaphor or the tightly argued rebuttal that even those contests can rise to.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

The Welsh Health Service - enough already!

Kirsty Williams was absolutely right in her speech to the Welsh Liberal Democrats Conference last week to express her fury at the way that the First Minister is hiding behind the Welsh people over critcism of his government.

She told the Conference:

Our health service struggles like never before, our schools remain underfunded and underperforming, our economy lags behind the rest of the UK.

I am furious that we as nation are being portrayed in this manner.

Last week Carwyn Jones said these criticisms weren’t a war on Welsh Labour, or the Welsh Government, but a war on Wales as an entire nation.

How dare he take cover behind the people he is meant to lead. What kind of leader does that?

These headlines might hurt our sense of national pride, but we must not forget, it is Labour that is Wales’ weak link. Labour is holding us back, Labour – the weight around our nation’s neck.

Indeed I have commented before that after his ministers and him spent the last few yeats attacking the UK Coalition Government in the Senedd chamber, Carwyn Jones cannot expect to escape reciprocal treatment.

In my view it is the job of the opposition, whether they are Ministers in another place or Assembly Members here in Wales to highlight problems and hold the Welsh Government to account for them. That is not a 'war on Wales' it is a war on failure on behalf of the Welsh people.

The rhetoric in this weekend's Welsh Tory Conference however, has taken that process to a new and unacceptable level. To suggest as David Cameron did that Offa's Dyke "has become the line between life and death" is going too far.

Outcomes are clearly worse in Wales than in England, waiting times are longer here but the Welsh NHS is still in the business of healing people and it still does a reasonably good job thanks to a highly dedicated and skilled workforce.

It is no wonder that the RCN say that nurses are finding the political row over the Welsh NHS both "tiresome and demoralising'.

It is time to rein back the rhetoric and start approaching this issue from a more constructive point of view. That applies to both sides of the argument.

By all means criticise when it is justified, compare one health service to another and highlight government failures, but please can we stop the unacceptable hyperbole? Enough already!

Friday, April 11, 2014

Remembering Sue Townsend

Sad news today that Sue Townsend, the author of the Adrian Mole diaries, has died. Like many others I enjoyed the books immensely but I could not hope to do justice to a review of them as

The point of course, as Sue Townsend says is that the book wasn't even aimed at teenagers: "It was written for parents, that was the intended audience. It was for the mothers of teenage boys.":

That seems obvious now. Reading it as a 40-year-old father, I recognise it as a book clearly written by one of my own: Mole is simultaneously lovable and completely exasperating, and as anyone who has had kids will tell you, love and complete exasperation are pretty much the defining emotions of parenthood. I find my interest resting less on Mole and his on-off girlfriend Pandora than his mum and dad, particularly his mum Pauline, with her ambitions crushed by the suburbs and her late-flowering feminism and her fantastic line in The Growing Pains about how the only thing more boring than listening to other people's dreams is listening to other people's problems.

Indeed, reading it as a 40-year-old father, I occasionally wonder what I got out of it 30 years ago. I missed almost everything I now love about the book. I didn't notice how doleful its very Midlands sense of humour is – like a long resigned sigh you laugh at – or how beautifully drawn the other characters are: not just his parents, but Bert Baxter, the octogenarian communist who refuses to die until he sees capitalism dismantled, and Pandora's earnest, Guardian-reading family, their marriage torn asunder by the foundation of the SDP. I didn't get a lot of the references. I had no idea who Iris Murdoch was, nor Malcolm Muggeridge, nor indeed RD Laing, whom one of Mole's teachers doorsteps during a school trip to London in the hope he will give the delinquent Barry Kent "a quick going-over". And I completely overlooked how Townsend uses Mole's naivety as a vehicle for the occasional burst of more vicious wit: "Bert showed me a picture of his dead wife," he writes. "It was taken in the days before they had plastic surgery."

"That would have been a completely serious point to Adrian too," says Townsend. "He wouldn't think there was any humour in that at all. When it was done as a radio play that was what was so wonderful, the actor who read it was 13¾ as well and he didn't get it at all. He read it without any semblance of humour in it: he didn't know."

And 30 years ago, that was the point. I identified with Adrian Mole, which on one level seems bizarre – he is a self-obsessed prig and a hypochondriac to boot – but on another seems perfectly understandable. His brand of adolescent angst felt and still feels more realistic and relevant to me than any other hero of the great teenage novels I went on to read. Holden Caulfield might have been alienated, but he knew how to book into a hotel, get served cocktails and hire a prostitute, all of which marked him out as almost unfathomably exotic and alien. Adrian Mole couldn't even repaint his bedroom without the Noddy wallpaper showing through, which seemed much more my style.

We all fell in love with Adrian Mole and his world, simply because it was so realistic in its ordinariness. Sue Townsend's genius was to capture that world in a funny and insightful way. The books were beautifully observed and well-written. They created a genre. That is quite a legacy.

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