Monday, March 31, 2008

Rhodes To Hell Paved With Good Intentions

From Holyrood Magazine (The Scottish Parliament's version of Westminster's 'House Magazine', only more interesting) - an interview with Wendy Alexander. Go on - don your crash helmet and take a read.

Before getting involved in politics, I had no conception of how people's words could be edited sympathetically for TV and radio, or polished up by journalists and stenographers before they reach the public domain. Wendy's clearly been left to perform unplugged here by the magazine, and boy does it show.

What shines through is how the interviewer, Editor Mandy Rhodes, seems desperate to try and give Wendy as fair a crack of the whip as she can, yet in the end, just gives up. That in itself is as revealing as anything which Ms Alexander manages to say, or not to say, in the course of the interview...

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Grounds For Optimism

Prompted, albeit somewhat indirectly by Duncan, but mostly by dint of having dinner on Friday evening with some Catalan acquaintances, my thoughts have turned to the subject of coffee.

I don't consider myself to be a coffee geek, but I suppose I probably am, at least to some extent. You see, I like my coffee. Very much. It kick-starts the morning for me, it finishes a meal at night, it picks me up during the day. When I moved back into my flat over Christmas, I had my laptop, a 3G datacard, a radio, some basic food essentials and a borrowed cafetière. Some people sneak off during the day for cigarette breaks – I do likewise for a cup with the luxuriant crema floating atop the rich, dark liquid below.

I don't grind my own coffee – that seems like far too much effort, and in any case, it's hard to get it to the right level of fineness for my espresso maker to deal with. Too coarse, and you get a hideous, watery amber-tinged bilge. Too fine, and the 'coffee' will be the person sat next to you as you struggle to prevent a choking fit. Other people do it better on an industrial scale, so mine just comes vacuum-packed from the supermarket.

My thing for coffee started when I was about 5. I loved the smell, and since my parents drank a fair amount of instant at home and it seemed the grown-up thing to do, I started on fairly weak stuff. By my teens, though, we'd moved onto using a cafetière, since other methods like percolators and filter machines were a lot of hassle and usually made far too much. I took this relationship away with me to university, only to begin a torrid affair with a svelte Italian stove-top espresso maker instead. They're a dirt cheap way to make great coffee, but I managed to burn my fingers just once too often for it to be anything more than a short-term dalliance.

My current squeeze is an espresso machine with shiny chrome and a steam nozzle which cost me all of £40. I’d gone into the shop armed with more money than sense and with the intention of buying a Gaggia machine or similar, but came back with something every bit as good but a tenth of the price. Given the high street price of coffee, it probably paid for itself after a fortnight… and the house always smells great now too.

But let's return to Friday's dinner. We ordered our espressos, which prompted one member of the group to say how impressed he was at the number of places you could get a good coffee in the UK, but how much he disliked the chains like Starbucks, Costa and Café Nero, which he felt were stifling the market. Now, I'm none too fond of these places either, but I had to disagree with him. Here's why.

In Barcelona, or just about anywhere else in the south of Europe for that matter, there's a great bar and café culture. Small independent family businesses might vary in quality, but most serve the best food and drink they can at the best price they can. If a big coffee chain crashes in with a big marketing budget and an appeal to the young, that's all put at risk as people are, at least for a time, drawn to the fashionable new place with its prime location, funky coloured furniture and wi-fi. People want to buy into the 'experience' and 'lifestyle' they associate with these outlets – something which the 'mom and pop' type of places find difficult to deal with.

Which might be true in large parts of Europe, but not I think here. For years, people all over the British Isles have been prepared to accept the most dreadful crud when it comes to food and drink. In the 80's, coffee was thought to be good if it came with an individualised plastic filter with gothic writing on the side. More usually, it came filter-brewed and in a pot which had been on the go for so long that the liquid inside was in danger of caramelising. In short, more often than not, coffee was expensive, its preparation an afterthought and almost uniformly, it tasted pretty foul.

What Starbucks and others have done, at least to my eyes, is raised expectations and tastes. We now spend far more on coffee than we ever did before, and we buy better when we do – the demand curve shifting to the right, as the economists would say. Starbucks has arguably over-expanded and is now closing outlets. Meanwhile, the little guy has gone out and spent a few thousand pounds on a decent espresso machine for his café, and now serves great coffee made individually to order. And judging by the number of stylish independent cafés which seem to litter our high streets now, it's something which Joe Public seems to like as well.

For me, places like Starbucks provide a pretty humdrum, dull uniformity, and I always tried to avoid them in my telecommuting days for that reason. You know whatever you get is going to be all right, but they feel kind of soulless in a way that no amount of perky staff, promo CDs and armchairs decked out in leather or fabrics of primary colours can overcome. Meanwhile, I see a revival of a lot of small businesses, all of them serving great coffee. And it just wouldn't have happened if it hadn't been for Starbucks and their marketing spend making us realise how we were being ripped off by poor quality, and forcing everyone else to raise their game.

It's ironic that Starbucks might not be the ones who really benefit from their present ubiquity long term, but that's the way the oversized chocolate chip cookie crumbles sometimes. It might be the early bird which gets the worm, but in this case, it looks like it might have been the second mouse which got the cheese.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Alexander 'To Go On SNP Offensive'

With particular emphasis on the 'offensive', no doubt. Anyway, like most adult Scots males of my age and fighting weight, I'm going to give Wendy a miss to go and watch the fitba' instead.

Rangers v Celtic... it's a bit like Ken v Boris as far as I'm concerned. The contest will be full of thrills and spills no doubt, but for me it's still a case of may the worst one lose!

Friday, March 28, 2008

One More Heave

There’s a scene in ‘Blackadder Goes Forth’, where the news reaches Blackadder’s loyal but dim colleague, Lt. George St Barleigh, that Blackadder’s plane has been shot down over German-held territory. With George refusing point-blank to acknowledge the strong likelihood that Blackadder may be dead, General Melchett utters the immortal line:

"That's the spirit, George. If nothing else works, then a total pig-headed unwillingness to look facts in the face will see us through."

A similar mentality seems to be manifesting itself amongst the Scottish Labour Party as it gathers for its conference in Aviemore. They’ve been cheated out of power and the SNP government is just a horrible nightmare, from which Labour will wake at the next election. The SNP doesn’t understand the modern world, apparently. The constitutional debate can be resolved by 'expert' committee, and a solution handed down to a populace which will remain eternally grateful for being spared the burden of being asked their opinion beforehand. We also stand on the verge of unprecedented prosperity, apparently, but it’s all now being put at risk by those wicked Nats.

The SNP is 'right wing’ when it gets the support of the Conservatives, yet Labour remains pure and true when allied with the same party on different issues. Ending ringfenced funding in local government is a cut in SNP run Scotland, but represents progress in Labour run England. Budgets already enacted still apparently don’t add up. Labour will be in the ‘front line of scaremongeringdefence’ for vulnerable groups they never appeared to care much for previously. And Wendy Alexander will be the next First Minister - why, she’s even given herself 10/10 for her performance as leader in a BBC interview today. What a shame about that minus 22% popularity rating, though…

Luckily, there’s a more sober assessment from a former Labour member available to those in the party with a better grasp on reality. Gerry Hassan, writing in today’s Scotsman, punctures elegantly Scottish Labour’s delusions of adequacy and sense of entitlement. Labour became about maintenance of power for power’s sake, and now seems to stand for very little, he says. He even likens the Scottish party to UK Labour pre-1983 - in need of a second defeat before it faces up to its essential unpopularity. His only words of 'comfort' come when he says that “The party can take succour from the fact that it is doing everything in its power to head to that second defeat”.

I was speaking with a friend the other night on the phone, and we tried to discern what Labour’s strategy in Scotland might actually be. Listening to Brown’s dreary and turgid address this afternoon, I think that my friend was bang on the money in her assessment that Labour’s only gameplan is to try and chip away niche support, in the hope that it transfers to them. ‘Load the blunderbuss with whatever you have, and never mind if most of the shrapnel explodes in your face’, goes the command. ‘As long as some of it hits the Nats we’ll count that as progress!’

But what about the ‘vision thing’? Well, it seems to be very much as you were with the fears and smears. An independent Scotland won’t get into Europe. The SNP want to paint our faces blue and take us back 300 years. You’ll never see your English auntie again. And while interdependence means UK financial markets are buffeted by trends in the USA, a sovereign Scotland would somehow be isolated from all that’s good, and at the mercy of all that’s bad.

Meanwhile, in accentuating the positive, Gordon’s old school had a motto, he met someone who’ll compete at the Olympics, John Smeaton’s a great guy, his cabinet colleagues get to meet ministers and officials from other countries (presumably not narrow ones, though). Global environmental problems can’t be solved by any part of Britain on its own, but can apparently be solved by Britain in isolation. Oh, and they don’t get paid very much in China for making iPods. All of which apparently serve as reasons why we should vote Labour.

I feel weary even writing about this, because it’s all such complete and utter rubbish, and because it’s practically identical to the arguments which Labour trotted out in the run up to last May’s election. If a definition of insanity is ‘doing the same thing, over and over again, but expecting different results’, there would appear to be the most acute of mass episodes taking place currently in Aviemore.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Save Our Mince!

I sat down to do a parody of this, before it dawned that some things speak far more eloquently left to themselves :-)

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

A Glimpse Of The Future?

It was the afternoon of Friday 7 May 2010. Following some nail-biting recounts, the final results of the UK General Election were in. After months of polls showing a Conservative lead, a collapse in the Lib Dem vote allied to a last minute swing to Labour had resulted in the first hung parliament at Westminster since 1974.

The Tories had a majority of votes and seats in England. Labour, despite suffering heavy losses at the hands of the SNP, still returned 25 MPs from Scotland. There were bitter scenes at election counts, as Labour candidates, victorious and vanquished, vented splenetic attacks on the ‘nats’ and the ‘numpties’ in the Holyrood Labour group, whom they blamed for their predicament. Despite this, those 25 seats were enough to keep alive the hope that they could remain in office.

The Lib Dems, smarting from a halving of their representation, repeated their demands for PR. However, there was no appetite amongst either Labour or Conservative to comply and after what was being seen as a disastrous result, a consensus developed quickly that the Lib Dems were in no position to play for such stakes. As in the aftermath of the Scottish elections, a feeling began to emerge that the Lib Dems weren’t really serious and would rather slink away to lick their wounds.

All manner of previously unthinkable permutations began to be mooted in a bid to break the deadlock. Slowly, attention turned to the sizeable group of SNP MPs. Unthinkably, the arithmetic had fallen in such a way that the SNP could either return Labour to power, or stand aside to allow the Conservatives to form a minority administration, from whom they could then pull the rug at any time.

Days passed. After copious quantities of caffeine and nicotine, rumours began to circulate of a breakthrough. With Labour emissary Douglas Alexander insisting that the SNP take the Labour whip on English-only matters as the price of any deal, and offering only a Commission without timescale on funding arrangements for Holyrood, SNP negotiators found it easier than expected to walk away and let events run their course.

Correspondents filed excited reports from College Green. Gordon Brown, nails bitten down to the quick, was urged by the loyalists in the last ditch to try and form a ‘national’ government. Receiving bad advice from a fatigued inner circle and with willingness to accept Realpolitik in short supply, it fell in the end to Jack Straw and the Cabinet Secretary to break it to the Prime Minister that his time was up.

Things began to move quickly. The Government Jaguar and Special Branch Range Rover whisked David Cameron to Buckingham Palace. As ever, the honeyed tones of a Dimbleby captured the moment for the benefit of an expectant nation. And there, blinking in the sunlight, Britain had its first Conservative Prime Minister in 13 years, albeit one leading a minority administration.

First Minister Salmond was amongst the first to offer his congratulations, even extending an invitation to meet at an early date at Bute House in Edinburgh. Later that afternoon, a grinning Angus Robertson was spotted walking along Downing Street to hold preliminary talks with Cameron, his Chancellor George Osbourne and the new Scottish Secretary.

Despite feverish speculation, in the end it turned out that no deal had been struck. Without the interference of the SNP, the Conservatives were – just - able to legislate in England. However, the SNP presence was enough to secure early concessions on Council Tax benefit, allowing their Local Income Tax policy to be introduced before the 2011 Holyrood elections. Attendance allowance, withheld in a fit of pique after the introduction of Free Personal Care in Scotland, was also subject to a swift rethink.

It couldn’t last, though. English commentators on both left and right began to fulminate about this ‘Scotsgelt’ and demands to scrap the Barnett formula reached a crescendo. The SNP response was simple – their MPs would vote to end Barnett, but only in exchange for greater financial powers at Holyrood. Faced with the prospect of a new election, Tory backbenchers fell swiftly into line with a policy which many of their senior figures had secretly been favourable towards for quite some time.

Meanwhile, the Scottish Government, still riding high in the polls, was looking forward to the 2011 election. Having won fiscal freedom from Westminster, the so-called ‘Wendy Commission’ had been completely outflanked and had collapsed in recrimination. Holyrood’s unionist majority had still voted down the referendum bill, but despite protestations to the contrary, no-one seriously believed that was the end of the matter. For one thing, even if no referendum deal was possible in Edinburgh post 2011, there was now an avenue which could be used to deliver at Westminster.

David Cameron really hadn’t wanted to go down in history as the PM who ‘lost’ Scotland, but eventually, it just seemed like the best option for everyone. With a popular SNP administration in Edinburgh and the party holding the balance of power in London, public opinion had swung against the union on both sides of the border. There seemed little point in delaying the inevitable and by getting rid of Scotland’s MPs, he could get the Westminster majority he craved. In any case, the Tories had opposed devolution all along, and could hardly be blamed for what they had long said would be the inevitable outcome of John Smith’s ‘unfinished business’.

Countries come and countries go, he reasoned through the bottom of a glass of Jura. As it burned on its way down, he reflected that maybe Alex Salmond had been right all along - the Scots would make better neighbours than they had lodgers.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Why I Want Rid Of Council Tax

SNP plans for a Local Income Tax (LIT) seems to have become the target of choice for the opposition now that the budget and council tax freeze have gone through. As if on cue, out is being wheeled by Labour and others the archetypal hard-working, 2-income family, whom we are being invited to believe will under LIT be left subsidising pensioners in big houses who live off bloated share portfolios.

First things first - comparatively few people are in a position to live off their investments, but presenting a more balanced picture wouldn’t have the desired effect in terms of trying to whip up opposition to LIT. However, as a strong supporter of LIT, I thought I’d throw two very real examples into the mix, which have resulted from my own domestic arrangements over the past few years, which help explain my complete disdain for the council tax, or for that matter any kind of property based tax.

I own a flat in Edinburgh, which when I lived there at first, I shared with my partner of the time. As a band ‘B’ property, our combined water and council tax bill came to about £1,200, or £600 each. However, after we split up, even with a 25% single person’s discount my bill shot up to £900 – or about 5% of my household income at the time. I hadn’t become any wealthier in the intervening period and made no more demands of local services than I had previously. However, purely as a result of a change in my personal circumstances, my Council Tax had increased overnight by 50%.

Fast forward a few years to the present. As work for the moment requires that I have somewhere to live in London, I rent a room in a 4 bedroom semi-detached house in Lewisham, in the south-east of the city. Nice as our bit of town is, Notting Hill or Hampstead or trendy north London it most certainly isn’t (actually, that’s probably a good thing). It’s a very diverse area, with a high proportion of young families and a large number of homes of multiple occupancy.

There are 5 of us living together in the house – myself (parliamentary researcher); an IT consultant; a banker who shares a room with his fiancée (who is also a parliamentary researcher); and another banker. Fortunately, we all get on very well, although this may be helped by our different work start times and the fact we have a big kitchen and 2 bathrooms, so it isn’t quite as cosy as it sounds!

Based on salary alone, the five of us probably have a combined annual income of between £250,000 - £300,000 (I should make clear that myself and the other researcher lag quite some distance behind the rest). However, as a band ‘E’ property, the bill for us all comes to just over £1,500 – or £300 a skull if we split it 5 ways – just 0.5% of the total household income. It’s quite a difference from the £900 I used to get stung with for living on my own in Edinburgh, and an obscenity when you consider the couple with two pre-school kids over the road who have to pay an identical bill out of just one income.

And that in the end is my beef. Council tax hits households with low incomes disproportionately. Since it is based on the value of the house, there is little correlation between this and one’s ability to pay. Worst of all, the eventual bill you end up paying hits those who live on their own the hardest.

While being young, professional and childless means we don’t make huge demands of the services of Lewisham Council, on balance, we’re happy that we’re making a contribution towards policing, parks, adult education, libraries, schools, trading standards, refuse collection, the fire brigade, social services etc in the area. Splitting the bill 5 ways makes us better off financially, but I don’t think any of us would object seriously to being asked to make a bigger contribution given that we’d all be more than capable of so doing.

There will be winners and there will be losers in any change to a tax system – something which those calling for council tax revaluations and extra bandings and additional rebates would be wise to remember. Instead of conjuring up grotesque, false spectres of families being downtrodden by the supposedly idle rich, Labour and the Conservatives should be honest enough to explain why they believe that the rich man in his castle should pay a lower marginal rate of tax than the poor man at his gate.

Monday, March 10, 2008


A couple of posts ago, I took umbrage at James Purnell MP, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, for his assertions that Scotland would forfeit some £400m of Council Tax Benefit if we were to replace the Council Tax with a local income tax.

His argument, you may remember, was the rather trite 'if there's no Council Tax there's no Council Tax benefit'. You can therefore imagine my delight this weekend to read in the Sunday Herald the revelation that, as this Treasury 'Statement of Funding Policy' document from 1997 makes clear (point 7, page 39), Council Tax benefit is post-devolution to be regarded as part of the Scottish Block grant.

So, was Purnell misleading us earlier, was he poorly informed, or was he simply trying to throw his weight about and scaremonger? It scarecely matters now - with the release of this Treasury document, we have what I believe is often called called a 'slam dunk'.

Wednesday, March 05, 2008

When Is A 3-Line Whip Not A 3-Line Whip?

Nick Clegg has put a 3-line whip on his Lib Dem colleagues to abstain on tonights Commmons vote on whether there should be a referendum. 'Sounding the trumpet and marching his troops fearlessly towards the fence on which they are to perch', as Tory MP Michael Ancrum put it earlier.

However, it seems that at least 3 of Clegg's frontbenchers are set to defy the whip and resign their posts this evening. The word is that to try and stem the anticipated tide of further resignations, he has now given dispensation to his junior spokespeople to vote for a referendum, but without forcing them to resign if they do.

By trying to make a false choice between a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty and a referendum on the EU itself, Clegg has made his party look opportunistic. By putting a 3-line whip on an abstention (I ask you!) and refusing to support amendments which would let his party get their referendum, he's made them look ridiculous. Now, by backing away from his earlier threat, he's made himself look weak and incompetent, and his party irrelevant.

You couldn't make it up, but it seems that if you're Nick Clegg, you can certainly manage to muck it up. Where's Vince Cable when you need him? :-)

Belated Update: Orkney & Shetland MP Alastair Carmichael has quit the frontbench, which means the Lib Dems will be on their 4th Scottish Spokesperson in 2 years.

Monday, March 03, 2008

The LIT Hits The Fan

Imagine, for a moment, that rather than reheating the school dinners prepared in a distant central kitchen each lunchtime, your local authority decided instead to invite some local food shop owners to operate out of their school dinner halls. The idea behind this would be to sell a healthy choice of meals and sandwiches prepared locally, which would be of a higher standard than the usual canteen fare.

In order that no-one loses out, the council decides to put all the money spent funding free school meals into a new voucher system, so that all previous beneficiaries of free meals may continue to buy food of equivalent value. Despite some initial concerns, the idea turns out to be very popular with pupils and parents alike.

Whatever you think of the idea itself, it would at least swap one system for another, while making sure that all monies in the previous free school meals scheme continue to benefit those they were intended to. However, imagine then that in a fit of ideological pique, the Government decides that since this renegade local authority won’t be offering ‘school meals’ any more, it won’t if it goes ahead be getting the money it used to for the provision of free school meals. Seems a bit rough, doesn’t it?

OK, let’s do another one. Imagine every police force in the country receives an additional grant from central government to enforce a nightime curfew on the under-18s. The initiative is supported with great gusto by the senior officers in some forces. However, other forces are less keen, and are reluctant to be seen to be ‘victimising’ the law abiding young.

Together with their police boards, these forces decide instead that the grants they receive for the curfew would have a much better impact on youth disorder if they were spent instead on school visits and mounting extra patrols at weekends. Miffed at the rejection of their pet project, government then decides to punish these forces by withholding the additional funding.

Both of the situations I’ve described are, of course, entirely fictitious. However, they do resemble very closely the situation faced by the Scottish Government in its dealings with Westminster over the withdrawal of attendance allowance following the introduction of free personal care. More recently, they resemble the weekend’s sabre-rattling from James Purnell over the threatened forfeiture of council tax benefit if Scotland proceeds with the introduction of a Local Income Tax (LIT)

"When there is no council tax then there is no council tax benefit," Purnell told Scotland on Sunday (As an aside, does this mean that if the LIT were simply renamed as the Council Tax, the DWP would continue to cough up?). However, council tax benefit comes via the Department of Work and Pensions and is paid for through general taxation, which, judging by the last glance I took at a payslip, people in Scotland are expected to contribute towards as well. It is designed to cover the Council Tax liabilities of those on the lowest incomes, and as such, is part and parcel of the local government financial settlement.

If Westminster was to bring in an alternative to the unfair Council Tax in England, the benefit money currently available would surely remain so as part of the overall local funding arrangements. For that reason, it would be no skin off anyone’s nose in Whitehall to allow this money to continue to come to Scotland to help finance a different system of local taxation, since we’ve already paid our share towards it.

Together with the ubiquitous ‘source close to’ describing the Scottish Government of acting like ‘big babies’ over the whole thing (seriously!), I think we can safely put this little skirmish down to Gordon Brown taking the huff and trying to show us all who’s still boss in Scotland. The irony is that having died in the last ditch defending the hated council tax at the last election, Labour in London is basically forcing its Scottish comrades to fight on exactly the same ground next time round as well!

I always expected Labour to go around picking fights with the Edinburgh administration while trying to blame the SNP – I just thought they’d be smart enough to choose their ground a little more carefully. I’ve no doubt there’ll be disagreements in the future where the respective jurisdictions of Holyrood and Westminster overlap, when the public will decide that the SNP is chancing it. This, however, I don’t think is going to be one of those occasions.