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Monthly Archives: June 2008

Livingstone: Look, I Came Here For a Good Argument

At the risk of appearing a Livingstone obsessive, I though I’d post a transcript of Ken’s first appearance today as a presenter on LBC radio.

(Errrm, it may not be entirely verbatim, but you’ll get the general idea of how it sounded!)

Ken Livingstone (for it is he): “Hi, this is Ken Livingstone here on LBC. Phone me, text me, or email me, and be as rude as you like.”

Caller 1: “Hi Ken. I’d just like to say what a tragic shame it was that you lost. I compare it to the assassination of Allende in Chile by the evil American Empire, or the rise of Hitler perhaps.”

KL: “Oh dear, how embarrassing. This isn’t a set up, honest. We’d better find someone to criticise me otherwise they’ll complain that we’re not balanced.”

Caller 2: “Hi Ken, I’d like to say congratulations to you on getting a larger vote this time than you’ve ever had before.”

KL: “Errm, thanks, but we’re going to have the authorities onto us because we’re not finding any callers to have a go at me.

Monty Python - The Argument Sketch

“By the way, we asked Boris Johnson if he wants to come on and have a good argument, but haven’t heard back.”

Caller 3: “Ken, mate, I think you could do no wrong. I was so upset when you lost.”

KL: “I’m going to have to cut you off there, surely there’s someone out there who wants to argue with me. Incidentally, if Andrew Gilligan’s listening, he could call in if he thinks he’s hard enough.

Caller 4: “Ken, I’ve got a few points for you. I think you are an anti-semite and a paranoid fascist. Let me go through each of those.”

KL: “OK, fine. This is more like it.”

Caller 4: “Right then. That you’re paranoid. I say this because… police … bbxzxt.”

KL: “Sorry caller, you’re breaking up. Oh well, time for the travel news.”

(Time passes).

Ken: Thanks there to Dave Spart in Neasden. By the way, we did invite God onto the programme, but we haven’t heard back from the big beardy coward.

OK, so now for a few more accurate nuggets (again from memory .. what? I do have to work y’know):

Andrew Hosken (unofficial biographer): “So, would you run for Mayor again?”

KL: “Well, if there was a by-election – I mean, if Boris was arrested and carted off, as he should be – then yes I’d like to do it.”

On the US embassy not paying their congestion charge:

Cuddly Ken: “If I could I’d have directed the police to crush the ambassador’s car … with the ambassador still in it.”

Caller: “Why don’t you have a go at other countries … like the Nigerians for instance?”

KL: “Well, the Nigerians have never paid anyway.” (So that’s alright then?)

Livingstone Admits Mistake!

On Andrew Marr’s show this morning, former Mayor of London (a title which definitely suits him) Ken Livingstone said he regretted putting the congestion charge call centre in Coventry rather than Croydon, because people in Croydon would have had a better idea of where things were in London.

He has a point, though I doubt that is why Croydon was among the many boroughs that voted Ken out of power.

But that was it. It was rather like getting blood out of the stone for Marr, and even now, Livingstone’s admission sounds rather like Stalin regretting that he didn’t use a different interior design scheme in the Kremlin, or Franco wishing he’d tried to rig a different year’s Eurovision.

Needless to say, he still blames his defeat on Labour’s national unpopularity and, of course, the Evening Standard. This week, though, we will have the delight of witnessing Ken’s own dabbling in the media as he hosts the 1-4pm slot on LBC radio.

“I’ll be the perfect afternoon antidote to Nick Ferrari. You can detox with me.”… quoth Ken on the station’s website. Now was the reference to addiction treatment his own invention or that of a mischievous LBC PR bod?

Henley: John Howell Sends Clegg Back to the Drawing Board

Headline coverage of by-election results tends to focus on the placings of each party (well, I suppose who came first is pretty important!) So there’s probably a muted sigh of relief at LibDem HQ in Cowley Street this morning, among the general despair, that the media haven’t picked up on exactly what a disastrous outcome the Henley result has been for the Libs.

The headlines are about the fact that, on his first anniversary in office, Brown’s candidate plummeted to fifth place behind the BNP and Greens. (On many BBC bulletins right now, they are leading on the Zimbabwean elections.) The Lib Dems, despite pulling out all the usual stops, scraped only a 1.8% increase in their vote. Lord Rennard, as I noted earlier, ran the usual personal negative Lib Dem campaign which has worked reasonably well for them before – well, pre-2007 anyway. Now it’s back to the drawing board. Thing is, it’s been so long, can anyone at Cowley Street find it?

Acute Accent

We all know about off-shoring, more specifically the use of call centres overseas, particularly in India. In some cases, these have been less than successful and are now being brought back into the UK – indeed, some organisations are now using the fact that they are using British call centres as a selling point. There were a number of problems with using Indian call centres, but among the top gripes was the accents that made things tricky. One doesn’t have to be a racist to have problems on a line that might be less than optimum quality, making out the accent of “John” in Mumbai.

So back to the UK the call centres are moving. But there is a problem here too. Partly it’s that the location of the centre isn’t the only issue – the fact that the centre was moved at all doesn’t indicate an organisation dedicated to customer service. Nor does it deal with the sort of issues that really drive customers away – the failure to deal with product or service quality that caused then to call the centre in the first place – the failure demand.

No, there is still another problem which has remained for too many call centres. The accent.

This evening I had a call from a friendly enough chap from my telecoms provider. I couldn’t tell you which because firstly “telecoms provider” could cover about three different companies in my case, and secondly because the guy calling me had a near unintelligible Ulster accent. I have no doubt he was in the UK, but since I was probably call number 342 he was by now racing through the script with his best Naarnirish lilt.

Now in actual fact I usually like the Ulster accent to listen to. It’s a good no-nonsense accent. However, after asking him to repeat twice which company he was calling from I told him it wasn’t a good time to call and could he call back please, putting the phone down just as he was saying something like “ … coo’ ias whayuuuravaugmuornthlyspeandisthur soitis?”. He may have been trying to sell me something, it may have been to my advantage – I’ll never know.

So as the call centres return to the UK, perhaps the next step is to send the operatives on elocution lessons to adopt a more universally understandable accent – though I am a proud southern softie who would prefer good old received pronunciation, I would be quite happy with a mild Yorkshire or Brummie – and also to teach them to slow down. I’m sure this Kentish man is not the only one – surely a motormouth speaking with his best Thames Estuarine would be equally unintelligible to a Glaswegian.

So what does this make me – regionalist? Accent-ist? County-ist?

Opposition – The Early Days

Some of us have been there. Thrown into opposition, when you know that by rights you should have been returned to power again. You blame the electorate for being so utterly wrong. You then comfort yourself with the thought that the new incumbents will screw up all by themselves and the voters will soon realise what a terrible mistake they made. In the meantime you get on with the job of opposition by focussing on the irrelevant minutiae – the sort of thing you had to do in power, but you just can’t get out of the mindset.

So it was with many Conservatives in 1997 … and so it is in 2008 in City Hall, if the recent examples of pathetic juvenile bleatings from Boris’ critics are anything to go by.

First, blame the electorate – especially those from Outer London. How dare they kick him out of office when they are not even “proper” London! Well, I’m sure if you asked many people in Bromley (Kent), Sutton (Surrey) or Romford (Essex) to name but a few, they would be quite happy not being “proper” London so long as they didn’t have to pay the London precept.

Then, it’s the wait for Boris to screw things up. Certainly, from what I’ve been told by certain assembly members already, that is the collective view of some of the residual Livingstone-ite staffers at City Hall. Boris is a racist bumbling buffoon, after all, and couldn’t run a whelk stall, they might say. Well, six weeks in and he’s still there. The thing is, he recognises that the Mayor is a presidential role, where much work is done by the cabinet and advisors, with the Mayor simply providing a strategic visionary role and figurehead, and he’s not doing a bad job at that.

And now we are seeing the ineffectiveness of the new opposition. Really, do they honestly think that the average Joe (or Jo) cares about some cigar case? Or that Boris has chosen to put a business hard-nut in charge of TfL instead of doing it himself? I mean, it’s hardly the sort of amended manifesto pledge that ranks with … ooh, say, not holding a referendum on the EU treaty is it?

Nothing New From Lord Rennard

After some gruelling campaigning in sleepy south Oxfordshire villages and countryside, punctuated by painfully agreeable pub lunches, I have come to the reasoned conclusion that the once great LibDem campaign machine has run out of ideas. Surprise is often the key element in any form of contest, but the Lib’s efforts in Henley have come from the same dog-eared textbook they have been using for over a decade.

The leaflet printed in blue, the lifestyle magazine that feigns independent editorial consideration before backing the Lib Dem candidate on every page, the photo montage leaflet, the reasoned presentation of Lib Dem policy … OK, so I was joking about that last one.

The good people of the Henley constituency have well and truly reached the “not more election rubbish” stage as I did my duty in the villages of Watlington division yesterday, but perhaps they could take pity on us activists – at least they only have a few days left of it, we now have to squeeze Haltemprice and Howden, local council by-elections and soon, Winchester into our schedules. The fun just never stops.

Anyway, enough of all this – there are far more important things to think about, like catching the new series of Top Gear tonight.

Tackling the Affordable Housing Paradox

The National Housing Federation has said that the downturn in the housing market has allowed housing associations to buy up unsold properties. (Listen to the BBC piece here.)

However, don’t let that give you the idea that the associations have been struggling to acquire property up to now. One of my roles in the past was overseeing the sale of various sites from a large property portfolio. More often than not, at least in recent years, the housing associations (H.A.s) have been able to outbid private developers on many of the sites that go for housing. When an H.A. is the clear highest bidder then it is difficult to justify going for a lower private offer and still demonstrate that we are achieving best value.

Now this is not to criticise H.A.s, who are only doing their job, but one has to wonder to what extent the H.A.s, with their public (or publicly-backed) finance have themselves contributed to the boom in property prices until recently.

While there is undoubtedly unmet housing demand (a more accurate term than housing “need”, I think), it is wrong to assume that all those potential buyers and (often by necessity) renters want to be in social housing, for too often the terms “affordable” and “social” are wrongly used interchangeably in debates around housing. “Affordable” can include shared equity schemes, but also simply lower cost starter homes. It does seem a raw deal for those who are working hard and trying to save for a home that they can be effectively outbid by housing associations who benefit from the public finance that, certainly in the absence of MIRAS and any meaningful rolling back of stamp duty, they themselves cannot match.

It would also be an interesting “what-if” exercise to see how many currently empty sites being land-banked by developers (and in some cases now being off-loaded) would have been built on had requirements to include minimum levels of affordable/social housing not pushed those sites onto the wrong side of financial viability. How much further could the wider housing shortage have been eased, ironically, without the state intervention that was intended to achieve just that?

It’s hard to see how any of this can be helped by the HA’s shifting up a gear in expanding their portfolios by buying up not just sites but built properties, or how any boom in public house building is going to help ease inflation in construction prices.

So just as the right-to-buy has been (unfairly) criticised for reducing public housing stock, are the housing associations now denying future first-time buyers the opportunity, come the upturn in the economy, to own their own home? Of course, there is one way to ensure this doesn’t happen, and it’s an anathema to the left (so there must be something good in it) … introducing the right-to-buy for all housing association tenants.

The EU Plays the Black Knight

EU Ministers are to meet, following the Irish rejection of the EU Constitution Lisbon Treaty to decide how to fudge it the way forward.

Monty Python and the Holy Grail - The Black KnightI haven’t seen yet whether odds are being offered on some communiqué along the lines of “we hope the Irish people are suitably ashamed of themselves and we have told them to go away and think hard about what they’ve done and then say yes in a second referendum.” Or words to that effect.

Otherwise, the EU is rather resembling Monty Python’s Black Knight in the Holy Grail. It may not have yet lost all its limbs, but under EU rules it might as well have done. Then again, as the rather savvier French, Spanish and most other EU nations know, EU rules are there for decoration, with only us mugs here in the UK actually taking much notice of them.

Expect the re-education of the good people of Eire to begin forthwith.

They Just Don't Get It

So, Kelvin Mackenzie might step in to be Gordon Brown’s stooge stand against David Davis in the Haltemprice & Howden by-election. I hope Kelvin knows what he is letting himself in for by coming onto the other side of the media/victim fence. I would find it difficult to see Mackenzie, given his tabloid background, not getting personal in the campaign. This by-election was looking to be genuinely about the issue – if Mackenzie loses the plot then he will find himself reaping a whirlwind.

Add to the mix the fact that quite a few people will think that anything Murdoch/Mackenzie is for they are against, then I would say “bring it on”.

Of course, Kelvin has said he will do it if Labour don’t put anyone up themselves.

Thing is, Labour just don’t get it. Labour blogger Luke Akehurst, for example, is getting a good old kicking for suggesting, as indeed Nick Robinson was heard doing last night, that Labour should get a terrorist victim or retired Army or Police type to stand. Rachel from North London has put him firmly in his place as regards the first suggestion, and I can’t think of too many retired police or armed forces officers who would even give the government the time of day, with broken promises on pay rises, overstretched forces (both police and armed) and servicemen still at risk because of poor equipment. This seems to be a more specific form of the Yasmin Alibhai Brown “you are black/muslim/poor therefore you must vote Labour” way of thinking.

Labour – and indeed too many of the Westminster media – do seem to genuinely believe that there must be a grubby tactical motive to Davis’ actions, and that the Tories must have been just looking to give Gordon Brown a bloody nose on Wednesday. With a combination of arrogance and naivety, they sneer with derision the invocation of the principles of Magna Carta and feign deafness when mention is made of setting the boundaries of the State – presumably because the State is good, boundaries suggest constraints and why would one want to constrain Good?

Anyhow, one way or another it looks like there certainly will be a by-election. More interesting is how the last couple of days will affect that other parliamentary by-election in Henley….

David Davis Resigns

OK, so it’s a developing story – even as I had to break off to change a nappy (not mine) things have moved on – so what follows is something of a collection of random thoughts right now.

DD has given a spectacular demonstration of principle, and on a principle that I support. Reports were that he would restand as an independent (a position which his association seems to be supporting), but then Cameron says he will campaign for DD. I guess the “Independent” thing might be simply a condition of the no-stand deal with Clegg, though I doubt many Lib Dems will actually come out and campaign for DD anyway.

In fact, from the LibDem view point this isn’t good. Some will be disgusted that they aren’t fighting the by-election anyway and may even resign from the party in protest. Good. More to the point, I don’t see how the Clegg had much choice. DD has clearly made 42 days the touchstone issue, and even the multi-faced Libs could hardly oppose that one on the ground.

With Cameron publicly declaring his support for DD’s re-election campaign, presumably the various parts of the party machine, post 26th June (Henley) will be able to head up to Heltemprice and Howden to work there, albeit with white rosettes on?

What is already clear is that the initial chatter on the media about this being a falling out between Cameron and Davis is some way off the mark. That’s not to say that they are the best of buddies, but Cameron has moved quickly to show that this is about the erosion of individual freedom under Labour, of which 42 days is the latest, and a precursor to the monstrosity of the National Identity Database.

Of course, if Gordon Brown had any political nous, he woudl announce asap (ideally before the 6 o’clock bulletins) that Labour would not contest, thus making a go of rendering the whole episode a half day wonder. Then again, if Gordon Brown had any political nous….