Vir Cantium

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Monthly Archives: July 2008

Clegg Plays His Last Hand

The Lib Dems, having come out in favour of a referendum on Europe, or not, and then in favour of tax cuts, or not, are now to concentrate on being the left-wing alternative to Labour, as Nick Clegg switched the party’s electoral strategy away from Conservative held seats to the “softer” Labour constituencies.

This, from the Lib Dem viewpoint, is a sensible move, and shows they have learnt at least one lesson from Henley. Johnathan Isaby has helpfully put together a list of Lab-Lib target seats – the ones that will receive the focus (sorry) of Cowley Street’s attentions – as much as they can muster these days, anyway.

The list includes Lewisham West & Penge at number 40, which could be expected to be a three way fight anyway. The only other “target seat” south of the river is Streatham at number 34. Conspicuous by its absence, though, is Lewisham East, where Bromley chicken-runner Chris Maines had set up camp in the hope of succeeding where he failed in Orpington.

Rumours had already been circulating on the Lewisham grapevine that Alex Feakes in Lewisham West & Penge was garnering far more support from activists than poor old Chris, and this latest news will not go down well among the Maines team.

On a wider note, Clegg really didn’t have many other realistic options, if he wants to keep more than a handful of MPs after the next General Election. If he pulls it off, then in few years the Lib Dems could realise their dream of becoming the official opposition – more likely, though, is that they will replicate the effects of the Gang of Four in the early Eighties and usher in a period of a split Left that will give Cameron a good three terms in government. As a good Conservative, of course, you won’t find me complaining about that.

Cross-posted on SELblog.


What If My Politics is My Religion?

Suppose I was back working on the tills at Safeway* (remember them?) and I walked into work wearing a t-shirt with a picture of Milton Friedman, or Hayek on the front.

My supervisor would have told me to take it off and don the then regulation white shirt and bow tie. I then decided to take the company to court for restricting my political freedom and right of free speech. Fair? No. Even now, in the age of the Human Rights Act, I wouldn’t expect to get away with that one. I would accept that my employer has rules and if I don’t like them I should find another job.

Now suppose that, instead of my Hayek t-shirt, I was wearing a symbol of religion. Then I would have, at least by today’s standards, a case for (religious) discrimination. So while an employer, owner of a property or indeed, say, a headteacher who is responsible for the day to day running of a school, can (I would say reasonably) exert some restriction on my freedom of speech, if I claim that my strongly held beliefs are part of a religious belief system, rather than a political one, I can sue under equality law.

Now I happen to think that there are aspects of the law on discrimination and equalities that do need to have some common sense applied. Some protection of religious freedom is justified, but in the same way as free speech generally should be. Equally, though, there are some justifiable restrictions on free speech (such as incitement to murder, to take an easy extreme example) which should apply to religions. More particular points can be argued around the balance between tackling unfair discrimination and respecting the rights of property ownership. Perhaps more esoterically, there is recognising the fact that minors might not yet have the free will to make up their own minds about their beliefs. I also think there is a necessity that head teachers, for instance, should be able to demonstrate fairness by treating all pupils equally, and not to see rules aimed at maintaining discipline in the school undermined (too many left-liberal educationalists have done plenty of that already).

These points alone could generate a good series of posts, but the basic question remains: why should religion be treated differently to any other type of philosophy? Whatever exceptions – restrictions or allowances – one might concede, they should be applied equally to religion and politics. Regardless of whether you or I agree with the treatment, why should a CND badge or my (now sadly lost) pound badge be treated differently from a Sikh bangle?

* My first (part-time) job while at school, when I had a Triumph Herald to run, at Biggin Hill. It escaped the clutches of Morrisons and is now a Waitrose, and joins a Marks and Spencer as evidence that Biggin Hill is “on the up”.

British Industry is Still Alive, So The Left Call for Its Head

Somehow I never fail to be both astounded and depressed at the scale of economic illiteracy in the country.

Today saw another successful British company announce some decent quarterly results (pdf 183K). The BP group announced profits before tax for the second quarter of some $15bn.

Inevitably, then, we have heard the bile-laden spiteful calls for a “windfall tax” on BP and other energy companies. So, rather than applaud BP, noting the benefits to many of our pension funds, the extra investment that the company will be able to make as a result of those profits, we try to do down the company that provides a livelihood for thousands of British employees.

BP and other oil producers have been facing calls from unions for a windfall tax on their profits to help those struggling to cope with higher energy costs.

“A windfall tax now would ensure that the money was there to help the old and vulnerable through these tough times,” said Unite general secretary Tony Woodley.

“Tax the fuel companies now so that those who helped to create these mega-profits get their rightful share of them.”

Quite how a 13% net profit counts as “mega” is unexplained, but then again if Mr Woodley actually understood business then presumably he wouldn’t be a union leader.

He also makes the rather odd connection between (a) a tax and (b) something which will “help the old and vulnerable” and getting the “rightful share” of those profits to “those who helped to create” them (rather than something which will simply get lost in servicing government debt, or bribing the voters in the next by-election, or channelled into the unions’ own coffers).

He also conveniently forgets the $5bn of tax which BP will be paying on these profits. Indeed “BP insists that it is already one of the UK’s largest taxpayers. A company spokesperson told the BBC that the company paid $14.5bn in taxes worldwide last year, including $2.3bn in the UK.”

Depressingly, we can expect the same lesson in how to create a hostile environment for business on Thursday when Centrica (British Gas) announces their latest results.

After Glasgow East, Labour Lemmings Peer Over the Edge

There is much talk today of a “suicide election”, along with the speculation of who will succeed Gordon Brown (this weekend’s choice, after the deflation of Harriet Harman’s appalling PMQ performance recently, is Jack Straw). Certainly, albeit with an outsider’s view, the Labour activists I happen to have heard and talked to recently do seem to see some merit in “getting it overwith”. While suicide may be an apt analogy – in that calling an early election knowing you will almost certainly lose goes against the DNA of any party – it is inappropriate in that there is a mortal afterlife for most of those involved.

It won’t happen though, anymore than it would have happened in 1995. The general election won’t be as bad as Glasgow East, the reasoning will go, and that reasoning would be correct. But that leads back to the comfort zone thinking that it really is mid-term blues and things will swing back before the election, if only we give them time.

In truth: no, things clearly won’t be as bad as a by-election result. General elections don’t work like that. But to put off the election only gives the mantra of “time for a change” longer to soak into the electorate’s mindset. Two more years for the idea of a tired and rudderless government to become accepted fact among the media. The longer Labour go on, the larger the Conservative majority in 2010, and the longer Labour will need to de-toxify their own image (as well as David Cameron having a larger majority to cushion himself against the inevitable hiccups of government).

Of course, it won’t likely be Gordon Brown calling an early election anyway. A new leader could call it, get the expected result (but by less of a margin than feared under Brown) and get on with the real job that he/she was elected for and rebuild the party. That, after all, is an opposition leader’s main job: they can’t win elections as such (as the old saying goes, it’s governments who lose elections, not oppositions who win them), but they can pull a battle fatigued and demoralised party together and prepare them for the long slog back to power.

In the Conservative’s case, it was a task that initially fell upon William Hague – a party leader before his time, he nevertheless did a lot of the hard work: he lanced the boil of Europe and enacted some important internal reforms.

But I don’t see it happening with Labour. Those may sound like words ready to be eaten, but if I do find myself brandishing the cutlery over my digital scribblings, I won’t be too upset, as it will mean that Labour have had less time to screw things up, which means less repair work for us to do (including the pain which some will try to blame us for) before making things genuinely better for the country.

Glasgow East result: Conservatives’ 10% swing from Labour!

In this far flung corner of the Kingdom (the Kent/London borders), I couldn’t get much further from the action in Glasgow East, so I will confine myself to noting that, although our vote remained fairly static, we jumped into third place ahead of the Libs.

I must also mention, of course, Lib Dem style, that in the sometimes strange alternative universe that electoral statistics can create, we achieved a thumping 9.8% swing from Labour! Woo-hoo! Winning here!

Seriously though, well done to our girl Davena Rankin, who has been well and truly “bloodied” in one of toughest possible seats to stand as a Conservative.

What does it mean for Gordon Brown? Well, as an expert in Scottish politics I would say … pressure on Gordon Brown … men in grey suits … joke about men in white coats … ruin his holiday … moves to unseat him before conference … attempt to weather the storm … needs to listen.

There that’ll do. Just rearrange randomly and you have your ready made pundit’s guide to the aftermath of Glasgow East.

Conservatives and Unionists

The Conservatives and Ulster Unionists are set to formally restore the historic link between the two “sister” parties.

Given that the DUP have conclusively proved they cannot be trusted (on 42 days detention) and being in mind the nutcases that they harbour within their ranks, a formal (re-)tie up with the UUP is good news. It will also mean an end to the odd and rather pointless running of Conservative candidates in NI against our natural allies, and will position the Conservatives as the only party truly capable of representing all parts of the country.

For Ulster, it will be one step towards bringing the province’s politics into the mainstream of UK political life. As Cameron and Empey say in the article, Ulster is affected as much by the 10p tax band “abolition” as the rest of the UK – but more importantly it can only help to break any slide into insularity for the Ulster political bubble that could only help Sinn Fein in the long term.

Free Travel for All in London

Or, as The Register reports,

Researchers from Radboud University in Nijmegen revealed two weeks ago they had cracked and cloned London’s Oyster travelcard and the Dutch public transportation travelcard, which is based on the same RFID chip. Attackers can scan a card reading unit, collect the cryptographic key that protects security and upload it to a laptop. Details are then transferred to a blank card, which can be used for free travel.

So now, if you’re in that tricky 16-65 age range, you won’t have to dress like a “young person” or “twirly” to get your free bus travel.

(Anyone know what RFID technology UK national ID cards are/were going to use?)

As Clegg Jumps Off The Fence, Are the Sandal-Wearers Hesitating?

The Lib Dems, fresh from attacking moves from both proper parties to cut / not increase fuel duties, are once again trying to set themselves up as tax cutters. One can only assume that Vince Cable wasn’t consulted. Guido, as it happens, has already commented along similar lines to those which I have been thinking, but here goes anyway.

Clegg is in an unenviable position. The Lib Dems have long harvested disaffected right-of-centre voters who left the Conservative fold in the nineties and until recently weren’t inclined to return. While the Libs have naturally now started to pick up more Labour discontents (with their classic anti-whoever-is-in stance) a large chunk of their electoral support is still on the right of centre.

When a party see itself on the slide, there is the usual conflict between those who would move more to the centre, and those who would revert to shoring up the core vote. The trouble is, the Lib Dems don’t have much of a core vote. They have the core of activists, who for the most part are clearly of the Left, yet their electorate is mainly of the moderate Right. Somewhere filling in the gaps are the vestiges of classical liberalism – those, that is, who haven’t done the sensible thing and joined the libertarian ranks within the Conservative Party. At least when we Conservatives were in the wilderness, the choice was less stark, effectively being between shades of (a) the “firm” right and (b) right of centre.

So Clegg has chosen a lurch to the right, in a last ditch effort to stop former Conservative voters becoming current Conservative voters again. This will not play well with his activists, who already have a fair amount to grumble about, with lacklustre by-election performances – that is, when they actually stand (the Haltemprice & Howden decision didn’t go down well).

So what next? Once the current strategy fails, Clegg, or his successor, may actually realise that the Libs best chance of avoiding a collapse is to shift to the Left – the natural home of many modern liberals, and one which will set them up as the welcoming committee for all those unhappy Trots.

Either way, this Conservative is quite happy.

Another By-election, another u-turn

… and no doubt they’ll be telling us in future how much better off we are because of the postponment of the planned 2p rise in fuel duty. No doubt, also, we are expected to be grateful that in a few months, petrol will be only 130p/litre and not 132p.

So, when the Conservatives propose cuts in fuel duty at times when fuel prices are high, it’s

“a dishonest gimmick which would mean the Tories would have to hike up taxes somewhere else or would mean a massive hole in the public finances.

“Either George Osborne doesn’t understand the way tax revenues work, or he’s prepared to play fast and loose with the public finances for the sake of a good headline.”

But when Labour postpone increases in fuel duty at time when fuel prices are high, it’s

“the right thing to do to help motorists and to help businesses.”

The ever-consistent Lib Dems, however are pouring scorn on both moves. You remember the Lib Dems: they were suggesting tax cuts a few months ago, and are the same party that wants/doesn’t want (delete deopending on day of week) a referendum on the EU.

Straight Talking

“We talk about people being “at risk of obesity” instead of talking about people who eat too much and take too little exercise. We talk about people being at risk of poverty, or social exclusion: it’s as if these things – obesity, alcohol abuse, drug addiction – are purely external events like a plague or bad weather.

“Of course, circumstances – where you are born, your neighbourhood, your school, and the choices your parents make – have a huge impact. But social problems are often the consequence of the choices that people make.

David Cameron’s remarks on reintroducing some moral judgement into how we regard the poor, overweight, and so on, have exposed some real nastiness in the Left. Old chestnuts are being dusted off, including comparing Cameron’s comments to Margaret Thatcher’s oft-truncated “there is no such thing as society” quote.

It is ironic that the Left accuse Conservatives of being the nasty party, then launch into a vicious vitriolic attack on David Cameron because he was born into an affluent background and went to Eton. After all, they wouldn’t dream of criticising someone because they were born into, say, a poor Afro-Caribbean family and went to the “bog standard” comp.

What Cameron has done is to open up a debate that has been brushed under the carpet for too long. There are two broad types of poor/disadvantaged in the world, which as a shorthand I will refer to as the “deserving” poor, and the “undeserving”. The latter are the subject of David Cameron’s comments: those who would rather wallow in self-pity, weighed down by the burden of the chip on their shoulder, blaming society and the government for their situation while equally (and, I suppose, logically) expecting the same to compensate them.

It’s vital that we do have this debate, for it is the undeserving poor that are causing the deserving to be tarred with the same brush, by countless hard working individuals who have been waiting for leading politicians to say what they have been thinking for a long time.

The reaction of the Left has been utterly predictable and indicative of why we find ourselves with the problems that we have today.

It has included the inevitable “it’s alright for an old Etonian to lecture the poor, what does he know?” to finding some genuinely deserving cases to be held up as being the alleged subject of the nasty Tories’ attacks. Finally, of course, they blame Mrs Thatcher for why we are where we are.

It is too easy, though, to put this off again, fearful of upsetting someone or having our remarks twisted, taken out of context and thrown back at us, as the “no society” quote was. As Cameron has said,

“… I have not found the words to say it sensitively. And then I realised, that is the whole point.

“We as a society have been far too sensitive. In order to avoid injury to people’s feelings, in order to avoid appearing judgemental, we have failed to say what needs to be said.

“Instead we prefer moral neutrality, a refusal to make judgements about what is good and bad behaviour, right and wrong behaviour. Bad. Good. Right. Wrong. These are words that our political system and our public sector scarcely dare use any more.

Immigration used to be avoided by many politicians for fear of being labelled racist, but now it is being rationally discussed in terms of the burden on public services. Equally, we have previously failed to address effectively the issue of “deserving” vs “undeserving” state dependency, lest we should be accused of wanting to kick away crutches. Yet it must be addressed, for until such “moral” judgements start to inform any overhaul of the welfare state, it will continue to lose credibility and support from those who have to pay for it.

(And, yes, that’s something that those of us in local government need to think about as much as anyone else.)