Thursday, 23 April 2015

Medway Council Meeting – 23 April 2015

This was the last meeting of the full Medway Council before next month's local and national elections – and it was a strange one indeed.

The first hour was taken up with tributes to non re-standing councillors, two senior members in particular who are proposed to become Honorary Aldermen. That part was fine, though a stumbling Leader of the Council took about three times as long to say his piece as it should have taken.

The real issue stemmed from letting all and sundry from around the Chamber speak to this item. Why? Each political group's leader could have done, but there was no benefit whatsoever in having a dozen other members witter on, including four of the outgoing members. I cannot recall this having been done on equivalent occasions in the past...

Anyway, the big item of actual business was the batch of seventeen public questions, each with a supplementary question. As is usual just before an election, nearly all of these were actually party political questions, asked by candidates in the upcoming local elections here. I recognised the names as soon as the agenda was published, and the style and nature of the seemingly innocuous enough questions gave the game away as well. Of course, it is the (unpublished) supplementaries that are the real questions.

I wasn't the only one to realise the true nature of what had been submitted; and independently of me, another had also worked out that thirteen of the questions had come from local Labour, two from UKIP and one from the Lib Dems. A former local Labour member also disclosed on Twitter during the evening that he had in the past been asked to put his name to pre-scripted questions. It's what they do...

Similarly, questions from members and the two Motions were much the same kind of fare, especially the latter. The first Motion was from Labour, and was obviously nothing more than the latest in their ongoing series of Union-originated motions that relate to national policy, not local matters. With these, always worded to include our area as if to suggest that it is a purely 'local' issue, a little investigation generally reveals that exactly the same thing has been done in other councils by their Labour members,with only the place name changed to suit.

This one was to do with the poor firefighters – and the idea was obviously to use emotional blackmail for these heroes. It was laid on fairly thickly, so no-one who was paying any real attention to the proceedings could have missed it.

The second Motion, from UKIP, was also politically-loaded, and not a good idea at all. It was obviously 'manufactured', one big clue being that old favourite of 'sending a message' to central government as the mover declared. Yes, again it was not a local issue as such, and certainly shouldn't be isolated to one borough anyway. If it had been genuine, it would have been taken to Parliament, not a Council. I have warned of this wheeze in the past, as some readers here will no doubt recall...

In between, we'd had the usual Leader's Report, Overview & Scrutiny activity and a couple of reports. Nothing of great significance happened with any of those. The only noteworthy point, I think, was that several members from all sides complimented the Task Group method that deals with specific policy areas in greater detail than tends to be possible in full committees.

They are, in effect, renamed Working Parties with a few bells and whistles added to their permitted activities. Medway Council has always been very good at doing excellent work within its Task Groups, actually, so I can certainly go along with what the members were saying – even though I was appointed to only two such bodies myself, during my years on the Council so have limited experience of personal involvement. I have seen the outcome from several of them, though, over the years.

I thought the Mayor chaired this meeting particularly well, despite the over-indulgent tributes part (which had obviously been decided beforehand how it was going to be handled) and better than a number of other Mayors I have witnessed running these Council meetings.

It all finished at a little before 2230 hrs, which was earlier than I had expected. The media had been there from the start, though one of the two reporters left about a quarter of an hour before the end. Therefore expect some of what happened this evening to be featured in the local newspapers during the next few days.

Saturday, 11 April 2015

Medway Council Elections 2015 – Initial Thoughts

Now that the lists of candidates for the Medway Council elections have been published for the 22 wards here, comprising 55 seats in total, I have been able to firm-up my predictions. However I am not making those public this time, as that information combined with my now-established reputation could give the 'wrong' parties some (small but definite) benefit – and I am certainly not in the business of doing that!

Therefore this is just a collection of some general thoughts that have come to me while going through these 22 'Statements of Persons Nominated', as they are called, which I downloaded from here a few hours ago, shortly after they became available. These are, for some odd reason, in docx form rather than the usual PDF file format. This produces odd effects, such as missing or too-narrow table columns, when read on anything other than the Microsoft Word program, and is thus not 'open' as all local council (and national government) documents are required to be.

Notwithstanding the technical issues, I have been able to work out who is standing for which party (or as an independent), their addresses and where they will appear on the ballot paper.

Regarding addresses, it is interesting to note a greater proportion than usual of candidates not living in the ward where they are standing for election. There is no legal problem with this, and indeed it is possible for a candidate from outside the ward to be at least as good as any other. For example, there are several wards in which I'd probably be an excellent choice if I were to stand there (Princes Park and Strood South spring immediately to mind) – though I am no longer in that business, so no candidate need fear my presence in competition to themselves!

It is true that many of those are so-called 'paper candidates' (or paperless in Lib Dem parlance) who are standing in places they know they haven't a hope of taking from the sitting party. For example, Labour in Hempstead & Wigmore ward, or Conservatives in Chatham Central – or (if they were to be honest with themselves) Green or TUSC in any ward.

Those last two are interesting cases, by the way, as both have put up more candidates here than they have ever done before: TUSC (Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition) with one in each ward, so 22 candidates; and the Greens with 13. It is perhaps surprising that such a self-proclaimed growing party as the Greens, who only this week stated in the media that they have more members than UKIP, can't find as many candidates (UKIP have 32).

Printing a ward leaflet for one candidate costs just as much as doing the same for two or three as appropriate, and takes just as much effort to deliver. I suspect it is in reality merely a logistical device to get their General Election material out across the three (well, two and a half) constituencies, as TUSC and the Greens each have the full set of three parliamentary candidates. In this case, TUSC will have the better coverage as their council candidates will of course be keen to deliver and canvass in all those 22 wards...

On the subject of UKIP, to their credit they have managed to put up a full slate of 22 candidates for the nine wards that fall within the Rochester & Strood constituency. Their other two Medway-involved areas have been less successful, though, fielding just ten candidates between them, spread thinly across the other thirteen wards and with 23 places unfilled. Especially bearing in mind that their long-standing area leader has lived for years close to the Watling/Hempstead & Wigmore boundary, one might have expected better coverage in the Gillingham & Rainham wards...

The biggest disappointment, though, is having just eighteen Liberal Democrat candidates. They claim they are going for 'quality rather than quantity', but many of their supporters will not be happy to be unable to cast their vote the way they'd wish, simply because the local party seemingly hasn't bothered to put up any candidates in their ward. This is perhaps most acute in Gillingham North, a three-member ward they held from its inception on the present boundaries but lost seats through party resignations and two former members joining Labour a year or so ago.

Finally, there is just one English Democrat candidate, and there are four Independents also standing, of whom one is a former English Democrat. There are no BNP, Britain First, Respect or any other parties' candidates.

Although it hardly needs stating, just for completeness I can add that – as always – Labour and the Conservatives have a full slate of 55 candidates each.

Overall, there are a huge number of variables in this complex scenario, and still a few unknowns even to me. Most, though, is clear-cut, and I now know the most likely outcome (it hasn't changed for a long time!) with a high probability figure. That, though, will be kept secret this time! Meanwhile, between now and Polling Day, I shall be busy, doing my little bits here and there but mostly behind the scenes, invisibly, just to make sure...

Friday, 10 April 2015

Throwing Money Around

As expected, the upcoming General Election has brought out the perennial policy approaches.

Basically, the right-wing is careful with other people's money, but know when and where to spend for beneficial results to our society, whereas the left-wing are profligate with the population's money that they take in ever-increasing taxes (many of them invisible to the man-in-the-street).

Now, any idiot can use his or her elected position to steal off everyone else and then fling that money at causes that suit their own ambitions, their cronies or their future electoral success. I could list numerous examples of this, from the Police and Crime Commissioner to the former Government's Ministers, and various points in between – and beyond (e.g. the EU).

A perhaps surprisingly useful 'litmus test' – surprising, that is, in what it ends up revealing – is spending on the National Health Service (NHS).

Now, there's a whole debate to be had on whether we should even have an NHS in its current form, and many with knowledge of medicine's current needs might say with justification that – given the choice – they wouldn't start from here, but we do have to work with what we've got today.

On this topic, there are those rabid Lefties and the like who are obsessed with public ownership of the entire NHS, and are – erroneously – critical of the present government for 'privatising' the NHS. In fact, only six percent (and a bit) is in private or charity (third sector) hands, and of that around five percent was transferred by the preceding Labour government. Only one percent or so has followed that during the past nearly five years. Oops...

In the present election campaign, though, it is the Liberal Democrats who are repeatedly pushing their policy of throwing money at the NHS as if that is the way to improve the service.

It isn't.

Money is only one of the means to an end, and the present Conservative-driven methodology of modestly increasing spending year-on-year – to remove the excuse of 'under-funding' or 'cuts' as the supposed cause of inadequate performance – while improving ways of working.and cutting out waste, is the right way to go. I have witnessed so much of both sides and their vastly different philosophies over the decades, including the 22 years I worked in the Civil Service, that I have become well aware of the virtues and demerits of each side of the argument.

Interestingly, it was Labour who had backed themselves into a corner through their vast overspending during their time in office that resulted in their cluelessness necessitating actual cuts in NHS spending. As I indicated above, this would provide an oh-so-convenient excuse for the dropping of standards within the (heavily-Unionised) NHS and, in effect, a form of blackmail to the government of the day to up spending on the NHS hugely. It would backfire and people would be harmed in the process.

It might sound somewhat Buddhist in nature, but 'the middle path' is the right way to deal with this whole topic – and there are others that are similar, for that matter. Apply intelligence and insight, not dogma, laziness or vested interests, and the NHS can continue well into the future, adapting and improving, staying relevant and valuable.

Take any other path and its future becomes highly uncertain...

Tuesday, 7 April 2015

The Blair Switch Project

Those who have read Isaac Asimov's Foundation sequence of episodic stories, and then gone onto the sequel Foundation and Empire, and remember the Bel Riose and Lathan Devers chronicles from the latter volume, will probably already have seen what has happened to the British Labour party during these early stages of the election campaign proper.

It all started when the party chose a new leader, and the real powers-behind-the-throne – most visibly the big Trades Unions' leaders – made sure (by skewing the voting in the party leadership 'electoral college' system) that an easily-manipulable individual became the leader – indeed, the weakest of the five contenders, if only narrowly weaker than one of the others.

There were always going to be consequences arising from that outcome, and as it happens the televised Leaders Debate last week generated an air of desperation within the senior Labour ranks, despite some commentators claiming that Ed[ward] Miliband had done well on the night. They said much the same a week or so earlier, after that Jeremy Paxman session...

A strong campaigner, someone with a track record of drawing people to him (and, in this case, hopefully including those who had drifted away from supporting Labour since 2010) was needed. Enter Bel Riose Tony Blair!

Yes, bringing no surprise to those of us who had been expecting this, 'B.liar' (as many have called him) is back in the electioneering game for Labour and as a credible campaigner, unlike Miliband-E. This is quite a switch for him, and for the previously self-confident Labour party as well.

Now, this is interesting because in the intervening years Blair has become something of a hate figure to much of Labour's remaining supporters. He always appealed to the more centrist elements of the party's membership and non-member voters/supporters.

He does not have much if any substantive appeal to a large chunk of what is still out there, supporting and voting for the party. Most of those will, of necessity, go along with this development – but there will be considerable friction and discomfort in the process. I suspect a modest but significant proportion of them will in fact go off to other parties or simply no longer bother, worsening not improving Labour's overall situation.

Perhaps this in The Telegraph gives us as clear an idea as any of just how divisive this move looks set to become.

If one were to step back from what has now transpired and perhaps devised a logic truth table of all the possible alternative scenarios (e.g. the weak leader working without the strong campaigner and losing), just about all feasible combinations and sequences of events in the present and recent climate lead to the same outcome: Labour are likely (in some cases almost certain) to lose the election.

Even if we had a Lathan Devers trying to force or encourage a good outcome, it doesn't really matter: it will probably happen anyway...

Thursday, 2 April 2015

Hero or Zero?

I see that Labour – including their leader – are again making a big thing out of what are known as 'zero-hours contracts',  i.e. without a fixed number of hours-per-week (or however specified) contracted within one's terms of employment. They say they intend to ban them.

This is a bad policy, as a lot of people (including many University students) find this style of employment suits their personal circumstances, needs and preferences very well. Taking this option away would disadvantage a large number of people.

This, though, is ideological, and fits in with what I call 'Lefty TroLling' – everything they intend ultimately boiling down to 'TRL' : Taxation, Regulation, Legislation. Banning is one of Labour's favourite forms of Regulation. Of course, it's primarily topics that suit their ideology and political ambitions, whereas other (usually much more important) matters are left out of this style of governance...

Whatever – Labour say zero-hours contracts are A Bad Thing (though clearly they are not, though had loopholes allowing exploitation while they were in government, later fixed by the current Coalition Government) so – perhaps as a way of sweeping their own laissez-faire attitude to the subject under the carpet – they wish to outlaw the practice. I imagine there will have to be exceptions, but essentially that's it.

They are claiming that they'd never employ people on that basis themselves – but wait a minute! No fewer than sixty-eight of their own Members of Parliament have been doing so, as listed here, including such notables as Andy Burnham, Ben Bradshaw, Vernon Coaker and (perhaps most significantly of all) Rachel Reeves. Oh dear! Hypocrisy writ large...

UPDATE: This is another example of the Labour/Unions 'one rule for you' policy.

Overall, Ed[ward] Miliband is clearly trying to paint himself as the 'hero who will stop this shameless exploitation of the workers, the common man', and his party of poodles is dutifully echoing the same message around the country, as they always do. It won't work...