Saturday, 31 May 2008

Tories to 'let companies run schools'

. Today's Daily Telegraph reports that David Cameron "emboldened" by the Conservatives poll lead is to propose that private companies be allowed to take over state schools. The measures will borrow elements from Sweden's system of 'free schools' where companies run more than 900 primary and secondary schools. Parents are given vouchers that are redeemable with the school of their choice. The companies that run the schools compete for pupils and receive funding in proportion to the number they attract.

This strikes me as inherently grotesque. Already we have the problems with over-testing and 'league tables' and the Conservatives are actually proposing to make it much worse by introducing corporate competition into the mix, we can expect to see the focus of education moving further and further away from educating to a 'production-line' 'results factory' ethos.

The Tories scheme would also give companies the freedom to determine teacher salaries and more control over the curriculum. However, they would have to abide by the admissions code and would have no powers to select pupils beyond those already enjoyed by maintained schools, which can choose 10 per cent of their intake on the basis of aptitude in a particular specialism.

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Democrats decide fate of Florida and Michigan

. The Democratic Party is meeting to decide the fate of two states whose delegates will not be seated at it's convention in August. Florida and Michigan were stripped of representation for holding their candidate contests in January, in violation of party rules.

Hillary Clinton's hopes of getting the nomination rest on whether the party will reverse its decision in the two states, which both strongly supported her. She won both states but neither candidate campaigned in either state and Barack Obama's name was not even on the ballot in Michigan. However, even if the committee award her every Florida and Michigan delegate she officially won in January's discounted elections, her net delegate boost would be just 43.

30 members of the Democratic party's rules and bylaws committee are meeting in the ballroom of a Washington hotel. They were greeted by about 200 protesters holding placards gathered chanting "Count our vote". Given the way the ballot was conducted awarding the delegates as is can hardly be considered democratic or fair - it is far more likely the committee will opt for a compromise which would most likely involve half the delegates being seated.

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Friday, 30 May 2008

Conservative candidate for Henley selected

. Conservative Home reports that the Conservative candidate will be Cllr Dr John Howell. His bio;

"Formerly a partner in Ernst & Young responsible for opening Eastern Europe after communism. Latterly a presenter for BBC World. Now specialises in international visual communications. Adviser to successive UK governments on overseas trade and aid. Parish Councillor in Warborough, local organist and choir director and environmental campaigner. OBE (2000). "

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Clegg - green taxes must be 'recycled'

.

Nick Clegg has said that all green taxes had to be 'recycled' in order for the public to "sign up to green taxes" in remarks reported on Politics Home. He said that in his view the imposition of 'green taxes' should be offset by reductions in income tax. Certainly it is fair to say that the current focus of this debate is on the amount of tax people are paying and the damaging effect that is having on family budgets. In this climate the green lobbies voice is struggling to be heard.

He also said that in his view "instead of endlessly tinkering around with excise duties and fuel duty, we should move in the medium to long-term to a system of road-user charging where people pay for the amount that they drive". Clegg also raised questions about where the money to fund the government's assistance package was coming from; it certainly isn't from companies like Shell who reported record-breaking annual profits of £13.9bn earlier this year.

At the risk of sounding like a 'bit of a lefite' I can't help wondering why these profits are not being mentioned by any side of this debate. The consumer is being punished by both the blunt instrument of taxation and companies who are making a mint out of the rising price of oil. Meanwhile, there is absolutely no incentive for these companies to develop alternative fuels. The case for swinging taxation of profits, if only it is a 'windfall' one, is clear and will help those in need and the environment.

Thursday, 29 May 2008

Tories meeting with unions

. Earlier this week I blogged about Cameron cuddling up to the City but it seems he is also seeking to build more cordial relations with the trade unions. The Guardian reports that the Conservative party's new trade union envoy, Richard Balfe, claims to have held around 20 meetings with union officials, several of whom belong to trade unions affiliated to Labour.

Balfe says his role is to;

"to reassure them that we want to know them and that the days of Thatcher are past. That we want a good constructive relationship and that we are not out to get them."

Bitterly ironic that the Conservatives should criticise Labour for being dependant on the unions when Balfe says that the possibility of them funding Conservative candidates has been discussed 'on the margins'. However, in reality this is unlikely to happen and the reward that the Conservatives are looking for is in terms of propaganda kudos for it's 'progressive coalition'.

Balfe has a point when he says that the unions must be feeling 'unloved' by the Labour Party but will that really be another to persuade them to have an affair with Cameron's Conservatives. I think not.

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Crucible of Terror - Part 2

. Bloodbath

Ibn Saud now ruled over a people with a myriad of different tribal and religious identities. To add to his problems, the social base that he could claim among the ruled was thin. If the new territory were to be governable, then the creation of a unified identity was required. Given the fact that the new entity was created by conquest, with not a hint of any movement from below, this would have to come from above. In short, everything pointed to a bloodbath and that was exactly what happened.

Wahhabism was a minority religious sect that viewed intolerance of other strands of thought as a religious duty. They were ‘heretics’ and therefore their treatment as sub-human was more than justified. As an ideology it was therefore well equipped for the task in hand: the unleashing and justification of mass terror. The Saud loyalist Ikhwan were the obvious choice to carry out that terror. They formed the core of the Committee for Advancement of Virtue and Elimination of Sin (Caves), a body which exists to this very day. Religious and non-religious dissenters were butchered, as the Ikhwan murdered their way across the newly acquired territory. Houses were ransacked and whole towns were razed to the ground. Singing was forbidden, flowerpots were smashed, and telephone lines were cut because they were the work of the devil.

Eventually Saud became weary of their growing power. In turn they questioned his close relationship with Britain. Saud, however, had no intention of ending his reliance on Britain and the stage was set for the inevitable showdown. They rebelled against Saud, but the support of the British gave him the edge. Having served their purpose and secured the House of Saud’s domination, the Ikhwan were massacred (though they were reintegrated as the White Guard - later the National Guard).

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E-campaigning and us

. Several debates have taken place on Liberal Democrat Voice and across the blogsphere about how best to approach the question of e-campaigning. Broadly speaking I think it is helpful to split political websites into two categories' 'talking to ourselves' and 'talking to others' by which I mean activists networks for debate and news and places where we actively campaign to win support for our ideas and our party. One of the things that has initially impressed me is how proactive we are in the latter category things like the Focus newsletter show a willingness to reach out which does have an impact. Canvassing the other day I was told that the Liberal Democrats would have a vote due to the fact that the other two parties were unseen. This is something that we can be proud of but I think in the internet sphere can be built-on; so with all this in mind I would like to take you, the reader, on a short tour of the blogosphere stateside.

I have to confess a vested interest when it comes to Daily Kos, I blog there and have done for a few months ever since the site came to my attention due to a news item about a 'strike' by pro-Clinton bloggers. This has meant that it is now effectively the writing venue of choice for Obamite Democrat activists. Registering entitles you (after a week) to posting rights on one 'diary' entry a day, the plus-side of this is that it keeps content fresh and varied the downside is that it is restrictive.

Kos is a good example into activists talking to activists category as is Democratic Underground. Move On is the archetypal example of a campaigning website and a testimony to the influence it can have; it has more than 3 million members and is a campaigning force to be reckoned with. It has an explicitly outward focus looking to get people involved not just in it's campaigns but politics as a whole. It describes its 'Operation Democracy' as a;

“ network of committed volunteers who go beyond email and organize hard-hitting events in their community.”


Who;

“work together to hold our elected officials accountable, and lay the groundwork for electoral victories in 2008,”


and;


“specialize in rapid-response events so we can act on issues while they're still hot.”


My feeling is that in the United Kingdom there is something a separation between politics, political ideas and organised parties. The state assumes the responsibility for 'educating' people in general democratic principles through the medium of things like citizenship classes while the parties stand separate from this process. Of course educational neutrality is how things should be but that doesn't prevent the parties undertaking a vigorous outreach policy independently Given the relative positions of the parties it is clear that ours is best aligned to undertake one of these thus creating a loyal periphery who are loyal because the body of ideas that represents their vision of not just how they want to see their own lives bettered but the lives of others too.

Liberal Democrat News has established the the basic concept of a Party newspaper which is a good one. Newspapers traditionally can cross the gap between inward and outward focus. However, they have to provide a more varied diet than 100% pure politics if they are to have that broad appeal necessary to reach a wider layer of people. Culture, sport wider life-style issues would all have to make an appearance as a reflection of the necessity of providing people with a varied news diet. Is it absurd to want to see Lib Dem writers writing about Premiership football?

Our coverage in the wider media, even in sympathetic papers like The Guardian, is not the best or the most far-reaching and can often be often reduced to boiling down to focusing on our relationship with the 'Big Two'. This is largely a result of our standing as the third party but it creates a challenge and an opportunity which things like Lib Dem News and Focus start to address but can be taken further especially when it comes to our use of the medium of the internet. Opportunities exist for broadening our base and our horizons using the medium of the internet. Both Liberal Democrat News and Liberal Democrat Voice are essentially activist tools; my specific proposal is that the Focus approach be given a national web presence with it being given a broad remit to try and draw in supporters and members. I think an open-ended debate on this question is important....so who will get the ball rolling??


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Wednesday, 28 May 2008

'No Platform' is dangerous nonsense

. Sunny Hundal is very upset on Liberal Conspiracy. The cause of his angst is the fact that the Daily Telegraph is hosting a blog by Richard Barnbrook, a British National Party councillor for London. It is very easy to set-up a blog and a 'My Telegraph' account - I did it earlier so clearly if the Telegraph were to deny Barnbrook a blog it would have to answer the question as to why it was doing this. Sunny is on safe ground when he says that some of Barnbrook's politics may well be in line with the editorial line of the Telegraph (though it's worth remembering that this 'line' is generally more sophisticated than the crude popularism of the Daily Mail).

Sunny says;

"Now, I don’t have a problem with letting the BNP speak or letting the assorted fascists exercise their legal and democratic rights.

So, let them advertise in the Ham and High. Let them speak at City Hall if they’re democratically elected. But giving them a platform on your website so they can spout their racial hatred? That’s quite different. That is a low, even for the Telegraph."

Since the Telegraph blogging platform is open the BNP could reasonably argue if they are kicked off it then that is a denial of their democratic rights. The more fuss that leftist bloggers make about them the more publicity receive and the more time we spend arguing against them being given a platform the better for the BNP because we are spending less time and energy exposing their ideas.

'No platforming' is the best publicity device the BNP could devise -it automatically places them outside the 'political establishment' which is a position that they relish and trade-off with those disaffected from politics. The left's inability and unwillingness to take the BNP head-on hints at a terrible timidity and weakness. One of the most positive things to come out of the debate on Liberal Conspiracy was that the replies showed a clear majority against 'no platform' which shows that the tide is turning against this way of dealing with the BNP; hopefully energy will be spent tackling them head-on.

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Mental health costs 'to spiral'

. My second blog today about the projected rise in costs of something - an occurrence that makes me glad for the invention of the world spiral which at least means I can partially avoid the impression that this blog is a homage to the Lighthouse Family's song High. Again this story comes from the BBC - it reports that the cost of caring for people with mental health problems is set to rise from £47bn a year, compared with £22.5bn in 2007 according to the Kings Fund study.

This will be mainly due to a "predicted rise in the number of people with dementia". The study says; "early detection of mental problems and prompt therapy could help the wider economy by keeping those affected in work." Now, this is all well and good but I can't help wondering where this emphasis on prevention when it comes to tackling other mental health problems like depression and perhaps more urgently the alarming rise in instances of self-harm amoung young people. Would it be overly cynical to suggest that the reason that these problems don't receive the same attention is because of the relative lack of impact these problems have on the economy - ie, young people are often not fully-fledged economic 'units' in the way older people would be?

It is not an either/or equation - nobody is suggesting that dementia sufferers should be denied the resources that they need. Prevention is always better than having to administer a cure in the long-run and so it is with the multitude of problems caused by self-harm. The resources should be made available to tackle that problem too and the prevention ethos should be a central plank of government policy.

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Nuclear clean up cost soars

. One of the lynchpin arguments of the nuclear power lobby is that it is supposed to be, relative to other energy sources, economical. However, a story on the BBC this morning explodes that myth. It reports that the cost of cleaning-up the UK's ageing nuclear facilities, including some described as "dangerous", looks set to rise above £73bn.

Nineteen sites are due to be dismantled. At the largest site, Sellafield, on the Cumbrian coast, the BBC reporter says that he saw;

"one of the "ponds" in which an unknown mass of radioactive material was dumped in the 1950s. Beneath the unruffled surface of the water lies an unrecorded collection of rusting metal containers holding everything from nuclear fuel rods to radioactive waste."

Hardly a pretty picture. We can safely say that this source of energy is neither environmentally nor economically sound.

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Crucible of Terror - Part 1

. Most westerners know comparatively little is about Saudi Arabia and the House of Saud which rules it. Yet western powers - first Britain, then the United States - have been instrumental in elevating the House of Saud to the position it currently occupies and in maintaining its rule against all odds. In return, the House of Saud has acted in support of western policy objectives in the region although it's recent refusal to assist with lowering the price of oil are a good indication of how conditional that support can be. However, they are hardly ideal partners in a ‘war on terrorism’ that, ideologically, has been wrapped in ‘democratic’ packaging. It is a cruel despotism and worse it provides ideological and logistical succor to the most extremist forms of Islam.

All this belies the family's rather humble origins as one tribe amongst the many vying for power and influence on the Arabian peninsula; in 1744 Muhammad ibn Saud was a tribal chief and ruler of Dir’aiyah (a village now on the outskirts of the current Saudi capital, Riyadh). He allied himself with Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, a conservative religious thinker; Wahhab gave his name to Wahhabism. Wahhabism was and is a particularly puritanical version of Islam that put a stress on the purity of religious practice, conservative social standards and the unity of one god.

From their base in Dir’aiyah the Saudis (here meaning members of the Al-Saud tribe, not Saudi Arabians) expanded their influence steadily through the region. A clutch of cities fell under their domination. However, the area was under the sway of the Ottoman Empire. Muhammad Ali, a governor of Cairo and Ottoman satrap, was instructed by his masters to put down the irksome Saudi insurgency. Eventually his son, Ibrahim Pasha, drove the Saudis back to Dir’aiyah, which in 1819 was razed to the ground. Though the Al-Sauds surfaced again in 1845 - ruling Riyadh until 1891, when it fell to the Al-Rashid family - they were eventually driven into exile in Kuwait.

However, by the end of the 19th century the star of the Ottomans had waned. All of its borders were threatened. The Balkan countries rose in open revolt and, encouraged by the big European powers, started to create a whole patchwork of rival nation states. To the east, tsarist Russia was encroaching on its territory, defeating the Ottomans in 1877. Britain and France looked to extend their empires in the near-east. Britain successfully invaded Egypt in 1881 and France invaded Tunisia during the same year. Internally, the Caliphate was wracked by dissent and bureaucratic intrigue.

Thus, by the time World War I broke out in 1914, the ‘sick man of Europe’ was already on its last legs. The eventual victory of France, the United States and Britain against the Triple Alliance sealed the Ottoman Empire’s fate. Its territory was part of the spoils of victory. The Middle East was divided into British and French protectorates.

Meanwhile, the eventual founder of Saudi Arabia, Abdel Aziz Abdel Rahman Al-Saud (or Ibn Saud), had begun to claw back the land lost by the Al-Sauds. He recaptured Riyadh in 1902. In doing so he gave an early indication of his personal ruthlessness and the carnage that was to follow his ascension to power. He spiked the heads of his enemies on the city gates and burned over 1,000 people to death. Despite this early success, Ibn Saud recognised that he needed sponsorship from a major imperial power if he was to prevent a repeat of the debacle of the previous century and finally defeat the Al-Sauds’ tribal enemies.

Initially, he sought sponsorship from the sultanate of Turkey, but he was rebuffed and forced to look elsewhere. Britain had signed a treaty with Faisal Al-Saud, Ibn’s grandfather, in 1865, and so it had had some contact with the Al-Sauds previously. Now, Britain wanted allies in the region to give it a foothold within the territory of the decaying Ottoman Empire. The more allies it had, the greater its share of the Ottoman booty would be. Ibn needed Britain’s logistical and military aid to decisively defeat and subjugate his enemies. From the point of view of both parties it was a marriage made in heaven.

Contact was thus established in 1904. Britain agreed to advance Ibn Saud small subsidies, but beyond that did little. These subsidies were used to expand and maintain colonies of Wahhabi fanatics, the Ikhwan, which would later form the backbone of Ibn Saud’s conquering army. World War I saw the Al-Sauds’ tribal enemies, like the Ibn Rasheeds, siding with Turkey. Ibn Saud thus attacked them with Britain’s blessing. Small subsidies became larger and a gaggle of advisers, alongside what was then advanced military equipment, were despatched to assist Ibn Saud’s advance.

Afforded a decisive advantage by Britain’s backing and able to make use of Ikhwan fanaticism, Ibn Saud was able to bring the whole of eastern Arabia under his control by 1917. Britain’s vision of Arabia’s fate following Turkish defeat was clear: in the words of Lord Crewe it wanted “a disunited Arabia split into principalities under our suzerainty”. For his part, Ibn Saud, was, by and large, happy to acquiesce.

However, another British protégé in the region, the Hashemite monarch, King Hussein, was far from content. He had taken western Arabia, but was less servile than Saud and was not keen on British “suzerainty”, much preferring to exercise his own over an enlarged, independent and unified Arab nation. Rather than directly attack its erstwhile ally, Britain gave Ibn Saud free reign to do the job. As Britain had pledged itself in 1915 to defend Ibn Saud’s territory, he was fighting a war that he could not lose. By 1925 the Hijaz, an area that included Mecca, Medina and the most urbanised parts of Arabia, had succumbed to his armies.

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Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Clinton about to concede??

. Guido Fawkes thinks she is, he says that " a mid-level Hillary campaign source" says her speechwriters are drafting a concession speech and not a moment before time either. I decided to investigate on Daily Kos but could find no evidence of the largely Obamaite commeteriat breaking open the bubbly just yet; so lacking any joy I resorted to the desperate Googling of said rumours. Still no joy.

CNN carries no mention of the story either. So, just where does this story come from?? Is it fevered Guido's imagination? For once I hope not. Meanwhile, Political Betting has an interesting article on whether endorsement's matter.

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Luke's loss of perspective

. Luke Akehurst writes an interesting if not rather obviously New Labourish blog. Today his guns are aimed squarely at Guardian readers and their concerns. Interesting how he spits the name of the newspaper out like a Daily Mail reader would which probably says alot about his perspective. His handle are comments by former Blair speechwriter, Phil Collins, who says that Labour is in the midst of a "tragedy". The root cause of this tragedy, Collins feels, is Labour being in the "thrall to the Fabian branch of its history for decades, even as its purchase on the world has loosened."

It is worth pointing out that Collins comments amount to much more than that and he does cite "a combination of strategic errors, political mishaps and bad luck." However, he does ultimately take aim at Brown and those who place their faith in the "benign" power of the central state. Now, Luke correctly says that;

"There were many reasons why people didn't vote for us in Crewe, such as being incandescent with rage about a botched attempt to double their income tax, or in despair that its costing more than they can afford to fill up their car or do their weekly shop."

His problem is that the message coming for the Labour Party is that the best way to solve these things is through 'Dour but dependable' Gordon Brown and yes, you've guessed it, his stewardship of the state. Another major problem is that this faith in the state permeates an awful lot right through to the mistaken belief that 'democracy' would be shot through the barrell of American guns to the hapless Iraqi's. So, in short Collins has a point though it is a bit rich coming from an ultra-Blairite.

In a situation where the working classes are deserting Labour in droves Luke's party is becoming increasingly dependant on the goodwill of the self-same Guardian readers he seems to loathe so much. Since that is unlikely to exist as Labour rolls on viciously attacking civil liberties left, right and centre (who would be a smoker and vote Labour now) it makes me wonder what Luke would do; furthermore these sought of issues may not be at the forefront of peoples minds but they almost certainly will demoralise the ever diminishing pool of Labour numbers who must be wondering why they stick around in the foreigner-bashing, ID card touting Party.

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Monday, 26 May 2008

Class war and scepticism on Conservative Home

. Euroscepticism is dead, that is at least according to Richard North on the EU Referendum blog. However, do not despair (or indeed break out the bubbly) say the posters on C0nservative Home. Sally Roberts says;

"Euroscepticism is not dead, its just waiting for the platform of government to re-emerge. Eventually the UK is going to have to decide whether to adopt the Euro or not."

Clearly the posters are waiting for David Cameron to perform the role of knight-in-shining armour. Donal Blaney puts it thus;

"'hush now our little skeptics, all in good time, all in good time."

Littletwo also sees the role of a Cameron government as actively promoting euroscepticism;

"Assuming that an incoming Cameron Government remains broadly Eurosceptical, they would do well to expose, pointedly, every EU law which they have to enact......Honesty is what the public craves from its politicians. The measure would be popular and public opinion would swing, inexorably, to more active Euroscepticism."

Meanwhile, while the Conservatives made much of Labour's 'class war' tactics in Crewe but are busy fighting the class war for their own 'side' - against so-called 'liberal elites'. Conservative Home gives prominence to an article by Melanie Phillips' entitled 'Overclass values created the underclass'. Replying to a Sunday Times article by India Knight Phillips said;

"It was the champagne socialist intelligentsia which destroyed the traditional family, demonised men, incentivised mass fatherlessness and declared never-married motherhood an inalienable human right, emptied education of content and cut off the escape routes out of disadvantage by withering the grammar schools, declared morality to be a dirty word, paralysed the police through political correctness, enslaved the poor through dependency on the state and then finally destroyed their brains by telling them to eat cannabis cake while themselves showing the way by snorting cocaine on the Square Mile or in recording studios, or getting legless on Crackdaddy cocktails at Boujis nightclub."

So, on-top of contempt for lesbians, 'villain' bad parents, 'scruffy' teachers we have the carefully concealed attempt for Europe and the hatred of 'political correctness'. people who 'destroyed traditional family values' and so on; not much new about Cameron's Conservatives is there??

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FIFA suspends Iraqi football team

. CNN reports that footballs governing body, FIFA provisionally suspended the Iraqi national team from international football. The ban, which will last for one year, is due to a government decision to disband the sport's national organising association. A governmental decree last week dissolved the Iraqi National Olympic Committee and all national sport federations, including the football association.

The government now has until Thursday to reverse its decree. If this does not happen then FIFA has said it will present the one-year suspension to the FIFA Congress meeting in Sydney, Australia on Friday. Controversy over the decree has pitted Iraqi Vice President, Tariq al-Hashimi who has urged Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to annul the decree, against Iraq's Cabinet which voted last Tuesday to "freeze the work" of the executive office of the country's Olympic committee and all its federations.

According to a senior government official, who asked not to be named, talking to CNN the Cabinet's action was brought about because of corruption charges against the Olympic committee.

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Sunday, 25 May 2008

Government plans new anti-smoking measures

. Health minister Alan Johnson has said that the government is considering a ban on cigarette vending machines, removing cigarettes from display in shops and outlawing the sale of packets of 10. He said that he would be launching a consultation paper on new anti-smoking measures next week.

In remarks quoted on Reuters he said that;

"Banning vending machines where you can't have any control over the age of the person who's buying it -- it happened in many other European countries a long time ago with startling results.

"Whether you should be able to buy 10 cigarettes or whether you should insist that you can only buy 20, that's an issue we need to look at very closely."


I have to confess a vested interest - I smoke. Politically smokers are pariahs subjected to heavy taxation and now their rights are increasingly under attack. It simply isn't fashionable to stand up for their rights and that is why it has to be done, besides Johnson's logic is fuzzy. Going from packs of 20 to packs of 10 is one of the ways that smokers cut down their intake as a possible step towards quitting so rather than encouraging them on that path the government now wants to outlaw the packs of 10.

It is true that vending machines can't regulate a person's age but they are generally placed in age-prohibitive places like bars - at the very least they should be allowed to remain there. Displaying cigarettes is neither here nor there, teenagers are more likely to be influenced by peers or parents rather than a shops display window. The government would be far better advised to spend it's time and money on serious anti-smoking programmes which are educationally preventative or else improving resources for services tackling the causes of smoking rather than drafting more socially authoritarian legislation.

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No Johnson dynasty in Henley

. Keeping it in the family didn't work for Labour in Crewe and Nantwich and it looks like the Conservatives have decided that a Johnson political dynasty in Henley wouldn't work either. The Daily Mail reports that Stanley Johnson, Boris's father, hopes of inheriting his son's seat have been dashed by David Cameron.

Following Boris's victory in the London mayoral race Stanley had expressed some hopes of being put forward for the seat. However, Tory strategists feel that Johnson senior entering parliament would be a 'complete disaster' and only serve to remind voters of Johnson juniors huge gaffe potential.

Celebrity chef Antony Worrall Thompson was in the frame but according to the report Cameron 'charmed' the local party into shortlisting three local councillors. A decision is expected next week with the writ for the election expected to be issued as soon as MP's return from their Whitsun break next week.

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Saturday, 24 May 2008

City cuddles up to Cameron

. The Times reports that a growing number of large companies are approaching the Conservative Party looking for meetings in the hope of shaping policy. Alan Duncan, the Shadow Business Secretary, has recently met the chief executives or chairmen of BP, Shell, Vodafone, EdF and Total. The Tories have promised to cut corporation tax from 28p to 25p, although they plan to cut research and development tax allowances.

Some companies have started 'double briefing' - setting up shadow public affairs departments to improve relations with the Tories. For it's part the Conservatives have been busy building links over the past 18 months through Conservative Business Relations. Other organisations like City Circle and City Future seek to foster links between the City and the party that they obviously see as the next governing party.

I can't help but being struck how the two main parties seem to be returning to their traditional posture. Business is cosying up to the Conservative's and obviously receiving a rich reward in the promised cut in corporation tax, while Labour is increasingly financially reliant on the unions. This can hardly be a good thing for democracy as a whole.

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Friday, 23 May 2008

The global game

. The Economist carries an interesting piece celebrating the recent success of British teams in the Champions League. Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool and Manchester United have all reached at least one Champions League final in the past four years. If you add in Rangers making the UEFA Cup final this year then that is an impressive record. However, as the article rightly notes that is not due to the success of home grown talent - something attested to by the fact that none of the Home Nations will be present at the European Championships this summer.

The article lambasts the comments of Sepp Blatter, the president of FIFA, and his supporter Michel Platini, the head of UEFA, who have cited English dominance of the Champions League as proof of the need to restrict how many foreigners a team may field. In this I feel it is totally correct as it is when it cites the cause of the lack of home grown talent as being the inadequate training infrastructure. However, it stops short of recognising that the solution to that problem does lie in the Premier Leagues "financial clout".

Sport is not like any other commercial activity. In the season which saw plans for a money-spinning 39th game derailed there have been plenty of reminders that it is less a business in the orthodox sense of the word and more a community activity. If the Premier League was encouraged to plough more money into infrastructure then it would potentially reap the rewards in developing a rich seam of talent at a potentially much lower price than a given club would have to pay to buy a player in - so it would be a virtuous circle.

It is only a matter of time before the football bubble bursts with Manchester Uniteds debts presenting it with challenging times ahead. So, speculating to accumulate could reap rewards for us all; how clubs can be creatively encouraged to do that is another discussion.

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FHOC Update - Lib Dems official oppostion

. Well I promised the occasional update from the Facebook House of Commons so here it is. The Liberal Democrats have been made the official opposition and Nikki Thomson, the leader of the Liberal Democrat group is now the official leader of the opposition. The Commons itself now has 383 members with 115 of them are Liberal Democrats. Suspiciously the Conservatives seem to be almost entirely absent or inactive.

Currently the our position on Iraq is being considered for submission on Monday. Perhaps unsurprisingly this is not a particularly controversial issue. The question has been raised over striking a balance between opposing the government and not demoralising troops and slight skepticism about the viability of a full withdrawal. However, there is a clear majority in favour of a phased withdrawal of troops. More updates to follow...

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A visit to the house of wounded feeling....

. As you might well expect the Labour Home site is not exactly in celebratory mood today. Let's pay a visit to the house of wounded feeling.

Mike Ion is the lucky person who gets to answer the question 'Where do we go from here?' He feels that the "the real challenge to the continuation of the pursuit of a progressive political agenda" is not a "a resurgent Tory party" but "defeatists, pessimists and cynics that exist within the Labour party itself." He calls for Labour to 'renew itself' and it's message but doesn't offer any concrete way to do this than to stop talking about Labour's 'achievements'. So, there isn't really any suggestion that he may think that the voters don't really like the messages Labour does deliver anymore which after the crass tactics in Crewe is naive to say the least.

In comments, Group 51 recognises the above;

"It's not just policy coherence and focus that's missing. It's politics."

Although there is one call for "more style as well as substance" the main complaints are about the political content of the Labour message. Trussman 5 puts it like this;

"Labour has become disconnected with the ordinary Joe Bloggs, it has become reactive instead of visionary and the cabinet is stale and filled with the same people as in the Blair administration give or take a few. "

Interestingly, in the same post he seems to be sharing a delusion of Tamsin Dunwoody's that the problem in Crewe was the fact that Labour's 'core vote' didn't turn out when they quite clearly did - they just didn't vote Labour. Last night and the night after the local elections saw government ministers and some Labour supporters spinning the same story, that people were kicking the government because they were concerned about their finances but that essentially nothing else is wrong. This is a dangerous delusion for Labour and shows that ultimately they expect an economic recovery to ride to their rescue. The aptly names Angry Voter recognises this is a problem;

"a 17% swing does not necessarily equate to a singular issue such as the economy, instead it seems to be a large myriad of issues."

Contributors calling for a leadership change were not as numerous as you might expect andycharlwood argued;

"now is not the time to panic and change the leadership. The great benefit of changing leader is that it makes people feel like they have had a change, so they don't need to vote Tory to make change happen. If we change leader this year, the honeymoon period with the electorate that any new leader will enjoy will have come to an end by the time of the next general election. We need to be patient and avoid panic."

The site also gives us graphic evidence of just how disenchanted the Labour 'core vote' is. Jannottingham describes herself as a "lifelong Labour supporter" whose grandfather died in a mining accident and whose grandmother told her that "without the the support of the local labour party who helped her she would have had nothing." However, the "description my grandmother knew of the Labour Party is no longer there", she feels it has "stopped listening".

All-in-all a visit to Labour Home increases the feeling that the party is adrift with little hope of finding direction.

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Up all night

. So, the votes are counted and result is in and I have had a healthy couple of glasses of wine to keep the eyelids from drooping. Incidentally, quote of the night has to go to Eric Pickles who said on the BBC results programme that "in order to get Liberal Democrat policies people were realising they had to vote Conservative." So, it is not Tony Blair's clothes that David Cameron is stealing but Nick Cleggs.

Seriously, the first statistic of note is the high turn-out - 58%. Previously discontented Labour voters have sat on their hands and stayed at home; it is clear this is no longer the case. People are now so fed-up that they are actually willing to go out and vote against Labour and this should seriously worry Labour.

Nobody will be surprised this morning to wake-up to find that Crewe and Nantwich has a Conservative MP. The majority of slightly under 8,00o is a crushing blow to Labour and must now call into question Gordon Brown's continued leadership. However, Labour is effectively caught in a double-bind because if they ditch Brown the impression of panic and a sinking ship may well be reinforced.

Satisfactory is a word that best encapsulates the Liberal Democrat vote; with a strong anti-government sentiment it is to be expected that the main opposition party and thus it proved. In those circumstances a slight squeeze is expected. The 7.1% swing away from Labour shows where our main opportunity lies; in giving a voice to those disenfranchised by the Labour Party and it's policies who don't think the Conservatives can speak for them. Our challenge is to build the infrastructure to challenge the two main parties, especially in seats where we have a small vote. We are developing a loyal voter base which will stick with us, if just 1% of Elizabeth Shenton's vote could be persuaded into some kind of activity supporting the party that would be 60 new activists. Onwards to Henley!

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Thursday, 22 May 2008

'Goodbye to you....'

. It says an awful lot about Labour that it would be an upset if they win Crewe and Nantwich tonight. Things can only get better was Tony Blair's anthem but now the tune has changed with the its 'core vote' bellowing out an angry rendition of Anastasia's Sick and Tired. It is not entirely true that there is nothing that can save Labour now but there is close to nothing that can save it; yes two years is a long time but the tide of public sentiment against it is awfully strong and all flowing in one direction. Progressive steps have been taken but it's all been squandered in a thousand wasteful ways and now Labour is paying a price. Expect a struggle with Brown being an early casualty - the drive to self-preservation is a powerful motivating force and if Crewe goes blue then an awful lot of Labour MP's will be starring anxiously at the size of their majorities.

Meanwhile, the Conservatives are marching forwards not just in terms of winning seats in votes but in terms of how they are perceived in the wider public eye. They are a force for change and people think that they would be better; people don't see or follow the voting record of the Conservatives which shows that little has changed about the Party outside the cosmetic. No Clause 4 moment has been forthcoming and Cameron is keeping 'Top of the Pop's' by putting forward as little in terms of concrete policy as is humanly possible while still maintaining a semblance of having a coherent vision for government.

'Nicer', more 'compassionate' Conservatism is a myth spun by Cameron to make his party more electorally palatable. The voting figures expose him as a minority within his own party and while some will scoff and say that a fresh intake will be different it is worth pondering who actually selects Conservative candidates. Is it entirely Central Office or is it the unreconstructed local parties whose dearly cherished beliefs find their most fervent expression in the editorial columns of the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph? Expect power when it is eventually won to become a burden to Cameron as he struggles to maintain a tight ship.

So where does that leave us, the Liberal Democrat's. I hope it will leave us in second place in Crewe because if it does that will point the way and it will show that Labour's disaffected core vote is willing to look to us to give them a voice which they have lost during the course of this government. It will also show that our vote is not going to flake off in the Conservatives direction despite their obvious strength and good position to challenge the government.

If we do come second then we have a platform for opposition to a Conservative Party that is now the incoming government. We can turn round to voters and say that we are a strong party of opposition and that they should elect Liberal Democrat MP's if they do want that government held to account and that they want a voice for social justice against a party which flies it as a flag of convenience.

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Clinton has lost - Kagan

. The Hillary Clinton campaign is clearly in the denial stage of grief at losing it's once sure grip on the Democratic nomination. It is highly likely that Obama will be able to secure a majority of pledged delegates before the convention in August. However, her campaign soldiers on aided and abetted by the occasional big win. The political reality is though that she has lost and the only thing her campaign can achieve is to damage the Democrat's prospects of winning the White House.

Republicans increasingly recognise that Obama is the nominee and the latest one to do that is Robert Kagan who advises John McCain on foreign policy. In remarks reported on Sky News he said that;

"For several weeks now, it has been very clear who's going to win. I don't think anyone in the US really doubts that it's going to be Barack Obama."

He also highlighted the damage that Hilliary Clinton has done to Obama's candidacy;

"Barack Obama has shown vulnerabilities with certain types of voters in key states. Hillary Clinton has exposed those vulnerabilities," he said.

No matter what her supporters say Clinton's campaign has become increasingly self-serving and there is little justification for it to continue.

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Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Conservatives leak voter data in Crewe and Nantwich

. Gordon Brown has certainly had plenty of trouble when it comes to data leakages and the Conservatives were quick to capitalise however it is now their turn to be under the spotlight for the blundering release of information. The Information Commissioner is launching an investigation after the Conservatives accidentally sent an e-mail containing the names, addresses, telephone numbers and intentions of voters in Crewe and Nantwich.

Manx radio station received the e-mail at lunchtime on Wednesday. It sent it on to the local newspaper in Crewe, although it is understood that both emails have now been deleted.

Deputy Information Commissioner, David Smith told the BBC:

"It is a serious concern if people's personal details and voting intentions have got into the public domain.

"Voting information is particularly sensitive. We will be launching an investigation to establish the full facts and see where responsibility lies."

A Conservative spokesman said:

"The email shouldn't have been sent but we have done all that we can to ensure that it remains confidential.

"The email - which was based on information from the electoral register - was sent in error to a journalist.

"An internal investigation has already discovered that it was due to human error but an internal inquiry has begun to ensure that it does not happen again."

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Google Alphabet

. The idea for this came when I was just minding my own business, surfing away as you do – in other words I was bored. It’s premise is simple; to take some common words starting with letters of the alphabet and Google them. Irrelevant? Yes Pointless? Probably.

A

Aardvark

Aardvark is one of those words that everybody knows but, if pressed, I suspect allot of people would find it difficult to describe what an aardvark actually looks like. However, maybe that is just me; type it into Google however and your screen is awash with the critters; three million, seven hundred and forty thousand hits. I resisted the temptation to download an ‘Ask an Aardvark’ toolbar.

The suspiciously named Aaron Aardvark run’s a site that searches for holidays. Working in travel as I do I can safely say that internet travel firms are the bane of my life, mainly because they are so damm cheap.

Project Aardvark sounded interesting. Was this a cunning plot by the little badger like fiends to take over the world? Sadly not. From what I can tell it was meant to be a piece of software or maybe a server. It could even have meant to have been a blog. The last entry was in the heady days of summer on August 19th. A moments silence please if you will in honour of the courageous Project Aardvark.


Aphrodite

I have a confession to make. With Aphrodite being the Greek goddess of ‘love beauty and sexual rapture’ I thought this might be a risky choice. However, apart from two entries for ‘DJ Aphrodite’ and ‘Aphrodite recordings’, it is Aphrodite the goddess that dominates the first page of the three million and then some hits for the word.

A few Greek mythical figures being with an a: Adonis, Aeolus, Aeres and Achilles are among the others. Aphrodite was thought to have been born when the father of the gods - Uranus - rather harshly castrated his son Cronus and threw his severed genitals into the sea. The sea began to churn and foam and from the aphros (sea foam) and voila Aphrodite was born. Her festival was interestingly called the Aphrodisiac; a word which later of course has taken on a slightly different but similar meaning. Although the thought of foaming genitals in the sea has somewhat diminished what little appeal oysters had in the first place.

I found the Encyclopedia Mythica an interesting read. It has sections on Greek, Roman, Celtic and Norse mythology. Well worth a visit if you are interested in the subject.

Amoeba

Defined in the Oxford English as:“ a single-celled animal which catches food and moves about by extending finger-like projections of protoplasm” the amoeba is obviously a simple creature of few cares or concerns. Maybe it would make an ideal pet for Christmas but please do remember an amoeba is for life not just for Christmas.

Two million hits makes the least mentioned of our three guest words but human ingenuity has managed to transform the humble amoeba into many things. Software, music band, dance and even a cartoon strip, the amoeba truly is man's most flexible friend. The blurb for the Amoeba Dance quite distressingly reads: "The Infectious Disease Organism aka the Amoeba dance page." However, the site does exactly what it says on the tin. It's a page with amoeba’s dancing to tinny computer generated tunes. I recommend a through virus scan after browsing.

Paul Tye is the creative brains behind the Amoeba Online comic strip. This site suffered from the tiny problem that I couldn't see the comic strip. If such a problem arises there is a link to click at the top of the screen. However, it seems an awful lot of hassle to open up your firewall and adjust it to see the site. Maybe I am just lazy.

I did eventually get it to open up and well what can I say?? It's a comic strip about an amoeba, how brilliant can it be??

Cameron - bad parents are 'villans'

. It is the contention of this blog that little has changed about the Conservative Party and there has been a slew of evidence of that in recent weeks. David Cameron provided more evidence of that yesterday branding bad parents 'villains'. In remarks reported in the Daily Mail he compared Margaret Thatcher's confrontation with the trade unions to his commitment to put family at the centre of Conservative policy;

"The problems now are not so much the over-mighty trade unions so much as irresponsible parenting, family breakdown and anti-social behaviour."

"These are the great villains and problems today."

So, it's back-to-basics for the 'family values' Conservatives.

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Tuesday, 20 May 2008

Recognition and respect

. A recent study, led by Labour MP Quentin Davies, looking into ways to improve relations between the military and the public produced 40 recommendations.

The move to end discrimination against officers wearing uniform will probably prove relatively uncontroversial as will proposals for a new public holiday and plans for local authorities to organise 'welcome home' parades. It is undoubtedly true that the armed forces do a difficult job that most of us could not comprehend doing and that this job deserves recognition whatever you may think of the actual tasks the government of the day asks them to perform.

However, the plan to push for further cadet involvement in public schools and push more students to be involved in them is to my mind where the line should be drawn. Davis is quoted on ePolitix telling Radio 4's Today programme that;

"We are looking at the whole area of the contact between the military and civilian life. If you ask me if the military became a caste unto themselves, cut off from society, would that be a good thing either for them or for the general public, I would say it would be a very bad thing."

Of course, the military becoming a 'caste' would be a bad thing but there are good reasons why military and civilian life remain separate in a democratic society. Furthermore, it is hard to avoid the concern that these attempts to 'popularise' the armed forces are not in fact an attempt to win support for government policy especially with regard to Iraq. Much is made of instilling 'discipline' into 'youth' but I don't see a quiescent obedience to government policy when it is so blindingly wrong as being a helpful tool to possess when it comes to being an active citizen in a modern democracy. It is hard not to see this proposal as being yet another example of this governments social authoritarianism and something that should be resolutely opposed.

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'Father figure' amendment defeated

. An amendment to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill requiring those who want IVF treatment to have to provide a 'father figure' has been defeated in the first of tonight's contentious votes. The government won the vote quite comfortably by 292 votes to 217; a majority of 75.

The view that children need a nuclear family to provide them with a stable upbringing and that this is the only way is one of the oldest prejudices in the book. Currently IVF clinics are instructed to consider the 'welfare' of a potential child where as now they will be need to be evidence of 'supportive parenting' - a far superior and less discriminatory formulation. So far the government has been yet to be defeated on this bill and the last prospect of that is the vote later tonight on lowering the 24-week upper limit on abortions.

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Monday, 19 May 2008

Welcomed with open arms??

. My thoughts on the coalition conundrum are below but I thought it quite relevant to venture to Conservative Home and see how the 'other side' saw us:

Some were supportive...

"Clegg is most definitely on the right of his party, and though that still makes him somewhat to the left of Dave's Tories, he's still much more in line with the historic Liberal tradition that we're quite familiar with. The two parties arguably have a lot more in common on their good sides than either would like to admit..."

....said Nizhinsky. However, several posters simply felt that the offer of a coalition was unnecessary.....and most were just downright hostile. Treacle lamented;

"Callaghan was ruined by being tainted with the Liberal coalition.

Love bomb their supporters? Fine. But the Lib Dem party? Shoot it for the mangy dog it is while we have the chance...."

Joe James Broughton had a similarly dim view of our party;

"The Lib Dems are a deeply unpleasant and dishonest party who would blackmail the country with great damage to our constitution.They need to be crushed, not accommodated.

I would say the split of opinion was tilted in favour of the hostile or the indifferent. Whatever the leaderships of both parties too they will have to maintain the loyalty of their activist bases and it appears that would be tricky for both David Cameron and Nick Clegg.

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How should we approach a hung-Parliament?

. There is little doubt that the story in this mornings Daily Telegraph saying that Nick Clegg would help the Conservative Party form a minority administration if it were the largest single party is mischief making ahead of the important by-election in Crewe and Nantwich. It's subtext is obvious; why bother voting Liberal Democrat, you will end up with a Conservative government in any case. On that level we should be immediately weary of it and on one important level dismiss it as the idle speculation it is; however, it does raise important questions so it is worth addressing just on that level.

The story says that Nick Clegg would supply the Conservative Party with "supply and confidence" and concretly that would mean supporting them in any votes of confidence and passing a Conservative budget. Now, that is a complete hostage to fortune. If the Conservatives were the largest single party then there is a persuasive argument that they have the democratic mandate however, that is not eternal. If the Tories did genuinely lose the confidence of the people it would be totally unprincipled of us to promise them our continuing support. Furthermore, not even the wisest political sears can tell concretely what a first Conservative budget would contain so it is equally wrong to promise future support. Rather it would have to be gone through line-by-line as the story says the first Queens Speech would be by Nick Clegg.

However, having the right to vet things doesn't seem like an awfully big reward for handing over the government of a nation to a party that although it might be the largest would still, in this scenario, have failed to persuade the people to trust it with the unfettered reins of power. If we failed to demand more, like the incorporation of key planks of of our programme into the legislative process then that would pose serious questions about the worthiness of such an arrangement. Indeed, anything less would be a distinct betrayal of the people who plumped for us at the polls.

Stephen Tall, writing on Liberal Democrat Voice makes some very intelligent defences of the position of the article. It would be hoped that if the Labour Party was in fact the largest single party it would indeed be offered the same opportunity as the Conservatives. This article does to me now necessitate the leadership making a clear statement because it would be wrong to alienate those people who are turning from the Labour Party in our direction. Many of those kinds of people will do so because of a reluctance to vote Conservative and that they see our agenda as the more progressive one.

We need to be quite clear that when making a decision on how to trade in a hung-Parliament we would not do so at the expense of seeing our program implemented - indeed we would trade on the basis of how best to implement that program. Also, we would not trade on our aspiration to govern one day but would proceed based on the political realities of the day.


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Sunday, 18 May 2008

Labour split on Crewe tactics

. Earlier I blogged about Ed Miliband's defence of Labour's tactics but there are signs tonight that adding to Labour's woes is a potentially damaging split within the party over the tactics that are being used. Should Crewe fail to return a Labour MP next Thursday it makes you wonder what the ramifications will be; one side will almost assuredly blame another and the prospect of damaging infighting breaking out into the open becomes a distinct possibility.

The Guardian reports that Harriet Harmen admitted that Labour's tactics were "not the most positive" when she was interviewed on BBC1's The Politics Show. Harmen tried to defend the campaign saying that; " most of the campaign is focusing on, you know, the good that has happened over the last ten years since Labour has been in government in Crewe and Nantwich and also our plans for the future."

Labour has also criticised the Conservatives saying that Conservative activists are pretending to be Labour activists. This is certainly true in one case that was chronicled on Iain Dale's Diary. He recounts the adventures of a Conservative activist who met the Labour candidate Tamsin Dunwoody and shared dinner with her on the pretence of being a Labour activist. All in-all it looks like both sides are fighting dirty to get hold of this seat.

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Facebook has it's own House of Commons

. I joined an interesting looking Facebook group last night. This is not usually occasion for a fanfare as Facebook is pretty well know for it's extensive groupings. However, this one is worthy of note it seeks to establish a 'virtual' House of Commons composed of members of all political parties ranging from the far-left Respect to the far-right British National Party. It seems that there is quite a diverse spread of activists involved despite the group only currently having 317 members which at least should make for some interesting discussion.

Each grouping has it's own group of officers who qualify as 'MP's' for their party. Each party then has a leader; the 'House Speaker' nominate a series of policy proposals to be decided upon and then each group submits a proposal and explanation. A debating period then passes which is followed by a public vote; with the proposal with the most votes being passed. Of course, there are limitations imposed by the medium and a group of already committed activists can hardly be said to represent the will of the people.

Having said that the discussions should prove interesting and there will be regular updates here; currently the Liberal Democrat group has yet to elect it's leader. Lastly, a shameless plug for Letters from the Soul where I have been invited to guest blog so expect to see some of me there too.....

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Miliband - Labour's Crewe campaign 'not a mistake'

. The sense of outrage about Labour's campaign in Crewe and Nantwich is palpable - to me it shows just how bankrupt the party is when it comes to having any concrete ideas. It also smacks of complete desperation to me, they know they are losing and since they have no positive ideas to turn it around result to the purely negative in a last desperate throw of the dice. My memory is drawn back to 1997 and the infamous 'demon eyes' that the Conservatives used against the then surging Labour Party under Tony Blair.

It will probably not surprise anybody to learn that speaking on Sunday Live with Adam Boulton Ed Miliband thus refused to distance himself from the campaign. He said;

""We always have stunts and people campaigning in adventurous ways. These kind of things happen."

Pressed to admit the campaign was a mistake he added;

"No it is not a mistake. I am saying it is only part of our campaign. It is not the central part of our by-election campaign."

However, it appears to be making little difference to Labour's fortunes in C & N. I would argue that this is because the people most likely to be swayed by it are already hardened Labour voters in any case and the rest actually want to see the party develop some positive ideas and deliver a positive message. Political Betting is saying that the bookmakers view a Conservative victory as an almost certainty - however, the reports coming from Elizabeth Shenton's campaign are very encouraging so how this will pan out is anybodies guess at the moment.

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Thousands of children face starvation - charity

. Save the Children has said that thousands of children are in danger of starvation following the devastation caused by Cyclone Nargris. It estimates that 30,000 infants under the age of five in the Irrawaddy Delta were already "acutely malnourished" before the cyclone hit on May 2.

However, following the cyclone the situation has dramatically worsened. Farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta - the country's rice bowl - have been prevented from sowing seeds in time for the monsoon harvest. So, while the military junta continues to hamper the aid effort, Save the Children believes some children are already dying from malnourishment.

Jasmine Whitbread, Save the Children UK's chief executive, said on Ananova:

"We are extremely worried that many children in the affected areas are now suffering from severe acute malnourishment, the most serious level of hunger. When people reach this stage they can die in a matter of days.

"Children may already be dying as a result of a lack of food. They urgently need nutrient- and energy-rich food, and food containing all the elements of a balanced diet.

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Saturday, 17 May 2008

Forced smiling is a health risk - study

.

Enforced smiling at work can seriously damage your health, German scientists claim - it wasn't commissioned by Gordon Brown as far as I know.

'Professional smilers', such as flight attendants, sales personnel, call centre operators, waiters, and others in contact with the public for extended periods of time, are at risk of seriously harming their health say researchers. Speaking personally for a second as somebody in one of the 'at risk' categories, call-centre flunky, I find its inclusion a bit of a mystery. Are there call centers that have videophone?? If not, then why are they 'at risk' from enforced smiling?? I won't even go into some of the faces I pull (nor, incidentally will I be naming where I work). Although I have been told that I need to be 'consistently positive' so I suppose the point about an enforced emotional state remains valid.

Professor Dieter Zapf, a researcher into human emotions who led the team of psychologists at Frankfurt University, said that fake friendliness led to depression, stress, and a lowering of the immune system. This in turn can trigger more serious ailments, such as high blood pressure and other cardiovascular problems, he claimed on Personnel Today. He added that;

"Every time a person is forced to repress his true feelings, there are negative consequences for his health."



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Burma Aid Links

. Berlin Bear, a blogger on Daily Kos, has posted a diary which contains some useful links for those wanting to contribute to those on the ground in Burma....please pop along to his diary and donate.....

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Friday, 16 May 2008

'Warriors' are not always wrong

. A Radical Writes makes some interesting points about the 'Free Palestine' demo he attended in London at the beginning of the month. He says he is skeptical of these movements and challenges readers to "name one that has succeeded" which is slightly disingenuous since there are plenty of national liberation movements that have succeeded throughout history and still do in the present day. Europe's newest nation, Kosovo, is a testament to the fact that they can and do succeed in the present-day.

Of course, the issues thrown up by these movements are always complicated but certainly with the case of the Palestinians there is definitely a case of a genuine and legitimate grievance existing which needs addressing. His feeling that the reason people maybe skeptical is the domination by the hard-left of campaigns like the 'Free Palestine' one; here he maybe is on safer territory. However, it is worth pointing out that this domination is in part a result of the isolation of these causes from mainstream political dialogue. It is also a result of the fact that those engaged in some kind of struggle are most likely to be drawn to 'warriors' naturally.

Hillary Clinton has recently shown how showing tenacity can be rewarded in gaining peoples respect and sometimes their votes too. It is possible this tenacity will at least earn her the second spot on a 'dream ticket' and it is telling that this tenacity was most rewarded with the votes of blue and white collar workers. People who have to scarp for survival respect those who show the gut's to do the same in whatever field. I have to say that I feel that in Clinton's case the 'cause' (her own career prospects at the expense of her party) is less than noble but nonetheless the point stands.

Sometimes in politics it is right to be a warrior and not give an inch. Of course, other times it isn't and the 'more pluralistic' approach is the right one and the warriors are rightly left out in the cold and rightly so, the trick is knowing which time and issue is best suited to which approach.

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Claims child of 12 voted in local elections

. Police are investigating claims two children, 12 and 16, were allowed to vote in Cambridgeshire in this month's local elections. The votes were cast in the contest for the St Neots-Eynesbury ward of Huntingdonshire District Council.

The pair are alleged to have received voting cards by mistake and been allowed to vote on showing them. It was the Liberal Democrats, who failed to win the Conservative-held seat, that raised the complaint. However, it is not suggested that the votes changed the outcome of the election.

Huntingdonshire District Council's returning officer David Monks told the BBC:

"I have passed some material to the police, which they are investigating."

Amazingly, it does not seem to be a unique occurrence Trevor Amiss, the council's registration officer, said:

"We have a handful of reports at every election of people putting their children on the [registration] form without their dates of birth.

So, who do people think the two children are most likely to have voted for??

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Thursday, 15 May 2008

Britain guilty of cluster bomb 'hypocrisy' - campaigners

. Landmine Action director Simon Conway told In the News that;

"It's terrible hypocrisy, on the one hand to say that these weapons cause unacceptable harm and ban them and on the other hand to give a sly nod to the US to continue using them,"

Moves to ban cluster bombs are due to be finalised at a conference in Dublin but the government continues to defend the retention of M85 submunitions and is seeking to exclude from prohibition its rocket-fired cluster munitions because they each contain less than 10 submunitions.

Meanwhile, Amnesty International has published the results of a YouGov poll which shows public opinion turning against cluster bombs. It found 79% supporting a worldwide ban on cluster bombs while 62% said Britain cannot act as a force for good if it does not adopt the treaty.

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Iraq on the web

. The disintegration of Iraq used to be big news but it has faded from the headlines of late as the worlds eye roves elsewhere. However, there is still the small matter of Iraq being an occupied country and ordinary Iraqis struggling to exist and get to grips with their countries future. The Internet is proving to be one of the main mediums through which ordinary Iraqis can make their voices heard.

Hometown Baghdad is less a blog and more a 'Vlog'. The videos are short but informative; one shows Saif, a resident of Zayounal, attempting to barricade his house with barbed wire. Of course, the strains of living in a city like Baghdad are an ever-present theme but other videos look at more "normal" aspects of everyday life; for example, "Kiss and Tell" tells the dating stories of Saif, Adel, and Ausama. Although it is not overtly political, the crew behind the films couldn’t resist a comment on the occasion of the fourth anniversary of the fall of Saddam:

"When I was shooting one of the subjects as he packed his bag, I could feel my heart shivering. I even began feeling nervous behind the camera. How emotional the thought of packing is! I curse packing and I curse wars!”, (Ziad Turkey, Hometown Baghdad, April 9 2007).

Iraqiya is the attempt of an Iraqi woman to provide a different perspective. It is written by a "typical Iraqi woman" who has "a bachelor's degree in English and works at one of the Iraqi Ministries." Her self-description rather belies her claim that she has "not benefited from the old regime nor the new one". A lot of Iraqi blogs emanate despondency; the by-line for BlogIraq is "an Iraqi who used to have dreams." It ruminates on the disappointment that many Iraqi's feel with the occupation, marking it's fifth anniversary by starkly saying:

"Those five years were nothing but another episode of suffering. With some new types of suffering, I must admit. If we look into facts of what this war has accomplished in five years, and I mean the accomplishments to the simple Iraqi person who does not have "Democratic" dreams, you can simply say, NOTHING." (March 19th)

Nobody reading this will need any introduction to the sectarian nature of Iraq’s strife. In the crucible-like atmosphere, Healing Iraq seems to be an ambitious goal. It attempts to provide a daily commentary on news and events in Iraq and is well-written. However, as with most Iraqi blogs, the author is once again something of a mystery; although this is hardly surprising under the circumstances it is something that is more reminiscent of bloggers living under dictatorial regimes and should indicate the limits of the "freedom" that Iraq has thus far achieved. Having said that it is regularly updated and thus is a fresh source of information.

Presumably the authors of Iraq The Model thought that they were being ironic in their choice of title although Iraq has become something of a model of the limitations of what military intervention can achieve and how it can go badly wrong. Baghdadee is an interesting forum, you will have to be fluent in Arabic (or at least have access to a good page/text translator) to be able to glean the most from it.

If you want to read a comprehensive news source covering Iraq then you could do a lot worse than Iraq Slogger. As well as being presented professionally, it has an extensive array of sections covering topics as diverse as security and a section it calls "good news." Its attempts to brighten the gloom even extend to the inclusion of a humour section; however a closer examination reveals that it would be perhaps better termed satire. Societies that are as deeply immersed in civil strife as Iraq’s often find that there is little separation between politics and everyday life and indeed that shines through numerous blogs whose main function is to provide a platform for their author’s views.

Of course, maintaining any semblance of normality in such an environment would be an achievement in itself. Everyday life becomes a battle to survive and everything else tends to be lost in that, including culture that Westerners take for granted. However, a number of blogs attempt to keep the cultural flame burning for Iraq and lend an expressive voice to art, entertainment, and other cultural staples. Baghdad Artist is perhaps one of the more well-known artists but the blog has not been recently updated which, given its quality and presentation, is a shame. Poetry is also alive in Baghdad on Words That Come Out.

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Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Edwards endorses Obama

. Surely it is all over now?? John Edwards has endorsed Barack Obama as the Democrat's Presidential nominee and may have effectively ended the nomination battle between Obama and Clinton. One of the major problems the Obama campaign thus far has been his inability to seriously swing blue-collar Democrat's behind his campaign. Worrying fissures have been appearing in the Democrat core vote and there are sign's that this could damage the party in November.

Exit polls out of West Virgina showed as much as 35% of Clinton's vote willing to turn against Obama in November and opt instead for John McCain. However, Edwards has wide-appeal amoung working class Democrat voters and his endorsement will be a significant boost to Obama's chances of making inroads into that demographic. He and other party leaders are starting to exert pressure on Clinton to quit the race to avoid damaging the prospects of the Democrat's in November.

All eyes will now be on Al Gore as the last party grandee left to declare for either candidate.

Scratch a 'New' Conservative....

. ...and all the familiar prejudices come rushing out. Yesterday it was lesbians in the Conservative cross-hairs and today it is 'shameless' parents and 'scruffy' teachers. Tory work and pensions spokesman Chris Grayling is set to lambast mothers and fathers who do not know what good parenting is and follow the example of Frank Gallagher, the father in Channel 4's comedy Shameless.

Grayling said in a speech to the Reform think-tank that;

"I think many parts of our society no longer know how to bring up children. We live in a country where in many places Frank Gallagher-style parenting has become the norm and not the exception."

He attempted to soften the Tories approach to single-parents saying;

"Sometimes over the past 25 years the Conservative Party has seemed to be at war with lone parents. That should not happen again."

However, we can see clearly from his rhetoric that the Conservatives still do feel the need to stigmatise social groupings not quite to there liking. Just because the target changes does that mean the approach has? I think not and this was recognised by Clare Tickell, chief executive of children's charity NCH who said;

"use of negative labels to describe vulnerable parents risks stigmatising and isolating those most in need. Chris Grayling's use of the 'Shameless' analogy shows these negative attitudes are still widespread."



Thérèse Raquin - Book Review

. This book is one of Émile Zola’s seminal works and it’s easy to see why, if you read it prepare to be transfixed in horror. It is a tragedy but a dark tragedy where love is reduced to base desire. Apart from the maternal love of Mme Raquin love makes not one appearance in it’s pure, virtuous forms and even that is perverted by the end of the book. The reduction of human emotions to the ‘animal’ occurs across the board and the result is a cruel light shone on the darkness of the human heart.

Thérèse is married to her cousin, Camille; together they reside in the Passage du Pont-Neuf in Paris with Mme Raquin. The marriage is loveless and passion less and the life of the family Raquin is one of all-enveloping tedium. One Thursday evening however Camille brings Laurent to the regular dinnertime social and Thérèse’s world is changed forever. His charm and sheer manliness compare favourably with the sickliness of Camille. Inevitably a torrid affair begins; here Zola’s talent for oblique but direct descriptiveness comes into its own.

Just as inevitably as the affair begins it ends. However, neither Thérèse nor Laurent are willing to let there new found love go; everything would be so simple with Camille out of the way. Thus they contrive the demise of Camille, drowned by ‘accident’ in the Seine. Both of the adulterers now become murderers and although they manage to arouse no suspicion they quickly descend into madness.

Visions of Camille haunt them both separately as their assignations cease. They drift apart and the bonds that bound them collapse under the weight of guilt. However, Laurent is determined that his efforts have not been in vein and eventually they contrive that a wedding is proposed. Convinced that marriage will heal their wounds and that finally they will enter the paradise of their dreams they proceed with little enthusiasm.

Marriage does not heal their wounds; they enter a new level of tormented hell. Camille’s ghost haunts their nights and their days are spent as far apart as possible. Laurent’s painting is even haunted by the shadow of Camille. The pace of the novel increases as delirium wreaks havoc on the Raquin’s while they maintain a façade of tranquillity and happiness. The newly weds turn on each other, Laurent savagely beating Thérèse and anything that agitates him.

Mme Raquin falls ill and is paralysed. She is then tortured as her ‘children’ confess their crime to her and re-enact the crime in front of her conscious but hopelessly paralysed form. Consumed by bitterness and pain her paternal love becomes the bitterest hatred. Unable to enact vengeance herself she watches with sadistic glee as the couple destroy each other. Her one wish becomes to see the end, to see Laurent and Thérèse punished.

Consumed by the darkness of their deed the pair soon grants Mme Raquin her wish. Unable to find solace in the arms of others they each decide separately to murder the other. However, each realises the others intentions and they decide to end each other. Thérèse drinks poison and she is followed by Laurent; they die in each others arms in front of Mme Raquin.

Weird Wonderland - DVD Review

. Spirited Away, 120 mins, PG, Hayao Miyazaki

Rather than make you wait till the end of the review for my opinion I will start with it; Spirited Away (Sen To Chihiro Kamikakushi in Japan) is marvellous, brilliant, fantastic, supercalifragilistic expialidocious and more.

It opens with a girl called Chihiro and her parents setting off for there new home. Chihiro is quite naturally upset and refuses to be placated. On their journey they take a detour and end up entering a mysterious cave. The cave opens up to a luscious green landscape, a dried up river, and a ghost town. While exploring, her parents find an unattended feast; unable to resist the temptation they begin gorging themselves. Meanwhile Chihiro, sensing something is wrong, explores further. She find’s a deserted bath house but the day begins to fade and once again she begins to feel uneasy. Returning to find her glutinous parents transformed into pigs, Chihiro is left alone as lights begin to strike up in windows and strange shadows take shape. The scene is set for a breathtaking adventure.

Although I have yet to experience any other Japanese animation, I am reliably informed that adults often appear in this way; completely lacking in common sense and totally unaware of things there children obviously are. The central premise, that children posses a wisdom and maybe even intuition that adults do not and that in some ways adults are poorer and stupider for it is one that is definitely not present in mainstream Western culture. In that sense Spirited Away brings the joy of a fresh perspective on the world to the screen. Rather than being a children's adventure written through an adults eyes it gives the impression of almost having been written by a child.

Chihiro soon finds employment in the bath house which turns out to be where the gods and the spirits go for a spot of cleansing. The bath house is owned by a witch called Yubaba who as well as owning three bouncing green heads as pets has managed to spawn an improbably large off-spring. Chihiro, now Sen, soon makes friends among the eclectic cast of characters, most notably with a monster with no face that she let's into the bathhouse from the outside. Saving a river spirit from human pollution elevates Sen to star status. However, her love interest, Haku, is hurt badly running an errand for Yubaba. During her quest to save him Sen meets Yubaba's good twin, Zeniba.

If you are confused now then bear this in mind; this is only a very brief, abridged version of the story. The film run's for over two hours and by the end of the two hours you will almost certainly get lost more than once. In essence the story is about Chihiro's journey through her own self-doubt and fear. On this level it appeals to adult viewers as well as a younger audience. It is something that can be enjoyed as both a piece of mindless escapism and as a story of deeper meaning. Just put the DVD in your player and allow yourself to be Spirited Away!

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

Burma and China - Man made disasters

. The Guardian is carrying an interesting piece this evening which shows how angry Chinese are turning on their government after the devastation caused by the recent earthquake. It reported a women, hoping that she will be able to again see her daughter, asking;

"Why isn't there money to build a good school for our kids? Chinese officials are too corrupt and bad."

She went onto say;

"These buildings outside have been here for 20 years and didn't collapse - the school was only 10 years old. They took the money from investment, so they took the lives of hundreds of kids. They have money for prostitutes and second wives but they don't have money for our children. This is not a natural disaster - this is done by humans."

China has however at least wisely accepted the offer of foreign aid. It's close ally, the junta in Burma is still obstructing aid to the victims of Cyclone Nargis. It remains steadfastly opposed to granting visa's to foreign aid workers saying they are 'not necessary'. This patently absurd and lethal position means among other things that of the 361 tonnes of food aid sent just 175 tonnes has actually been distributed. How much the junta can be trusted to distribute the aid it receives is, of course, very questionable indeed and while countries negotiate with the regime the reality is that people are dying and there comes a point when talking exhausts it's usefulness.

It is illuminating of his own bankruptcy that George W Bush dismisses the Burmese junta as 'cold and callous' but still seems to offer little in the way of rushing towards a concrete solution. The contrast with his administrations gung-ho 'shoot first and ask questions later' approach to Iraq could not be more stark; here is a situation which requires firm, decisive and immediate action but none is forthcoming. No doubt the inhabitants of New Orleans will be familiar with this ineptitude and inability to swiftly act when confronted with a natural disaster.

The United Nations has called for the opening of an open sea or air corridor but there is little sign that the regime in Rangoon is willing to grant either. Both Nick Clegg and David Cameron have called for aid to be airlifted in with or without the permission of the regime but in reality without the workers on the ground that aid will be of little use and will probably cause a chaotic scramble which will in turn endanger more lives. It is in this situation that the UN should come into it's own and should indeed be invoking it's 'responsibility to protect'. Military force should be considered as an option if the regime does attempt to obstruct relief efforts but it should be carried out under the UN's banner.