Tuesday, 29 September 2009

#lab09 - third episode

I'm in Conference Hall, listening to the housing debate. John Healey the housing minister is on stage now, and alongside him is Jake Tillett, an apprentice he met whilst visiting a new housing scheme in Bristol last week. We were so impressed by Jake, and his fellow apprentices Steven Hoskins and Chris Rae, that we invited them along to conference today so that Jake can tell the audience and viewers at home about his experience, gaining his apprenticeship, working on a private sector housing development which was stalled and almost shelved as a result of the credit crunch, and which was then rescued by a link-up with a housing association. I visited the scheme last week, in Mallards Close, Speedwell, and it's fantastic - really good quality housing, built to private sector spec. Jake is looking nervous as he sits in the front row waiting to go on, but I'm sure he'll do brilliantly. His great-great something, Ben Tillett - yes, that Ben Tillett, one of the founders of TIGMOO*, who used to work at Easton pit - would be proud of him.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

#lab09 - second episode

Sitting in Conference Hall with Andrew Gwynne MP. First the old phone started bleeping, then the netbook made logging off sounds and then the Blackberry rang... Any more of this and I'm going to be evicted! Andrew has just described me on Twitter as the e-Walter Wolfgang. Ed Miliband and Pat McFadden will be speaking soon, about the policy-making process and the next manifesto, and then Douglas is giving an update on the election campaign planning, and then Gordon and Harriet are doing a Q and A.

At the moment it's the Welsh affairs debate, and Rhodri Morgan has just delivered the soundbite of the day, talking about "blending the mushy peas of Old Labour with the guacamole of New Labour". It's his last speech as Welsh First Minister as he's standing down soon, and he's just been given a standing ovation.

Earlier today I went along to the Scouts Speak Out event, which I really enjoyed. Chance to catch up with some Labour PPCs too - Stella Creasy from Walthamstow, Andrew Pakes from Milton Keynes North, and Daniel Zeichner from Cambridge. Then, heading back into the Conference centre I bumped into Lucy Powell, who's standing in Manchester Withington and is 10 weeks away from having her first baby. Typical Lucy - she's very organised - slotting a baby in before the election campaign starts!

Last night was the Go Fourth Tweet for Victory rally. I somehow found myself on stage introducing the master of modern campaigning, John Prescott, who gave a phenomenal speech - 'stop complaining, start campaigning!' Villain of the conference seems already to have been awarded to Charles Clarke, the mere mention of whose name elicits boos and hisses. Runner up place goes to Compass who have in their wisdom decided to invite Caroline Lucas, who is standing for the Green Party in Brighton Pavilion, to speak at their conference rally. That's a Labour conference rally... looks like the energy-saving lightbulbs are on at Compass but there's no-one there.

We had a mini tweet-up after the Go Fourth rally; really good to meet some of the regular Labour activists from Twitter. Tom Watson seems to have arranged another tweet-up now, and told all and sundry that I'm buying the drinks. Quite happy to get the wallet out on condition they all drink the same as me - soda water + lime!

#lab09 - episode 1

Unforgivable failure to blog for rather a long time, caused by having one of those weeks where everything that could possibly go wrong, did. Nothing 'big' but just lots of little moments that make life more stressful and complicated. Huge sense of relief as we finally got on the train to Brighton, some of the entourage making it with seconds to spare. In a reckless moment after last year's conference I decided it would be fun to rent out a whole house this year. This seemed like less of a good idea as the time approached, not least when a £1000 deposit payment appeared on my credit card. I will be frantically running round mopping up spillages all week - and was that a wine glass I heard smashing as I retired to bed last night?

True to form, actually getting into the house proved something of a nightmare. I'd been told by the booking agents that someone called Victor would let us in. Victor turned out to have left the property management company, and the new person said she didn't look after this particular property... Eventually I was given the number of someone called Martino. Judging from his ringtone as I left increasingly urgent voicemails, he was out of the country. The elusive Martino, who was indeed abroad, then told us that he didn't have any paperwork from our agents, but had paperwork from a different lettings agency which implied the property had been let out the day before... All this is taking place, by the way, as seven of us are actually on the train, within minutes of Brighton. Then I get told someone has the keys, but they can't get into Brighton from Hove because there's a demo going on. Then I get given an address of someone who might have a set, so jump in a cab which takes me almost out of Brighton in the opposite direction to Hove. Meanwhile the rest of the party have arrived at the street in question, only to discover that there's a man living in no.12 who is insistent that his house is not being let out to anyone! The keys have a number 53 on them... but the street only goes up to 47. Is it the road round the corner with a similar name? No. Eventually I get hold of Martino again. It's no.20. Huge cheer from the entourage as I try the keys - they work! And it turns out that I have booked the most swanky townhouse I have ever seen. Four storeys, a roof terrace, one of those huge kitchens you only ever see in magazines... (And in case anyone starts - we're paying for this, not the taxpayer. And it's worked out really cheap). And there's an organic supermarket round the corner which is vegan heaven. I think we'll have to get use of the camcorder before the week is out, just so we can really show off. Oh, and it's 10 mins walk to the secure zone too. We are sorted!

Tuesday, 15 September 2009


There was an interesting piece in Saturday's Guardian about recent, disappointing developments in Somaliland. I've written to both David Miliband and Douglas Alexander about the situation there, asking what if anything the UK can do to help resolve things. I've had to stand down as Secretary of the All-Party Group on Somaliland since becoming a whip, but have still been following the situation very closely; the case for recognition is very much founded on Somaliland having been a stable, peaceful country since the civil war of 1991 and having staged successful, democratic local, presidential and parliamentary elections in recent years. What is missing in the Guardian piece, however, is any appreciation that it would be problematic for a country such as Britain, the former colonial power, to be the first to recognise Somaliland. It's something that we - members of the APPG - have told Somaliland politicians and members of the diaspora on many an occasion, and they have, by and large, agreed with our analysis. The ideal solution would be for the African Union - or at least one African state - to step up to the plate, and other countries to then follow their lead.

The piece implies that Britain is at best indifferent to the issue, which is far from being the case. Lord Malloch-Brown met with members of the Somaliland cabinet and President Riyale when he was still Minister for Africa, and Kim Howells, visited Somaliland when he was a Foreign Office minister. David Miliband specifically asked to meet members of the Somali community, the majority of whom hail from Somaliland, when he visited the Cardiff constituency of Alun Michael, the chair of the All-Party group. I'm sure the Foreign Office and DFID are doing all they can and providing whatever assistance is necessary to get Somaliland back on track.

Two faces of the Tory party

The wrong MEP is kicked out of the Tory party... So, criticising someone for being anti-Semitic, homophobic and racist is a sackable offence, whilst hero-worshipping Enoch Powell and trashing the NHS in front of an overseas audience is just harmless eccentricity?

And while we're on the subject of unreconstructed Tories, tonight saw a bit of a buzz at Bristol's full council meeting, as protestors gathered to call for Cllr Richard Eddy to resign as Tory group leader. Darren Lewis made an excellent speech, citing stats on how many LBGT young people have suffered from homophobic bullying, including many driven to the point of attempting suicide or self-harming. This was met with a standing ovation from most of the public gallery, the Labour, Lib Dem and Green councillors, and a scene reminiscent of those in the Commons after Blair's farewell speech, in which Cameron had to force his troops to their feet. Three Tory councillors eventually and rather shamefacedly joined the ovation, and then Eddy stood up too, which must be the first time someone has applauded a call for their own resignation! Eddy then rose again to defend himself, saying he agreed with 95% of what Darren had said but in a time of financial hardship we have to consider what are the most important priorities, etc, etc. Which doesn't quite explain why he described the EACH funding as an 'outrageous' waste of public money and then embarked on a 'political correctness gone mad' rant worthy of his doppelganger, Simon Heffer. And describing the protest as 'hysterical' did little to endear him to his audience... You can watch the whole thing on here, http://www.bristol.public-i.tv/site/, I think it's about 15 or 20 minutes in.


I've been very bad at blogging recently... I have lots of 'draft blogs' in my head, but to be frank I'm just very busy and whilst I might be able to summon up the energy to tweet of an evening, composing a blog post is somewhat beyond me. Normal service will be resumed soon, but here's one of those 'what I did yesterday' type fillers.

Up at 7am, off to BBC Radio Bristol studios to do the newspaper reviews, although we actually ended up talking about the awful stabbing of a 17 year old outside a pub in St George, being the 'Twitter tsar' and whether Cllr. Gary Hopkins and I are best of mates really (no!). The Gary Hopkins issue came up because he'd just been on the line talking about the so-called bonsai bins... I can see the wisdom of having smaller bins for some people, as they're less obtrusive and easier to handle, and if I wasn't in a flat with communal bins I'd go for one myself, but with only fortnightly bin collections and a lot of HMOs and large families in some parts of Bristol, will this mean we end up with rubbish strewn all over the streets? Will it encourage recycling or just mean that people start dumping their rubbish elsewhere?

The stabbing of Shevon Wilson in St George came as a bit of a shock. Thankfully Bristol hasn't had as many of these incidents as other core cities, but it's particularly unexpected in St George, which is usually quite a quiet area. Yes there have been complaints about anti-social behaviour and young people hanging around the streets, but nothing that would have led me to think it would end in an incident like this. What I'd like to know is why the police didn't come along and break up the crowd earlier? The pub closed at 11pm, and the licensee said that a crowd of about 30 youths were outside 'for hours'. The stabbing occurred at 1am. It's not as if this was in the city centre, where large groups congregating in the early hours are quite common. Did any of the neighbours complain about the crowd, and if so, what was the police response?

Later on in the day I went to the funeral of the wonderful Reg Gregory. Reg was a stalwart of the Labour Party and the trade union movement, the Methodist church and the Boy's Brigade. In 2005 I invited him to the House of Commons to receive an 'Older Volunteer Hero' award and he's on the Local Heroes section of my website. Yesterday would have been his 87th birthday.

After that it was off to Tesco's to present five local schools with their rewards for collecting Tesco vouchers for Schools and Clubs (previously Computers for Schools, and sports equipment). And then I did a drop-in surgery in the cafe there. I had an email from a journalist the other day wanting to know how many surgeries I held during recess - another one of those trying to catch MPs out doing absolutely nothing over the summer. Well to look at the past fortnight, I've had two busy appointment-only surgeries, the drop-in surgery at Tesco's and also did a street surgery in St George where we leaflet-dropped the night before and then called on the 8 or 9 households who'd indicated they wanted to speak to me.

After that it was off to the launch of 1625 Independent People, a housing association for young people aged 16 to 25 formed by the merger of Priority Youth and Way Ahead. As ever the highlight of the launch was the personal accounts from young people of how they'd been helped, and here are some more, from Youtube.

Friday, 11 September 2009


Only two weeks to go till Labour conference (#Lab09 to the Twitterers out there).

I'm speaking at a few events and doing a fair bit of media, and the diary is getting fuller by the day. As is usual at this time of year lots of requests are coming in from campaign groups and lobbyists for MPs to meet up with them at conference. Normally this is quite a useful way to spend Conference, when there isn't actually much of a role for the common or garden MP (the bogstandard MP?) So I'd usually say yes to at least half a dozen, but this year I'm telling them I'll meet up in Westminster after recess instead.

I'll post full details of what I'm up to at Conference a bit closer to the time, but here are details of the Smith Institute programme - I'm speaking on 'How Can we Fix Broken Families?' - and the Channel 4/ Fishburn Hedges 'twinge', both on the Monday night. (And after that I'm speaking at a Dods event for parliamentary candidates, so the tweet-up I'm "organising" might have to start rather late!) I say "organising" - this will involve sending out a tweet saying "we're all in the bar of the Metropole/ Grand now, and mine's a soda water with a tiny splash of lime".

Rather a stellar line-up on the Labour side for the Channel 4 twinge, but where are all the Tory frontbenchers at their conference? Are they too frit to twit?

Friday, 4 September 2009

Plymouth by-election result

There was a local council by-election in Plymouth yesterday, in a seat Labour had previously held with a slim majority of 49. And the result... cue drum roll.... Labour 1243, Tories 676 - a Labour majority of 567. Congratulations to Plymouth's newest councillor, Tina Tuohy - a fantastic result!

Thursday, 3 September 2009

Gloves are off in Buckingham

The idea of UKIP MEP Nigel Farage standing against the Speaker, John Bercow, in Buckingham at the next General Election, is on a par with David Davis resigning to fight a by-election against himself, i.e. it will almost certainly be a political damp squib. It has made me think though as to what I'd do if I lived in Bercow's constituency. (No, not vote for Farage!)

Convention has it that the main political parties don't contest the seat against the candidate known as 'Mr Speaker seeking re-election'. Not that it would make much difference in Buckingham where Bercow has an 18,000 majority. Obviously if I lived there I would, in normal circumstances, vote for the Labour candidate. But if there isn't a Labour candidate next time round, what to do? Sit on your hands on the grounds that you can't vote for someone who was until very recently a Tory? But I don't think I could ever not vote.... Or vote for Bercow on the grounds that he's a decent chap and I supported him for Speaker and want to endorse him continuing in that role? But then if I'd been a Labour activist in Buckingham, I'd have been campaigning against him for years... Then again, a vote for Bercow would be a vote against Farage, which is certainly worth getting out of bed for. I think that would probably seal the deal.

But is it art?

On reflection I/ we left it far too late to start calling for the Banksy exhibition's run at Bristol museum to be extended. I would imagine these things are planned months in advance and the museum already had its autumn programme lined up before Banksy even opened. But it's a great shame it's closed when it had given such a boost to Bristol's tourism and there were still so many people who had yet to visit. From a personal point of view, I enjoyed the exhibition, it was amusing, some of it was very clever, although I don't entirely disagree with Charlie Brooker...

On a related note, the Council has decided to ask local people to vote on whether graffiti is art or not. (And gratifying to see that it has already provoked outrage from Brian Sewell, which has to be a good thing).

I do think there's a line to be drawn between genuine graffiti art, some of which is spectacular, and fairly mindless 'tagging', even if the tags are in pretty colours and show an impressive grasp of 3D lettering.

For the past year or two at Waterloo station, under the arches, there has been a 'graffiti artists will not be prosecuted' zone. In its early days it included some absolutely stunning artworks - I think I posted some pics on here but can't find them now.

These days however, the original pieces have more or less been obliterated by tags and fairly random spraying. I suppose that's all part of the spirit of it, that it's a free for all, that everyone can express themselves and there's no hierarchy in terms of whether it's Banksy or a 14 year old kid from Peckham wielding the spraycan. But still, it has rather spoilt it. I'd like to see them organise a mass graffiti session once a year, inviting all the best artists to take part, and maybe put on a bit of an exhibition, like they did when the zone was first launched. If over the course of a year it gradually gets trashed, well that's all part of the natural evolution of such things.

Un-eddy-fying comments

I was only away a few days but missed the furore over cuddly Conservative councillor Richard Eddy objecting to the Lottery fund giving a £400,000 grant to an organisation which supports gay young people, and helps them cope with homophobic bullying. (For those who don't know Councillor Eddy, think along the lines of a more amiable Simon Heffer. Very similar hair.)

The BEP has come in for some flak for not making it clear that the grant actually covers four local authority areas and runs for five years, which works out at about £20,000 p.a. for Bristol, and also for giving the misleading impression that the Lottery Fund was actually giving more than 50% of its awards to this organisation. Yes, the £400,000 formed a large chunk of the £700,000 handed out by the Lottery this month - but the £700,000 is only a monthly figure. There's loads more money going to good causes across the region. Arnos Vale cemetery in my constituency has had millions from the Lottery over the years, and there are plenty more examples. In fact virtually every month I get a briefing from the Lottery with details of which organisations in my constituency have been given funding awards; I always write to them to congratulate them.

But let's go back to Cllr Eddy's comments: "I think this is a mistaken and misguided, outrageous waste of money. Sadly, it seems to be further confirmation that the Big Lottery has long since ceased to impartially distribute lottery cash to worthwhile and respected causes, instead it seems obliged to dole out punters' money to a raft of politically correct lobbies which clearly sit within the Labour Government's priority."

It would be correct, would it not, to construe from this 'political correctness gone mad' outburst that Cllr Eddy thinks that providing support and mentoring for young gay people is neither a worthwhile cause nor something which deserves our respect. And that protecting young people from discrimination, bullying and assault on the grounds of their sexuality would not be worthy of the attention of a future Conservative government.

Of course David Cameron did recently - very late in the day but still, better late than never - apologise for Section 28. Some of us cynically suggested at the time that such apology was not worth the pink paper it was written on, given the prehistoric attitudes towards homosexuality still prevalent within the Tory ranks. (See Shadow Cabinet member Sayeeda Warsi for example. Or Roger Helmer MEP. Or Ann Widdecombe, who once told a gay Labour MP in an anteroom at the BBC that she would walk out of a radio interview with him if he tried to talk about 'buggery').

So what does David Cameron think of Bunter's outburst? (That's what the Bristol Blogger calls him. Cruel, but if Eddy doesn't care about homophobic bullying he presumably thinks it's OK to pick on fat kids too). How does this square with compassionate Conservatism?

And while we're waiting for a response from DC, which I suspect may be some time in coming, what about the local Tory candidates in the seats in Bristol, South Gloucestershire, Bath and North East Somerset, and North Somerset, covered by this award? What do Adeela Shafi and Charlotte Leslie - both of whom hold themselves up as examples of just how much the Conservatives have changed over recent years, to have selected a Muslim woman and, er, a posh young blonde - have to say? Jacob 'pot plant' Rees-Mogg? His lovely sister Annunziata? Former Bristol City councillor Jack Lopresti? And the rest of them?

Do they support this money being spent to support gay young people in what they hope will one day become their constituencies? I think we have a right to know.

Update on this - I've now been told there's a Facebook group, which also gives the lowdown on Golliwog-gate.

Wednesday, 2 September 2009

An email from Eric Pickles

Enter our T-shirt competition

Over the years, the folks at Conservative Campaign Headquarters have produced a number of great T-shirts for Conservative supporters to wear. But now we want YOU to tell us what should go on our T-shirts. We're running a competition where one lucky person will see their idea for a Conservative T-shirt made up and sold at the Party Stand at this year's Conference. You don't need to be a design guru to enter - just send us a suggestion for a funny slogan or a good image. So get your thinking cap on and email your suggestions to tshirt@conservatives.com before Wednesday 9th September. For more information, read my blog post about the competition. Good luck!

Sadly they've not decided to replace Tory conference with a wet T-shirt competition, which was my first thought on seeing this. With my hopes of seeing Eric taking to the stage in sexily soaked little number dashed, can we at least hope he will model the winning design?

And if anyone has any suggestions as to how my personal email address could have been added to Conservative Central Office's database, I'd be interested to know. Anyone else started getting emails from Eric and Dave all of a sudden?

Letters from Ireland #7

Coincidentally given the current US healthcare debate and #welovethenhs on Twitter, I caught an American programme on Irish TV. It was called ‘The Doctors’ and featured a very handsome young doctor (possibly a surgeon?) in blue scrubs and an older, not-quite-as-handsome-but-would-appeal-to-the-older-female-viewers, man in white. It was a Jeremy Kyle show style format, but thankfully nowhere near as trashy.

The show featured a couple with three children, the youngest of whom, Kayleigh, had been born two months premature. She’d had something like 42 procedures in her first few years of life, including 9, I think, operations. They’d run up a medical bill of $2 million, paid for by their insurers. (Their insurance policy had an upper limit of $5million which is higher than most – who knows what happens when that is reached? Do the insurers just, metaphorically speaking, pull the plug?)

The parents were in real estate, and had been making $200,000 a year. They had a nice home. (So a conveniently ‘deserving’ case, the cynic in me says, not a feckless - for which read, poor - couple who had never taken out insurance in the first place). But then the housing slump happened, and their income dropped dramatically. They were faced with a choice – pay the mortgage, or keep up their health insurance payments, so that they could continue with Kayleigh’s treatment. They chose the latter, as most parents would. Now the bank was due to foreclose on their house that Monday, leaving the family of five homeless. (OK, they were going to move in with one set of grandparents, but in far from ideal circumstances).

Of course it had a happy ending – one of the insurance reps said his company would cough up $20,000 so they could pay off their mortgage arrears and stop foreclosure. The other insurance rep said he’d match it. But only coming on a TV show had saved them. What I found chilling was how the focus of the show was on advising the audience how you can get the best out of your health insurance, not criticising the system which had forced a family to choose between a roof over their heads and their child’s life.

In the UK and USA people often talk of the welfare state as a disincentive to people to look after themselves, to be self-sufficient. (See Portillo's recent comments, for example, and this excellent response). And of course it’s true to an extent – some people won’t stick it out in jobs they dislike because they know they can fall back on benefits. Some won’t look for work for the same reason. So right-wingers posit that tough welfare rules – e.g. the Wisconsin model, where you can only claim out-of-work benefits for a maximum two years in your lifetime – will force people to be more self-sufficient, to look out for themselves, to get their act together. Of course this is a grossly simplistic view, which ignores those who are reliant on welfare ‘through no fault of their own’ (a horrible phrase but convenient shorthand for the purposes of this blog post).

On this principle, shouldn’t the same apply to health care? If people don’t have a socialised healthcare system to fall back on, like the NHS, and know that it will cost them if they get ill (i.e. those of the 46 million Americans who don’t have health insurance and aren’t eligible for Medicaid or Medicare or children’s healthcare – check initials) shouldn’t the knowledge that they either won’t get medical treatment or they’ll have to find substantial sums of money to pay for it, be an incentive for them to look after their health more? But you can bet that the health freaks jogging along the beach in LA or attending Ashanti yoga classes in New York, with their macrobiotic diets and their wheatgrass shots, aren’t the ones without health insurance. It’s the ones in McDonalds and KFC and Taco Bell. (I have no evidence for that – feel free to prove me wrong, if you can!)

Has anyone here (Daniel Hannan?) suggested that if the NHS wasn’t there to ‘bail people out’ with treatment for illnesses that are obesity or smoking or alcohol related, people’s habits would change as a result? There has been a debate (for example, in George Best’s last years) about whether liver transplants should go to alcoholics or be reserved for ‘more deserving’ cases but that wasn’t really suggested as a possible incentive for heavy drinkers to give up the booze. For the avoidance of doubt I don’t think for a moment (the availability of) healthcare could be used as a carrot or stick to encourage people to lead healthier lifestyles. But for those with an evangelical belief in the power of the market, shouldn’t they be saying this? And how then does this square with their belief in individual liberty, in the right to live your life as you choose?

Letters from Ireland #6

I didn’t know much at all about the Irish healthcare system until this week, but given the context of my visit (my father has cancer, he’s in hospital) I know a bit more now and it’s not reassuring. Health care is free if you have a medical card (which is means-tested), and after the age of 70. Otherwise you have to pay – for example a visit to a GP is about 50 or 60 euros – or claim on your health insurance, if you’re lucky enough to have it. The means-testing kicks in at a relatively low level; I’m told that a household on €300 or so a week wouldn’t be eligible for a medical card. So of course, people put off going to see their doctor until it’s absolutely necessary. I’m told this is especially common for people in their late 60s.

I can see that charging for GP appointments means that more money is available to fund other parts of the healthcare system, and that it would also prevent time-wasting, i.e. people booking to see their GP every time they have a little twinge or sniffle. But then I look at my father’s situation – he’s 68 now, he should have gone to the doctor when he first had symptoms more than 18 months ago. OK, he actually qualifies for a medical card, so wouldn’t have had to pay – but he still had to be virtually dragged along to the GP because that’s what men (in particular) are like. If there had been the added disincentive on top of that, of having to pay €50 or €60 for the visit, would he have gone when he did, or left it even longer?

Letters from Ireland #5

And of course another hot topic is the Lisbon treaty, with the vote on ‘Lisbon II’ due this autumn. What I’ve seen so far of the debate has reinforced my misgivings. An organisation named COIR is running poster campaigns, suggesting, for example, that voting Yes for Lisbon II would mean the minimum wage being slashed to €1.84 an hour. At the moment it’s €8.65 an hour, which is much higher than the UK minimum wage but I suppose you have to look at that in the context of fluctuating exchange rates.

So where has the No campaign got its figure from? Apparently it’s based on going rates in the EU accession countries. But is there anything at all in the Lisbon treaty that would impose a Europe-wide minimum wage? Anything that even hints at Ireland having to set its rate by reference to what would be a decent minimum wage in Poland or Latvia? Anything which removes the sovereignty of Ireland to set its own rate? No.

There is of course an argument that with the accession countries now enjoying the benefits of EU membership they will be better able to compete with countries such as Ireland, and attract inward investment because wage costs are lower, but that’s a different argument. There is already a debate going on in Ireland about whether the minimum wage is too high, given the current economic situation. So trade union leaders, for example, are flagging up their own concerns about the minimum wage being under threat, and that’s being conflated with the No campaign’s line of attack – which isn’t helpful when it comes to making the case for Lisbon II. Another spectre being raised by the NO campaign is of farming subsidies being scrapped, which again, is something that is going to be under review, Lisbon or no Lisbon.

Letters from Ireland #4

The more serious debates going on in Ireland at the moment are, naturally, all about the economy. There is a palpable sense of a country at crisis point. Perhaps more than any country, Ireland, “the Celtic Tiger”, had been on a roll during its boom years. Jobs in finance blossomed, partly because the Irish Government lured the investment banks here with tax incentives and a relatively light-touch regulatory regime. (And here I will take the opportunity to point out once again how during my years on the Treasury Select Committee the Tory members were obsessive in harking on about how we were in danger of losing City jobs to Ireland because of high taxes and over-burdensome regulation. Funny how you don’t hear them saying we’re taxing the banks too much now!)

Housing prices went through the roof during the Celtic Tiger years; my father reckons his modest bungalow would have sold for €300,000 a few years ago, but would struggle to fetch €160,000 now. The evidence is everywhere of over-enthusiastic developers having been caught out by the economic collapse, with sparkling new office blocks and aspirational ‘executive homes’ standing empty. Unemployment is running high, at 12.3%, and the backlash has started against migrant workers from the EU accession states who are seen to be taking all the jobs. It was certainly true that virtually everyone I came across working in the service sector, from petrol stations to newsagents, to supermarkets to hotels, to the staff on Irish Ferries, had foreign accents and at least one ‘z’ in their name.

The Irish seem to be somewhat behind the game when it comes to taking action to deal with the banking/ economic crisis. The big debate is about the creation of NAMA (pronounced ‘narma’), a National Asset Management Agency, which will buy up bad property loans from the banks. There’s no sign of the Taoiseach (and yes I did have to check the spelling) in this debate. It’s Brian Lenihan, the finance minister who is in the firing line, being accused by his critics of bailing out banks and his friends in big business, rather than putting taxpayers first. The leader of Ireland’s Labour Party, for example, has been calling for nationalisation of the banks instead.

As Lenihan’s supporters have tried to stress, it’s not about bailing out the banks for the sake of the bankers; it’s because unless credit starts flowing (OK, trickling… or at least not gushing) again, there’s no hope of an economic recovery.

Lenihan is also looking at a report from a Commission on Taxation which has recommended, inter alia, a property tax, metered water charges for all homes, a tax on child benefit, and a cut in tax relief for high earners. There doesn’t seem to be much of a debate around spending cuts, but perhaps I’ve not been in the country long enough to spot that. And he's also coming in for some stick over the fact that the former chief executive of Irish Nationwide still hasn't repaid his €1 million bonus despite promising five months ago to do so.

Letters from Ireland #3

I’ve mostly been listening to news programmes though, and talk radio, which is pretty good although they do go on a bit… Yesterday’s hot topic was the case of a woman councillor from Limerick who had to step down from the local VEC (Vocational Education Committee), on which she had already served for the best part of a decade, after the Ministry of Education intervened to enforce strict gender ratio quotas.

As far as I could make out – although it took the presenter an inordinate length of time to work this out for himself – there are laws in place stating that membership of such boards has to reflect the gender balance of the council. This was obviously designed to ensure that men didn’t take all the plum positions themselves, but in this instance had been interpreted as meaning that on a nine member board, there should be two women, not three, because less than a third of the councillors were women.

Basically it was just a case of bad law drafting – the insertion of the word minimum somewhere would have solved everything – but they strung it out into a discussion of ‘political correctness gone mad’ and ‘hasn’t the Minister of Education got better things to do’ and ‘how useless are the male councillors who got the positions on the board instead of this good woman’ and ‘what do we pay councillors for anyway’? One of those ‘Yes Minister’ stories which will no doubt end up with the Minister having to play host to the aggrieved councillor for a carefully stage-managed cup of tea and the promise of emergency legislation as soon as parliament returns. (Actually, parliament may already have returned – the Irish Cabinet is certainly meeting already).

Letters from Ireland #2

I’ve been doing a fair amount of driving in Ireland, and listening to the radio. Today FM has an excellent evening show, which has been featuring the four remastered Neil Young albums which have just hit the shops (Neil Young, Harvest, After the Goldrush and one whose name escapes me at the moment), as well as the new Wilco album (they were playing in Dublin last week), some good new stuff from Yola Tengo, and a band called Boxer Rebellion which I vaguely recall as being quite interesting.

I’m now in possession of my father’s Neil Young CD with a glorious 8 minutes 20 seconds of Like a Hurricane, a track I’ve somehow never managed to get hold of myself before except for a very crackly version on an old cassette tape. Driving through the night, listening to the wigging out guitar solo (and yes, wigging out is the technical term), it’s almost impossible to resist the urge to close your eyes and really get into it.

I saw Neil Young live once, possibly at Reading? It was one of those gigs where your enjoyment is slightly spoilt by spending most of it thinking, ‘Please do Like a Hurricane…' 'Surely he must do Like a Hurricane…'. 'My life will not be complete unless he does Like a Hurricane...'; and eventually he did and it was stupendous. A complete racket, and he fought with his guitar like a man wrestling an alligator… awesome. The memory is not at all spoilt by the fact that I learnt this week that Neil Young’s middle name is Percival.

Letters from Ireland #1

What follows is a series of blog posts written during my few days in Ireland, mostly written on the ferry actually, on the way home. We are meant to be passing one of the biggest ships in the world, which is full of liquid nitrogen, but either I’ve got my ports and starboards muddled up or it’s camouflaged as an island off the coast of Wales somewhere. It’s thoroughly miserable weather, and the ferry captain has announced we’ve got the stabiliser fins on, which rather suggests he can’t ‘ride’ a proper boat yet.

I was thinking of labelling these posts ‘A blog from the bog’ but fear that would be liable to misinterpretation. (Surely it’s only a matter of time before the pile of music and car magazines, and copies of GQ and Nuts most single men keep by the toilet are replaced by netbooks attached to the toilet roll holder, so they can surf while they… well, let’s not go there. But I think I’ve found the marketing slogan already).

The truth behind those Lib Dem claims...

For all those of you who have filled many a recycling bin over the years with Lib Dem Focus leaflets claiming that 'only the Lib Dems can beat Labour/ Tories here' (usually accompanied by a highly misleading graph showing an extrapolation of the European election result or a 2004 parish council by-election or sometimes, I suspect, just completely made up) you might enjoy this:

(copyright via Twitter/ Facebook - @BenFurber).