Thursday, November 09, 2006

Off to SquareSpace

I'm writing at a new place.

Following my election as a London Borough of Redbridge councillor I found myself up to my ears in work and the blog suffered as a result. Now I've got over the shock and my organisational skills have improved a little (the only way was 'up' in that department, I must confess) the blogging resumes.

I'm actually paying a monthly subscription for my new site so expect to see something posted there now and again..!

Monday, May 22, 2006

Cameron's revolution?


I am fascinated by David Cameron's acknowledgement that happiness - the thing we all, without exception, aspire to - and its attainment are more important than mere economic advancement and that a consideration to happiness - measured by something he (possibly flippantly) refers to as GWB - General Well-Being - might be an additional measure of a country's progress along with GDP. If he is serious about looking at happiness as a highly meaningful component of national life then this could represent as dramatic a revolution in mindset in our political governance as that of Mrs Thatcher in the 1980s.

The full speech is available at The Guardian. Here are some highlights:

GDP. Gross domestic product. Yes it's vital. It measures the wealth of our society. But it hardly tells the whole story.

Wealth is about so much more than pounds, or euros or dollars can ever measure. It's time we admitted that there's more to life than money, and it's time we focused not just on GDP, but on GWB - general well-being.

Well-being can't be measured by money or traded in markets. It can't be required by law or delivered by government.

It's about the beauty of our surroundings, the quality of our culture, and above all the strength of our relationships.

We also know that no country can take prosperity for granted.

In an ever-more competitive world, we have to be constantly vigilant in the battle to secure investment, create jobs, and spread opportunity.

But we should also acknowledge a vital truth that the pursuit of wealth is no longer - if it ever was - enough to meet people's deepest hopes and aspirations.

I think it's increasingly clear that the spirit of the age demands social values as well as economic value.


Mr Cameron hones in on the true nature of a conservative:

We hear a lot about the bracing winds of globalisation - footloose capital, buccaneering business, accelerating change.

And we are often told that we have to embrace the change, not resist it.

But that's too simplistic.

On one level, of course we have to be comfortable with change. But on another level, the human level, we have to remember what makes people happy, as well as what makes stock markets rise.

What makes us happy, above all, is a sense of belonging - strong relationships with friends, family and the immediate world around us.

That's about permanence, not change. It's about the personal, not the commercial.


Fundamental human values and aspirations have never - and will never - change. Mr Cameron recognises the inherent emptiness of rampant consumption:

We know there is a deep satisfaction which comes from belonging to someone and to some place. There comes a point when you can't keep on choosing, you have to commit.

If so much of our modern globalised consumer culture ultimately seems unsatisfying then it is because it fails to satisfy this deep human need.


Much of this speech concentrates on the world of work and how employment practise can fit in with human values as well as the need to make money. David Cameron points to examples of companies making their own decisions about providing flexible working without a need for the state to force their hands. He suggests that persuasion rather than regulation is the key to improvement - and also pre-empts the criticism his comments will undoubtedly provoke:

I believe that there is a role for politicians in using exhortation, rather than regulation, to talk up good practice and draw attention to bad practice.

I've already annoyed a number of companies by pointing out failures of corporate responsibility.

It's not done from a desire to pick a fight with business.

But I think it's right to say what you think when you see something that's wrong.

Advocacy is not a wishy-washy cop-out as some would argue.

It strikes the right balance and avoids the pitfalls of over-prescriptive government intervention.

Some will say that simply talking about changing culture is nebulous.

But let's be honest - who has done more for school food: countless government initiatives, or Jamie Oliver?

...what has had more effect on working life - the innovation of companies like Lloyds TSB, moving way ahead of government legislation or a box-ticking, lowest common denominator, one-size-fits-all piece of regulation?

It's vital to create a space in the national conversation which stands firmly between regulation and indifference.

Why should we choose between the intolerant impulse to right every supposed wrong by passing new laws and the coldly amoral refusal even to take a view on the actions of others?

As the philosopher Edmund Burke wrote as long ago as 1795, politicians "ought to know... what belongs to laws, and what manners alone can regulate. To these, great politicians may give a leaning, but they cannot give a law."


Mr Cameron has appealed to the natural, human instincts that make conservatism the fine thing that it is.

The point about happiness is, I think, that it's a by-product rather than a directly attainable attribute. To direct oneself specifically towards the goal of happiness leaves one grasping at smoke. Of course, one can learn useful strategies for improving quality of life; wise people over the centuries have made distinctions and observations about humans and their attitudes that the rest of us can learn from. But I think it is the general conditions of life - but, more importantly, what we make of them - which determines our general well-being. Government can assist but government cannot actually do. David Cameron has been quite brave in bringing up what is, for politicians, an unusual idea. It will be very interesting to see how he progresses it in the future.

Labour goes for the headlines again...

In what has all the hallmarks of a tactical attempt by the British Home Office to restore some of its haemorrhaging credibility Labour is suggesting a populist - but ultimately valueless - policy on prisoner release: let the victims decide.

Recent months have given us a series of appalling crimes committed by people released from prison and serving parole. (A summary appears here). The argument goes - and I am not qualified to know whether the argument is right or wrong - that they were released too early and that this is a failing of the parole board.

So with the parole board allegedly doing their job badly and releasing violent criminals into the community - some of whom go on to commit outrages against us - the government's response is not as it should be - namely to acknowledge that the system is wrong and needs correcting (or 'reforming' as it calls everything it ever touches) - but to seek to turn a disaster into a public relations triumph. Therefore it is considering a plan whereby the parole board will factor in victims' views when deciding whether or not a criminal should be released. Presumably a crook will spend a lesser or greater time in prison depending on the comments of his victim. Does the word 'lottery' spring to mind?

We will inevitably be faced with situations where two prisoners who have committed more or less identical crimes in more or less identical circumstances will serve different sentences simply because one was lucky enough to have attacked a person with a propensity towards forgiveness whilst the other offended against somebody more bitter and unforgiving.

If Labour really wanted a headline grabbing policy - one that would be followed by large doses of public approval - it would simply announce a prison-building scheme and a commitment to imprisoning people early on in their criminal career so as to deter (especially) those youths who, emboldened by non-existent punishment for crimes committed, will slide further into lives of crime.

Our society's problems are serious and becoming more so and they require practical solutions that work. The government's various gimmicks seem to be little more than attempts to appear 'tough' on crime whilst resisting - at all costs - the simple expedient of properly locking up and treating the violent and destructive. Involving an angry and emotional victim in the serious and grave business of deciding whether or not to free a person smacks of government surrender to its own inadequacies - and the lure of big headlines. We deserve better. We're unlikely to get it.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

The environment - who cares?

Today some colleagues of mine were making fun of David Cameron's recent glacier-hugging exploits and casting doubt on his sincerity as an environmentalist. Their comments got me pondering this Cameron/environmental business and produced the following random thoughts.

First, nobody really cares that much about the environment. We all know it's important and most of us can carry out the necessary brainwork that leads to the conclusion that if we don't take care of it we're in the soup. But we are all content to consume and waste as much as we ever did, leaving lights on and the tv on stand-by, driving everywhere, buying packaged fruit and veg where loose is less wasteful and so on. And although recycling is now relatively widespread this is probably more due to the convenience of not having overflowing dustbins at home - and the relative ease now of recycling - than it is due to passionate concern for the environment. If recycling involved a 15 minute walk most people would stop doing it immediately. Nobody actually cares enough about the environment to make any proper effort to look after it.

Second, some evidence for my contention that people aren't overly bothered abuot their environment is contained in some second-hand information I received about a pre-election poll asking people which issues most concern them. The responses were:

1. Health care and hospitals.

2. Immigration and race relations.

3. Foreign affairs including international terrorism.

4. Education and schools.

5. Crime, or law and order.

See? We all know we should care about the environment but we actually don't that much. There will be good reasons for this but, regardless: environment does not feature.

Third, David Cameron's glacier-hugging was an act of gesture politics. Nothing wrong with that in itself but gesture politics are designed to convey a message or image about the person making the gesture and, as such, are not designed to improve the situation about which the gesture is being made. As a result of David Cameron's trip to that cold place he went to not one glacier will be saved, not one rain forest preserved and not a single ounce of carbon emission will be prevented. But he'll look like he cares and that he will take environmental issues seriously. Which he probably will. But it won't matter because we're all more worried about health and crime and education and so on.

Fourth - and to aswer the question, 'if nobody cares about the environment why does Mr Cameron do what he's doing?' - Mr Cameron's recent environmental posturings are part of a wider, quite sensible strategy - if looked at from any angle other than policy. Fact is, Labour is regarded as the caring party. It's nothing of the sort, of course, but the image is pervasive. The public simply believes Labour 'cares' more than the Conservatives about almost everything - with the gap between our relative 'caring' being a yawning one. Labour is regarded as soft and fluffy while we're right nasty buggers. The problem that this will always give us is that, if you're not really sure who to vote for, or if you're soft and fluffy yourself then your subconscious feelings will figure large in your assessment of the main contenders. When John Major won his election some centuries ago his victory was a surprise because it confounded just about all the polls. People were actually ashamed to admit to voting Conservative so they lied to the pollsters then voted for us anyway. (Since then in general elections the public has shown they don't want to vote for us at all but that's a different matter.)

The truth is - and I hate to admit it because I am almost despairing at the lack of solid conservatism coming out of my Party at the moment - if Mr Cameron closes that gap in perception so that it becomes negligible by the next election then one important portion of Labour's appeal to the floating voter disappears.

So I suppose I have to conclude thus: a general strategy that undermines any natural advantage the enemy possesses is to be welcomed. I think David Cameron is doing this and, I assume, he'll work through the list of areas where we're perceived as weak, culminating in the real areas of concern - see the list above - as we get closer to the general election. His emphasis on the environment now may well be his recognition that environment itself doesn't matter to many people but people's general perception of us is shaped by our attitude to it. So he'll alter the perception, erode Labour's advantage and move on to something slightly more important before eventually tackling - from the standpoint of a much-improved public image - some of the trickier subjects.

I hope.

Friday, May 05, 2006

Elected

Well this is one happy - relieved, actually - blogger. I came in third in Cranbrook Ward (London Borough of Redbridge) and am now a part of Redbridge Council. You can just call me 'sir'.

Our result is here.

Thursday was a very long day: awake at 4am (obviously more nervous than I thought), leafletting by 6am, manning polling stations on and off throughout the day, 'knocking up' (a phrase that still makes me smile) Conservative voters who hadn't yet voted and so on. Watching the count was interesting. Each elector has three votes and most chose the three candidates of one particular party. But a sizable minority produced 'mixed' ballot papers - votes for only one or two candidates or else votes for three candidates but not all of the same party. One of the Labour candidates was picking up a large number of personal votes in this category and, knowing I would be placed third of our team (since I'm new so have no track record) I became quite anxious she'd pip me to third spot and my political career would be over before it had even begun.

In the end I polled nearly 50% more than her but before that fact became known I was running nightmare scenarios over and over in my head.

The whole process is quite interesting (honest it is). I'll post more when my tired and numbed brain is more alive.

My Borough picked up a single BNP councillor at the expense of a Tory. Our neighbours - Barking and Dagenham - got 11 with a 12th seemingly likely. Yesterday I listened to a Labour councillor waxing stupidly about how that Party's voters are simply racists proving, as he did so, that at least some Labour members do not recognise that branding every white who does not like uncontrolled immigration and his own second class place in the process as a racist is actually fuel for the BNP's fire. And since the only two people who ranted on about immigration to me during this election were ethnic Indians I think all three main parties need to get their heads out of the sand and move their brains up a gear or two.

In the meantime, Margaret Hodge, the Labour MP who first suggested the BNP might do well in these elections, may be subjected to disciplinary proceedings for those comments. (See The Guardian's story here.) Once Labour has shot the messenger will they then turn their attentions to the issues? Will the Conservatives? We will wait and see.

Sunday, April 23, 2006

April 23rd is St George's Day



A happy St George's Day to everyone English, everyone who lives in England and everyone who loves England.

Prince Harry wants to fight


I'm canvassing 7 evenings a week for the local government elections and next week will be taking a week's leave from my real job to campaign full-time. So the near-zero contributions to this blog will remain this way for another 10 days or so.

But this caught my eye:

Prince Harry has threatened to quit the Army unless he is sent to the front line.

Harry reportedly told officers at Sandhurst where he trained: "If I am not allowed to join my unit in a war zone, I will hand in my uniform."


[Source: ITV News]

So the lad's turned out okay after all.

Monday, March 20, 2006

An autumn election?

In today's The Times William Rees-Mogg makes a case for an autumn election.[Source]

Commenting on the widely held view that Tony Blair sold peerages for cash - and also the projected losses for Labour in the upcoming local elections - he wonders whether the Prime Minister might simply resign and so pave the way for the Gordon Brown succession. If this happens, the question then for Mr Brown is when to hold an election:

Mr Brown would then have to decide whether to establish his own mandate by holding an early election. There would be a strong case for him to do so. Like all parties that have been in office for a long time, Labour’s underlying support is falling; even at the past election their vote fell by 1.2 million. By 2010, the last year for the next general election, they are likely to have become even more unpopular. The last year in which Labour could win an overall majority could well be 2006.

Mr Rees-Mogg also points out another consideration for Labour to bear in mind, namely, that the current, favourable (to Labour) boundary conditions are set to change early in 2007:

At present, Labour has a majority of 64, which means it holds 32 more seats than the other parties combined. On the present timetable about half that majority will be removed by redistribution of the constituencies. That, however, will probably not take place until January 1, 2007. Any election held in 2006 would be fought on the existing boundaries.


For all sorts of reasons an autumn election - with all three parties led by new leaders and none of them in the post long enough to have created a solid set of policies to offer the public - could be simultaneously exciting and quite unpleasant. With Labour leading the polls - just - but facing widespread disillusion in the electorate I predict panic all round. Prepare for wholesale flip-flopping and lots of Punch and Judy.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

The Tory aims and values document

As a member of the Conservative Party I will be receiving a document containing David Cameron's aims and values for the Party. I will be asked to vote on it.

A copy of the document can be seen here but I have reproduced it below with some thoughts that occur as I read through it.



Our Aims:

To improve the quality of life for everyone through: A dynamic economy, where thriving businesses create jobs, wealth and opportunity. A strong society, where our families, our communities and our nation create secure foundations on which people can build their lives. A sustainable environment, where we enhance the beauty of our surroundings and protect the future of the planet.

A nice opener which could grace the preface of almost any Party's promotional documentation.


Our Values:

The more we trust people, the stronger they and society become. We're all in this together - government, business, the voluntary sector, families and individuals. We have a shared responsibility for our shared future.

I agree with this. I think it separates us from Labour because it acknowledges the simple truth that people left to do things their way do a better job than the state or its various quangos. However, we are not libertarians and we recognise that the state ought to reflect the way of life of its people and support them where individual effort is not sufficient.

I would like to know Mr Cameron's view on the nature of the balance between state and individual in this shared responsibility.


Our Party:

We are an open and inclusive Party. We will act to ensure that our Party, at every level, is representative of modern Britain.

Good. That's how it should be. But this bit concerns me a tad:

We will act to ensure...

How will we 'ensure'? This might be an unfortunate choice of words but it sounds like the issue will be forced and feathers will be ruffled.



What we're fighting for:
1. A successful Britain must be able to compete with the world. We will put economic stability and fiscal responsibility first. They must come before tax cuts. Over time, we will share the proceeds of growth between public services and lower taxes - instead of letting government spend an ever-increasing share of national income.

It seems that the accepted wisdom is that you have tax cuts or economic stability. What about the idea that tax cuts lead to economic growth and stability? Have we adequately refuted this theory? We need to have because if we have not then we might be wrong-footed - in public - by people who know otherwise.

And we need to clarify, perhaps, that you don't just cut taxes on a whim; you stop the state from doing those things it does badly and at great expense and then cut taxes with the savings. It works in that order.



2. There is such a thing as society, it's just not the same thing as the state. The right test for our policies is how they help the most disadvantaged in society, not the rich. We will stand up for the victims of state failure and ensure that social justice and equal opportunity are achieved by empowering people and communities - instead of thinking that only the state can guarantee fairness.

Well, the 'we' that is going to do the empowering is the state, I assume. I tend to think that the state does not often empower by doing things but by not doing things. But he's right - there is such thing as society (and Mrs Thatcher knew that too - she is being misquoted when it's suggested otherwise). But whether the right test for us is when our policies help the most disadvantaged is questionable: is personal 'failure' - laziness, dishonesty, lack of confidence, lack of inspiration, preference for a measure of success based on some other criteria - usually the result of government policy?



3. The quality of life matters, as well as the quantity of money. We will enhance our environment by seeking a long-term cross-party consensus on sustainable development and climate change - instead of short-term thinking and surrender to vested interests. We will support the choices that women make about their work and home lives, not impose choices on them.

The quality of life matters, as well as the quantity of money. I agree with this a thousand per cent and I do believe that truly conservative people recognise that contentment and satisfaction in life are rarely provided by things that can be purchased. I will have to wait to see if Mr Cameron thinks the same way; he is evidently using this phrase as an introduction to his environmental ideas. I regard looking after our environment as a patriotic duty so am pleased with his attention to this issue.

I want to be assured though that he is not lining himself up with those who like to bash 'big business' because of their brute opposition to capitalism. And I at least want to hear Mr Cameron state that, having looked at all the evidence, he believes the most dangerous contribution to global warming is the man-made one. I am not asking whether he is right or wrong - I personally do not understand all the issues. But I do want to know that he has examined the arguments carefully and then taken a sincere position rather than leave himself open to the accusation that he chose a fashionable one.



4. Public services for everyone must be guaranteed by the state, not necessarily run by the state. We will improve the NHS and schools for everyone, not help a few to opt out. But public services paid for by the state don't have to be run by the state. We will trust professionals and share responsibility - instead of controlling professionals in state monopolies.

If he does not want to control professionals in state monopolies that is good; it suggests professionals will be left alone and, more importantly, the state won't be a monopoly provider of services. But we need clarification on whether Mr Cameron will embrace free-market solutions along with centrally planned ones.



5. It is our moral obligation to make poverty history. We will fight for free and fair trade, increase international aid, and press for further debt relief. But this is not enough. We will also take action to build those institutions - like the rule of law and property rights - that support development.

Regardless of whether it is our moral obligation to make poverty history is this an aim we alone can realistically achieve? The most we can do is enter into some sort of partnership with countries, partnerships where both sides work for a common outcome. The poor countries - their leaders especially - have the final responsibility because they have the advantages of governance.



6. Security and freedom must go hand in hand. In fighting crime and terrorism, we will be hard-nosed defenders of freedom and security. We will ensure strong defence and the effective enforcement of laws that balance liberty and safety - instead of ineffective authoritarianism which puts both freedom and security at risk.

So we will hopefully use, to the full, laws we already possess. Will we build new prisons? And will we actively seek to punish, educate and reform wrongdoers?



7. We understand the limitations of government, but are not limited in our aspirations for government. We believe in the role of government as a force for good. It can and should support aspirations such as home ownership, saving for a pension, and starting a business. It should support families and marriage, and those who care for others. And it should support the shared experiences that bring us together - such as sport, the arts and culture.

As far as it goes this is good stuff. Government should reflect rather than direct the civil way of life. Good government knows when to be involved and when to stay out. I hope this is not a nice way of saying we will expand the welfare state.



8. We believe that government should be closer to the people, not further away. We want to see more local democracy, instead of more centralisation - whether to Brussels, Whitehall or unwanted regional assemblies - and we want to make the devolved institutions in Scotland and Wales work. Communities should have more say over their own futures.

So are we leaving the EU then?
Is England going to become an independent country?

(That's me off the candidate list...)

----

The main shortcoming with this document is its lack of substance. This is not necessarily a criticism since its aim is evidently not to present policy but flavour. But it's difficult to vote on a flavour because we do not really know what this will all mean when we come to form a government. I will vote for it without knowing really what it is I am voting for (or even why we are being asked to vote in the first place). I am impatient for substance though. I hope it will start trickling through sooner rather than later.

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