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Archives for August 2010

Changing seasons - the political party conferences

Patrick Burns | 12:15 UK time, Tuesday, 24 August 2010

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Lectern at a political party conference

We've reached that time of the year when we have to admit it. We can kid ourselves no longer. The leaves are starting to 'turn'. Some have fallen already. Most depressing of all, "the nights" as they say "are starting to draw in".

For those of us who live by the political calendar, it signals our own changing seasons. Within a few weeks "the silly season" will give way to "the conference season".

Time was when, as Jeremy Paxman once observed, the party conferences meant "traipsing around from one out-of-season seaside resort to another". This year, for the first time in my long memory of conference-going, there isn't to be so much as a single sniff of sea air.

It's all about the big cities, with the Liberal Democrats in Liverpool, Labour in Manchester and the Conservatives here in my own stamping ground of Birmingham, which has also been chosen as the venue for the Green Party Conference.

"We must take the conferences to where the people are" has become something of a mantra for all the main parties in recent years. Blackpool has been unceremoniously dumped from the itinerary and our visits to Brighton and Bournemouth seem to be fewer and further between.

John Prescott at the Labour Party Brighton conference

That traditional bracing seaside atmosphere, often windswept and rain-drenched, has provided some suitably dramatic backdrops for equally stormy, salty encounters in and around the conference halls. Who will forget John Prescott laying it on the line during Labour's bitterly-contested "one member one vote" debate? While the trades unions' 'block vote' was being consigned to history inside the Brighton centre, outside it a gale raged over the famous seafront.

But that, to my amazement, was 17 years ago. Today's 'big city' conferences feel so much more businesslike, controlled and, there's no denying it, relevant.

Liberal Democrats will assemble on Sunday 19 September for the first of the'Big Three' conferences in Liverpool. They've seen their poll ratings decline sharply since they got into bed with the Conservatives: down to the 12%-13% figures which only three years ago proved lethal for Ming Campbell's leadership.

But times change, and when you talk to the chair of their Parliamentary party, the inexhaustible MP for Solihull, Lorely Burt, she seems much more accepting of this latest dip in party fortunes.

Talk turns to being in it for the long haul for the sake of mending the economy. And despite a few rumblings, notably over the VAT 'uprating', there've so far been remarkably few signs of prominent Liberal Democrats preparing to rock the boat.

Newspaper reports that another former leader Charles Kennedy was about to defect to Labour were laughingly dismissed by his successor-but-one, aka "Deputy-Prime-Minister-Nick-Clegg", as "silly season nonsense". (I'd quite forgotten it was still the 'silly season'. Technically).

But anyone who may be thinking of jumping ship would certainly find conference season guaranteed them a splash, even though in theory we're leaving the sea behind us this year.

Back on dry land Labour will be consumed, as they have been all summer, with their own leadership election. The winner will be unveiled on the eve of their conference in Manchester on Saturday 25 September. There will be celebrations of course. But the party's joy will hardly be unconfined, whoever wins.

My conversations with Midlands Labour MPs over the months since the coalition was formed indicate a marked change of mood. Initially, some ventured that a short period in Opposition would be reinvigorating; allowing the party time to recharge while the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats took all the flak over the spending cuts until the Government collapsed in a heap.

More recently, I detect a growing sense among them that whether or not the coalition lasts the full 5 years, there is a real possibility Labour may be out of office for significantly longer than they had first thought; that they have fundamental questions to answer before they can prepare for a new era in British politics, as the Blair-Brown period fades away into history.

A week later, David Cameron will come to Birmingham as the first Conservative leader to address his party conference as prime minister in 14 years. But again, there will be no great mood of celebration.

The Comprehensive Spending Review later in October will confirm a round of public sector cuts unprecedented in modern times, averaging 25% across government departments but peaking in some at up to 40%.

Among the responsibilities of the Environment Secretary, the Conservative MP for Meriden, Caroline Spelman, are flood defences; never far from the minds of many Midlanders living near our great rivers like the Severn.

But they are also of course extremely expensive to install, maintain and operate. I asked Mrs Spelman recently what reassurances she could offer those communities. She paused for a moment, then told me, emphatically, that those flood defences were her department's equivalent of the emergency services.

It occurred to me that her reply had given me a distinct flavour of countless exchanges within and between government departments since the Chancellor's emergency budget last May. The more often George Osborne repeats his observation that 'we're all in this together', the more it sounds like an an appeal to his own colleagues and partners in government.

That at least is how it seems right now with all the party conferences still to come. But as seasons change, so too can the political weather.

The first 100 days of the coalition

Patrick Burns | 14:37 UK time, Tuesday, 17 August 2010

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Cameron and Clegg

"That was like ancient history!" I said to myself as the closing credits rolled on a repeat showing of 'Have I Got News For You?' The show itself is ageless and for most of its long life, old programmes have had a happy knack of retaining their topicality. But this one, originally screened as recently as early April this year seemed like something from a bygone age.

It proves, yet again how the dizzying pace of events since the General Election has transformed not only the political firmament but also the landscape of all our lives.

Wednesday of this week marks our 100th breathless day of coalition government. My day begins with my round of interviews with BBC local radio breakfast shows in the West Midlands. Then I get to grips with what I judge is the most significant regional story at this 'milestone' moment.

Not, on this occasion, the cuts to local authorities' spending, though we shall of course return to them again soon enough; nor the speculation as to whether or not the coalition can survive, though this story is certainly another 'work in progress'.

No, my Big Idea is to concentrate on the Government's decision to scrap the regional development agency, Advantage West Midlands, and replace it with Local Enterprise Partnerships comprising groups of neighbouring local councils, working together to take on AWM's former mantle of delivering home grown strategies for economic regeneration.

Remember, the government came in promising 'a bonfire of the quangos', and with its annual budget of over £300m, Advantage West Midlands is quite comfortably our region's biggest quango of all. Ministers justify the move partly by arguing that local authorities will bring far more democratic accountability than was ever possible with AWM.

And just in time for this 100th day, our region's 33 local authorities have broken new ground by agreeing about something! They all support the principle of joining Local Enterprise Partnerships, though they're nowhere near agreeing in practice which local councils to 'pally -up' with.

Apart from Tamworth, it seems no one wants to team up with Birmingham: its £3bn a year budget for a city of a one million people makes it by far the biggest local authority in the UK, so any council contemplating forming a partnership with it may have understandable fears of being big-footed!

This, you'll of gathered, is yet another of those 'works in progress'!

But how is the coalition faring in the dock of public opinion? If you believe the opinion polls the coalition is retaining its approval ratings despite the cost-cutting medicine it's having to prescribe. Labour, too, have strengthened slightly. Conventional wisdom is that the Liberal Democrats have been the biggest casualties. According to the latest YouGov poll, 59% think the LibDems sold out their principles by joining the coalition: but equally significantly, slightly more, (60%) think it was the responsible thing for them to do given the economic crisis.

But perhaps the sincerest reflection of opinion comes from the Gloucester-based Tweetminster website, where they've issued their own 100 day report on data captured through Twitter. The result is the most authoritative analysis yet of over five million tweets!

Their main findings go like this:

1. A disproportionately high number of posts and media stories shared on Twitter across all issues, centre around the Prime Minister.
(Who says we don't have a presidential system in this country, by the way?)

2. Schools, the BP Oil Spill, Afghanistan and Iraq, jobs, cuts and the Big Society have been among the most mentioned topics.

3. NHS reform, immigration, crime, climate change and electoral reform have had a smaller volume of mentions than you might expect.

But remember, as I said at the start, so much has changed during those first 100 days. With so many more of those 'works in progress' we'll all be in a state of flux for some time yet.

If this is what 100 days feel like, you can be sure five years will be a VERY long time in politics!

High speed rail - fly the train!

Patrick Burns | 09:23 UK time, Wednesday, 11 August 2010

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High speed train c/o PA Images

"We need an integrated transport policy."

Those of us with long memories have heard this mantra recited by generations of politicians under successive governments. And yet the reality too often seems more akin to a patchwork of local or even 'ad hoc' measures which have little to do with any of that 'joined-up thinking'.

Now the prospect of a second High-speed rail network (HS2) linking Birmingham with other major cities is concentrating minds yet again.

My blog of 9 March 2010 explained the unaccustomed measure of agreement between the then Labour Transport Secretary Lord Adonis and his Conservative counterparts: they've since shown their determination to press ahead with the £35bn project since coming into government.

Inevitable disagreements over the route are also chronicled in my earlier blog. But the only major dispute in principle between our two biggest parties is whether or not HS2 should include a direct link to Heathrow Airport.

Labour see high-speed rail principally as a way of cutting journey times between city centres. But the Heathrow link was a significant plank in the Conservatives' election platform pledging HS2 as a way of reducing the need for domestic flights and so enabling Labour's plans for a controversial third runway at Heathrow to be scrapped.

They pointed out that Air France had ceased flying shuttle services between Paris and Brussels following the introduction of a high-speed rail connection. In Germany the airports of Frankfurt and Koln are increasingly being used interchangeably because of the new fast trains.

For our major regional airports like Birmingham, HS2 presents both an immense opportunity and a very serious challenge. The opportunity lies in Birmingham International's position a mere 70 minutes from Euston. Virgin Trains have plans to reduce this to a mere 50 minutes. HS2 would do it in just 38 minutes, like bringing Birmingham Airport into Zone 4 of the London Underground!

"We're part of the solution to the Heathrow problem," proclaim airport managers. You can relieve the burden on Heathrow by enabling Londoners to connect here by rail... and of course give our local economy a much-needed boost, albeit at the expense of the 'over-heated' South East.

Conservative Transport Secretary Lord Mawhinney

But I know what you're wondering: don't high-speed trains run both ways? Wouldn't they make it equally easy for Midlanders to use London's airports instead of Birmingham?

Of course they would. Especially if the Government press ahead with that direct HS2 link to Heathrow.

So there was a distinct feeling of "cup half empty, cup half full" when the former Conservative Transport Secretary Lord Mawhinney published his recent report on that vexed question. While it did not unequivocally recommend a direct high-speed link to Heathrow, it was nevertheless, in the words of Birmingham Airport managers "fixated with the notion that High Speed Rail should draw more traffic to Heathrow rather than distribute the excessive demand elsewhere".

They point out that 50% of the UK population live within a two hour drive of their airport which has capacity for an extra 9m passengers a year.

While the politicians continue their debate, the pace of developments in fast-moving global markets continues to outstrip the policy-makers.

Hot on the heels of David Cameron's business mission to Delhi, it has emerged that Air India's search for a new European "hub" airport to serve as a staging post between the sub-continent and North America now has Birmingham on a final shortlist. Such a move would create 700 new jobs as well as restoring direct services to India and adding new ones to the US and Canada. It could also give us, the travelling electorate, a bigger say in this great debate by voting with our feet.

Meantime, our political masters will continue their long search for that elusive "integrated transport system" of theirs...

David Cameron - PM Very Direct

Patrick Burns | 17:03 UK time, Tuesday, 3 August 2010

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David Cameron c/o Getty Images

"I share your anger". That was the message from David Cameron on his first visit to the West Midlands as Prime Minister: he was last here for that final leadership debate at the University of Birmingham exactly a week before polling day.

Twelve weeks into his premiership he has written to his ministers urging them to get out more; to explain the 'hows and whys' of his government's spending cuts.

So it was to the BBC that he came first. He told "Lunch with Ed Doolan" listeners that the cuts would indeed be painful and difficult to explain. But people had to understand we had been living beyond our means.

Ed raised the spectre of the cuts reversing the recent falls in unemployment here, which during the depths of the recession was higher here than anywhere else in the country. Failure to act, he said, would produce "an end result even worse than Greece, and many MORE job losses".

Mr Cameron also pointed to the new low rate of Corporation Tax (24p in the £) and his decision to exempt start-up businesses from National Insurance on the first 10 people the employ as evidence that the government was determined to do all it can to trigger economic growth, not just on the part of bid firms like Jaguar Land Rover, who recently posted their best sales figures for 60 years, but also by smaller firms which were often the engines of the economy.

Clearly the PM is pinning his hopes on economic growth, especially in the private sector, to deliver the ultimate reward of well-paid jobs in a better balanced economy.

"There is light at the end of the tunnel", he told us.

Next came a PM Direct event, in front of an audience of local newspaper readers and radio listeners.

He restated his hope that Birmingham would eventually have a directly elected mayor. It's an idea that's been determinedly opposed by the current Conservative Council leader Mike Whitby. But Mr Cameron singled Cllr Whitby's leadership out for high praise... in partnership with the Liberal Democrats of course!

I caught up with the PM at West Bromwich during his visit to East End Foods. Britain's biggest distributor of spices, rices and pulses does business with India: very much the flavour of the month during Mr Cameron's recent visit. Their produce comes from over 225,000 small farms across India. It's a growth industry in every sense.

Mr Cameron sees it as a role model for firms to power the economic recovery. He told me his government was "clearing up the mess left by a dishonest Labour Government which had made spending cuts necessary but which had ducked the question of where exactly the axe should fall".

But Labour MPs are in no mood to take the blame from Mr Cameron. Richard Burden, the MP for Birmingham Northfield, said the Prime Minister was passing the buck, and accused his government of making cuts "at the wrong time and on the wrong scale".

Mr Cameron will return to Birmingham for his party conference at the end of this month. Meantime the debate over public spending cuts rages on, and seems certain to determine the course of politics for years to come, not just at Westminster but also on the streets and on the factory floor.

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