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Archives for January 2011

Politics Show P.S. Sunday 30 January 2011

Patrick Burns | 09:50 UK time, Sunday, 30 January 2011


I am writing this with the lights still cooling after after today's Politics Show. We'd been reflecting on the shock revelation that the economy shrank during the last three months of 2010, raising the spectre of the dreaded 'double dip'.

Where, we asked were the new entrepreneurs, the start-up businesses, the job-creators who the Government tell us can deliver the growth to fill the gap left by the public sector cuts under the deficit reduction programme?

With just over seven weeks to go until the Budget, there were sharp exchanges between our two guests over what the Chancellor needs to do next.

The Conservative MP for Redditch Karen Lumley is a former Company Secretary; and the Labour MP for West Bromwich West Adrian Bailey is the Chairman of the Commons Business Select Committee. He said local firms were crying out for help from the Government.

Before we went on air Chancellor George Osborne warned there would be "financial turmoil" if he abandoned cuts and tax rises.


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GDP: a Generally Depressing Picture

Patrick Burns | 09:33 UK time, Wednesday, 26 January 2011




I always feel a little uncomfortable about headline news stories based around numbers.

Statistics. They just seem so impersonal. Do they convey any kind of a sense of generally recognisable events? For us journalists, the numbers game can seem dry and remote. A difficult 'sell'.

But this week's shock announcement (good word 'shock') by the Office for National Statistics has galvanised the political debate about the Coalition Government's deficit reduction programme. Instead of  the expected disappointing slowdown in the rate of growth, they revealed a confidence-sapping shrinkage of the UK economy by 0.5% during the last three months of 2010. Labour blamed the Government and the Government blamed the snow.

Asked about the prospect of coordinated industrial action, principally by public sector unions, Prof Roger Seifert of Wolverhampton University's Business School told listeners to BBC Radio Four's 'Today' programme that the Government's policies were a matter not of necessity but of choice: that with a general election apparently a long way off, people would look to the unions to exert pressure on ministers to slacken the pace and ease the scope of the cuts.

Prof Seifert also pointed out that even those public sector employees fortunate still to be in work were enduring a sustained pay freeze at a time of rising inflation: the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, reported that real-terms pay levels were falling for the sixth year in a row, the first time this has happened since the 1920s.

(Those of us with longer memories recall our own painful experiences during the '70s of surely one of  the ugliest non-words in the English language, 'Stagflation': a stagnant economy combined with inflation rates far oustripping those of today, to erode the living standards of virtually everyone).

Mervyn King knows a thing or two about the hard realities of life in this part of the country: he was educated at Wolverhampton Grammar School, taught Economics at the University of Birmingham, ran the Bank of England's local office in the city and remains to this day a Patron of Worcestershire County Cricket Club and a dedicated follower of Aston Villa FC.

While his football team appears to be rediscovering the secret of upward mobility in the Premier League, it will be a much tougher task to deliver a corresponding recovery in our region's economic fortunes, so vital if the effects of the public sector cuts are to be offset. Worryingly, more than half the new businesses set up in the Midlands fail within their first five years. Darren Bent c/o Getty

So where exactly are the entrepreneurial Darren Bents, the commercial 'star strikers' who'll lead the line for the region's business community and help them find the back of the net?

The answer reflects the true ambiguity of our continuing economic travails. Though undeniably patchy, the picture does show some genuine glimmers of hope. Some company bosses are remarkably bullish about their prospects. The Government answer their critics by pointing to a range of business-friendly initiatives designed to encourage new or expanding businesses: Corporation Tax changes, regional National Insurance holidays and Extended Entrepreneurs Relief from Capital Gains Tax, with a range of deregulatory, procurement and Enterprise Finance incentives to follow.

As for our quest for that Darren Bent figure, we've found him in deepest Herefordshire. William Chase is famously the man behind Tyrrells crisps. But he's moved on now, into the hard stuff: vodka!

His distillery, though small, is another model example. Crisps and vodka may seem like chalk and cheese. But the respective business models have much in common: high quality, distinctive products backed up with a scientific approach to market analysis. 

Our Politics Show reporter Sarah Walton has been talking to him for this week's programme, when I'll be joined live in the studio by 2 of our MPs on opposite sides of the political debate: the Conservative MP for Redditch Karen Lumley has her own direct experience of life in the market place: she is an accountant by profession and a former company secretary. The Labour MP for West Bromwich West Adrian Bailey represents one of the most deprived areas of the UK: he's also the Chairman of the Commons Business Select Committee.

These are the talking points that are expected to shape the course of politics for years to come, and  especially now that the official run-up to the local elections is less than two months away. 

You can have your say by emailing or follow us on Twitter

And of course I hope you'll join us for the Politics Show from 12 noon on Sunday 30 January 2011 on BBC One.


Politics Show PS

Patrick Burns | 13:01 UK time, Sunday, 23 January 2011


I am writing this having just come off the air after some lively exchanges between our guests on today's Politics Show (BBC One, Sunday 23rd January 2010). With us in the studio were Paul Uppal, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, and Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham Parry Barr.

They were speaking with exactly nine weeks to go til Census Day, Sunday 27th March 2011.

The findings are expected to confirm that a region once famous for the skills of its workers is now falling ever further behind in terms of educational attainment and skills levels.

Under-achieving areas areas like Stoke-on-Trent, Wolverhampton and Birmingham are continuing to lag behind the likes of Solihull, Warwick and the shire counties.

Mr Uppal said this was a sad reflection of Labour's 13 years in office.

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'Britain's first White minority city': exploding the myth

Patrick Burns | 13:46 UK time, Tuesday, 18 January 2011

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Bullring, Birmingham

"The indigenous population is due to be a minority in Leicester, London and Birmingham by the time of the 2011 Census."

That's what one contributor wrote in no less authoritative a forum than Wikipedia four years ago. And no wonder. This assertion has become almost commonplace, repeated so many times in such a wide range of more or less infuential reports and 'opinion' columns that it is increasingly seen as a safe assumption, little more than a statement of the obvious. Axiomatic.

There's just one problem. It's not true.

A report commissioned by Birmingham City Council from the Cathie Marsh Centre for Census and Survey Research (CCSR)at the University of Manchester forecasts that the city's White population will not fall below 50% of the total for another 15 years.

But what IS changing is the proportion of children aged under 16 who are of black and ethnic minorities. The CCSR say this figure has probably reached 50% already and is set to rise to about 64% by 2026. The demography of Birmingham means it can claim to be Europe's youngest city.

Census form

Could this be the last ever Census?

We shall not have long to wait for at least some of the numbers to be confirmed. In this year of the Census, and 27 March is the day when 25m households across England and Wales will be required by law to return their forms accounting for exactly who lives there, with answers to a range of questions including their ages, education and, not least, their ethnicity. The results will be announced a year later.

Of course the outcome will be carefully distilled by research teams like the CCSR. But it will be of much more than mere academic interest: (have you noticed that when we journalists say something is 'of purely academic interest', what we mean is it's nigh-on irrelevant'? While academics reserve the word 'journalistic' for only the most deeply-flawed undergraduate essays).

The most important point about the Census is that it automatically becomes an essential element in the spending calculations of successive governments: if, for example, the findings confirm the Midlands' expected decline in educational attainment and skills standards since the last census in 2001, then spending plans could be 'weighted' accordingly.

By now you will have realised this involves some very serious politics. Quite apart from the highly-charged debates over immigration, multiculturalism and ethnic diversity, there are fundamental, practical challenges for central and local government alike.

Our Politics Show reporter Ben Godfrey is talking this week to members of Birmingham's Pakistani community, which is expected to double in size over the next 20 years. He is also visiting a school in one of the city's most ethnically-diverse communities and going out and about with one of the people who'll be kept busy on 27 March making sure the returns are as accurate and comprehensive as the law requires them to be.

Joining me live in the studio will be Paul Uppal, the Conservative MP for Wolverhampton South West, himself a member of the sikh community; and Khalid Mahmood, the Labour MP for Birmingham Perry Barr, who became the Midlands' first muslim MP when he entered Partliament ten years ago.

Let us know what you make of all this: email and join us at 12 o'clock this coming Sunday (23 January 2011) on BBC One.

And finally...

For all the importance atatched to the Census, the signs are that this year's could be the last.

After 200 years of official population measurement, the Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude says it's become 'expensive and inaccurate'. The Government, we're told, is examining cheaper ways of crunching our numbers more often, using existing public and private databases including credit reference agencies.

But my guess is this isn't the last word on the subject...

Electoral Reform: the countdown begins

Patrick Burns | 16:22 UK time, Monday, 10 January 2011

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Ballot paper

"Politicians should have to work harder for our votes."

So said the Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg during his New Year interview on BBC Radio Four's Today programme (Monday 10 January) just hours before Parliament reassembled after Christmas.

The campaigns are now getting under way for the Referendum on Electoral Reform, which was for Mr Clegg's Liberal Democrats one of their principal conditions before entering the Coalition Government with the Conservatives.

Proportional Representation has been an article of faith for the 'third party' for generations: but the Alternative Vote system proposed in the referendum still falls a long way short of genuine PR.

How damaging would it be for those embattled Liberal Democrats if even this relatively modest step in the direction of electoral reform were to be lost when the votes are cast on 5 May (assuming the current impasse in the House of Lords can be unblocked in time for the measure to become law by February 16th)? After all their recent traumas over tuition fees and the uprating of VAT, during which their party has been caricatured as the Tories' 'body armour', some Westminster-watchers are even suggesting it could break the coalition: why should the junior partners persevere with it if they have so little to show for their pains?

In our first programme of what's shaping-up to be a fascinating year, the Politics Show will be launching our own debate on this key question on this week's programme (12 noon, BBC One, Sunday 16 January 2011).

Let's remind ourselves exactly what that question is. The voters will be asked if they want to 'adopt the alternative vote' system instead of the current 'first past the post' system for electing MPs.

Under AV, voters would rank the candidates in their constituency in order of preference. Anyone getting over 50% in the first round would be elected. Otherwise, the candidate with the fewest votes would be eliminated and their supporters' second choices would be allocated to those remaining. This process would continue until one candidate reached that all-important 50% figure required to be declared the winner.

By now I'm sure you'll have realised that it's quite possible for the candidate who'd have won in a 'first past the post' single-round election not to win after second preferences are counted. That's exactly what happened in the Midlands' first experience of an electoral system very similar to the one that's the subject of the referendum.

Nine years ago the voters of Stoke-on-Trent elected their first executive mayor using a system called 'Supplementary Vote', which differed from AV only in that just two candidates went into the final run-off. The winner after the first round was the former Labour MEP and Stoke South MP George Stevenson. But after second preferences were added in he lost to the Independent Mike Wolfe Mike Wolfe who became the first of Stoke's two elected mayors before the role was abolished, in a referendum of course, in 2008.

George Stevenson now lives in Spain, and our Staffordshire reporter Liz Copper has been to his home near Alicante this week to ask him for his take on whether or not a similar system should be used for electing MPs. He warns that AV should not be seen as some kind of staging post on the way to further reforms of Westminster elections; that it should not lead from single-member to multi-member Parliamentary constituencies.

Equally, he is also concerned that under the present rules a Member of Parliament can be returned with barely one third of the votes.

Liz Copper has also been talking to Mr Stevenson's old adversary Mike Wolfe: his view is that if voters want a new type of politician they should opt for a new voting system.

BBC political reporters Michelle Dawes, Amber Henshaw and Elizabeth Glinka

BBC political reporters Michelle Dawes, Amber Henshaw and Elizabeth Glinka

But what do the voters themselves make of this? Is Electoral Reform no more than a distraction from the far more pressing challenges facing this country? We've been gauging the mood in the constituencies of the two MPs who'll be joining me in the studio: Daniel Kawczynski, Conservative MP for Shrewsbury and Atcham, was the founder and chairman of the All-Party First Past the Post Group and Richard Burden, Labour MP for Birmingham Northfield, the chairman of Westminster's Electoral Reform Group.

We'll also be talking to voters in the city where it all began, Stoke-on-Trent. Asking the questions in the three areas will be our new team of local Politics Reporters: Amber Henshaw in BBC Shropshire, Elizabeth Glinka in BBC Stoke and Michelle Dawes in BBC WM.

We're delighted to welcome them all to the BBC Politics Show team. And I hope you'll be with us too when the programme returns to the air on Sunday at 12 o'clock on BBC One.

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