Friday, December 19, 2008

An Unfortunate Echo

Yesterday's Full Council meeting raised an important question of journalistic ethics; namely, should a journalist publish words that were spoken in a meeting but then struck from the record? Unfortunately for David James of the South Wales Echo, the answer is not if the reason they were struck from the record is as watertight as a mermaid's brassiere.

Perhaps inevitably there was something of an end of term feel to the meeting, with plenty of entertainment for the layman between two walkouts (one by the Labour and Conservatives en masse, the other by the Labour Group Leader in a bizarre fit of pique) an assortment of malapropisms and a devastatingly embarrassing performance from one Tory councillor as he tried to deny that a petition he'd submitted to the Welsh Assembly asked for what it said on the tin, namely concreting over part of an allotment.

The main order of business, however, was a Conservative motion calling for a zero Council Tax increase in 2009/10. The debate was lengthy and of a high standard, covering many of the technical issues surrounding local government financing and delving into the philosophical basis of property taxes. The mainstay of it all was the fundamental truth that actually, the Conservatives have been asking for this for years and every time they do, the alternative budget they come up with means cuts, cuts and more cuts.

Naturally, the Leader of the Conservative Group, David Walker, denied that this was the case (falling, much like his petitionally-challenged colleague, into the trap of of trying to deny the contents of publicly available documents). But as they went on, his relatively rent-a-Tory comments headed off on a tangent into bizarre (as in “I'll show you the proof, but not right now”) allegations of corrupt overtime practices in refuse collection. But instead of letting the ante-upping rest at corrupt, Cllr Walker decided to find a more powerful adjective.


Cllr McEvoy rightly complained to the Lord Mayor and, to his credit, Cllr Walker withdrew the comment immediately. Unfortunately, this didn't stop the slur being repeated in the first line of the coverage of the debate in today's Echo.

I don't for a second believe that anyone involved meant any ill will by any of this. I do, however, think that the record should show that the slur did not pass unchallenged and that we took a firm stance on comments that, however traditional they may be, are clearly no longer acceptable.

Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Nice Rhetoric, Shame You're Such A Berk

With the year drawing to a close it's time to get off the fence and finally announce the recipient of the 2008 Scunner Broon Award for Stupidest Political Quote Of The Year. As has been discussed previously, it's been a difficult one to judge, what with the number of exceptional individual candidates, the broad body of work of Sarah Palin and, ultimately, a winner whose reason for opening his big trap in the first place was an issue I fielded complaints about.

Investment in the library service has been one of the Liberal Democrats' proudest accomplishments during our time running Cardiff, with two new libraries built, one under construction and three planned, in addition to four refurbishments. The crowning glory of that investment will be the new Central Library, a replacement for the old library whose site now forms part of the St Davids 2 development.

As plans for the move, first to a temporary facility and then to the new building were developed, the status of the library's various special collections had to be considered. These collections, amounting to a total of some 18,000 items, were largely uncatalogued and unsuitable either for general use or for housing in general library facilities. Retaining the whole of the special collections would cost £2-3million (or to put it another way, 2-3% on Council Tax), approximately the same as their commercial value.

The commercial value matters because the powers that central government in its usual patronising fashion deigns to bestow on the council are quite unsentimental. As far as the law is concerned, these collections are an asset and as such, the council is required to achieve the best value if that asset is to be disposed of. As a result, in January 2007 the Executive (in a public meeting, no less) decided to seek a specialist auctioneer to sell those elements of the special collections that were not of specific local or national interest or in the Welsh language. The Minister For Smoking In The Eli Jenkins was fully appraised of the plan and raised no concerns.

Eighteen months later the first tranche of items was sent to Bonham's and duly appeared in a sales catalogue, at which point all hell broke loose. Academics protested to each other and to the council, the opposition groups on the council claimed they were duped, Private Eye got on its high horse and the now conveniently Minister For Not Smoking In The Eli Jenkins announced that he was in fact concerned and that discussions should take place between interested parties. Which is where we are now, with a group of interested parties from academia and heritage organisations working to identify those items that should be retained.

But where you may ask is the moment of utter verbal lunacy? (And more importantly, would you mind hurrying it along, you've already wasted plenty of my time going on about the minutiae of library administration...)

The important detail in all of this is that the Minister For Not Smoking In The Eli Jenkins is a member of Plaid. And as part of the unique constitutional settlement that Plaid seem to have developed with One Wales (you know, the one that goes “this Plaid is fictitious and any resemblance to Plaids that are members of the government coalition is entirely coincidental”) any statement by a Plaid minister must be accompanied by one from a Plaid backbencher in order to ensure deniability.

In this case it fell to Chris Franks, AM for South Wales Central (The bits that Leanne Wood doesn't give a s**t about) to respond for the 1974 Committee with this little gem;

“Cardiff is the only European capital city without a National Library or National Archive”

And this is the nub of the matter, because a large proportion of the special collections were donated to the then town in the late 19th Century in order to bolster Cardiff's bid to house a National Library of Wales. After a long and bitter battle, Cardiff did not succeed.

Because Aberystwyth did.

As a quizzer, I am rather unforgiving of ignorance of fairly basic facts, particularly ones that have actually been the subject of questions on University Challenge this year! As a student of semantics in politics, therefore, I am especially unforgiving of statements like this that grasp the nettle in rhetoric, only to let go at the first sign of reality.

So Chris Franks, for boldly asserting in public that a major national institution should be uprooted from Plaid's top Westminster target seat and relocated to Cardiff, the Scunner Broon Award is yours.

Sunday, December 07, 2008

Spotting The Difference The Llafur Way

Things have come to a pretty pass when you can't rely on parliamentary researchers to bunk off properly. I mean, I'm fairly sure iPlayer works on Welsh Assembly computers, which means the Labour Party have no excuse for not realising that the viewing public would have access to all three versions of their Queen's Speech PPB and would thus be able to play a little bit of spot the difference.

The master template is, I suppose, inevitable; images of a fast-paced global economy interspersed with near-subliminal flashes of one B.H. Obama and lots of statesmanlike shots of yon Scunner Broon. But even the template is susceptible to change; while “Britain” and Wales enjoy a fade over a clip of the Bank Of England, Scotland gets a Saltire in front of a moodily sunlit tenement.

Scotland's slogan is also different; while Labour is Standing Up For “Britain” and Llafur is Standing Up For Wales, Labarach (and let the record show I had to dig that up from the Scots Gaelic version of Wikipedia, as neither Scottish Labour nor any of their parliamentarians appear to have bothered to have a Gaelic website) merely offer A Fairer Scotland, lazy buggers.

Speaking of inevitability, it's Wabbroon, live and direct from, well, the caption says UN Headquarters, but if that's any room in a building completed in 1950 I'm a monkey's uncle. Mind you, describing it as a Webcameron rip-off is the charitable interpretation; crueller voices might suggest that they're doing the whole thing on the cheap, what with the credit crunch and the corrupt party finances (not necessarily in that order...)

More statesmanlikeness, then a strange difference; while the “British” version lingers on a shot of Brown networking in a posh hotel room, the Scottish and Welsh versions cut back to the Wabbroon monologue. A few moments later, Scotland and Wales zoom in on a somewhat less subliminal Obama moment, while “Britain” jump cuts to the close up after a brief shot of a Brown/Darling press conference.

For a moment, I'm wondering if this is just a function of the production process, that a final version was sent to the Celts to add their own bits, only for the Anglo-Saxons to do some fiddling of their own. Then a third shared visual appears, and it's the strangest of the lot; while “Britain” gets a few seconds of the London Stock Exchange, Scotland and Wales see their umpteenth busy shopping street pass by, except this one is very clearly identifiable because Buchanan Street Station on the Glasgow Subway is very obviously slap bang in the middle of it.

Do we now have Wales receiving Scotland's leftovers from the editing suite? No, it turns out that we have an extra section that only appears in the “British” version. Over more images of stock tickers and the Docklands, Brown's monologue gains this;

"There are those like the Conservatives who want to let the recession run its course. They are wrong. Failure to act in the past has increased both the length and depth of recessions."

Now excuse me while I geek; a Midland Mainline Class 222 Meridian sweeps through the countryside, then we cut to Gordon and Sarah (surprised it took over a minute to get her in there) inside a Virgin Trains Class 390 Pendolino... [/geek]

Then the sort of difference that actually really angers me. In “Britain”, the caption proudly proclaims that we're seeing Gordon touring the Jaguar factory at Castle Bromwich; the Scots and Welsh are not so informed. Note ye that there are precisely zero car assembly lines in Scotland and Wales; do Labour really think we're stupid enough not to notice that a factory must logically be in “Britain” if we're not told that it is?

And lo, the opt-out arrives, signalled by another train image, this time a Virgin Trains Class 221 Super Voyager at Sandwell and Dudley station. I'm almost willing to let them have that one; since there's no type of train operated by any company that could pass through any station on the way to both Scotland and Wales, I'll take them at least picking a train travelling on a route that could lead to either.

The opt-outs themselves raise an important technical question because what we get are the Murphy Boys talking to camera. This isn't a particularly smart political move; after all, I'm actively interested in Welsh politics and even I couldn't give a flying **** what Paul Murphy does, so the chances of anyone less prepared for it caring are fairly remote. If it's a matter of the legislation requiring only parliamentarians appear in a parliamentary broadcast, fair enough, but in that case why did the SNP broadcast appear on Thursday in Scotland instead of the Conservative one? It must be on the basis of their position in the Scottish Parliament, because if it was based on their Westminster representation, the Thursday broadcast in Wales would have been the Lib Dem one...

And then we have three monologues instead of one, albeit with a little bit of cross-referencing. In “Britain”, Brown blathers on, listing just about everything any government might be called upon to do and suggesting it might be an idea that they do it well, bookended extraordinarily by a brief bit of walk-and-talk that almost looked human until he decided that he only had one hand gesture and by gum he was sticking to it.

In Scotland, Jim Murphy might as well have “The SNP Are Nutters” tattooed to his forehead and once he's got through his platitudes on employment, Iain Gray appears (adding more mystery to my point about the Murphy Boys) to push specific policies on apprenticeships and schools PFIs. Iain tries the walk-and-talk too, but is criminally let down by a less mobile camera that exposes his rather unusual gait.

As for Wales, it's the well-worn line about two Labour governments, in Westminster and Butetown, working together. Setting aside the evidence that this is bollocks (if it were true we wouldn't be having rows about the 27 Ways To Ditch An LCO) it also strikes me as pretty poor politics. Looking ahead to 2011, even if they don't want to think it'll happen, Llafur must recognise that they might need to play the anti-Tory duopoly card; trumpeting the advantages of the partnership now makes that card all the harder to play. Equally, talking about the government as if it's yours and yours alone can only help Plaid's clear One Wales strategy of denying all knowledge of being involved in it. Then again, that analysis presumes that Llafur can find their butts with both hands and it's not as if we have a great deal of evidence of that being the case...

Friday, December 05, 2008

Oh No, This Is The Road... To Preston

Never let it be said that the British don't know how to milk an anniversary to within an inch of its life. Between the local authority and the combined forces of the road lobby, much is being made of the fiftieth anniversary of Britain's first motorway; not the M1, but the Preston Bypass (now M6 J29 to M55 J1).

To add to the joy, Britain's newest motorway also opens today. Or to think of it another way, Britain's oldest motorway gets finished today.

Laugh? I nearly cried.

It's a testament to the level of chaos that passes for administration in this country that the best record of how the motorway network got to where it is comes not from government but from the enthusiasts. It's a history that every politician at every level should acquaint themselves with, if only to understand just how ludicrously ambitious politicians can get; you haven't truly understood the political animal until you've considered the possibility of the M13 Southend Southern Bypass (give it a moment, you'll work it out...) or the extent to which the M25 is, in fact, two different motorways hastily cobbled together with the civil engineering equivalent of gaffer tape...

The result, half a century on, is a classic Whitehall bodge job that spent so much of its time and political capital on London that it never managed to develop a coherent strategy for the rest of the country. There are roads that are almost motorways but not quite (A55), roads that were originally meant to be motorways but aren't (A50), roads that are motorways but don't need to be (M180) and the biggest category of the lot, motorways that give up before they get there (M4, M5, M42, M56, M62...)

Perhaps the most surprising element for those of us brought up on the idea that all new roads are evil a la Newbury and Twyford Down is that things are still progressing. With the Cumberland Gap now filled there's a continuous motorway from London to Glasgow and work is due to start soon on the last section of the motorway from London to Newcastle. As ever with these things, the Scottish Parliament is pushing on too (the M77 Kilmarnock extension is already open, soon to be followed by the M74 Central Glasgow extension and the completions of the M80 Glasgow-Stirling and M8 Glasgow-Edinburgh routes) and the Welsh Assembly, erm, well, yeah...

Still, it's not exactly the awe-inspiring future the pioneers of 1958 had in mind and neither is it likely to make much of a difference to the daily jams experienced by so many millions of people. Until the political will exists to actually tackle any mode of transport head on (third runways notwithstanding) the future of the motorways, and indeed everything else, looks increasingly congested.

Monday, December 01, 2008

The Julian Lewis List

One of the problems of having a memory like mine, and indeed a propensity for atopicality like mine, is the extent to which things will crop up long after they were said. The whole house moving process has brought one such nugget back to the surface as it has now become rather more relevant to my own experience than it was before. That nugget is the Freedom of Information (Parliament and National Assembly For Wales) Order 2008.

The John Lewis List's dominance of the nation's political discourse seems an age away now, but for a while it was the only story in town. True to form, Parliament leapt into action... to save their own skins. The result was an exemption protecting the home addresses of MPs, AMs and Lords from release under the Freedom of Information Act. The campaign to secure the exemption was spearheaded by Julian Lewis (no relation), MP for New Forest East, who spoke at length about the risk of an Al-Qaeda letter bomb-spamming campaign against MPs.

That's all very well and probably proper, although I don't share Dr Lewis's faith in the idea that his local militant cell will be unable to find the address information he and his colleagues are required to give at election time because it doesn't come up on Google. But while MPs were getting their knickers in a twist about a possible change to the status quo, it strikes me that they gave very little thought to the one area of government where disclosure of addresses already is the status quo; councillors.

It is true that councillors do not have to disclose their home addresses; indeed, of Cardiff's 75 councillors, five presently do not do so. Culturally, however, we are very much expected to do so and that cultural expectation does have a tangible effect on our work. I did not disclose my previous address as I was a lodger and did not feel it was fair to the permanent resident of the house to place their address on record; in that time, I definitely received less letters than my ward colleague whose address was and is disclosed.

Ultimately, not disclosing a home address does not make MPs or AMs appear to be less contactable; they have constituency offices and people are happy to write to the House Of Commons or the Senedd as they think of these places as the group of members. When writing to a councillor at County Hall, however, people think of it as The Council, a monolithic house of bureaucracy within which their letter will surely either be lost or “lost”. It isn't true by any means, a councillor's post is just as secure and just as sure to reach them via County Hall as it is to a home address, but the cultural perception is there.

Meanwhile, we councillors may be somewhat less subject to possible terrorist attack than our parliamentary colleagues (though in such matters it pays not to be presumptuous as to what Al-Qaeda may or may not consider getting up to) but we're no less likely to face identity fraud or physical or sexual harassment than them.

Unfortunately I don't have any clever idea for solving the problem; legislating against years of cultural expectation is rarely a fruitful task. What the whole sorry tale underlines, however, is the problem of Parliament's inflated sense of its own importance. The potential security implications for councillors weren't so much as mentioned; heck, I'm half surprised the Assembly even got a look in. As ever, until local government is considered part of the system rather than a separate adjunct to it, all of government will be the poorer for it.

Friday, November 28, 2008

Misuse Of The Journalists Prefix

I think it's safe to say that the two weeks encompassing all of the hustings for your party's leadership election are a pretty bad time for a blogger to be distinctly unwell and in the middle of moving house. At such times, what you really need to get your blogging energy flowing is for a journalist to say something pathetically, moronically insulting.

Matt Withers of The Western Mail, you are the weakest link, goodbye.

In fairness to Matt, the offending article has the whiff of sub-editorial incompetence to it. With Patrick Jones' poetry and its non-reading still a live issue, I'll forgive him for taking a press release from an insignificant “religious discrimination” (read: institutionalisation of religious hatred) campaigner and turning it into a “controversy” over an appearance by Brian Gibbons AM, Minister for Social Justice, at a conference on religious equality organised by the British Humanist Association and funded by way of a £35,000 grant from the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

Then again, the press release is clearly a classic of blinkered stupidity, as the fuller quote reported in the Torygraph demonstrates;

"It's a bit like paying the Taliban to lecture on women's rights. There's nothing wrong with the British Humanist Association organising seminars, but it's the fact that they're getting public money. There is the question of whether this is what Government money should be going for, particularly in a time of recession. If we're having a debate on religion, should we be paying one side of the argument to hold it, especially with public money?"

I'll let the National Secular Society's fairly extensive list of government handouts to faith groups for propaganda purposes do the job of rebutting the “controversy” itself. I'll even allow the casual propagating of the Dr Death moniker for our own Evan Harris slide (but way to go cribbing from the Daily Mail there!) No, what got my hackles up was the opening paragraph;

"The Assembly Government has defended the decision of a senior Minister to speak at a controversial conference organised by an anti-religious group."

Let's be absolutely clear; neither the BHA nor the many thousands of humanists across the country (myself included) have any problem with any individual practising any religion of their choice. We do however have serious concerns about the institutionalisation of religious privilege in service provision and in law. Summarising such a position as flat-out anti-religious is nothing short of insulting, both to the BHA and to humanists nationwide.

Monday, November 10, 2008

Unhappy Divergence From The Work Of Handel

See, there I was ready to break the habit of a lifetime and trumpet a party press release only to find that, in a moment of supreme irony, it failed to turn up on time...

Actually, that's a little unfair; recourse to Google finds the errant document on Cllr Steve Beasant's website and in the news section of the Institute of Transport Management. But this does not represent the sort of fanfare we need for a policy announcement we should be wrapping round a brick and hurling at Geoff Hoon's head.

Admittedly, I wish it was still Ruth Kelly's head we'd be hurling it at. I was always going to find her to be morally repugnant at the best of times, but remarkably I found her pronouncements on expansion of the rail network even more offensive than her moral CV. Question after question from local members desperate for new railway lines to relieve congestion and improve transport links in their area were batted away with, “we believe that lengthening trains and platforms is the best way to increase capacity on the network”, a statement so intensely moronic it isn't funny.

You'll imagine how much my heart was lifted to see us publishing a list of line and station reopenings, line redoublings and electrification projects . The list includes my old favourite the Varsity Line and is so comprehensive it includes schemes even I hadn't thought of. With a headline talking of rolling back Beeching, it's a fantastic announcement, a bold investment in infrastructure that the public want and the other parties are too stupid to propose.

And yet, upon the party website there's nary a mention and not even a story wedged down the back of BBC News Online. I don't for much, but when I get it, it'd be nice if we could make a song and dance about it.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

Tales Of The Overexpected

I suppose one of the other reasons for my dearth of council-related posts is that it's been pretty rare so far for me to come away from a council meeting angry. No doubt that's one of the advantages of being a member of the ruling coalition, but either way it is the way of things thus far. I was particularly surprised, therefore, to find myself angry on my return home from two consecutive council meetings today. But then, in both of those meetings senior councillors attacked a service that the Liberal Democrats saved in the face of craven political incompetence, in some cases by their own parties.

The tale of 101 starts with Labour's 2005 Manifesto;

“Not all problems need a 999 response, so a single phone number staffed by police, local councils and other local services will be available across the country to deal with anti-social behaviour and other non-emergency problems”

And lo it came to pass that a year later there was a trial...

And a year later, they found that the trial was such a phenomenal success that they abandoned it...

You'd think the whole thing was being run by the Home Office under a Labour secretary of state...

As is often our wont, the Liberal Democrats jumped to the defence of an important local service and did a sterling job of retaining the existing trials (of the five trial areas, it's not exactly a coincidence that the three to retain were Cardiff, Sheffield and Hampshire...) In the Assembly, Mike German jumped into the fray, eliciting this Scunner Broon award nominee from Rhodri Morgan;

“It would set an undesirable precedent if, every time the UK Government could not afford to continue a scheme through its departmental budget, the automatic assumption was that it would be funded by the Assembly instead. You can imagine that it would start to withdraw from a range of schemes in the hope that the Assembly, the Scottish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive would start picking those up instead”

Nevertheless 101 did survive in Cardiff, a result I can but hope was assisted by the Facebook campaign run by yours truly. And yet, plenty of councillors are unhappy, although today was the first time I'd heard such criticism in such vituperative form or in a public meeting.

The primary problem, however, is a simple case of unrealistic expectations. 101 is only a phone number; it does a fantastic job of ensuring that non-emergency issues are reported to the right authority more easily and more rapidly. Its mere existence does not cause those issues to suddenly become emergencies, however; it just means that they are dealt with in good time as opposed to not being dealt with at all.

Those councillors who have a problem with 101 should remember that that in itself is a massive step forward; perhaps the most remarkable result of the 101 trial was that referrals to the noise nuisance team went up by 500%. One of my commonest refrains as a councillor is that, while the system may be a bit slow and creaky, it is infinitely better to be inside the process than outside of it. There may be legitimate concerns about feedback from 101 on case progress, but we as councillors should be able to go beyond individual cases to look at the performance data and realise what an outstanding job 101 is doing.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

One Nation Conservatism; Not So Much A Philosophy, More A Statement Of Foreign Policy

Last week's reference to my Labour colleagues on Cardiff Council gave me cause to consider my reticence to this point towards blogging on council matters. At one level, this blog was never going to become a repository for ward news because that sort of thing was never its purpose when it started two years and one major city ago and it still isn't. Sooner or later I'm sure there will be a Llandaff and Danescourt Focus Team blog, but that's for another day.

As for city-wide issues, I've always recognised that I'm a member of the ruling group and that I have responsibilities to my colleagues. Our executive team is one of the very best in the country and I would not want anything that might appear on these pages to make it harder for them to do their job. Keeping my own counsel is difficult at times; there's one ongoing story I'd really like to blog about because it has given us the winner of the 2008 Scunner Broon Award for Stupidest Political Quote Of The Year, but I'll save that for the appropriate juncture.

Nevertheless, one thing you do learn very quickly in this business is that the council is a reasonably decent microcosm of the world of electoral politics everywhere and the examples worthy of note abound. One such came last Tuesday at Environmental Scrutiny Committee, where we received a presentation from the leader of the Sustainable Development team as part of the Executive response to a scrutiny report on that subject.

What was remarkable was the questioning that followed from the two Conservative members of the committee. The first enquired about the scientific basis of the team's work, leading to a brief discussion between him and our chair about whether it was most or the vast majority of scientists who think climate change is real and anthropogenic. The second went even further, asking in all seriousness whether the council's 60% carbon emission reduction target had taken into account the actions of China, India and the USA...

And yet, the thing to note is that it's not remarkable at all. Beneath the flaky veneer of the Cameron revolution, these are the members the Conservative Party actually has; old white men for whom the one nation is Britain. Dave's thesis, of course, it that they aren't important in the grand scheme of things and that it is the Goves and Greenings and Warsis of this world that matter. But while in Cardiff we're lucky that they're only the official opposition, it is traditional conservatives like these who are running councils and Conservative Associations up and down England and will have a big say in the actions of any future Cameron government.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Impossibility Of Normality

I've been trying and failing to catch up on a backlog of blog topics over the last few days, but the work of a councillor must come first and rightly so. What's less helpful is when little nuggets are thrown your way and your feel the need to disgorge them to the blogosphere asap, thus interrupting the carefully laid plans.

Nevertheless, I must divert your attention to the latest Zogby poll (courtesy of Matt Drudge), not for the numbers (because my poll policy is pretty much the same as Lib Dem Voice's) but for the sheer depth of the demographic analysis...

"Three big days for Obama. Anything can happen, but time is running short for McCain. These numbers, if they hold, are blowout numbers. They fit the 1980 model with Reagan's victory over Carter -- but they are happening 12 days before Reagan blasted ahead. If Obama wins like this we can be talking not only victory but realignment: he leads by 27 points among Independents, 27 points among those who have already voted, 16 among newly registered voters, 31 among Hispanics, 93%-2% among African Americans, 16 among women, 27 among those 18-29, 5 among 30-49 year olds, 8 among 50-64s, 4 among those over 65, 25 among Moderates, and 12 among Catholics (which is better than Bill Clinton's 10-point victory among Catholics in 1996). He leads with men by 2 points, and is down among whites by only 6 points, down 2 in armed forces households, 3 among investors, and is tied among NASCAR fans."

As a NASCAR fan myself (highlights on Five, Tuesday night/Wednesday morning at 2am) I'm all in favour of the last category, but you have to ask yourself; if the candidates and their campaign teams are getting that depth of information and worrying about demographic groups with that level of finesse, how have they stayed sane this long?

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Live From Long Island

There's something disturbingly onanistic about enjoying blogging an event while not actually enjoying the event. Still, as it appears to be the only way I can haul myself through a presidential debate, here I am again in the company of the Channel Formerly Known As News 24.

Or rather I would be, except my digibox for some reason can't pick up one of the BBC multiplexes so I can only get analogue BBC2 and in one of those engineering works during major sporting event moments, BBC2 is giving us a replay of Ding Junhui vs Graham Holt and not BBC News as it normally would be now. What I have, therefore, is Sky News, which hopefully isn't going to piss me off by cutting to the ads in due course.

The table format feels rather like a boxing match in a football stadium, with the action dwarfed by the surroundings. There's a fundamental dichotomy in the format; the candidates are closer than they've been before, but the table is in the way to prevent them taking swings at each other. Again, right from the start there's a difference in style, with McCain talking to the format and Obama talking to the camera.

Unsurprisingly McCain ducks the first exchange when Obama pins his plan to help homeowners as another bailout to the banks, instead leading with the story of Barack and the plumber from Ohio. That exchange reminds me once again of that great Bartletism; “That's the problem with the American Dream, everybody's preparing for the day they're going to be rich.”

Still, it's a good exchange to have, because it really is about the fundamental questions, about trickle-down versus trickle-up. It's a debate I'd kind of like us to have too; redistribution is fine if it allows, as Obama suggests, Joe the Plumber to be able to start his own business sooner. That sort of economic change matches the political change we as Lib Dems are looking for.

In the first of what may be many recommendations tonight, if you haven't seen Simon Schama's new series yet, catch it on iPlayer. The idea that the American Dream is finally facing the reality that there is a limit to the resources the USA can provide is critical to the answers we're seeing to question two, with Obama tightening the belts and McCain looking for new ways to scrape the barrel.

Interesting that McCain again brings up the projector in the planetarium; if my first refutation of that wasn't enough, consider that other West Wing classic, the four-hundred dollar ash tray. On the matter of balanced budgets generally, McCain brings up the spending freeze in New York; I'd refer you to my favourite political columnist, Tuesday Morning Quarterback, for an intriguing look at why balanced budgets may not be the Washington problem you think.

The copycatting here is quite breathtaking; McCain sledgehammers in with an “I am not Spock” moment, then Obama responds listing the rows he's had with the oft-forgotten core vote of the Democratic Party (the teachers unions and environmentalists).

Rarely has the answer to a question been so long when a simple no would suffice. Asking them to say what the ads have said to their faces is absolutely right, but the answers are unsurprisingly evasive on both sides. McCain calls Obama out again on the town hall meetings, which works less well after he failed to kick butt in the one we had. He also keeps going to the amount of money spent, which is fine if people care about the nuances of electoral law but how likely is that? All raising the money suggests is that Obama has raised more money than anyone ever, which at some point has to reinforce the faith so many people have in him.

The result is a pox on both houses, though my feeling is that Obama's answers are more statesmanlike and more about the culture and the politics, rather than the details of the attack ads. It might work for McCain, but Obama got to make a full defence and the discussion was about McCain attacking Obama and not the other way around. Again, not being a voter it's difficult to know.

The questions continue to be excellent; “why is your running mate better than his?” is wonderfully playground. Obama's answer is entirely about Biden, with not a hint of kicking Palin while she's down. Most interesting is how McCain opens with “America has gotten to know Sarah Palin”; hang on, the central plank of your campaign is that we don't know Obama after two years of a campaign and now you're saying they know Palin after two months? While we're on her, if you haven't seen this John Cleese video, you really should...

It's Bartletisms again though, as McCain mentions and then Obama reiterates that Palin has united the Republican Party; I can't tell you how much I wanted a “what you've done is bring the right together with the far right.” Then again, I did have the visceral thrill of McCain describing the partition of Iraq as cockamamie and Iraq as a whole as united; as a supporter of Kurdistan I got a major kick out of that piece of stupidity.

My one worry with Obama is that he's very good with numbers, which I love but you have to wonder whether the voters do. McCain's attack, “it's eloquent but you have to look carefully at the words” is the right one and it's a shame he gets it through on one of my great bugbears, free trade agreements without labour rights requirements; and as I'm reading Mark Thomas' book on Coca-Cola and the murder of trade union workers in Colombia, I'm delighted that he raised them in showing why free trade with Colombia isn't the no-brainer McCain says it is.

The image of this debate is becoming clear, however; Obama smiling that big toothy grin as McCain speaks. He's not wrong to be smiling, but it's one of those attitude things that appear to be so important in the response to these debates stateside.

Healthcare is the American policy issue I think we would understand the least, given our commitment as a nation to socialised medicine. It's also the issue that was best dealt with by Matt Santos in the West Wing debate and as Obama covers that same ground I'm willing him to deliver the beatdown; instead we get the sanitised version. Following that up is another massive question, the Roe v Wade test for Supreme Court nominees. McCain won't impose one, which is fine but it ignores the relative level of scrutiny involved; if you impose a litmus test as a Senator, that happens on the floor of the Senate, when you do so as President it stays within the Oval Office (and again, the West Wing provides some interesting primers on what the White House can do in that process). I get the feeling that I actually disagree with Obama on abortion too, it being another Obama-Santos parallel, but I'd much rather have my disagreement with him making that choice than my disagreement with McCain.

Meanwhile, as Liberal Youth prepares to discuss tuition fees at its conference, it's nice to hear Obama making the most fundamental point about fees as they are now assessed; we can't ask aspiring scientists, engineers and doctors to take on a mortgage worth of debt before they've even thought of buying a house. But again, as the education debate continues it's Santos-Vinick again as the failure of Headstart in later grades rears its head. By this point, even I'm surprised by how much West Wing there is in this debate.

And so we come to the end of the end. My guess is that McCain hasn't won this one and again, if he has won it hasn't been the big win he needed. As someone just posted on Facebook, McCain sounds like a man who's beat; we can but hope that that really is the case.

Wednesday, October 15, 2008

The Oral Application Of My Cash Reserves

Like most members of the Welsh Liberal Democrats, I've been thinking about this leadership contest for quite some time. It's safe to say that nothing in the two Federal leadership races I've experienced could have prepared me for how different this race feels.

Those two races were of course fairly abstract for me. In 2006 I was just Chair of Manchester Universities Liberal Democrats so I was thinking about it in terms of how it would energise my new members. A year later I at least had a candidate to be passionate about, but even so, as a target council candidate in Cardiff and someone on the edge of the blogosphere the consequences of my decision were not much more than statistical in the grand scheme of things.

A Welsh leadership contest is a different beast entirely, however. Now I'm one of 159 councillors and writing from a small but select blogosphere. What's more, I've worked with and for both candidates in the Assembly, so the experience I have to base my decision on is much deeper than it has been before. And let's be clear, the one thing that experience has at least assured me of is that both Jenny Randerson and Kirsty Williams would be outstanding leaders of our party.

But where are we asking that person to lead us from and, indeed, to? Right now, every party in Wales has its vulnerabilities. Labour have the mess of Her Majesty's Government hanging round their necks and a distinct lack of new energy driving them onwards (I mean, seriously, if Edwina Hart is a credible contender for the leadership of your party, you're absolutely nowhere...) Plaid are struggling to deliver anything from their seats at the big boys table for either their nationalist or communist wings, while also struggling to reconcile those wings into a coherent national package. And while Dave manages to keep the Tories on his side of the daffodil curtain away from their nastiness, on this side the waning influence of Nick Bourne (the man who was a Cameroony before Cameron himself) looks to be leaving the door open for a tougher brand of Conservatism that is both uncomfortable with the idea of Wales and ignorant of the damage it did the last time.

So the first requirement to my mind is a leader who will take the attack to the arrogance and complacency of the other parties. As a party we massively undervalue the ability of our members in the chamber, in the place they're actually employed to work; my belief in Nick Clegg's ability to do well in that arena was a big factor in my support for him and the benefits of that are starting to become apparent.

More importantly, however, I did say that every party in Wales has its vulnerabilities and it is the Liberal Democrats own vulnerabilities that must be addressed by any new leader. I would identify two particular areas of concern;

  • While individual AM's are known for their own campaigns and called upon by the media to speak on them (Peter Black on fuel poverty, Jenny Randerson on health, Mike German on Severn Bridge tolls, and so forth) there is no great sense that we cover everything and can speak to everything. They may not do it as regularly as we would like, but the media certainly call on Nick Clegg on just about any matter, and I suspect the same was true of Nicol Stephen in Scotland. Through no real fault of his own, however, Mike German has not been called upon in that sense, certainly since Ieuan Wyn became the second centre of power in the Government. Those appearances are crucial to winning the air war and reaching out to areas with no tradition of voting Lib Dem.
  • The Liberal Democrat Group is now pretty stagnant in terms of its membership, which hasn't changed in any way since March of 2001. I'm seeing an example of the results of that right now in Cardiff, where Labour have only two newly-elected councillors in a group of thirteen and only one councillor who might be described as young; the lack of energy driving that group forward is palpable. Things in our Assembly Group aren't by any means that bad (such places tending as they do to draw in the energetic) and the ongoing policy reviews will help on the ideas front, but the need for voltage is still there.

What we need from our new leader, then, is a positive, combative attitude and a blast of fresh energy in both policy and personality.

Which is why I'm supporting Kirsty Williams.

Kirsty has already shown that desire to take the other parties on, to break the pseudo-socialist consensus and return Wales to its liberal roots. She has the character to take us forward in the chamber and the ideas to take us forward in the hearts and minds of people across the length and breadth of this country. We need nothing short of a sea change from our leader, and Kirsty is the person to deliver it.

Friday, October 10, 2008

Sensible Solutions From 'Oop North

John Hemming's weekly round-up of the by-elections confirms a fantastic night for us, with gains in Bristol and Wantage and holds in Haringey and Southwark. And yet, none of these are the most fascinating result of the night. For that, we must head north to the land of the wag, for in Knutsford there were by-elections for both the existing Cheshire County Council seat and for a seat on the shadow Cheshire East unitary authority. And lo it came to pass that;

Cheshire CC, Knutsford
Con 1647 (58.7; +11.4)
LD Caroline Aldhouse 818 (29.1; -2.0)
Lab 342 (12.2; -9.4)
Majority 829
Turnout 28%
Con hold
Percentage change is since May 2005

Cheshire East UA, Knutsford
Con 1679 (59.7; +2.1)
LD Caroline Aldhouse 817 (29.0; +5.0)
Lab 318 (11.3; -7.2)
Majority 862
Turnout 28%
Con hold
Percentage change is since May 2008

The unusual factor here is that these are two simultaneous by-elections to essentially the same position; Cheshire East is a shadow authority until next May when it takes over from the County Council, so one job is real until then and the other job becomes real at the same point. As the wards themselves are coterminous (the shadow authority merely uses the existing county council wards, but with three councillors per ward instead of one) you have two identical votes with the same people going into the same polling stations on the same day.

And yet, the results are not identical; indeed, not only did seven more people vote in the unitary than in the county, there was a twenty-two vote swing from Labour to Conservative in the unitary over the county ballot.

There is, however, a possible reason; while the Labour and Liberal Democrat candidates in both elections were the same, the Conservative candidates were not. The new County Councillor is a sitting borough councillor for part of the town, meaning she now has two jobs both of which are due to be abolished. Meanwhile, the new member of the unitary is the current Chairman of Cheshire County Council, on which he represents the neighbouring Bucklow ward.

The question, then, is why the new unitary authority member is changing seats. After all, Bucklow has three Conservative members of the unitary, all elected in May this year. Was he deselected in his own ward in May only to be thrown a lifebelt next door? If not, why does he want to stand for a different ward in October when clearly he didn't want to do so in May? Neither scenario suggests that the burghers of Knutsford have done well out of this little exercise in democracy.

Thursday, October 09, 2008

In Defence Of Lembit; Or, Why Targets Don't Work (Part 94)

I thought that those who think that the boy Öpik can't appear in front of a camera without a harmonica, a Z-list celebrity partner and a picture of an asteroid should be pointed towards his appearance on Wales Tonight giving a sombre, measured reaction to a sombre story. Then again, I should warn you both that ITV's answer to iPlayer is criminally inept and that the video you are about to see may be proceeded by scenes of a Daily Hate Mail advertising nature that some viewers may find distressing...

The story itself, however, gives an important insight into what happens when you give a target culture to a group of people almost specifically recruited to be innumerate. In this case, a family in Newtown, Powys have been waiting since August for a response to their claim to the Social Fund for help paying for a family funeral. ITV Wales approached the Department for Work and Pensions for a comment and they duly responded;

"...we aim to clear all such applications within sixteen working days. So far this year in Wales we have cleared 1,800 applications with an average clearance time of fourteen days, so we are exceeding that target."

Oh dear me no. For those who need it spelled out, when the target is 100% clearance at sixteen days, an average clearance time of fourteen days means that the 100% clearance time is insultingly pathetic and could easily be twice the sixteen day target. To say that you are meeting a complete clearance target when the average clearance is better you must by definition be either illiterate or innumerate; to say I'm not surprised to see a government response be either would be a colossal understatement...

Wednesday, October 08, 2008

Live From The Grand Old Town Hally

To be honest, I've struggled with the first two rounds of debate season. I tried to watch both on iPlayer but found myself rapidly not caring about either. Maybe that's a function of my having made my mind up long before even the primaries, but it didn't feel right to be disinterested in it. And so I promised myself to watch at least one of the debates live, which is why I'm in front of News 24 tonight.

The Town Hall format is interesting, even to a Briton brought up in the era of Question Time where public interrogation of politicians is a weekly event. What is immediately striking is the difficulty, even at the linguistic level, for either candidate to connect with the audience. Obama opens up answering on actions to bail out citizens as well as banks, but he has to talk about “you” because talking about “us” would be ludicrous; he's not feeling the pinch because he's on a senator's salary and so is McCain. But once you say you, what you're saying is very different.

It's also immediately clear why all the hype was about McCain's ability in this format. In that first answer he does a very good job of talking both to the questioner and to the whole audience; Obama fixates on the questioner. When Tom Brokaw follows up, however, it's the other way around, McCain talking to the chair while Obama talks to the crowd.

Whether it's the format or the ads, there's definitely a more direct aspect to the exchanges. Then again, I've always taken the view that there's a difference between pointing out facts about your opponent and saying they blow goats and the exchanges here are clearly about each other's record. The result is a plague on both your houses and lo, Obama's pivot is away from the row about the facts and towards the practicalities for the questioner.

The saddest thing about the financial debate is how much both sides have reached towards energy independence. By definition, being energy independent is probably more expensive than where we are now, because if it wasn't you'd already be there. There's a clear national security benefit to reducing foreign oil expenditure, but there's unlikely to be a financial one, certainly in the next eight years. Nice to hear Obama make the Apollo Project comparison; can't imagine where he got that from...

As a recovering physicist I quite like the use of the planetarium projector as an example of a bad earmark, if only because it demonstrates that McCain's advisers don't have a basic factual understanding of things. The point being made isn't that giving money to planetariums is bad, it's that $3m is too much for a projector, which is fine until you actual think about what a planetarium looks like and how much bespoke structural metalwork you need for that sort of thing. If you're going to attack a value as being ridiculous for what it is, you ought to check exactly what it is and whether it really is ridiculous.

And then Obama answers my opening point with the best pivot of the lot; I don't need a tax cut, neither does he, so we shouldn't get one. McCain's response is interesting, because he tries to paint his position as being a freeze rather than a cut on taxes for the wealthy. What they're talking about is Dubya's headline policy and whether it should be maintained or reversed; how it plays will depend very much on whether the voters spot that.

Dear God, an American called for nuclear reprocessing! I just wish it wasn't McCain! It's particularly interesting territory for McCain; much as he leads into it with his experience on nuclear ships, the reason America stopped reprocessing is because they decided it was a proliferation threat (it isn't but they had a paranoid moment). Obama's phrase, that he supports nuclear as a part of the solution, is interesting; it's better than nothing, but you can read so much into it. Tom Brokaw's been reading my blog though, taking Apollo and turning it into Manhattan just the way I told him to...

Finally we reach healthcare, a subject that has been surprising in its absence from this campaign. After all, if you as McCain are trying to paint Obama as a bleeding heart liberal egghead communist, you'd think “he wants to socialise healthcare” would be page one of your playbook. Now we're getting into the meat and drink of the narratives; Obama brings the first biblical allusion, McCain goes on the offensive with Obama talking about government first. If there's one issue that should kill the Republican Party dead at the root, it's this one; sooner or later, the inability of small government and the private sector to deliver universal healthcare will kill America itself if it doesn't get the Republicans first.

Jed Bartlet is throwing stuff at the screen right now, because McCain just invoked “in the history of the world” and you don't do that. Okay, he wasn't comparing himself to the Visigoths adjusted for inflation, but for a non-American the whole “we're the biggest force for good there's ever been” bit is pretty galling. In Obama's response I heard echoes of “I will not make an issue of the youth and inexperience of my opponent”, but that was probably just me and not the dial groups. To make things worse, Brokaw's follow up begs for the premise of the question to be rejected; in the twenty-first century, every humanitarian crisis has national security implications for everyone, no matter how far away. Either way, this is the area where I as a Briton am least qualified to judge the answers; I get Obama's point about allies, but I don't believe the majority of Americans are there yet.

Possible award for strangest comment of the night; “Russia is not behaving the way we'd expect a country that has become so rich through petrodollars would”. Yeah, 'cos the way Russia's developing is so different to the way Saudi Arabia, Venezuela and Iran have. Then again, Obama responds by suggesting that Poland needs America's help to rebuild its economy and leave the old Soviet sphere of influence, and my eyes roll once more.

Inevitably there's a question from a veteran (though not one so gnarly and grizzled as we tend to think of when we conjure with that word). It's then that it strikes me that much of McCain's comfort with the format is rooted in the bond he can develop with veterans; statistically in America you're going to benefit from that a lot, but he's not had that advantage tonight until late on.

He may have been learning from me, but Tom Brokaw's been learning from David Dimbleby and he's picked a terrific last question. The answers, of course, go back to the narratives, though it's a forgiveable reach for them to do so. I still think that Obama's narrative is more authentic than McCain's, but I am biased in that respect.

It's for others to decide what the result was; maybe it's because I know the Santos-Vinick debate so well that I feel much the same after this debate as I did then. The one thing it certainly wasn't is the big McCain win he needed to overturn the current poll leads and if that is borne out and Obama survives the debate McCain was meant to beat him on, we could be very close to a result.

Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Yon Scunner Santos

For ten years we all complained that Tony Blair thought he was President of the United Kingdom. But today's second-hand story from the new Secretary of State for Jockshire that Scunner Broon himself is "very keen" to join the campaign in Glenrothes is something else entirely; evidence, perhaps, that the Supreme Leader thinks he's running for President.

Despite the headlines, what Jim "I'm Secretary of State for a part of the UK that has a devolved assembly so my name has to be" Murphy actually said was;

"I think it would be a real benefit to Labour's campaign if the prime minister can attend, so we'll be talking about that... But I think most people in Glenrothes in truth would rather he was certain he was doing everything he could in the economic crisis. If he is able to do that and come to Glenrothes, I think he would be a great boost to our campaign, so I think it makes sense."

Or in other words, the Prime Minister would like to talk up how much he wants to be involved and how positive it would be for the campaign, but in reality his appearance would go down like an iron airship so he's going to set Cameron up for the fall when he has another go at him for not going to a by-election and he can pivot to looking strong and responsible on the economy.

It's all very well trying to set a trap for your opponents, but erecting a ten foot neon sign above it and standing next to it waving your arms isn't usually the best way to make it work.

Friday, October 03, 2008

Doing The WRU's Bidding

My love of sport and my politics collide relatively frequently, so much so that I'm occasionally tempted to start up a sports blog a la He Who Must Not Be Named. This week, however, they seem to be particularly intertwined. Which is fine, except that I'm now an Englishman representing a part of Wales, so some of those collisions can very easily get me into a lot of trouble, particularly where rugby is involved.

At club level, I feel I have a reasonable excuse, namely that I'm from Gloucester which means I bleed Cherry and White, especially when they face Cardiff Blues in the Heineken Cup later this year. I wish I could summon up the strength to support the Blues themselves, but as regionalisation is such an abomination I don't feel especially guilty about not cheering them on.

Internationally, the rift is perhaps even deeper because the country of my birth and the country of my home are represented by the RFU and WRU, who continue to fight a broad-fronted battle to see which of them can be the most incompetent bunch of useless morons (and trust me, that's the polite version...) I tend to support Italy and Argentina, because the future of the game depends far more on their success than the tribal battles of the M4 corridor.

Which leads us to the news that Wales has made two different bids to host the 2015 World Cup, in partnership with either England or Ireland and Scotland. Now let's be clear, I hope both those bids are irrelevant; after the corrupt way they were denied the 2011 World Cup, it is absolutely vital that Japan hosts in 2015 because, again, the game there needs the boost far more than the game in any of the home nations does.

Nevertheless, the bids are important, if only because they demonstrate that the WRU hasn't learnt the lessons of 1999. That World Cup was undoubtedly the worst in the tournament's history, not least because it only produced four games of any quality and none of those were in the host country (France beat Fiji 28-19 in the pool stage in Toulouse, Argentina beat Ireland 28-24 in the play-off in Lens, South Africa beat England 44-21 in the quarter-final in Paris and France beat New Zealand 43-31 in the semi-final at Twickenham).

By 2015, however, the factors that lead Wales to distribute the 1999 tournament to the four winds (lest we forget, in that tournament, Uruguay and Spain played in Galashiels!) will largely have disappeared. Instead of the mess of rickety old stadiums Wales had then, it will be packing;

  • Millennium Stadium, Cardiff – 74,500 (1999)
  • New Cardiff City Stadium, Cardiff – 26,500 (2009)
  • Liberty Stadium, Swansea – 20,532 (2005)
  • New Newport Stadium, Newport – 15,000 (c2010)
  • Parc y Scarlets, Llanelli – 14,340 (2008)

That's half a World Cup on its own just in South Wales, and the immediate question has to be, why on Earth are you including Scotland in your bid? Ireland on its own offers;

  • Lansdowne Road, Dublin – 50,000 (2010)
  • Thomond Park, Limerick – 26,500 (2008)
  • Ravenhill, Belfast – 19,100
  • Musgrave Park, Cork – c17,000 (c2010)

Add in the Racecourse Ground in Wrexham for another 15,500 and that's a World Cup right there.

But the clever thing would be to have a bid that transcended national borders and dealt purely in rugby borders. In reality, Welsh rugby's heartland is South Wales and only South Wales, which is where the five new purpose-built stadia are. What's more, that heartland borders its English compatriot, which by 2015 will be able to offer;

  • Sixways, Worcester – c20,000 (c2014)
  • Kingsholm, Gloucester – 18,000 (c2011)
  • Memorial Stadium, Bristol – 18,000 (c2010)

It may only be eight stadia and it lacks the second semi-final site that Lansdowne Road provides, but it's not so far away as to be ridiculous and it would be a fantastically rugby-focused tournament.

Whatever ends up happening, we can but hope that the WRU actually think about the quality of the tournament they're producing, instead of prostrating themselves before the business interests and scattering another World Cup to the winds. I'm not holding my breath though...

Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Failure To Dylan

Joe Otten's useful heads-up on Caroline Lucas and the dogma of the Church of EnvironMentalism reminds me of something I meant to blog about a while back but left alone largely to avoid overloading the world with energy stuff.

We are often reminded how windy Britain is and how much potential there is meant to be for wind generation. Heck, one Lib Dem blogger (who I will refrain from naming in order to save a fellow elected member from having their name and moron too closely associated in Google) even went so far as to say;

“It's a myth that renewables cannot provide baseload. There has never been a day on record when the wind has not blown somewhere in the UK. The point about baseload is that what you need is enough people in enough places producing electricity. The more you decentralise electricity generation the more secure the baseload becomes. “

Interestingly, two weeks before that was said, a useful little study of the actual potential of wind generation in Britain was published. Okay, most of you probably weren't reading The Telegraph when it was covered, but I would hope my constant plugs have started to focus everyone's minds on The Register, a far more sound source of technology news.

As our anonymous blogger rightly identifies, the great problem for wind has always been the difficult question of variability; that sooner or later, the wind will stop blowing. We as Lib Dems have never really worried about this because the answer, we're told, is our favourite word; decentralisation. Indeed, some have proposed that large scale wind investment should be accompanied by the establishment of a Europe-wide electricity grid, so that the areas with the best wind at any moment can sort everyone else out.

The study uses the existing Met Office wind speed database, as measured at weather stations across the country, to evaluate the nationwide wind potential over the decade from 1996 to 2005. In general terms, it finds the system susceptible to “large, rapid and frequent changes of power output.” Hardly the best of starts, but nothing like as bad as things get when we consider the extremes of Britain's energy needs.

Excluding specific events like deaths on Coronation Street and England reaching the semi-final of anything, the annual peak of electricity demand generally occurs on the coldest evening of the winter between five and six pm, as domestic demand rises after the school run faster than commercial demand tails off at close of business.

You might expect that the coldest events are associated with Arctic or Siberian winds blowing cold air into the country. What the report finds, however, is that the coldest period in any British winter occurs when a high pressure system takes up residency over the country for a period of days; the absence of cloud to insulate the nation being far more potent when it lasts for five days or more.

More importantly, however, high pressure systems not only bring no cloud, but no wind either. Perhaps the most shocking finding of the report is this; between five and six pm on February 2nd, 2006 (the peak of the electricity demand that year) the total electricity output of the UK's wind turbines was less than zero, as demand from auxiliary systems in the turbines exceeded their output. And that isn't a number from the model; it's the actual result as measured by the National Grid! What's more, such examples really aren't unusual; a five day high pressure, low wind cold snap is an annual occurrence in the UK, while a ten day low wind cold snap is probably a once in twenty year event.

As for the Europe-wide grid, the report compared their modelled wind load factor for the UK against the large existing wind farm system in Germany and Denmark;

I'm sure you don't need my help reading that graph.

The message remains as clear as it has always been; the question of our future energy supply is absolutely not intuitive and it cannot be answered by reference to bland and uninformed generalisations. There is no issue for which that old chestnut the “informed debate” is more vital.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Call Them Out Early, Call Them Out Often

I wouldn't normally blog merely to post a link from a newspaper, and particularly not a link that I got from Matt Drudge, but everyone should take a look at this piece from the LA Times because it's the point where Gordon Brown's remaining economic credibility gets flushed firmly down the toilet. In the government's spin of the global financial crisis, the most consistent line from Numbers 10 and 11 has been that we are better placed than other similar economies to weather the storm.

That is, of course, utter bollocks.

Surely none of us needed the LA Times to point out to us that the global financial crisis is exactly that; financial. And in such circumstances, the only criteria for how well you can weather the storm is how big your financial sector is and and how exposed it is to everyone else's. You don't need to be an economist to know that by those criteria, the UK is fairly firmly screwed.

Now perhaps there is something to be said for not fanning the flames, for politicians to be calm and considered at this stage. But when the government's only response to economic catastrophe is to insult everyone's intelligence, they absolutely need to be called out on it, because it absolutely calls into question their own intelligence.

Monday, September 22, 2008

Africa's Mesic Moment

And so for we keen watchers of developing democracies, the moment of destiny draws unexpectedly nearer.

It's difficult to judge the truth of the situation in South Africa; did Mbeki try to use the courts to deal with a rival? Is Zuma serially corrupt? Either way, you can but conclude that if this sort of thing was happening to any other party in any other democratic country, they'd have poll ratings that would make Gordon Brown look beloved.

And yet, in the most recent poll I could find the ANC weren't registering any real loss of support. The damage to South Africa of such a result is obvious; though the criminal allegations are unproven, Mr Zuma has not exactly distinguished himself as a leader and promises, if anything, greater tribalism in South African politics. The potential damage to the rest of the continent, however, is far more severe.

The tale of South Africa now is, sadly, the tale of most of the rest of Africa; a strong resistance party emerges, forces the end of colonial or colonist power, sweeps to power in a democratic election and becomes the occupying power itself. What's more, after the Zimbabwe experience, we're used to the idea that the occupation of power is achieved by vote-rigging, intimidation and violence, but those are the strategies of the endgame, not the opening.

South Africa may to some extent be insulated from that process by its dependence on native corporate power and Mbeki's black middle class, but the longer it remains under ANC rule “just because”, the longer it takes for it to become the example and the leader we keep wanting it to be. If Mbeki's legacy does end up being a successful transition to a Zimbabwean democracy, it will be by luck more than judgement; he was never in a position to be a leader in that standoff because his ANC is what ZANU-PF once was.

While the ANC is there, insulated from its mistakes by overwhelming goodwill, it serves as the example to every entrenched African leader that they have the right to stay in the job. A peaceful, democratic transition of power in South Africa is vital to say to the rest of the continent, “this is the way to do it”. If the current mess can help bring that about by finally puncturing the ANC's hegemony, it may be the one good thing to come of it.