Monthly Archives: September 2011

The tactics in the battle of Daily Telegraph v George Osborne/Greg Clark over the planning system are the equivalent of trench warfare. The ministers insist, day in, day out, that they will not budge over its planned changes. Introducing a new “presumption in favour of sustainable development” will help the economy to grow, they fervently believe.

On the other side we have the Telegraph, which agrees with charities who fear that the changes (a new ‘national planning policy framework’) are a licence for developers to run amok. Read more

I wrote a piece today on Labour’s attempts to exploit the Tories’ failure to connect with women voters. The piece highlights the coalition’s failure to help low-paid women cope with childcare as a major issue for the working mother. But during my research, another issue was brought up by Tory women: David Cameron’s marriage tax allowance.

It may be the Tory leader’s totemic ‘family’ policy but it is exactly the sort of scheme that chimes well with his old-style grassroots but does little to endear the party to the plight of the working couples.

Under the scheme as it was outlined before the election, a married couple only benefits if one person stays at home since the policy is based on one member of the couple being able to transfer £750 of their tax-free personal allowance to their partner to reduce the ‘family tax bill’. Eligible couples where the main earner has an annual income of between £7,300 and £42,000 will be £150 better off. Read more

This morning I wrote on the FT front page that Ed Miliband has been accused of “hypocrisy” for launching his moral crusade against ‘bad’ business while Labour officials are negotiating a £1m donation from Andrew Rosenfeld, a former tax exile.

Rosenfeld is also controversial because in 2005, during the collapse of Allders, he refused to accept responsibility for its £68m pension deficit despite his large financial stake in the retail chain – through a vehicle called Scarlett Retail. Read more

Ed Miliband wants to help “producers” and not “predators” through the tax system. And through regulation. This was one of the driving messages of his speech.

At face value it’s hard to argue with that. But where things become far from crystal-clear is when you start to think about the detail of how a government would go about doing this. Read more

Labour figures believe David Cameron was onto something when he started talking about “ethical capitalism” in 2009. They feel he then abandoned such talk when he became prime minister, and reckon that Ed Miliband now has the opportunity to capture that ground.

That is why his speech was so heavy on words many in New Labour would have hated: words like “values”, “right” and “wrong”. Take this passage for example: Read more

So, will Labour field candidates for the election of police and crime commissioners or will it find a way to avoid putting up its own contenders?

Toby Harris, Labour peer and former chair of the Metropolitan Police Authority, warned conference delegates in Liverpool on Monday that party grandees are considering not contesting the PCC vote in November 2012. But this morning, Yvette Cooper, shadow home secretary, was quick to dismiss suggestions of a boycott. She told the BBC:

That’s not what we are proposing but we will have to consider how we respond to the legislation that has just gone through Parliament. We will be thinking about the best way to respond to do that.

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Ed BallsEd Balls’s flagship announcement at his party conference speech was a “five-point plan for growth”. Some of the policies were old, some were new. He said that if Labour was in power it would:

  1. Repeat last year’s bank bonus tax, using the money to build 25,000 affordable homes and guarantee a job for 100,000 young people;
  2. Bring forward long-term investment projects, such as schools, roads and transport;
  3. Reverse the VAT rise now for a temporary period;
  4. An immediate one-year cut in VAT to 5 per cent on home improvements, repairs and maintenance;
  5. A one year national insurance tax break for every small firm which takes on extra workers.

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All is calm in Liverpool. Unlike last year’s Labour conference in Manchester, ripped apart by fratricide and the gloom of being in opposition for the first time. Or the year before that – in Brighton – when, despite looming defeat, delegates were gripped with election fever. (Akin to the music-playing on the Titanic ahead of its final plunge.)

In recent years Labour fought against the inevitability of eventual electoral defeat with no regard to the internal collateral damage. Now its people have realised that government is at best a long four years away.

There is no overwhelming sense of disunity. For sure, the Blairites and the left-wingers still disagree on which direction to take the party; but without the viciousness of the past. Out of power and without a policy platform such arguments can only be philosophical rather than practical.

Nor have there been personal fisticuffs. I’m told that David Miliband considered staying away altogether to avoid negative coverage. In the end he dropped in for a day and made a plausible display of loyalty to his brother. This morning we saw Ed Balls describe Ed Miliband as a “friend”. (The reality may be closer to ‘frenemy’, but relations are better than they were eight months ago.)

This does not negate the fact that the party still faces considerable hurdles. Read more

Ed Miliband suffered a setback on his first day of the Labour conference after he failed in his symbolic attempt to reduce the relative influence of unions over future leadership elections.

A new cadre of “registered supporters” – thousands of members of the public who wants to influence the result – will have up to 10 per cent of the total vote, after a “Refounding Labour” document was expected to be passed at the Liverpool gathering. Read more

Amid the Labour-dominated headlines this morning on the first day of the party’s autumn conference in Liverpool, something else caught my eye. The Independent on Sunday had a story about David Cameron tackling Alex Salmond head on. It read:

David Cameron is to go head to head with Alex Salmond in a bitter battle over the future of the union between England and Scotland.

The Government is to fight what it sees as “outrageous” claims and increasingly aggressive moves towards complete self-rule from the Scottish First Minister in a desperate attempt to stop Scotland from “sleepwalking into independence”.

 Read more

We’ve written a long piece in the main FT this morning about the widespread attempts in Whitehall to avoid FOI requests – by civil servants as well as special advisers. Texts, private email addresses, more phone calls, and inserting *s in the middle of key words are among the popular methods.

One anecdote didn’t make it into the newspaper and it seemed worth repeating: Read more

There is a growing confusion over the government’s target of reducing net migration to the tens of thousands by 2015 – at least, its chief adviser on immigration issues seems to think so.

As I reported last month, the 21 per cent increase in net migration over the past year, taking the total to 239,000 – more than twice the level the home office needs to reach in four years’ time – must have made uncomfortable reading for the department’s number crunchers.

However, speaking at London’s Global Immigration Conference yesterday, Professor David Metcalf, chair of the Migration Advisory Committee, suggested that the firm target of less than 100,000 was actually more of an “aspiration” for the government. He told the lawyers at the International Bar Association event:

There are certain tensions within the coalition about whether [the tens of thousands] is a firm target or an aspiration.

This is not the first time that such tension has been mooted. Read more

It is party conference time. And the old convention that each party let is opponents have their week in the sun is dead.

Gordon Brown is partly responsible for that. His decision to go to Iraq to be televised supporting our boys in the middle of the Conservative party conference in 2007 – just head of the general election he was minded to call but bottled – left the Tories spitting teeth.

Today was part of their revenge. Andrew Lansley declares that some 20-odd NHS hospitals may not be financially and clinically viable because of the scale of their PFI debts – their payments are too high a chunk of their turnover – and that is all Labour’s fault. As indeed is the separate build up of debt which some carry and which, as things stand, will prevent them becoming free standing NHS foundation trustsRead more

Jim wrote earlier this month about the trouble the fixed-term parliaments bill has run into in the Lords.

Now it has finally passed, some Lib Dems think it could mark the end of coalition government altogether, at least under the current first-past-the-post voting system.

Lib Dem MPs broadly fall into two categories in their attitude towards the coalition: those who relish it as a chance to get their ideas enacted in government and those who think it was a regrettable necessity given the electoral maths and economic crisis. Read more

If you were suspicious of Danny Alexander’s conference promise of 2,250 extra tax inspectors “to launch raids on the wealthy” (Daily Mail) you were right to be.

My colleague Sue Cameron has got to the bottom of the announcement. She reports in FT’s Notebook column that existing HMRC staff will move from their present jobs into a new “affluent” unit. (The adverts are all internal). Read more

Having not seen Ed Miliband’s conference speech (for next week) I can only guess what’s in it; but the broad assumption in Labour circles is that their leader will try to cement his strategy of backing ordinary people against “Big Interests”.

The tactic worked impressively well during the hacking scandal, when Miliband took on News International (admittedly, when the cracks in the Murdoch empire were already visible). We have since seen similar talk against big energy companies and the most irresponsible banks. Many of Ed’s advisers think the dots can be joined up across other sectors to create a binding philosophy.

But Nick Clegg, doing his conference speech this afternoon, is already ploughing some very similar furrows.

Take this line: “That’s why we speak up, first and loudest, when the establishment lets the people down.”There could hardly be a more clear statement of intent to plonk the Lib Dems in Miliband’s territory.

Clegg talks about “a new economy run for ordinary people rather than big finance”. He will promise to “act for the whole nation”.

“In our long, proud liberal history, we have never served; the media moguls, the union barons or the bankers. We do not serve, and we will never serve, vested interests. We are in nobody’s pocket”.

Clegg goes on to say that various establishment institutions have been exposed one by one: “The City of London, shattered by the greed of bankers. The media, corrputed by phone hacking. Parliament, shamed by expenses.”

Miliband’s speechwriting team must be looking on askance, wondering how they can Read more

When  Julian Astle – former director of CentreForum – arrives in Downing Street in a few months time there will be one very familiar face amid the welcoming party.

Astle, who is covering for Polly Mackenzie as deputy director of strategy, used to work for Lord Ashdown in the Balkans – when the former Lib Dem leader was High Representative for Bosnia and Herzegovina. Read more

Tom McNally, the Lib Dem peer and justice minister, may face a less than positive reception when he returns to the Ministry of Justice after the party conference in Birmingham.

As the Guardian  reported today, Lord McNally has already weighed in against his Tory colleagues at repeated fringe events, suggesting that the decision to add the word “punishment” to the government’s legal aid and sentencing bill was the work of “little elves that work in No 10″ helping the prime minister to get the right-wing media on side.

These comments were followed by a remarkably frank discussion of the MoJ’s move to transform the justice system and reduce reoffending through payment by results, at a fringe meeting looking at who should profit from the penal system.

Asking rhetorically whether the introduction of private providers into the prison service was “a sin against the holy ghost [of public provision] or a sensible way of the government financing much-needed services and competition”, Lord McNally acknowledged that the PBR drive had ultimately pragmatic motives. Read more

Tim FarronI wrote on Monday that Lib Dem president Tim Farron’s barnstorming speech at party conference would have looked like a leadership bid if he hadn’t gone to such lengths to praise Nick Clegg.

Well his parliamentary colleagues see it slightly differently. I have spoken to many of them in the last few days, including government ministers, and the overwhelming sense is that this was very much Farron’s leadership pitch, albeit for 2015, after the next election.

Farron himself has further fuelled such gossip, telling BBC 5 Live this morning:

I love doing my job and my job is to be the MP for Westland. That is my number one job. I have a mandate from the Liberal Democrats as well to be their president, I have absolutely no ambition other than that.

Of course there is no ruling it out in the future.

 Read more

In a highly symbolic – and hugely political move – Ed Miliband is poised to weaken the union vote in future leadership contests for the Labour party. (Or strengthen other people’s, to put it another way.)

I can reveal* that Miliband wants to set up a “registered supporters scheme” allowing thousands of people to vote in future leadership elections. Their votes will be cast within the “affiliated organisations” section, which comprises a third of the total vote. (The other sections are MPs and party members).

This will be rubber-stamped at this morning’s meeting of the NEC (national executive committee). It then has to go through another NEC session on Saturday before passing through conference.

The obvious symbolism is that this is a dilution of the brothers’ power. As no one will ever forget, Ed won the leadership after the main unions clubbed together in his favour in a transparent attempt to thwart his elder brother.

But here is the catch. Last September some 247,339 trade union members voted in the election, most having been sent literature in the post. Another 127,331 members voted in their quorum.

How many people are there, realistically, who are interested enough in Labour politics to register as a “supporter” just to take part in the ballot – but not keen enough to actually join the party? Miliband’s team suggest that the figure will be “tens of Read more