Jim Pickard

It is the Lib Dems who complain most vociferously about Britain’s first-past-the-post voting system.

If Britain had PR (proportional representation) the yellow party would have had 150 MPs in the current Parliament. Instead, they picked up 57 seats.

That may explain why Lib Dems are apostles of electoral reform.

But in 2015 they may appear beneficiaries of the voting system – at least in comparison with Ukip.

That is because most experts predict that the LibDem vote will hold firm in their strongholds such as Colchester, Eastleigh or Twickenham, where they retain a decent ground presence. Senior figures still expect to hold at least 40 seats, even if the party’s share of the vote was to halve from its previous showing of 23 per cent. Read more

Jim Pickard

When George Osborne stands up tomorrow he hopes to convince business that the coalition is doing all it can to help industry.

One of the biggest measures the chancellor is expected to set out is a freeze in a tax on fossil fuels called the “carbon price floor”. Read more

Jim Pickard

This interview with Tony Benn was never published by Weekend FT:

Former MP Tony Benn smokes his pipe outside the Palace of Westminster, London, Tuesday 18 March, 2003, during the debate in the House of Commons on the possibility of war aganist Iraq. See PA story POLITICS Iraq. PA Photo: Matthew Fearn

Tony Benn has not been chatting for long when my right hand begins to ache and I regret leaving my dictaphone at home.

The 83-year old has led the conversation through the Iraq War, training as a pilot in Rhodesia, Alan Greenspan, John Bolton and Herbert Asquith.

We have only been going for ten minutes or so. A cup of tea, balanced on a wooden stand in the corner of Benn’s living room, remains untouched as I scribble away.

Mr Benn has agreed to meet for a “Lunch with the FT” interview but asked do it at his house over tea rather than a restaurant.

The note pad on my lap is filling with reams of scrawled shorthand as my pen struggles to keep pace with Benn’s fruity vowels.

The voice, reminiscent of 1940s broadcasters, is one trademark of this most reknown of British politicians. Another is his pipe, from which he emits streams of tobacco smoke in my direction.

Some would say that Benn, former flag-bearer for the left-wing, has never stopped fighting a series of lost causes – from unilateral nuclear disarmament to the nationalisation of British industry.

Even now he is at it again, writing to all MPs urging them to vote for a referendum on the EU’s Lisbon Treaty. It probably won’t happen, but that’s not the point. Benn opposed the UK’s Common Market membership in the 1975 referendum and will not give up the fight.

The man’s energy is impressive. On the day we meet he is due to attend a meeting of the Stop the War Coalition, of which he is president, ahead of a demonstration at the weekend. He is meanwhile putting together a guest speech to the Scottish Parliament.

He is a natural orator. The opinions come spilling out, sometimes in an ordered fashion, at other times in a jumble of inter-connected thoughts.

Carbon trading? Dreadful idea. The troops in Afghanistan? They should all be called back, like Prince Harry. Hilary Clinton or Barack Obama? Definitely Obama.

Not that Benn is entirely self-centred. Most interviewees, especially politicians, show little more than a cursory interest in the person they are talking to. Why bother, if you might never see the journalist again?

By contrast, he has done his homework on Google: “I see you worked at the Western Daily Press in the 90s,” he beams as I arrive at the door of his house on Holland Park Avenue, in one of London’s most expensive areas.

Later, he comments: “I saw that you won a prize last year?” I know I shouldn’t succumb to this flattery but the effect is disarming.

He offers tea or coffee, shows me into a living room filled with old furniture and paraphernalia – ranging from a Toby jug in his image to old miners’ lamps – and swiftly appears with a tray of hot drinks. His hands tremble as he pours my tea.

There are busts of Keir Hardie and Karl Marx, a mug (”Labour and Proud of It”) and a piano which he cannot play. “It’s a bit of a museum,” he says, faux-apologetically.

I lean back in my chair to avoid the fug of smoke and ponder Benn’s status as a political hero to the most unlikely of people.

Previously I had sieved through Benn’s press cuts. Recent profiles had all been glowing, Read more

Jim Pickard

The massive industrial dispute at Grangemouth refinery in Scotland last autumn prompted David Cameron to launch an inquiry into trade union tactics.

The prime minister said he had appointed Bruce Carr, an eminent QC – and industrial relations expert – to look into whether the law needed to be tightened up to prevent “harassment” and “intimidation” by union officials.

That move came after claims that a “mob” of Unite staff had gone to the house of a manager at the Ineos-owned Grangemouth refinery during the height of the dispute.

Francis Maude, the Cabinet Office minister, insisted the inquiry was not politically motivated, arguing that such tactics had no place in industrial relations.

Protest should not be allowed to develop “into intimidation and clearly inappropriate activity,” with managers cast as “the enemy“, Mr Maude said.

Yet Vince Cable strikingly argued at the time that the inquiry should look at malpractice by unions – but also by employers, for example in the blacklisting scandal.

Nick Clegg, Lib Dem deputy prime minister, also insisted that the inquiry should examine “irresponsible business practices” as well as union misdemeanors.

Fast-forward four months and little appears to have happened with the inquiry, despite Read more

Jim Pickard

It was not long ago that a senior figure in the Miliband camp was claiming that the Labour leader had never described his funding reforms as a Clause 4 moment.

“Why would he? Clause 4 was about Labour’s aims and values,” that person told the FT. “This is about how we organise, how we relate to people outside the political elite and how we finance ourselves. Clause 4 did not cost us a penny. This will.”

That was two weeks ago.

Now, by contrast, Miliband is saying that the changes will be “bigger than Clause Four in its impact on the way it will change politics.”

The jury is still out on what the long-term impact of the reforms will be. No one could possibly argue that the system is not a move towards greater democracy in the way that some decisions (but not all*) are taken inside Labour.

Yet, as I’ve previously explained, there is one scenario where the union barons have greater power than before in their ability to dispense cash to Labour – or withhold it: eventually.

One thing which people have not quite twigged yet, meanwhile, is the impact of the changes in the short-term. Read more

Jim Pickard

There is a fascinating piece in the Times today looking at how many of the seats hit by flooding are marginal constituencies. It concludes that a disproportionate number of marginals have been affected, in particular Lib/Tory two-ways in the southwest.

Of the 40 most marginal seats held by the Tories, 15 have been hit by flooding, writes deputy political editor Sam Coates. Of the 20 most marginal LibDem seats, 12 have been flooded. By contrast hardly any vulnerable Labour areas have been hurt by the recent weather. Read more

Jim Pickard

Sir Andrew Dilnot, the head of the UK Statistics Authority, has concluded that the government may have given a misleading impression of how much it has invested in various infrastructure schemes – including flood defences.

I wrote at the back end of last year about the government’s “National Infrastructure Plan” and how it seemed to use statistics in a questionable wayRead more

Jim Pickard

There has been an interesting shift in the polls north of the border with a rise in the support for independence from 26% to 29% in recent days.

The latest survey still points towards a “no” vote in September when the Scots get their historic chance to vote for independence from the United Kingdom. Support for the status quo has remained steady at 42 per cent, according to the survey by TNS BMRB of 1,000 people. Read more

Jim Pickard

By Andrew Bounds

More trouble in the shires for Conservative high command as one of its dwindling band of female MPs faces a “campaign to unseat her mounted by local gentry”, according to her allies.

The Yorkshire Post, which opened the curtains on goings-on at Thirsk and Malton Conservative association, quotes one source who dubbed it “our very own Falkirk”, a reference to Labour’s attempts to influence candidate selection in the Scottish town.

The charge that unions unknowingly signed up members of a selection committee wounded Labour leader Ed Miliband. In James Herriot country the allegation is that the local association “co-opted” people to pack the executive committee and deselect Anne Read more

Jim Pickard

David Cameron has today thrown his weight behind the small but growing trend of “reshoring” – or returning production from overseas to theUK.

Speaking in Davos, the prime minister said he was setting up a government advisory service to help companies that want to reshore. The service, “Reshore UK”, will offer advice on questions such as locations. Read more

Jim Pickard

Last October, at the height of the political row over energy bills, we reported on the growing concerns of senior business people (including the CBI) about the impact on Britain’s future infrastructure.

The coalition was engaged in an attempt to rein back bills in a direct reaction to Ed Miliband’s promise of a 20-month price freeze.

The most interesting was Sir John Armitt, former chair of the Olympic Delivery Authority, who told me that Britain needed long-term investment and policy to get energy projects off Read more

Jim Pickard

Workers with savings who lose their jobs after fewer than four years in employment could lose their automatic entitlement to out-of-work benefits as a result of Labour’s proposals to strengthen the contributory element of the welfare system.

Rachel Reeves, shadow welfare secretary, has floated plans to give more money to jobseekers who have been working for longer in an attempt to restore the Beveridge principles of the welfare state. Read more