Friday, 30 May 2008

Shaving your presents ...

In public building projects there's a tendency to underestimate the final costs in order to get the project underway because many of the people involved don't think we're prepared to pay for what we get and think they'll have to underestimate the costs so we'll accept them.
Further down the line they find themselves forced to continue the charade so they underestimate risk, ship lateral costs off to other budgets, and hide over-runs so it appears that everything is marvellous in the land of the public realm.

When the project is finished the public purse often has no choice but to foot the bill, however much that is. There's a fairly good examination of this in a book called Megaprojects and Risk. Flyvberg is interested in the biggest projects on the planet but the phenomenon is the same whatever the size of the project (read more at Bent Flyvberg's megaprojects page).

There's a new weapon in the armoury now - imported from the troubled lands of PFI - project shaving. This isn't a technical term, it's a term I've thought of to describe what happens.

Hiding behind the facade of the contract and an apparent willingness to help if possible, there's a desire to ship costs and responsibilities off to someone else. Thus, West Lothian College's PFI landlord considers that it isn't part of the contract to provide a cleaners' sink and charges extra for the privilege (£30k, since you ask), staff at Hairmyres Hospital find that not all of the cleaning is included in the PPP contract, and community groups find it increasingly expensive to rent school facilities out of hours.

And so to trams. There is a very interesting sub-committee of Edinburgh Council's Transport Committee - the Tram Sub-Committee. I know, I know, it sounds awfully 'haud-me-back' but it is interesting. The minute of what appears to be the first meeting indicates a membership of Councillors Wheeler, Hawkins and Henderson - two Libdems and one Labour, and all three fervent advocates of this scheme - two of them directors of tie. Surely they shouldn't be sitting on this committee?

You'll note that item 3 in the minute was an agreement to ask the Scottish Government and "other bodies" (unspecified) for more money for the "public realm works on the tram route." What?

Well, that's in a report to the committee. That report discusses "public realm options which could be developed in connection with the Edinburgh Tram project" in spite of its later acknowledgement that "the design brief identified requirements to develop a landscape and habit management plan and to ensure that environmental impacts were mitigated."
That's what I call shaving the project. How much is the Tram project looking to ship off onto others? Well, start with £1 million to "to progress the design concepts" - yup, not even a design concept yet, far less any design - but they do have a shopping list of costs to add to the £1 million. Let's go on a journey through fantasy tram stops -

£2 million for Leith Walk (these caring councillors want to take it from the Services for Communities budget)
£1.76 m for Picardy Place
£950,000 - Haymarket
£2.74 m - Princes Street
£790,000 - Bernard Street
£2.75 m - Shandwick Place
£830,000 - Coates and Atholl Crescents
£350,000 - St Andrew Square (this isn't the stuff that's already been done)
£300,000 - contingency
£300,000 - presentation
Amazing - £13.77 million that isn't a tram cost anymore - the most expensive shave I've seen in quite a while. In common parlance - they're at the capers.

Wednesday, 28 May 2008

Over-egging the pudding

There's something which irritates me. Overlegislation - when governments legislate not wisely but too much (with apologies).

Sometimes it appears to be a panic measure to dig an administration out of a hole, more often it appears to be the death rattle of a government slipping down the last stages of the MacDougall model.

Many will remember the previous administration in Scotland banning fur farms which didn't exist, but London always outdoes us in glorious redundancy. Take, for example, the law against using a mobile phone while driving. Not only was this not needed, but it actually made the law worse.

Before this very specific legislation the offence would be driving without due care and attention, now the offence is driving while using a mobile phone. The original law (still, of course, in force) indicated what should be done and intimated that there was a punishment for failing to comply, the latter stick-on law prohibits an activity.

Apart from the encouragement being better than the 'just say no', the new law leaves holes through which an average lawyer can guide a client who would previously have been bang to rights - as in "he may not have been looking at the road, but since there was no evidence that the device was sending or receiving signals you can't find him guilty of using a mobile phone whilst driving" - nope, but you could have convicted him of driving without due care and attention.
What's this got to do with the price of cheese in Leith? Well, el Gordo announced a raft of legislation a couple of weeks ago, let's have a look and see how much is worthwhile and how much is just the futile flailing of a dying Government trying to look busy:
Banking reform bill
Measures to allow the Bank of England, Treasury and Financial Services Authority to intervene earlier to prevent another Northern Rock-style bank crisis.
Covers: Whole of UK.
The problem is, you see, that they already have the power to intervene earlier but Mervyn King, Governor of the Bank of England, said that would have been irresponsible.

Saving Gateway bill
New savings scheme for the low-paid, with a government contribution for every pound saved.
Covers: Whole of UK.
Brown actually said that 8 million people on low incomes would 'have access' to a scheme where the Government would match their savings pound for pound. Hmmm - where are the low paid in our society finding this bounty to put aside for a rainy day? Savings and Loans, anyone?

If we had eggs we could have ham and eggs if we had ham.

These are the people whose tax rate has just been doubled by this man's Government, followed by a clumsy attempt at a pay-off for one year only. Perhaps the Prime Minister has forgotten what poverty looks like, perhaps he should come canvassing with me some day. Perhaps he can raise the income tax threshold permanently? Perhaps he can tell us why these people have missed out on his economic miracle?

Business rates supplement bill
To give county councils, unitary authorities and the Greater London Assembly powers to levy a surcharge on the business rate for local economic development.
Covers: England and Wales only.
There's a technical term for this - a slippy shoulder. It's slipping a responsibility from your own shoulder to someone else's. Not only does this move responsibility for economic development squarely into the court of local government, it forces local government to do the tax-raising. I'm sure some will compare the move to a BID levy, ignoring the cooperative element of BIDs
Marine and coastal access bill
Simplify management of coastline and open it up to more leisure activities.
Covers: Some parts will cover whole of UK, others some parts of the UK. Government will work with devolved administrations on responsibilities in their areas.
Not as bad as it sounds when you read the White Paper. Strangely, though, the White Paper has no mention of the very important bit that Brown announced - his big idea "to create a path around the whole of the English coastline, with public access for walking and other recreational activities." With big thinking like that how can he fail?

Heritage protection bill
More transparent and simpler system for management of historic sites.
Covers: Whole of UK for cultural provisions, England and Wales only for heritage protection.
Well, when they published the White Paper, the cultural provisions were gone (a pity - they're needed), leaving this Bill a housekeeping exercise just tidying up heritage protection across England and Wales and a wee bit about the marine environment.

Education and skills bill
Promote "fair access" to schools and improve performance of weakest schools. Give parents the right to regular information on children's progress, grant workers the right to ask employers for training, create an independent qualifications system.
Covers: Some parts whole of UK, some England only, others England and Wales only, or England, Wales and Northern Ireland only.
How legislation is supposed to improve schools' performance is a mystery - that's a matter of discovering and disseminating best practice, not creating new laws. Likewise, regular information on children's progress is more a matter of good communication between school and parent than a matter for a right in law. Workers already have the right to ask employers for training - you can ask whatever you want of whoever you want - is Brown intending to compel employers to offer training? This is important because the training bit is the bit that will extend to Scotland. The independent qualifications system - I take it Brown meant unified, England already has several independent qualifications systems (four, I think, and Wales has its own) - about time England started catching up.

Equality bill
Streamline 40 years of piecemeal laws covering sex, race and religious discrimination. Increase transparency and improve enforcement and allow political parties to use all-women shortlists until 2030.
Covers: England, Wales and Scotland.
Good - needs a consolidation act.

Welfare reform bill
Long-term unemployed forced to start training courses or face benefit cuts - all unemployed people to have their skills assessed when they first claim.
Covers: England, Wales and Scotland. Government will work with Northern Ireland Executive on its responsibilities in this area.
Hang on, what about that economic miracle providing jobs for all? How many pieces of legislation since the mid 1980s have tried to make benefits claimants look like scroungers instead of people in need of help? How many of those pieces of legislation have actually made any difference to the number of claimants or the number of jobless people? How many of them were just to pander to some segment of sit-com suburbia harrumphing into their G&T about an idle underclass?

Policing and crime reduction bill
Plan to cut police red tape, clampdown on anti-social behaviour and binge drinking in public places, more local control of police through directly elected representatives, improve recovery of criminal assets.
Covers: Some parts cover whole of UK, others do not.
Continuing the failed authoritarianism of the Blair years, hitting all the buzz-words, cutting red tape, clamping down on anti-social behaviour. It seems a bit of a desperate grab for the Blair trick of glib denigration. I'd love to know what they mean by 'binge drinking in public places', right enough, but I'm even more interested in what appears to be a proposal for directly elected chief constables...

Transport security bill
UK airports forced to tighten up security. Creates new offences relating to acts of terrorism at sea, including using a ship to transport weapons of mass destruction. Giving Royal Navy new powers to tackle piracy.
Covers: Whole of the UK.
Royal Navy to get new powers to tackle piracy? How much piracy on the high seas goes on in the coastal waters of these islands? Surely that's international law? Unless Brown wants the navy to tackle video piracy... It's going to be illegal to use a ship to transport weapons of mass destruction - fantastic, that's Trident illegal then. Hang on, it already is illegal. In fact the weapons of mass destruction are illegal - shouldn't we get rid of them Gordon?

Communications data bill
New procedures for gathering and retaining data from internet service providers and phone companies for the purposes of investigating serious crime and terrorism. Incorporates EU directive on data gathering into UK law.
Covers: Whole of UK.
See this? It's supposed to incorporate EU Directive 2006/24/EC into UK law, but that directive makes it clear that data should be "erased or made anonymous when no longer needed for the purpose of the transmission of a communication, except for the data necessary for billing or interconnection payments", and the plans of the UK Government are for exactly the opposite - the plans are, apparently, for a database logging the details of every phone call made and email sent in the UK.

Law reform, victims and witnesses bill
Introduce different degrees of homicide including provocation, diminished responsibility, complicity and infanticide - subject to consultation. More video links in court to protect vulnerable witnesses. Prevent criminals profiting from memoirs. Strengthen data protection by giving Information Commissioner more audit powers. Sentencing Commission to monitor prison population and advise courts.
Covers: Will vary for different parts of the bill.
Oh come on, it's mostly fluff. M'learned friend may guide me in this, but wouldn't most of this be covered by Acts of Sederunt in Scotland? Don't they have a similar system in England? Surely the variations of homicide (a pix and mix of death at the hand of another?) are matters for the consideration of the bench? Legislation isn't needed for the Sentencing Commission, given the limited role envisaged.

Citizenship, immigration and borders bill
Support setting-up of UK Borders Agency and earned citizenship scheme. Streamline existing immigration laws.
Covers: Whole of UK.

Coroners and death certification bill
Establish national coroners service, with full-time coroners working to minimum standards and right of appeal for bereaved families. New medical examiners to examine cause of death given by doctors.
Covers: England and Wales only, with some minor provisions applying in Northern Ireland.
Is this a knee-jerk reaction to some recent difficulties? A reflection on Shipman? A need to be seen to be doing something, perhaps.

National Health Service reform bill
Link hospital funding to performance by using patient experience to measure quality of care. Publish NHS constitution, greater autonomy for Primary Care Trusts, more choice for patients - subject to recommendations in Lord Darzi's review to be published in the summer.
Covers: England only.
Tinkering at the edges of the NHS reform that went through on Blair's watch. I'm interested by the idea of rationing funding by performance using patient experience. I see queues of patients waiting for their demob interview before going home - leaving times would exceed waiting times. What happens when you ration hospital funding? Do patients get 45 minutes of dialysis instead of an hour? Does your leg get sawn half way through when it needs amputated? Do the patients in the better-funded hospitals get two hours dialysis instead of one and both legs off instead of one? What a ridiculous idea.
Constitutional renewal bill
Independent Commission for the Civil Service to protect impartiality. MPs given final say on treaties. Stripping Attorney General of right to intervene in prosecutions. Reducing role of Lord Chancellor in appointing judges below High Court level. Stripping prime minister of role in appointing Supreme Court judges. Removing restrictions on protests in Westminster.
Covers: England and Wales only, some provisions extend to Scotland and Northern Ireland.
Again, it's a housekeeping measure, not a policy development.

Community empowerment, housing and economic regeneration bill
Involve communities more in design and delivery of local services - including possible right of response to petitions. Streamline regional governance and boost economic role. More cooperation between local authorities. Improve operation of construction contracts.
Covers: England only but construction provisions apply to England and Wales.
None of this needs legislation and with the exception of the streamlining, none of it can be done by legislation.

Geneva Conventions and United Nations personnel bill
Fulfil commitment to adopt new humanitarian emblem (a red crystal) and ratify the Third Protocol of the Geneva Convention signed by UK in 2006. Extending the protection afforded to UN personnel to workers delivering humanitarian, political or development goals.
Covers: Whole of UK.
Nothing here needs legislation either.

In short, Brown's pitch for the next year is empty. He's introduced a legislative programme that isn't a legislative programme and a braver man and more able politician would have announced only what was actually planned and worth introducing.

It seems that the Brown Government's days are numbered, the question now is how much Labour loses by.

Sunday, 25 May 2008

Clear as the rushing waters ...

You haven't seen a referendum go rushing past by any chance, have you?

The SNP, Scotland's Party, has a straightforward policy on the referendum policy - a couple of years to allow people to discuss independence in the National Conversation and then Scotland decides in a referendum.

The other parties (excepting your Green presence) have a far more intricate dance -

First there was the gathering of the three 'leaders' to plot the downfall of those nasty Nats.
"When shall we three meet again,
In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"
"When the hurly-burly's done,
When the battle's lost and won."
"That will be ere the set of sun."
"Where the place?"
"Upon the heath."
"There to meet with Macbeth."
"I come, Greymalkin!"
"Paddock calls."
"Fair is foul, and foul is fair:Hover through the fog and filthy air."
Then there was the cunning wheeze of holding a debate in Parliament to force the creation of a Commission to consider how best to stop those terrible separatists, followed by a quick double-shuffle on the part of the Gordfather in an attempt to take control of a situation where everyone had come to the same opinion - restoration of more powers to Scotland was vital. This means, of course, that the motion passed in Parliament is incompetent, but they'll just ignore it.

Then there was the "Referendum Now" movement followed closely by the "When I said now what I really meant was the SNP can't get it all their own way, we're going to watch something very carefully to see if it moves" movement, leaving poor wee Malky the Chis fending off questions with the stunning observation that those diabolical devils (I know, but cut me some slack) will now be terrified of Labour's Parliamentary tactics while the Wendibles sauntered off with her pet brick saying "Fooled them that time, didn't we Rover?"

Now we've got someone fluffing their lines at Conservative Party Conference and saying that Scotland isn't allowed to have a wee vote on our future.

Not content with the last tango in Paisley from the last sojourn, Labour returned to stand up with Iain Gray saying that Labour now opposes the question in the first referendum but it'll insist on a second referendum after opposing the first.
The Cunning Plans, eh? You should hear their war poetry ...

Wednesday, 21 May 2008

Good news for Labour members

It's not often I bring good news to Labour members, but since Christmas is a few days away yet, I thought I'd cheer them up.

An SNP staff member at Westminster, out on the hunt for sustenance complete with camouflage jacket, infra-red scopes and six foot sandwich catching net, overheard a conversation between two Labour MPs. I've removed the earth from this conversation:

"I hear from our lands in the north that the Thane of Cawdor shall never be queen."
"Indeed? That is excellent news and may even save my own unworthy hide."
"Unlikely, chum, I think you're toast, but I'll survive if it's done soon."
"Who's ordered it?"
"The Gordfather, of course."
OK, it's a bit lame, but the essence is there, and Labour members the short and narrow of their support base will be celebrating.
With every silver lining comes a cloud, though, and I can exclusively reveal that, although the fearsome Curran has already been down to Londinium for her anointing - but it was the day before Labour's solemn backing of the Wendible in Stirling.
Looks like the Gordfather is dithering again...

Sunday, 18 May 2008

Dearly beloved, we are gathered here this afternoon in the presence of almighty Gord ...

Wendy Alexander looks like losing another senior member of staff with Mike Elrick taking three weeks' leave. A new job before he's due back?
Anyway, Gordon Brown's speech to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland. If you want read it in full, use the link, I'm just going to pick out the bits I want to talk about.

He claimed early in the speech that his parents had come home when he was 12 to find him serving lunch to the local burglar - aye right - as likely as Blair sitting behind the goal watching Jackie Millburn play.

El Gordo went on to say:
[my father] brought us up to study the great texts, to believe that the size of your wealth mattered less than the strength of your character;

That explains the removal of the 10% tax rate then. He's not punishing the poor, he's strengthening their characters.

There are many passages of gibberish in the speech, but quite early on there's this bit:

And I have never forgotten the lessons I learned in the manse of a parish in a
medium-sized town in a nation that has given so much to the world:
  • the sense of an interwoven fabric of life and the strands within it:
  • the powerful linkages that clubs and societies - many church-related - brought to those who joined them: boys and girls, men and women, young and old;
  • the spirit of neighbourliness - with the Church, for many, at the centre of it;
  • the recognition that, yes, we cooperate out of need but, yes also, we have a human
    need to cooperate.

The last of these is the only one which approaches a lesson, firstly - how is it a lesson to get a sense of the society around you or to notice that clubs create links between people, and, most bizarrely, how is a spirit of neighbourliness a lesson? In the fourth and last place, how is the recognition of human cooperation a lesson? It appears to be little more than a very clumsy attempt to compare and contrast physical and psychological interdependence - surely we're entitled to better from a Prime Minister?


I would respectfully suggest that our country is fairer today than in the past

We could just go back to the 10% tax rate, or look at the growing gap between rich and poor, or the avenues to self-improvement that the New Labour Project closed off, but I prefer to point to the London Government attitude which amounts to "sod you pal, I'm OK" or, as Mr Balls put it "so what?" to the growing poverty in our land.
Look at this:
As a son and now a father I believe in the Parable of the Talents my father taught me:
that everyone has a talent,
everyone should have the chance to develop that talent,
and everyone should be challenged to use that talent and given the best chance to bridge that gap between what they are and what they have it in themselves to become.
Now far be it from me to pick fault with the words of a son of the manse talking about scripture in a lecture to the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, but:
1. The talents referred to in the parable are units of currency, not talent as in ability.
2. The parable ends with the stricture that unto every one that hath shall be given, and he shall have abundance: but from him that hath not shall be taken away even that which he hath - hardly a call to social justice, is it? Close to Brown's true political philosophy, right enough.
3. The third servant - the one who had failed to make his master extra money - was sacked from his job and thrown out into the street, thereby being made homeless.
4. The parable is an encouragement to usury - if any of the poor servants had come away with the kind of deal that Brown and Darling offered Northern Rock shareholders they wouldn't have been promoted, they would have received short shrift from this chappie - unemployed and homeless might have been the least of their troubles.

This parable isn't about people having talent and developing that talent to bridge the gap between where they are and where they could get to - it's about rewarding the acquisition of money.

The speech carried on and on but there was nothing else which would take the interest even of a chap as motivated as me. I once thought that Brown's non-endogenous growth theory speech was an example of a man thinking in jargon and not considering his audience. I'm now convinced that it was a speech-writer, having decided to seek alternative employ, having a laugh. Brown simply does not understand his surroundings.

It used to be said that Blair was all style and no substance while Brown was all substance and no style. Looking at it now I think it has to be admitted that at least Blair had style.
If one may be permitted to draw a contrast between the current Prime Minister and the lady who visited him for tea - at least she said enough to provoke a response (polite but pointed) from the moderator - at least she delivered a sermon.

Friday, 16 May 2008

This 10p tax thing

Having read the message from the McChattanooga choo-choo, it struck me that I hadn't had much of a look at the decision to do in the 10p tax rate. Right then:

Last year the personal allowance was £5,225. After that, the first £2,230 was taxed at 10% and the next £32, 370 at 22%, anything over that taxed at 40%.

So someone who earned £7,455 would have paid £223 in tax for the full year.

In the budget the threshold was raised to £5,435, the 10% rate was abolished, the 22% rate was cut by 2 points and the stepping point between the basic rate (20%) and higher rate (40%) went up £1,400.

Our low-paid worker on £7,455 saw their tax bill go up to £404 - an increase of £181 or just over 81% in their tax bill

Darling brought in a one-year deal (which he borrowed to fund), increasing the personal allowance by £600 to £6,035 - that saves every basic rate taxpayer £120 a year.

Our low-paid worker's tax has gone back down a bit to £284 - £61 more than they were paying last year - an increase of 27.35%. That's still some tax hike, and next year there could be even more unless Darling finds another £2.7bn.
Just for interest's sake - the break-even point is £10,505, so when Darling said that there was only 1.1 million households that wouldn't get full recompense what he forgot to tell us that it was the very poorest families that would still lose out. Still, it's only 1.1 million households, isn't it? How many people are there in 1.1 million households?

Meanwhile, let's have a look at someone earning, say, £39,825. Last year they would have paid £7,344.18 in tax, the budget brought their tax bill down to £6,878, and this deal brings their tax bill down to £6,758 - a saving of £586.18 or 8%.

Let's reprise:
Earnings of £7,455 - tax up by £61
Earnings of £39,825 - tax down by £586.18

Douglas Alexander, while in opposition, said that poverty was a scar on the face of the nation. I wonder what Gordon Brown will be saying when he addresses the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland tomorrow? "Poverty's fine as long as it's not my target group of voters who's suffering"?

Thursday, 15 May 2008

Hey, anoraks

Here's a puzzle for anoraks. Below is a photograph of some outstanding gentlemen - there's a share in a coconut to anyone who names them all and works out why they are together for this photograph.

Answer on the back of a £10 note please.

Wednesday, 14 May 2008

Random musings from the early morning

Ask not what your country can do for you, ask rather how you can discombobulate, confuse and confound your country while denying it the chance to have a voice.
First among Equals?
A thought struck me yesterday as I watched the evening news and saw Dunky McNeil, the great Wendibles most able lieutenant, being pursued down the MSP walkway at Holyrood. The Labour party holds its group meetings in the chamber press conference room, the SNP holds its group meetings in a committee room.

Holding a meeting in a committee room means that everyone sits around the table - all are equal. The press conference room, however, has a top table and serried rows of chairs for the audience, indicating a hierarchy. The question is whether the strict hierarchical nature of the Labour group is a result of this or whether this is a symptom of that.
Routemap to Confusion
I have been asked how long it took me to photoshop the roundabout that appeared on yesterday's posting. I didn't - that is an actual photograph of a road junction in Swindon called the Magic Roundabout. The thing came to me via an intermediary from a Green chappie - I therefore consider it to be a devilishly fiendish Green plot to force us all out of our cars. Here's the roadsign before the junction:Who's budging on the budget?
While I'm meandering through pointlessness here, let's have a look at the budget. Darling's decision to start handing out tenners here and there is interesting for a couple of reasons:

1. He's borrowing the money, this breaks one of the golden rules - only borrow to invest.
2. Raising the tax threshold means that everyone who earns up to about £41k a year will be better off - those who used to pay the 22% rate of tax (like me) are, of course, better off again.
Does it really help the poorly paid? Well, Darling said 600,000 would be taken out of the tax system altogether. Let me phrase that the other way round - 600,000 across the UK earn between £5,435 and £6,035 a year - a maximum of around £116 a week. What happened to the great Labour campaign against poverty?I appreciate a few extra quid in my pocket, I need it with the way Labour's policies are forcing prices up but me and several others who are earning up to £41k a year can afford to tighten the belt a tad. It's poverty that needs addressed, not the concerns of comfortably-off voters in a by-election that Labour would be in no danger of losing if Brown had just governed adequately.

Tuesday, 13 May 2008

That was the Week that Wasn't

I don't know why you're all so confused by Labour's latest birl around the referendum question (they're saying "no" again - I think. Some others think it's "mibees aye, mibees naw").
For those of you who don't understand, here it is in graphic form - they're just going straight on:

Simple, isn't it? Just think of it as an eightsome reel for the chronically unbalanced.

Just to make sure we're all clear, Labour's Constitutional Affairs spokesman Malcolm Chisholm (looks like the job titles change daily too) said:

"We believe that the Scottish people have right to have a say in the future of Scotland but as we made clear all of last week we are not going to give the SNP a blank cheque on the question, the voting system, the time-tabling or scrutiny of any bill.
"The SNP have turned down the chance to end the uncertainty facing Scotland and now will be at the mercy of Labour's Parliamentary tactics.

At the mercy of Labour's Parliamentary tactics ...

Like the Budget? The Government accepted Labour's amendment so Labour ... erm ... abstained.

In La-La-Labour land last week never happened. How much more pain will they put themselves through?

They should ask themselves "What Would Helen Do?" WWHD.

Helen Eadie would take a deep breath, admit she'd made a mistake, realised that she can't turn the clock back, admit that there's going to be a referendum in 2010, and look for their best case scenario. They can insist that the referendum is between Independence and the out-turn of the Calman Commission, and they'll have two and a half years to make the case for staying in the UK. I've never heard anyone make a positive case for staying in the UK, so that would be refreshing.

Incidentally, though, one of the big beasts of the Conservative party, having shaken the disbelief out of his head over Wendibles, insisted earlier on that Westminster was going to be the place to watch for Scottish developments over the next 7 years.

7 years? Negotiations will only take a couple of weeks!

Ah, the quotarium:

Duncan McNeil, Tuesday 6th May
"No one in the room had any complaints about the decision that has been taken and we are now in a position where, as a group, we will not vote down any Referendum Bill that comes into the Parliament. That's the change in the Labour group's position today."
Wendy Alexander, Tuesday 6th May
"I was delighted that at the Labour group today not a single colleague advocated the position that we should walk into the lobbies and vote down Scotland's right to choose.

Wendy Alexander, Sunday 11th May
Labour Group 'will not vote down the opportunity for Scotland to speak'

Tune in tomorrow for more exciting adventures!

Monday, 12 May 2008

She's a pinball Wendy, there has to be a twist ...

I'll admit it, I'm bored with Wendy Alexander. It's got to the stage where it's becoming pointless discussing her position because the position's changed by the time you've made a cup of tea.

Having said that, I think it's worth reading Douglas Fraser's 'last lap for Labour' today - as pointed out by anseo and Brian Taylor's head-shaking over the mess she's got herself into. It was suggested to me a few days ago that she's still playing student politics, and I would agree if it weren't for the fact that student politics isn't as incisive nor as good as it once was (a bit like nostalgia).
Ms Alexander told us on Sunday that there was no such beast as Scottish Labour, that the leader of the Labour Party UK-wide was the leader of Labour in Scotland. The Conservatives have an autonomous Scottish leader, the Greens have an autonomous Scottish leader, and even the Libdems have a Scottish leader. It would appear to be only Labour and UKIP who don't.

So Wendy Alexander is only leader of the Labour group in Parliament - leader of 46 people including herself. Let me say, though, that all is not lost for Labour in Scotland nor for Wendibles.

Why not, you ask.

Well, says I, one of those 46 people led by Wendibles is the redoubtable, the tremendous, the undervalued, the incredible Helen Eadie!
I'll just wait a wee while for the cheering to die down.

Helen is an experienced election strategist well used to tough spots and tricky positions - she served on Jim Callaghan's election planning team - that went well, I thought - and she is just the right person to advise Labour as they slide again - Northern Rock shareholders have offered to buy the 'bankrupt' Labour party under the same rules that the Labour Government forced the nationalisation of Northern Rock.

Experience and steadfastness - that's what Labour needs now. A philosopher is required, someone who can ponder the great verities:
Helen Eadie (Dunfermline East) (Lab): At the outset, I refer members to my entry in the "Register of Interests of Members of the Scottish Parliament" as a Co-operative and Labour Party sponsored member.
Derek Brownlee spoke of the beam above his head. As I sat having a coffee this morning, I heard the almighty noise of a compressor going off directly above where I was sitting. I thought of him when that happened, and we said so to the staff, who immediately started investigations. Who knows what earth-shattering things are happening today?
It is interesting that, when I left the chamber last night, members were speaking about Supporters Direct, the mutual approach to football for supporters across Scotland. This morning, we again focus our attention on a debate about mutualisation of the water industry.
Come, Wendy, salvation is this way, bring Helen Eadie into your innermost circle, consult her at length on matters profound, cede to her towering intellect, and claim her as your own.

Before thrusting away from el Gordo and contemplating paths long ignored by Labour, like socialism, before committing your merry band of 46 to supporting the SNP Scottish Government in return for a week's headlines, before saying "of course I checked the rules afterwards instead of before but there was no intentional Bill-promising", think!

Before doing any of this, think to yourself "What Would Helen Do?" WWHD - sorry the acronym doesn't work very well, but the policy would!

Saturday, 10 May 2008

Where be your gibes now, your gambols, your songs, your flashes of merriment that were wont to set the table on a roar?

As I sat perusing the Official Report of First Minister's Questions from this week, I was struck by a sudden image of John Knott:
Ms Alexander: I have no doubt that the judgment of history will be between those, such as me and my colleagues
Ah, get over yourself, Wendibles, you're just a politician, you'll be forgotten in a few years.
Since we're here today, though, let's have a wee look back over the week that was. For those with a penchant for bizarre stories, the BBC has a special page tracking the tale in video from the Brian Taylor interview at Labour conference right up to the present day (well, near enough).

Here's the thing - the u-turn story of this week began in the Sunday Mail with a story headlined "Brown to call SNP bluff over independence vote". An interesting point, considering later events.
I see that at the end of that article there's a quote from Professor James Mitchell of Strathclyde University positing that support for no change may exceed support for independence - he must have made that reckoning without taking into account how motivated SNP members will be in a referendum or what canvassing questions we ask.
Back to the story, though, the spin was on and Labour 'insiders' were briefing that Brown was on board - that would seem to be a bizarre move for any member of the Labour party if he hadn't approved (briefing in an attempt to bounce him). Giving a line from the Prime Minister when no such line was authorised would be damaging to the Labour party, damaging to Gordon Brown and to Wendy Alexander, and completely out of character for anyone in Labour post 1994.
It suggests to me that they were at least tipped the wink from Brown's Bunker - which makes the later nonsense even worse. If Brown had some knowledge of what Wendy was up to then his denials in Westminster on Wednesday could have been cold feet or the sudden realisation that the cunning plan was not so good after all - or just it had gone too far and too fast for the plodder that Brown is.
There's a terrible private hell for Labour to live through just now - and all their own doing - which has led this weekend to the two sides, formerly so close too, lobbing grenades at each other from entrenched positions - if you'd written this as fiction a year ago you would have been accused of a vivid imagination at least ...
The upshot is that it leaves the Conservatives as the only credible party of the union - and traditional Labour voters unsure about what Labour's position on the constitution currently is.

Friday, 9 May 2008

My new campaign theme tune

I have found my campaign theme tune. It's by Mac Davis.

I welcome your comments ...

The NeverWendum

The end of another long week in Scottish politics. To think that just seven days ago we had no idea that the leader of the Labour party (Scotland Branch) wanted to run her party right off a cliff nor that the leader of the Labour party (London Branch) would be waving tattie-bye to his protege as she sailed off up that infamous creek sans paddle.
In the midst of the "bring it on, gimme a quickie (referendum, that is), hang on I'll do it myself (still on the referendum), och no, I'll challenge you to do and I'll support it, well I might decide not to support it depending on what you do when you do it, hang on, you mean I can't do it at all and Gordon doesn't support me? Godammit!" frenzy, there are a few wee points that really should be noted.

Firstly, the Glenn Campbell interview on Sunday:

Glenn Campbell: Do you agree with Ken Calman that his proposals for revising devolution may or may not need to be tested in a referendum, that it depends how radical it is?

Wendy Alexander MSP: Yes.

Glenn Campbell: And what would be your point, what would you regard the point at which a referendum was required? How radical would the proposal need to be?

Wendy Alexander MSP: Well I think we have to wait and see what he comes up with.

With thanks to This is Alba for the transcript.

So there you have it - she wants a referendum on independence now and another one on Calman when he reports - the NeverWendum. I can't for the life of me imagine why we'd want a plebiscite on greater devolution after we've declared a yes verdict from an independence referendum, but Wendy says it's so and Wendy is an honourable woman.

So Wendy says yes, Gordon says no, Annabel Goldie says "Well, goodness me, can't she hold a simple line?", Nicol Stephen says "What's going on?" and Michael Forsyth comes sweeping in from right field to say "Yeah, baby, do it now" while Chunky Dunky McNeil solemnly intones the verdict of the Labour party group "Well, we're no gonna vote against it any more. At least I think that's the current position, but I did leave the room three minutes ago, so it may have changed by now." It appears to be utter chaos, but Wendy tells us she knows what she is doing, and Wendy is an honourable woman.

Meanwhile, Big Brother winner and member of the Calman Commission and Labour's Literacy Commission, John Loughton, said on BBC Scotland's Good Morning Scotland
"What I want to hear from the opposition party, what is the fundamental duty of a opposition party, is to propose a clear, consistent and key message in providing solutions or alternatives to proposals from government"
"Sadly I think that's not happened through various changes in stance from the Labour party just now."
What? How dare he? Doesn't he know that Wendy is the leader of the opposition and Wendy is an honourable woman?
Then we're on to Iain McMillan (CBI, Scotland Branch) calling for an early referendum - and he sits on the Calman Commission as well! What kind of a CBI Director is in favour of spending more public money on an extra referendum? Unless, of course, he disagrees with his chairman about the need for a public vote. That would mean he was disagreeing with the Wendibles, though, and surely he wouldn't do that because she is an honourable woman?

Finally, for now, the Scottish Parliament Corporate Body finally discussed Calman on the 16th of April and agreed to provide a clerk and 'other limited services in kind' to the Commission. Tricia Marwick MSP quite rightly ensured that her dissent was recorded.

Quite rightly? Let me take you through this -

On the 6th December last year, Parliament passed this motion:
That the Parliament, recognising mainstream public opinion in Scotland, supports the establishment of an independently chaired commission to review devolution in Scotland; encourages UK Parliamentarians and parties to support this commission also and proposes that the remit of this commission should be:
"To review the provisions of the Scotland Act 1998 in the light of experience and to recommend any changes to the present constitutional arrangements that would enable the Scottish Parliament to better serve the people of Scotland, that would improve the financial accountability of the Scottish Parliament and that would continue to secure the position of Scotland within the United Kingdom",
and further instructs the Scottish Parliamentary Corporate Body to allocate appropriate resources and funding for this review.
The resolution of Parliament, then, was to allocate resources for a Scottish Parliament review of its own powers, chaired by an independent person. Whether Calman can be described as independent is open to question, what isn't open to question is that this is not the review sought by resolution of Parliament.

In the report to the SPCB, it is made clear that this Commission is a creature of London:
3. The Presiding Officer received a letter from Jim Gallagher on behalf of the UK Government on 25 March (copy already circulated to SPCB members) informing him that Professor Sir Kenneth Calman has been appointed to chair the Commission. Further announcements are expected in the near future on the other members of the Commission. I met Sir Kenneth and Jim Gallagher last week to discuss how the Commission was intending to operate. This report to the SPCB draws on those discussions.
4. Sir Kenneth has agreed that the Secretariat support for the Commission will be based in the offices of the Scotland Office in Melville Crescent, Edinburgh. The UK Government is in the process of appointing someone to head the Secretariat. This appointment is expected to be confirmed within the next week or so.
9. It is proposed that a Clerk Team Leader be seconded to the Commission Secretariat, initially until the end of 2008. The situation will be reviewed at the end of this period. The Clerk will work with the Secretary appointed by the UK Government to provide the range of support required by the Commission.
13. It is not possible to quantify the resource implications at this stage beyond the salary of the proposed clerk secondment – circa £50,000. Once the full Commission membership has been established and Sir Kenneth has had longer to consider how he envisages it operating, we should be in a better position to estimate the likely costs. It should be noted that we expect these largely to be existing staff time and overhead costs such as accommodation for events, but it is possible that the Commission may request a budget, for example, for research. I will, of course, report back to the Corporate Body as soon as I have more concrete information.
So there you bubble it - irresponsible spending of our money - money that Parliament should be using on its own running costs. Of course, if there is to be that NeverWendum on this as Her Wendiness suggests, a wee look at the timescale should be instructive:
7. I understand that the Commission will aim to produce an interim report before the end of 2008, with final completion of its work by around the Summer of 2009.
That should mean a referendum round about ... 2010?

Thursday, 8 May 2008

Strike up that brass band, let's have a party!

Another day, another farce.

Yesterday was interesting, including Ken Calman writing to everyone he's ever met to insist that he still matters and his Commission will still be ordering Hob-Nobs for meetings to talk about things that need talked about and peruse things that need perused before cogitating upon things which require a wee cogitation, but today was very special.

El Gordo, he of the Brownness, had replied to an epistle penned by Sir Dave of Cameron. In this witty rejoinder, Gordie the boy insisted that he and the Wendibles were united in their approach. Bad joke in any case, but it went too far when Helen Goodman had to read it out in the House of Commons and pretend it was serious. She was doing not bad until other MPs started laughing and that started her off.

That approach of saying "Well, Wendy favours an immediate referendum, I think Calman should report and can't possibly say I'm in favour of a referendum because that would shaft me good and proper on Lisbon among other things, but we're both absolutely in accord" is bizarre enough, but Labour spinners in Scotland took it a step further today.

Their approach has been to say that Her Wendibleness and His Gordia were actually in total agreement and the plan was working like a dream until the Right Honourable Gordon Brown MP, First Lord of the Treasury and Minister for the Civil Service, Prime Minister, etc, etc, etc, bottled it during questioning from Dave i' the Hood.

Excellent! Labour in Scotland picking a fight with Labour in London, demonstrating that neither of them have a clue. Up you could not make it.

The Prime Minister's Official Spokesman made it very clear this morning:

Asked on an issue as important as the future of the United Kingdom, was the country not entitled to a simple yes or no answer to whether the Prime Minister wanted a referendum, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister had answered the question in his own way.

Asked what the difficulty was with a simple yes or no answer, to whether the Prime Minister favoured a referendum as his answer could not be understood by any member of the public, the PMS replied that he thought it could be understood by members of the public. The Prime Minister was asked this question, there was a debate taking place in Scotland at the moment between the various political parties, and that was a very live debate. Separately there was a review taking place by Kenneth Calman looking at this, so the Prime Minister thought it was right that we should wait for the Calman Review and review progress in light of that.

Malcolm Chisholm cleared it all up though:
"There is absolutely no contradiction between what Gordon Brown said about Calman and what Wendy Alexander has been saying about a referendum," he said.
"Of course we need a choice, but we also need to have the Calman Commission to review, and I believe extend, the powers of the Scottish Parliament within the UK."
Clear as?

I'm also hearing that Labour is u-turning again and its MSPs are claiming now that they'll have to wait and see what the Referendum Bill says before deciding whether to support it or not. If they keep turning that quickly they'll end up with nosebleeds.
Brown has lost control of his party and Wendy never had control of hers. Bring on the General Election!

Wednesday, 7 May 2008


In those darkest hours just before the dawn there's always the fear that the dawn will never come, that the cock will never crow and your closest friends will deny you not once, not twice, but three times.

Most of us can console ourselves with the thought that this, too, shall pass. For some, however, those fears do become horrendous reality. Following hard on the heels that any Labour Member's Bill on an Independence referendum would require the permission of the Scottish Government comes betrayal in London (I've chopped out the boring bits):

Mr. David Cameron (Witney) (Con): Labour’s leader in Scotland, Wendy Alexander, says that there should be a referendum now on Scottish independence. Does he agree with her?

The Prime Minister: That is not what she has said. The Conservative party, the Liberal party and the Labour party have joined together in setting up the Calman review, the commission on devolution. I hope that we can see progress in that commission, and we will review the progress before making any further decisions.

Mr. Cameron: I think the Prime Minister is losing touch with reality. This is what Wendy Alexander said: “I don’t fear the verdict of the Scottish people,” she told BBC Scotland on Sunday, “Bring it on.”
What else could that possibly mean? Can I ask the Prime Minister again? Does he agree with Wendy Alexander or not? It is not much of a leadership if no one is really
following him.

The Prime Minister: What the leader of the Labour party in Scotland was pointing to was the hollowness of the Scottish National party, which said that it wanted independence, said that it wanted it immediately, and now wants to postpone a referendum until 2010–11.
That is what she was pointing out. She was making it clear that what the Scottish National party was doing was against its election manifesto.

That followed this from the morning briefing with Gordon Brown's official spokesman (PMS):

Asked whether the Prime Minister agreed with what Wendy Alexander had said on the issue of independence for Scotland, the Prime Minister's Spokesman (PMS) told the assembled press that we had gone round this course many times yesterday and as he had said, there was a debate taking place in the Scottish Parliament on the timing of any referendum on Scottish independence. The Prime Minister had always been confident of the strength of the argument in favour of the Union and believed that a referendum on Scotland leaving the Union would be defeated.

Asked if the Prime Minister agreed with the timing of an early poll, the PMS reiterated that there was a debate taking place between the various political parties in Scotland at the moment. Asked if the Prime Minister would be joining that debate at any point, the PMS repeated that the debate was taking place in Scotland.

Put that the Prime Minister might want to comment on the issue if he was in Scotland, the PMS replied that the Prime Minister's physical location was neither here nor there.

Asked whether the Prime Minister thought that the rest of the UK should have a say on Scottish independence, the PMS replied that at the moment there was no particular proposal for a referendum and when there had been previous votes on the issue, they were votes that had taken place in Scotland. The PMS added that people were getting slightly ahead of themselves, as the position at the moment was that there was still a debate going on in Scotland about the timing of any potential referendum.

So he wouldn't help her out even if he was standing beside her? With friends like that who needs enemas? The SNP commitment is a manifesto in 2010 - check page 8.

UK General Election? Bring it on.

Tuesday, 6 May 2008


What was that rushing by? Surely not the last vestiges of Labour's credibility flying out the nearest window? Yup, 'fraid so - you mustn't laugh, that isn't nice.

In the political equivalent of resigning before you're sacked, Wendy Alexander has gone the whole hog. This one, in fact, might be a wildebeest since el Gordo is refusing to back her on this one, his official spokeschappie repeatedly saying
"The position taken by the Labour Party leader [Wendy Alexander] is a matter for her."

Translated into English, this means "I'm not taking the blame for that one, she's on her own."

So let's see where she is now and where she's been - absolutely opposed to independence, a referendum or any increased powers for Scotland's Parliament in May 2007; still opposed to independence and a referendum but now convinced of the need for more powers in November 2007; still opposed to independence but now convinced of the need for a referendum and more powers in May 2008.

I see a pattern - every six months she gives a little more - she wants a referendum before she ends up supporting independence herself! Gotta get it in before November - only six months before she turns independenista...

A few points arise out of Labour's spin as well - they claim to not be afraid of a referendum, but why would anyone be afraid of a referendum? What's to be frightened of in a ballot paper? What a strange thing to say.

Another thing is, Labour can't count. Simon Pia, quoted in this morning's papers, when talking about a referendum in 2010 said
"It is not in Scotland's interests to delay (a referendum for] another three years. The SNP should not have four years of fraying the relationship (with the UK] in Scotland's name."

It's only two years, old bean.

Then there's Wendy's assertion that a Bill takes nine months to pass through Parliament - erm, no it doesn't. Abolition of Bridge Tolls Act - introduced 3rd September 2007, passed 20th December 2007, became law 24th January. Graduate Endowment Abolition Bill - 22nd October 2007, 28th February 2008, 4th April 2008.

I was puzzled about this - she used to be a Minister after all - so I looked at her Ministerial career: Communities Minister 1999-2000, Enterprise and Lifelong Learning 2000-2001, added Transport to that 2001, resigned in 2002. The only Bill she saw to completion was the Graduate Endowment (tuition fees) Act - and Nicol Stephen started it. She was never responsible for seeing a Bill all the way through the process - that's why she doesn't understand how Parliament works.

Alternatively, she's including the consultation in those nine months. The consultation for the Referendum Bill is called the National Conversation.

She has now been quoted as saying
"I certainly hope that other opposition parties will reflect on the fact as to whether it is in Scotland's interests to vote down the right of the people in Scotland to choose on this issue."

That is breathtaking, is it not? Wonderful as well, though, like a trapeze artist hurtling from one shifting swingometer to another, spinning in mid air, putting on the air-brakes and spinning again. We can but marvel. I'm sure the Conservatives and the Libdems are very pleased as well, considering that a couple of days ago they had her agreement that they would all vote down the right of the people in Scotland to choose.

I'm told she has promised that she would
not lead Scottish Labour into the lobbies to vote down the right of the people of Scotland to speak

Her generosity knows no bounds, how can we ever repay her? I bet some Labour MPs are asking the same question.

Leaving aside whether she is actually on a conversion route which will see her putting her shoulder to the wheel for independence, I think we can now safely say that there is no tactical or strategic thinking in Labour's ranks.

Wendy has sold the pass on a referendum, handing Labour's votes over to the SNP Government with nothing in return - a remarkable achievement, refusing to negotiate with a minority government while handing them everything they need to win.

Having now promised to bring Labour in step in support of a referendum, Wendy Alexander cannot now fail to vote for it without Labour paying a penalty at the ballot box which would make last May and last Thursday look like the gold old days.

I look forward to her Member's Bill with great anticipation.

We can win a referendum this year or we can wait until the people of Scotland have a chance to have their say in the National Conversation. It would be better if the arguments have all been properly aired so that Scotland votes for independence with everyone having had their say and knowing what they're voting for, but I'll take it this year knowing that it's right and no-one will regret it.

Monday, 5 May 2008

Stands Calman where he did?

Did you ever wonder what happened to Baldrick when the Blackadder series finished? I bet you never thought that Baldrick would become leader of the Labour party.

The latest cunning plan from the mistress of cunning plans, her Wendibleness, would seem to have cut her last cunning plan off at the pass - even the Marx Brothers couldn't come up with this script - unless, of course, I was right all along and the Calman Commission is to be an Independence Commission after all.

Where does that leave Ken "we can't look that way because we're looking this way" Calman and his Big Brother commission? Is he going to have to back down and have it look like he was the one in the wrong for the sake of saving face for Wendy? It would seem that he didn't have a clue about what was going to happen when he took the chalice in his hands.

He may well be a little bemused at present.

That, though, is surely nothing compared with the Scottish Conservatives. While we are used to seeing the Libdems outside the door of office whining like a mongrel caught in the rain, it's seldom that the Conservatives find themselves in a similar position.

In fact, Goldie's troops tend to keep to the well-travelled road, merely observing the battlefields around them. How must they feel now, then, having been tempted onto the field by the promise of seats on a commission to try to hold back Scottish Government policy without debating it in Parliament and the protection of the London Government and now finding themselves up to their necks in glaur? Especially now that the Daily Record is reporting that Wendy Alexander planned this move nine months ago (honest, it's not just knee-jerk guv).

There's a possibility that their involvement in this nonsense could now cost them votes in a Westminster election while the Cameron brigades in the south run riot destroying Labour majorities. That's got to be a thought that will focus the minds of Conservatives across the country - whether they can find a way to extricate themselves from the Wendy disaster is a question which will vex them for a while. Whether they can find ways to put distance between themselves and the meltdown which is Labour before the election is going to be something which will keep Conservative strategists busy for a while.

Meantime, the Nationalists will continue doing what's best for the country.

Thursday, 1 May 2008

Vote early, vote often

A passing remark, no more, but I happened to notice that Gordon Brown was out for a stroll today to take part in the voting in the elections in London - I take it he voted in the council election, the London Mayoral election and in the London Assembly election.
Did he not vote in North Queensferry in last year's local authority and Scottish General Election?

How many votes does he get and can we all get peripatetic votes so we can join in elections wherever we find them?