Conservatives v Corbyn: How the Tory party’s policy vacuum has left them floundering among the under 45s

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George Freeman, MP – man behind revitalising Tory policies. Pic credit: Wikipedia

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Beyond the  media hype of the Brexit battle between Boris and Theresa May this year’s Conservative Party conference was a heart searching  and navel gazing spectacle.

Clearly still rattled by the result of 2017 election where Theresa May lost them their overall majority – by far the biggest topic on the fringe was how can they woo back droves of people under 45 who have deserted them for Labour.

Unusually for a party in power  there were strident calls to develop new policies to win back these lost voters. Usually parties in government can take the initiative as they have the reins of power  and can produce plenty of fresh ideas.

But the Tories at this conference were behaving like a party in opposition – a huge navel gazing exercise in a desperate search for new policies. Tory MP Chris Skidmore, policy vice chairman of the party, virtually gave the game away at a reception for the Conservative Policy Forum – when he alluded to the great revival of ideas by  Sir Keith Joseph, which propelled Margaret Thatcher into Downing Street.  But that was the 1970s when the party had lost power after Edward Heath’s disastrous performance.

David Cameron also tried to soften the image of the party – again the new ideas came when the party was in opposition in 2008.

So what are they trying to do? One of the more illuminating debates came at the  Centre for Policy Studies fringe with the intriguing title, Today’s Millenials, Tomorrow’s Conservatives?

Chaired by Times columnist, Rachel Sylvester,it was platform for two potential rising stars, Sam Gyimah, the universities minister and a late replacement, Guy Opperman, the pensions minister.

The two were remarkably honest about the dilemma.  Sam Gyimah admitted they were used to 18-21 year olds being left wing radicals but not the 25 to 45 year old age group. whom would be in work and bringing up families.

He blamed the continual war within the Tory party over Brexit as putting off young voters.

Guy Opperman admitted that they would not win by negative campaigning against Corbyn ”  We won’t win  by portraying Corbyn  as an insane  antisemitic Hamas supporting, Cuba loving, terrorist” he said.

That message did not seem to have reached the Tory party platform where Sajid Javid  , the home secretary, warned of the security risk of having Corbyn as Prime minister and May devoted part of her speech to denouncing Corbyn over antisemitism, supporting Russia, decrying Nato and appearing on Press TV.

What did they want. Well, without a real trace of irony, it was the need for momentum without the capital M.

Energy, drive, policies that were inclusive, equal pay for women, responsible capitalism, support for the NHS and more and more housing. In olden times, it would be called progressive conservatism. Guy Opperman as pensions minister, was asked by one member of the audience whether to remove parts of the triple lock on pensions to assuage the plight of the young. He was remarkably silent on this saying he did not want to make manifesto commitments at this time. Pressed afterwards he said he liked to get away from always talking about pensions.

But what was missing was any big idea on how to tackle the issues that Labour was pushing – the failure of private firms running the railways, over crowded classrooms, police and prison service  in crisis,giving workers a bigger stake in private companies. They will have to offer real alternatives to wean voters away from Labour. Their only big point was that Corbyn hadn’t the money to do anything about it without ruinous taxation and borrowing.

It is all predicated on Britain entering the sunny uplands once we have left the EU and can plan for a post Brexit society. If Brexit turns into chaos it will further alienate that target age group.

Labour should not be complacent about the dilemma the Tories face. At the Conservative Policy  Forum reception there was a strong rallying cry for people to set up constituency wide policy groups to try and draw up more attractive policies and to reach out to non Conservatives – I expect aimed at that 25-45 year age group – to participate.

Just before I left I had a word with  George Freeman, Conservative MP for Mid Norfolk, one of the most active MPs seeking new Tory policies to appeal to the younger voter. Surprised to find that a hack had sneaked into the reception to hear about their plans, he jested I was only there for the drink. More seriously he asked:

” Why don’t you join  the Conservative forum and help us devise new policies?”

I politely declined, made my excuses and left.

 

Premier Bin: Is the minimum wage hotel chain run by Whitbread millionaires and promoted by Lenny Henry going to the dump?

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The Premier Inn in Lauriston Place, Edinburgh or should I say Premier Bin

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I have stayed in a number of Premier Inns on holiday and the atmosphere has always been cheap and cheerful with an emphasis on a good night’s sleep and a good value breakfast.

That is until this year when my wife and I stayed at the Lauriston Place hotel in Edinburgh for the festival. Last year we stayed at its more centrally placed York Place hotel and found it efficient with obliging staff.

During the last 12 months what has changed? For a start there were fewer EU staff which suggests that the chain – in common with national figures released by the government – can no longer rely on people from Europe coming to work here.

Brexiteers- including Jacob Rees Mogg and Nigel Farage – say by halting low paid and unskilled immigration from the EU – British workers will benefit from higher wages and better conditions because firms will have to pay them more.

Well so far if the Premier Inn at Lauriston Place is any guide  this ain’t happening. From talking to some of the staff instead Whitbread are using recruitment problems to make staff double up and do the work of two people or give people huge work schedules which they can’t possibly do in time.

And if that fails they are starting to withdraw services to customers. For three out of five nights we were there Premier Inn stopped offering to serve anyone who wanted to dine in their hotel restuarant if you wanted  to walk in. Notices of apology – rather reminiscent of the privatised rail companies explaining poor services- were posted in lifts and at the front desk. One even included a reference to bad weather – it was raining outside.

And if you did dine there – by getting a rare booking – the menu appeared to be a wish list rather than  an accurate description of what you could eat. The restuarant had run out of rib eyed steak and chocolate puddings – rather basic fare that should not be subject to food shortages in Edinburgh.

And the cleaning was also under pressure. On one rainy day the room was not cleaned until after 4.0 pm. I found the cleaner, a middle aged woman in, I guess, her 50s, exhausted pushing a cleaning trolley in the hotel corridor.

She had five floors of bedrooms to clean and her shift which was supposed to end at 1.0 pm had taken three hours longer because of the large number of rooms (well over 100) that had to be cleaned. We took pity on her and decided our room did not need a thorough clean that day.

As for a pay rises they were out of the question. Instead the company seems to be relying on higher turnover of staff as people leave rather than paying higher wages.

And wages are low -basically the  national minimum wage of £7.83 an hour  rather than the national living wage . The figures are here on this website.

Those with higher responsibilities -like being a chief chef – get on average another 82p an hour.

Compare that with the top management of owners Whitbread. The latest remuneration report of the company shows a different picture -rather similar to the widening gap shown between bosses and workers published this month.

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Alison Brittain, millionaire chief executive of Whitbread, owners of Premier Inn. Pic credit Twitter

Alison Brittan, the  53 year old  ex banker chief executive of Whitbread, under an incentive package can get up to £3.4 million a year if she achieves her targets which include opening as many new Premier Inns as possible.

If she is a failure she still walks off with £1m a year – 20 per cent going into a pension so she’ll be able to retire in luxury  at 60 if she wants to not caring a bit that her staff will have to work until they are 67. I suspect if any of her lowly paid staff failed, they are promptly sacked.

Two years ago her minimum salary was £775,000 – so she has enjoyed a minimum of £225,000 pay rise while most of Britain’s workers have been lucky to get a one per cent increase.

She claims in an article in the Daily Mail  that she only ever stays in Premier Inns. If she does I bet her room is being cleaned while she has breakfast and if she dines there –  she has a  full choice.

I did put put questions to Premier Inn earlier this week about current wages, turnover of staff, and whether  Brexit was making  the recruitment of staff difficult but they could not be bothered to reply or acknowledge the request.

One thing is certain I won’t be staying in a Premier Inn when I go to the Lake District. Sorry Lenny.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Brexit Bombshell: All Northern Ireland people would be better off in a new united Ireland says new report

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Will this be the new prosperous Ireland? Pic credit: Istock

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It has received virtually no publicity in the mass media in the United Kingdom, But it is a question that was begging to be asked in the current impasse over whether there should be a soft or hard border between the Republic and Northern Ireland. And until now no one has weighed up the facts and figures of a united Ireland versus a divided Ireland. Indeed there was pressure from the Irish government to keep this report secret because of the Brexit negotiations.

But this week the the Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement have published a highly controversial report ‘Brexit & the Future
of Ireland Uniting Ireland & its People in Peace & Prosperity’ which basically says the British taxpayer will be better off if it let Northern Ireland unite with the Republic and remain in the European Union.

The author is a German economist, Gunther Thumann who worked as a senior economist at the German desk of the International Monetary Fund at the time of German reunification.This provided him with the analytical understanding of the complex economic developments as they happened.

He is backed by Senator Mark Daly, Deputy Leader of the Fianna Fail Senate Group
Senate Spokesperson for Foreign Affairs, the Irish Overseas and Diaspora, who yesterday lambasted officials at the Irish Dept of Foreign Affairs  after he was told officials  said that they did not want the research released until ‘after Brexit’. ‘
‘This is unacceptable interference by the department of Foreign Affairs in the work of the Dail and Senate. …The fact that officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs do not want this information released and the motivation behind it need to be answered’ “.

In one sense this is not surprising. Theresa May  only stays in power because the Democratic Unionist Party  backs her government and they want to stay in the UK. But the majority of people in Northern Ireland voted to stay in the EU and this report’s findings are dynamite

And Theresa May has had to lavish gifts on the DUP increasing the bill for mainland taxpayers while depriving  the rest of the UK of money for other public services like free school meals.

The central point of this report is that Northern Ireland would no longer require any taxpayer’s subsidy and could have a balanced budget – saving over £9 billion a year. Big savings could be made in administration and the UK would be left with a £2.8 billion pension bill for pensions already accrued while Northern Ireland was part of the UK.

The findings in the report which you can download here are:

– Non-identifiable expenditure of £2.9billion includes Northern Ireland’s share of UK Defence Expenditure, UK Debt Interest, International service, UK contribution to the EU, British Royal family etc. These would not be a liability of a new agreed Ireland.
– Thumann in his research explains that not all the accounting adjustments figure attributed by Westminster to Northern Ireland of £1.1billion would be applicable in a reunification scenario either.
– Also the convergence of the public service numbers between the north and the south would bring a saving of £1.7billion per annum in the current budget expenditure of Northern Ireland.

“Taking the above adjustments and savings into account the cumulative figure is £8.5 billion. With the reported deficit for Northern Ireland is at £9.2 billion therefore the current income and expenditure figure for Northern Ireland Thumann & Daly concludes comes near a balanced budget in a reunification scenario.

This is of course, before taking into account the likely potential for growth in Northern Ireland following unification as happened in East Germany following its reunification. ”

The big problem adopting such a change is political not economic. Supporters of the DUP would resist the idea of Northern Ireland not being part of Britain’s armed forces and be furious that they would no longer financially support the Queen.

But the changing demographics mean eventually the Catholics not the Protestants will form the majority adding to pressure for a united Ireland. Tensions are already growing over proposed boundary changes for the Westminster Parliament which mean that Sinn Fein are likely to gain more seats at the expense of the DUP.

The report is one of the unforeseen consequences of Brexit. Whether  Theresa May and Arlene Foster, the DUP leader, like it or not Brexit will put a united Ireland on the agenda ,particularly if we crash out and there has to be a new border. No wonder the Irish republic’s Whitehall did not want this published.

There was a debate on the report on Newstalk Breakfast in the Republic. with one economist challenging the report because he said N Ireland would have to contribute more to the Republic’s finances.The link to the podcast is here .

 

A rosy celebration in a London square of good relations between Bulgaria and Britain

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The first  perfumed Damascene rose donated by the Bulgarians to London flowers in Golden Square

While London is shortly to have a nationalistic pro Brexit  demonstration following the “Free Tommy Robinson ”  violent right wing extremist march last weekend, a square in the heart of Soho  was a venue to  celebrate the  opposite to those stirring up hate and prejudice  – a celebration of how the Bulgarians contribute to London life.

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Bulgarian dancers

The Bulgarians took over Golden Square for an afternoon of dancing, singing and speeches from both the London mayor’s office and Tory councillors representing the area in Westminster plus an impromptu speech from me. My grandson Leon thought the dancing was similar in some ways to Irish dancing.

 

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A spread of Bulgarian food

There was also a a selection of Bulgarian food – which is influenced by both Turkish and Greek cuisine – and  was offered free to any members of the public who happened to be enjoying the sunshine in the square at the time.

Bulgaria Junior Dancer PartyAnd schoolchildren also performed dances

The contrast between the manufactured  fear of the other in the media  and the attitudes of the people there could not be stronger. And I suspect this is reflected in many other ethnic minority communities. Pictures were supplied by Boyko Boev.

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The Bulgarians and guests at the celebration

Postponed by Brexit: Vital investigations into the effectiveness of Britain’s border controls

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David Bolt, chief inspector of borders and immigration Pic Credit: gov.uk

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While the mantra of every enthusiastic Brexiteer has been ” we are taking back control” of our borders the irony is quietly over Easter the Whitehall body responsible  for checking it postponed vital investigations to ensure it happens.

David Bolt, the independent chief inspector of Borders and Immigration, announced changes to the planned schedule of investigations – entirely because of the failure of ministers to sort out the Brexit negotiations.

The chief inspector’s job is to make sure that the UK has an efficient and fair system of immigration and customs controls – precisely because once we are out of the EU it will become even more important that they work properly. It also identifies risks of smuggling and illegal immigration.

However ministerial failure to sort this out – notably by Theresa May and David Davis the Brexit Secretary, now means that planned inspections cannot take place this year and have been postponed for at least 12 months if not longer.

The biggest casualty has been a big  350 day long investigation and inspection of West Coast ports – notably  Swansea, Fishguard, Holyhead,Liverpool and Stranraer among others – due to begin now and postponed until next year.

The reason is starkly included in the revised timetable. ” Deferred from 2018-19; timing subject to agreement on the CTA arrangements after the UK exits the EU.

These sparse words basically mean ” Can no do because Britain and the EU cannot agree on the future of the Irish border and how the common travel area will work and it will be a waste of time to do it now because it could all change”.

It also means that we may not know whether the new arrangements are working until well after we have left the EU.

Nor is it the only investigation deferred. A similar investigation this year was going to look at customs control over freight operation scheduled for 2019-20. The timetable now says : Inspection scope and timing subject to agreement on the handling of freight after the UK’s exit from the EU.

Again failure to decide exactly whether there will be tariffs on goods means could well be delayed and we won’t know how this is working either.

Meanwhile this year an inspection into the ” points” system for immigration has had to be significantly widened to include rules for  Inspection of “Brexit preparedness”, focusing on resourcing and processes for the registration and settlement of
EU nationals.

There also has been a knock on effect on other investigations including  delays to a further in country investigation into modern slavery and a one year delay in investigating NHS charging because of insufficient resources. They could also be a delay to an investigation into illegal working in the UK.

David Bolt adds: “I have therefore created space within the Plan for various ‘Brexit’-related pieces of work, the precise shape and timing of which are not yet fixed. I will announce specific inspections in the normal way via the website as soon as I am able.”

The organisation is one of the few not to suffer Whitehall austerity cuts but as people leave it is finding it difficult to recruit new people which could be a new worry.

His statement ends with a plea for people to join the service. “If you believe that you have the necessary qualities and are interested in joining the inspectorate, please keep an eye on the website, where any vacancies will be advertised.”

This seems yet another example of  how the failure to sort out an early timetable for Brexit is leaving a trail of unfinished business across Whitehall – and a fresh danger of chaos at our borders after we have left.

 

 

 

 

 

Vote Leave and Cambridge Analytica: A stench enveloping Downing Street and the Cabinet’s hard Brexiteers

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Stephen Parkinson, Now political secretary to Theresa May, previously national organiser Vote Leave Pic credit: Powerhouse

 

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The growing and completely unpredictable coverage following the exposure of Cambridge Analytica, the data analytics firm, for data harvesting is  fast turning into a scandal that  will seriously damage the reputation of the government or eventually could even bring it down.

From past experience of Westminster and Whitehall scandals once the genie is out of the bottle there is precious little those in power can do to put the stopper back. And from this weekend due to a crass and vile statement from Stephen Parkinson, Theresa May’s political secretary, about  the private life of the latest whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni, it has drawn Downing Street into the fray.

For the ordinary voter the row over data analytics  and how it may have been misused may sound a trifle arcane – since it goes back to two past events – the election of Donald Trump and the controversial Brexit vote. Those in power will be tempted to say – nothing to see here, all done and dusted, let’s move on.

The problem is that they can’t. The huge scale of data harvesting  by Cambridge Analytica via  Facebook of 50 million US citizens plus the potential Russian involvement is now the subject of a huge investigation by  special counsel Robert Mueller and that will not go away. Already Facebook has taken a financial hit  for not protecting our data.

And in England, the Electoral Commission is now investigating the Brexit donations and the  Cambridge Analytica  and Vote Leave’s links to other companies, including the Canadian firm,AggregateIQ (AIQ). The Information Commissioner’s Office is now investigating Cambridge Analytica for potential data breaches for political purposes. Neither investigation is likely to stop.

I won’t need to go over the details of the story which now involves two whistleblowers and has led to the suspension of  the chief executive of Cambridge Analytica, Alexander Nix.

You can find it in full in The Observer by the dogged and determined Carole  Cadwalladr  here. Or you can see the excellent Channel Four documentary here.

What I will do is look at the ramifications which are now knocking on the door of Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, both in the Cabinet. Central to this is why £625,000 was given to the student run  Vote BeLeave campaign to spend on a Vote Leave analytical company, when Vote Leave was not supposed to be connected to Vote BeLeave – and could breach strict  campaign spending guidelines. There are also the very serious allegations – of the mass removal of emails and links between Vote BeLeave and the two highly seasoned campaigners, Matthew Elliott of the Taxpayers alliance fame  and chief executive of Vote Leave, and the aggressive  ex special adviser Dominic Cummings, who jointly ran Vote Leave. He is denying this happened but it appears the whistleblower has sent information to the Electoral commission contradicting that.

Did Gove and Johnson know? and why is Johnson just saying it is ludicrous to suggest this happened – ” sound bites ” don’t make the issue go away.

And finally there is the behaviour of Theresa May’s political secretary. Stephen Parkinson, in deciding the world should know about his previous love life with the whistleblower, Shahmir Sanni.  Shahmir did not wish to go public to the whole world that he was gay. Mr Parkinson is not some political celeb – his role, as I am sure he will be reminded pretty quickly by the Cabinet Office, is to stay in the background not to become part of a public love story. Most people won’t care a damn who he sleeps with – so the only real reason can be a botched attempt to discredit and embarrass the whistleblower.

Parkinson also has previous form. According to Spinwatch’s Lobbying Portal he is an experienced campaigner, being part of the ” No to AV ” campaign to stop the alternative vote in 2011. He also was involved in the scandal over whether the Tories had broken election law in 2015 by overspending. They were mainly cleared of this  but there is a legal case pending  in May against Craig Mackinley, Tory MP for South Thanet, his agent and a Tory campaigner, for making false election returns. Parkinson has worked for Theresa May since 2012 – apart from his work on the Vote Leave campaign.

The real problem for the government is that the next revelations could come from anywhere – it could come from the US  investigations or it could come from the UK if more whistleblowers come forward. They are not in control. So far the reaction has been pure bluster.

I can see in the end the most serious issue will be the use of people’s data by political organisations and breach of privacy – which will  even override  the bitter aftermath of Brexit and the US election result.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Does the demise of UKIP offer a lifeline to embattled Tories?

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Will the Tories replace UKIP? Pic credit: Matt Dent; A mad man with a blog

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The performance of UKIP  in the polls has  been pretty disastrous for some time now. But if the party dies this weekend which other party is going to benefit from its demise.

After losing their only MP at the general election the party performed very badly at local level and is continuing to do so. And ironically Britain’s departure from the European Union will destroy its biggest base which is in Brussels. So by 2019 when we leave it is possible that UKIP will have completely disappeared from the political scene. It is very much a case  of don’t get what you wish for.

But the destruction of UKIP  at the moment appears to be more of a problem for Labour than the Tories. It is a considerable dilemma for Jeremy Corbyn on how he handles Brexit and suggests he, as well as Theresa May, is caught between a rock and a hard place over this issue.

Younger Labour Party voters – particularly in London and the South – are very strongly pro Remain – welcoming the diverse nature of the UK and enjoying the reality of visa free travel across most of Europe.

But Labour voters outside this group – in the North, Midlands, East Anglia and parts of Kent- are pro Brexit. And furthermore the former UKIP voters are obviously keen for Britain to leave.

So for Labour to get back these working class voters it has to be seen to be  both supporting Brexit and sympathising with Remain  at the same time. It also means the party – which has had success particularly at the last election – has highlighted domestic issues like the NHS, education, transport, housing and student loans rather than Brexit.

Labour’s dilemma is shown up in a scattering of local council by-elections across the country this month. Of course one should not put too much score on local election results – because of low polls and because simply that they are local.

But one trend has emerged where UKIP had a previous strong showing.in local areas and either doesn’t stand or puts up a candidate who is trashed by the electorate.

What appears to be happening  is that both Labour and the Tories are gaining votes – but the Tories are getting the lion’s share. This means that either Labour cannot win the seat or as in Bolton last night – they lose a seat to the Tories.

The results in Thanet in Kent –  a former UKIP stronghold where they got control of the council – is a case in point. It has seen the Tory and Labour vote go up – but has allowed the Tories to retain their seats with a bigger majority. Roughly two in three former UKIP voters seem to have switched to the Tories compared with one in three supporting Labour.

In Bolton where on a  nearly 30 per cent poll – the Tories took a seat off Labour – the result again showed  both the Tories and Labour gaining votes – but the Tory share of the vote went up 16.7 per cent to take a seat in a safe Labour Parliamentary constituency. Again UKIP had polled very well in the ward in the past.

Similarly in Newport Pagnell, a council seat on Milton Keynes council  where UKIP had got a big share of the vote last time – the Tory share jumped over 15 per cent – while Labour jumped just under 12 per cent. UKIP got  nearly a quarter of the votes last time but didn’t stand.

These actual votes may explain the closeness in the polls between Labour and the Tories – the Tory vote is simply being buoyed up by former Kippers. It may also explain why William Hague, the former Tory leader, would like to see UKIP wound up as the best chance for the party to stay in power.

It is also quite clever  of Boris Johnson to raise the issue that the NHS would get even more money after we leave the EU – it is aimed at those people keeping faith with Brexit believing the country will enter a Shangri La once we are out.

I personally don’t believe a word of it – but to my mind it does suggest to me that Labour should not take the next election for granted. They have to continue to work on these voters by offering a much fairer society. But it also leaves them with a very delicate balancing act over Brexit.