Saturday, 29 May 2010

You know it makes sense

Ms Deirdre Voletreader, a spokesperson for Her Majesty's Revenue & Customs (HMRC), today announced a new tax at a packed press conference.

"We acknowledge that times are hard, and that ordinary hard-working families are finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. The last thing that they need is gobby numpties talking nonsense, and that's why today we are announcing the implementation of Publicly Ridiculed Announcement Tax (PRAT)."

"For too long politicians, sportspeople and alleged entertainers have been free to say stupid things regardless of the irritation caused to ordinary hard-working families, but the new PRAT regime will ensure that they pay a fair contribution to the nation for sounding off like brain-dead muppets."

"Each moronic announcement leading to public ridicule, exasperation or irritation will render the person concerned liable to PRAT at a flat rate of £5 per utterance. We at HMRC have striven to make this tax as simple as possible to administer, and we are proud to announce that the detailed regulations, exemptions and sample self-assessment working sheets have been condensed to a paltry 247 pages."

"Our systems are extremely sophisticated and track broadcast material, blogs, Tweets, newspaper columns and appearances on Question Time. Special arrangements will be possible for those particularly liable to PRAT, and as an example I can announce that Jonathan Ross has agreed to make a one-off payment of £5,000 per annum to cover all his liabilities over the year."

In answer to a question from the floor, Ms Voletreader confirmed that there would be no Parliamentary privilege.

"You can hear and see MPs on the Parliament Channel, so we don't see why they shouldn't pay. Equally there will be no Crown exemption, except when Her Majesty is reading a speech written by politicians, in which case the originators will face PRAT liability. We are in discussions with the Duchy of Cornwall and agents for the Duchess of York, and expect to be able to announce PRAT revenues sufficient to completely regenerate Wolverhampton."

In response to a question from the floor, Ms Voletreader confirmed that Wolverhampton had in fact already been regenerated, "but nobody noticed."

Another journalist enquired how the system would work in practice. Ms Voletreader said crisply that HMRC needed no practice in applying tax.

Ms Voletreader added that the new PRAT tax would not be retrospective. "We would have liked to have reclaimed previous PRAT liabilities, but we acknowledge that 90% of our current Members of Parliament would thereby be rendered bankrupt. This was felt to be no bad thing per se, but administratively questionable given the current political situation. The point will be open to review."

Mr David Blunkett said that all this was an outrage, as was the cancellation of the national Identity Card scheme that he had nurtured for years. He said that he was minded to sue the Government for the £30 that he had paid for his card. Ms Voletreader said in reply that Mr Blunkett was entitled to his opinion, but that he also now owed the taxpayer £5.

As regarded foreigners making dumb announcements in the UK, Ms Voletreader announced that HMRC regarded all foreigners as "regrettable" and also that HMRC saw no reason why they should not be liable to PRAT as a condition of entry to the country. "Consider Ms Britney Spears," said Ms Voletreader, "We have her on record as once saying: 'The cool thing about being famous is traveling. I have always wanted to travel across seas, like to Canada and stuff.' Surely that is worth £5 to the British taxpayer? Like, why should we have to listen to this stuff from foreigners, innit?"

A journalist from the Guardian said he was outraged, and that PRAT was a tax on free speech. Ms Voletreader said that speech was still free, but that "talking like a knobhead in public is a privilege, not a right." She added that HMRC would like a word with Polly Toynbee.

Following the press conference, and for the first time ever, Mr Lembit Opik said he had no comment.

Friday, 28 May 2010

Medical advice

Some residents of the East Midlands are reporting worrying symptoms following the arrival in the area of a Canadian singer-songwriter.

Said concerned blogger Mr QO: "I was fine until Monday and then this burly Canadian arrived and produced a bottle of Bunnahabhain whisky from his rucksack. Ever since then I've had difficulty getting to bed, and in the mornings I've had these strange feelings of intense dryness of the mucus membranes, a blinding headache, and a marked disinclination to work of any kind. I've not been able to keep up my blog. It's disgraceful and I blame the lax attitude towards immigrant workers shown by successive governments."

We spoke to a local woman who wished to remain anonymous but after a few drinks said we could refer to her as "Mrs QO". Said the equally concerned resident: "Get a grip, you drunken prat."

Neither Mr QO nor Mrs QO were paid for their interviews, but both asked where they'd put their drinks down.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010


I struggle to be enthusiastic about the 2012 Olympics. I want to be proud of what Britain can achieve, but can't help thinking about how the original budget managed to forget about VAT, causing a bit of a dent in the sums. Not an auspicious start, and things didn't get better as the optimistic estimates of sponsor income rapidly deep-sixed. And the logo was launched to almost universal derision, some of it in rather poor taste. Don't, whatever you do, follow all the links here at El Reg. It will only depress you.

But there you go, at least the building is mostly on schedule, which just goes to show that not every time you throw billions of public money at something it's all wasted.

However, tonight I saw the 'mascots' for the first time. Why an international sporting festival for adults requires mascots I'm not clear, but I'm given to understand that today's spectators can't watch sport without some twat in a kids' fancy dress party costume mollocking up and down at the edge of the playing area, so we have to have one. Or two, since it's the Olympics.

So let's welcome the official mascots for 2012.

Oh, dear Lord. These two apparitions are 'Wenlock' and 'Mandeville'. They have their own blog and everything, and you can see a terribly moving account of their origin on the official site. When I say 'moving' I'd like you to do some word association with 'bowels', and would suggest that you don't watch that video if you're feeling at all queasy to start with.

What demented mongtards were responsible for this infantile lunacy? Can we not have them thrown off Beachy Head within 48 hours? I quote MSN News: "London 2012 said it cost 'a few thousand pounds' to create the designs but would not release a figure." A few thousand pounds is terrifying enough, since your average pot-plant could have come up with a better design for no more than a few drops of water and a kind word from Prince Charles, but the fact that they won't release a figure suggests to me that they dare not release the true and much higher cost.

I'm not sure whether it's just a cruelly apposite coincidence, or a fiendishly clever ironical statement, but the single eye of each mascot is, apparently, a camera: "capturing everything I see as I go..."

How apt. Whatever happens in the Olympics gold medal tables, the UK is already assured of one particular success. We are the most CCTV-observed nation in the world.

Makes you proud.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Change management

Today's budget cuts are going to be painful in the public sector, yet represent less than 1% of annual Government spending. There are two opposing realities: we cannot afford to keep on borrowing money to provide public services; and the private sector is terribly dependent on revenues from supplying goods and services to the public sector and its staff, who are after all tax-paying consumers.

It's all terribly confusing for someone like me who's most comfortable discussing the merits of different generations of Star Trek, or whether Windy Miller was so called because of his love of home-brew.

(The Prosecution rests. Your witness.)

However, I will make so bold as to suggest a couple of useful strategies that might help guide us through the process of reducing our economic reliance on State borrowing.

Firstly, let's try and avoid publicly-funded social engineering. My example here is from my old friends Barking and Dagenham, who are now looking for a Group Manager, Community Cohesion, but sadly can only offer a rather stingy £47,907-£51,741. Times are indeed hard. The appointee will "head up a dedicated team of Community Development and Equalities and Diversity Officers" and the role will be "more than just policy and commissioning, it's about influencing key stakeholders and developing innovative solutions to a unique set of challenges."

Now, I freely admit I've been blogging too much on this cheap-shot gig of quoting Guardian public-sector jobs, and as soon as I've quit smoking and drinking too much, I will desist, I promise. But since I've already cut and pasted the above in, we might as well poke some fun at it, don't you think?

But seriously, folks, the last sentence in this job advert seemed a little spooky to me: "What's certain is that you have a practical understanding of the importance of bringing people closer together; no matter who they are, or what they might believe."

Even if, let's say, they're quite happy being quiet peaceful recluses who believe that they're quite happy being peacefully reclusive? Or, let's say again, if they're middle-aged Moslems who'd prefer to spend their leisure time with middle-aged Moslems rather than teenage African-Caribbeans?

We all have our own notion of a perfect society; but I very much doubt that we can afford to spend hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money (in this one London borough alone) on trying to force one version of it into existence. Social engineering is littered with catastrophe, and depending on your political stance you could think about Le Corbusier's high-rise towers, comprehensive schools, Thatcher selling off council housing or the rampant crime and poverty in the collapsed former Communist states. What inevitably happens is those who can afford to escape the imposed system do so, and those who can't are left to suffer in the wreckage, worse off than they were before. This is stupid at any time, and even more so when we will struggle to keep meals arriving with the house-bound elderly and disabled.

Secondly, let's not have the public sector do what the private sector should be doing. This isn't all about the PFI debate, it goes right down to tiny things. I used to be in the print industry. It was well known that January to March was the time to really sniff round the local authorities for print jobs, as about that time of year they would be desperate to use up any unspent budget lest they 'lose' it come the next funding round. One job I saw going through was a rather nicely produced booklet of walks using the county's rights of way, published by the county's rights of way department, oddly enough. All very worthy, and I am myself a great enthusiast for rambling the county's rights of way, some of which are very ancient and beautiful. But a quick peek at the shelves of WH Smith or Waterstones will show that such guidebooks are already out there - and will be losing business because of the freebie version being distributed from County Hall.

Now, from the private sector printer's point of view, it doesn't really matter who places the order and pays for it, but from the wider view, it would be better for the entrepreneurial publisher to do it and make enough money to employ a couple of ex-rights of way officers from the county council (which would still leave them plenty) to generate more books. A tiny example, as I said, but a transfer of the generation of economic activity from the public sector to the private sector.

To sum up. This post has been way too long and rambling (heh! see what I did there?) but can be boiled down to:

Oy! Public sector: don't attempt the bleeding impossible, and don't try and do what the private sector can do perfectly well.

Having gone for a top-up of home-brew and re-read my masterly change management analysis, I'm very tempted to apply to the London Borough of Havering, who are seeking four 'transformation programme managers', each on up to £77,000. They need me, I feel sure, and having avidly watched the entire Buffy the Vampire Slayer cycle, I think "evidence of strong stakeholder management skills" will be no problem. But would £77,000 compensate me for living in Romford?

Uh... no. I've been there.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Further thought needed, I suggest

Now, apart from an occasionally regrettable media moment, David Milibanana strikes me as quite an able man, he's young and personable enough to cut it in today's image-obsessed politics, he's held down the job of Foreign Secretary without starting any (new) wars - Labour could do worse.

Whoever it is, though, will have a real job on their hands. DM said in a leadership speech:

"New Labour isn't new any more. What I'm interested in is next Labour."

Next Labour?

I'd suggest the first thing Labour need to do is sort out who they are and when they're going to be who they think and say they are. At the moment, nobody seems too sure. Some are calling for a full reverse of the New Labour thinking, and are presumably forgetting that until Kinnock started the modernising work that Blair continued, the party was unelectable for years. Clause IV, anyone?

Ah well, it will be interesting to see.

Have a good weekend, I'm off to meet some of the rare people who drink as much as I do.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010


An interesting word, and one which I've seen popping up in those strange job ads in the public sector recently. I've no idea what it means, so naturally I turned to Google (my friend). I saw a link to the Department of Health. They deal with persons, I thought, let's go and have a look there.

Error 404: Error page

We are sorry but the page you are looking for cannot be found. It may have been removed, had its name changed or be temporarily unavailable.

OK. Presumably the definition is being reworked due to the new administration. I can see that.

Meanwhile, though, experts in personalisation - old stylee, we must assume - are still much in demand, at least in Barking & Dagenham:

Group Manager - Commissioning
"In Barking & Dagenham, personalisation has seen a major shift in the way we deliver choice and control through excellent social care services.

We need creative energetic people to join our team, who share our passion and vision for personalisation and have the hands on experience to make this a reality for local residents.

The Group Manager for Commissioning will have a key role in developing a range of good quality, safe and affordable opportunities, experiences and services which enable local residents to lead independent lives through a variety of commissioning, stimulation and development methods, in partnership with key agencies and stakeholders and other public sector commissioners.

If you have experience of commissioning or directly managing the delivery of health or social care / support/housing services, including procurement, and have an understanding of the role of care and support services in the context of Personalisation, we’d like to hear from you."

Thank you, a well-deserved round of applause. Who could not admire the way they got all the essentials in there: 'creative... passion and vision... personalisation... make this a reality...' and all in the first paragraph. Some would have thought it quite a daring risk to leave 'stakeholders' as late as paragraph three, and 'delivery' down in the poor-rent paragraph four. The boldness of that decision leaves us breathless, and must surely have involved countless meetings, consultation, flag-flying tests and deep-diving.

All that said, what does it mean? Any ideas? Is it like 'Total Place', another phrase which keeps popping up in local guvmint jobs and which presumably means something to somebody? I have to say it means sod-all to this local guvmint voter.

Admittedly, I'm a small sample. They always said it would stunt my growth.

Monday, 17 May 2010

A ddarleno ystyried*

While cruising the blogosphere over the weekend, I noticed an post pointing out that the Wales Women's National Coalition had lost its 'core funding' from public funds - amounting to a little under £100,000 over the next year. The blogger, 'Valleys Mam', says she is a "believer in social justice" so can hardly be said to be a rabid Tory determined to trash all public expenditure, but she evidently has doubts over whether public funding of the WWNC - which has been going on some years - is a good thing.

I won't comment in the particular case of the WWNC as I know nothing in detail of the work they've been doing. But I'm sure that more and more organisations like this - not really at the 'front line' but an umbrella organisation for those who are - will find public funding terribly hard to find in the future. 'Nice to have, but we'll have to manage without it', will be the watchword. 'You'll have to look after yourselves'.

Talking of 'looking after yourselves', before WW2, in the border country between Wales and England, a Miss Morgan was born. One of her earliest memories was of her drunken, knife-waving father threatening her mother. Fortunately - from one point of view - he soon disappeared, leaving wife and small daughter behind. Miss Morgan never saw him again. Dysfunctional families are nothing new, nor are they confined to the inner city. Her mother married again as soon as possible - there weren't many other options open. Her new husband, a farm labourer, didn't like children, so Miss Morgan was packed off to an aunt, a kind woman, but of no great means herself. Miss Morgan did well enough in her 11+ to go to grammar school, but the family couldn't afford the uniform, so that was that. At 16, Miss Morgan left school and left home to make her own way in life, all her belongings in a single suitcase.

Life as a till-girl at Marks wasn't very glamorous, her flat was tiny and shabby and rationing was still in. Things brightened up a little when, on one her rare nights out at a dance, she met a young man from the south coast who happened to be stationed nearby on National Service. Well, briefly he was stationed nearby...

Long story short: after a long-distance courtship involving thousands of miles of rail travel, they married. A tiny flat in Portsmouth was the first home. Following a job, her husband then took her to Lincoln, and they both had to check a map to find out where on earth that was, but the job - coming as it did with a cheap-rent terraced house - was too good to miss, as they could save towards a place of their own. The house didn't have double-glazing or central heating, but then very few did.

Fast forward again: the former Miss Morgan and her husband gradually became better-off, more comfortable, lived in their own home. Her husband had also left school at 16; nobody thought he was worth anything, but it turned out that he was just short-sighted and could never properly see book or blackboard. He was hard-working and able and 'got on', as they say. They had children.

Despite the better circumstances, the former Miss Morgan never lost some of the insecurities of her childhood. She was 'self-sufficient', 'stepped lightly on the earth' and 'recycled' long before those concepts were commonplace, as deep-down she was never entirely sure that she wouldn't have to leave home again, with all her belongings in a single suitcase. She never lost the idea that you had to look after yourself, waste nothing, treat everything as a bit of a bonus. Because nobody gave you anything, you had to work for it, look after it, make do. Family first, always. Whatever else you cut back on, you keep the roof over your head. Anyone who needs help, through no fault of their own, you help and expect nothing in return. Don't take anything for granted.

She had no time and little comfort for those who had put themselves where they were and complained about the results. 'Your bed, you lie in it - or get on,' was her philosophy in those cases.

Her children are somewhat different, of course. Comfortably off from birth - even if two of them remember the house with no double glazing or central heating - they're far more 'socially aware', inclined to have a much wider definition of 'no fault of their own', not at all inclined to read the Daily Mail. They're very different in some aspects of their lifestyles and their aspirations. But all of them have worked continuously since leaving education (and are grateful they've been able to), none has been convicted of a criminal offence, all give to charity, all believe in taking responsibility for where your life-choices have taken you.

I'm sure some reading this will think: "Oh god, what a crock of romanticised, sub-standard Keith Waterhouse 'working class makes good' nonsense." Think what you will, I'm not being didactic here, just telling a story. What I will say is I suspect Miss Morgan's model - the model of expecting nothing from anyone else and cheerfully working bloody hard for anything you want - is likely to be an increasingly useful one.

So, with due deference to the Wales Women's National Coalition, I'm with Valleys Mam.

* Let him who reads reflect

Friday, 14 May 2010

But seriously...

I may be missing something, but I can't see why there's all this fuss over the proposed legislation to fix Parliament for five years and require 55% of MPs to vote for dissolution.

Having read lots and lots of online comment, many seem to have confused 'dissolution of Parliament' with 'vote of no confidence in the Government'. Some quotes:

Labour MP Paul Flynn: "Today a tiny sharp thought pierced the sensitive brains of conscientious LibDems. They have signed up to the illiberal power-hugging cheat of 55% majority for a confidence vote."

Er... no.

Iain Martin in the Wall Street Journal: "If it is being suggested that 55% of votes is needed to express no confidence in a government this year (all in the interests of strong government, you understand) then why not 60% or higher at some point in the future?"

It isn't being suggested.

Scott Styles, senior lecturer in the school of law at Aberdeen University: "The [...] much more fundamental problem is the raising of the bar of a no-confidence vote in the government to 55% rather than simple majority of those MPs present and voting."

Nicely put. But wrong.

As I say, I may be missing something, and all and any corrections are welcome. But as I understand the proposal - which has yet to go through Parliament - the 55% bar is set only for the dissolution of Parliament, not a no-confidence vote. Should such a vote be passed, another Government could be formed to serve out the remaining term of the Parliament.

I posted a comment along these lines on the Times 'Law Central' blog, where I got the Scott Styles quote above, but evidently the moderation process takes a little while as it hasn't appeared yet. I expect they're busy, possibly on the phone to Scott Styles.

Some of the commentators have called this proposal undemocratic. I can't see it myself. Under the existing system, a Prime Minister (who, let's recall, is not voted by the people into that position) can request the Queen to dissolve Parliament without reference to anyone else. This has long been seen as a powerful political advantage, though few in recent years have used it. Gordon Brown could - and should - have gone to the country within a year of taking over from Tony Blair. He would very likely have been returned to power. John Major also bottled it.

The Prime Minister is proposing to relinquish this personal power in favour of Parliament. How is that undemocratic? The Scots have adopted a similar system - they have a fixed term of four years, but require two-thirds of MSPs to vote for dissolution. I don't recall cries of 'undemocratic' when that came in.

I gather the idea was put together by David Howarth, who stepped down as the LibDem MP for Cambridge at the election. I heard him speak last year and he struck me as very impressive - a very experienced politician and academic. The 55% bar on dissolution effectively protects the LibDems in the coalition from the Tories deciding - as it might be on good opinion polls - from junking the agreement and going to the country in a few months' time. Doubtless the Tories will have worked this out and accepted it as one of the compromises necessary to put the coalition together. Whether or not you put it down to political expediency, it seems to me to be a step forward for democracy rather than a threat.

Talking of Scotland, it was an astute move for Cameron to head north today. Even the famously grumpy Alex Salmond admitted as such. Well, not in those exact words, but he wasn't as rude as usual about the Tories. Maybe that's progress.

Coalition wife-swap hotly denied

Rumours sweeping Westminster that the ConDem coalition leaders have swapped wives to seal the deal were this afternoon being denied by a Number 10 spokesman.

"These rumours are totally without basis and are, frankly, very wide of the mark. Nothing should be read into the fact that the wives of the Prime Minister and the Deputy Prime Minister are now living with each other's husband. It's a perfectly normal hostage arrangement."

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Goose Removals late again

From today's BBC website:

Fortunately, given how cold it was last night, our phone-taps suggest that the client called Sarah managed to cadge a lift up to Scotland in a Jaguar and private plane provided by a mystery benefactor.

The mystery benefactor, who asked to remain anonymous and answered only to 'The UK taxpayer', said: "It was the least we could do."

Arguably so.

OK, this we like

Click to enlarge

This is very welcome. I won't take down the 'No2ID' flash just yet (call me cynical if you will), but it's promising.

I don't tend to bang on too much about civil liberties or the law and its administration, but it is something I'm deeply interested in. Although I have many reservations about the likely longevity of the ConDem (sorry) project, I do like their statement of intent on civil liberties:

The parties agree to implement a full programme of measures to reverse the substantial erosion of civil liberties under the Labour Government and roll back state intrusion.

This will include:

* A Freedom or Great Repeal Bill.

* The scrapping of ID card scheme, the National Identity register, the next generation of biometric passports and the Contact Point Database.

* Outlawing the finger-printing of children at school without parental permission.

* The extension of the scope of the Freedom of Information Act to provide greater transparency.

* Adopting the protections of the Scottish model for the DNA database.

* The protection of historic freedoms through the defence of trial by jury.

* The restoration of rights to non-violent protest.

* The review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech.

* Safeguards against the misuse of anti-terrorism legislation.

* Further regulation of CCTV.

* Ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason.

* A new mechanism to prevent the proliferation of unnecessary new criminal offences.

As ever, the devil will be in the detail, and phrases like "without good reason" and "unnecessary new criminal offences" leave plenty of wriggle room while saying little of substance. But, as I say, promising as a statement of intent if we take it at face value.

How things will go with Ken Clarke as the new Justice Minister and Lord Chancellor remains to be seen. In an age when politicians appointed to Departments have seldom had the slightest acquaintance with what they're supposedly in charge of, we note that he is a lawyer (Queen's Counsel since 1980) and, as a former Home Secretary before Justice was spun off, has already done a lot of groundwork. (As an aside, and ignoring for the moment his other activities and policies, he gets marks from me for the cigar habit and liking real ale and jazz. Sorry. I'm a bit of a sleazebag myself in those areas.)

All of which is fairly promising. But the budgets in the justice system have been repeatedly cut for some years already; legal aid, for example, has been cut back cruelly and more and more defendants are standing unrepresented in court, or are represented by lawyers who simply cannot afford to do all that they should do, and would wish to do, for their client.

We all know that cuts in public services have to be made, and I've been chuntering on about it for long enough myself. I just hope that our legal system can be preserved from the worst of the storm, for so much depends on it.

OK, thank you for listening, and apologies for the serious tone. We will return you now to our usual programme of facetious bollocks.

Tuesday, 11 May 2010

An intercepted phone call

In the offices of Shift-Through-A-Goose Removals (No-One Moves Quicker) of south London
Bert: Bloody 'ell, phone again. 'Allo? Goose Removals (We Dunarf Shift) howkinhepyou?
Caller: Oh, hello. My name's Sarah. I'd like to book a van for a removal.
Bert: No problem, missis. When and where to?
Caller: Well... it's central London to Scotland.
Bert: OK, flower, can do. And the date you 'ad in mind?
Caller: Um... well... now, really. Soon as you can manage. They're putting our stuff out the back now.
Bert: Now? Blimey... *scratches head* That's a bit shorter notice than usual, y'know.
Caller: Yes, I know... it's been difficult to make plans, you see.
Bert: 'Ang on a mo - let me see if Dave's on his mobile, he's finishing a job over in Brixton, he might be able to get to you before long.
Caller: Oh... we couldn't have anyone called Dave, I'm afraid.
Bert: Wot?
Caller: It's a bit difficult to explain... haven't you got anyone else nearby?
Bert: *long inward breath through teeth* I might just be able to get Imran and his boys... no problem with anyone called Imran, is there? Only I dunno 'oo else I've got coming free, y'see.
Caller: I'm sure he'll be fine. Only... could you make it as quick as you can? It's really getting quite cold tonight...
Bert: Give us yer number, luv, and I'll get back to you in five, OK? Give us your address again?
Caller: SW1A 2AA... and we're going to Kirkcaldy.
Bert: Bugger me... pardon my French, luv, that's quite a trip. I'll have to take a deposit over the phone, OK? Got a card?

*A moment's silence*

Caller: Can I call you back?

The end is nigh

From Laura Kuenssberg on the BBC: "Obviously we can't be sure whose, but somebody's bags are being packed into cars at the back of Number 10."

Things are finely balanced

It's still too close to call, but my suspicion is that the so-called Rainbow Coalition - the one that would have to involve pretty much everyone bar the Tories - is looking a very shaky proposition. Perhaps it's the thought of the photoshoot of its prospective senior leadership that's causing second thoughts.

Monday, 10 May 2010

A vision

Leaving Mrs QO watching Corrie downstairs, I take you now on an out-of-body journey to Observe the deliberations of the interested parties in our current political hiatus.

David Cameron's office
David Cameron: You did what? You offered them a referendum on alternative voting?
William Hague: Dave. Be calm. It wouldn't make much odds, but you know they've got their knitted underwear in a twist over it. Cheap at the price.
DC: William. 'Dave' is for the voters. We're behind closed doors.
WH: Sorry, sir.
DC: That's better. Anyway, I thought they wanted AV+?
WH: Depends on which of 'em you ask. Half of 'em don't know the difference between AV, AV+ and STV.

A moment's silence.

DC: William. Exactly what is the difference? I mean, I thought I knew, but perhaps you could enlighten me?
WH: 'Ere. Have a look at the Griadian.
DC: I beg your pardon?
WH: Don't worry, you don't have to touch it. I'll 'old it up for you.

DC: And this tells me?
WH: No worries, is what it tells you. OK, we don't get a majority, but then... well, David, not to put too fine a point on it, if you didn't manage to get a majority in that election, we'd better forget the idea. Coalition will be a fact of life, and the sooner we can get the LibDems on board and get 'em house-trained, teach them a few facts of life, the better. Any road, think on. They all read the Gridiron and the numpties will see this. Before you know what's 'appened, they'll get all bushy-tailed, come back to us, say 'we see your AV and we raise you STV'.
DC: But wouldn't that be worse for us?
WH: Ah. Depends on which version of STV you're talking about. I reckon the Gordian's on about multiple-winner STV. It's entirely different if what you mean is the single-winner, instant run-off version. We should do even better under that, so we can say 'yes, of course, anything for a stable Government for the good of the country', and then shove that version in. They won't notice, as they'll be too busy hugging trees. Job done.
DC: But what if they get into bed with Labour, now that Pa Broon's gone?
WH: Aye, 'appen. They might be that daft, you know what they're like. In which case, we play the long game, wait for the Government of All Those Who Didn't Win to fall apart, pick up the pieces and listen to the cheers of a grateful and slightly wiser country.
DC: You know... William, you seem well on top of this. Carry on, old boy.
WH: Yes, Prime Minister.

A dungeon which doesn't officially exist below
Number 10

Lord Mandelmort: Balls!
Ed Balls: My lord?
LM: Ah, Edward. Actually, I was just making a comment. But you've saved me the trouble of sending for you. We have an... interesting... situation on our hands.
EB: My lord?
LM: Yes. I didn't think the... Others... would be so inventive as to offer AV. Our little friends may yet fall into the abyss.
EB: Even after we sacrificed Our Great Leader?

A moment's silence

EB: My lord... I apologise. I meant, of course, Our Great Official Leader.
LM: Edward... you have many things to learn. One of them, I regret to say, is that you will not be Our Next Great Official Leader. You are too much Brown's man. But you must play the long game, as I have these last five centuries. Things are falling into place, despite this last - and I must admit, startlingly intelligent, gambit by the Others. But they will fall either way. If they manage to cobble together an agreement, they will fall soon after. Having engineered the toxic mortgage situation - you will recall I have some expertise in mortgages - and the subsequent banking collapse, we are now well poised to exploit the inevitable inability of the Others - with or without our little friends - to deal with the economic crisis without condemning themselves to electoral oblivion for generations.
EB: But what if... our little friends... come to us?
LM: Then we win again. Such a coalition would have to rely on the Picts from north of the Wall. They're still puzzling out the implications of the invention of steam. Given that they have the political subtlety of a root vegetable, the coalition would last no more than three or four months, and would then fall apart in the bitterest acrimony. We would have to go back to the country, and the Others would take power. We would, naturally, blame the Picts and our little friends, sit back, and let the disaster unfold. We would then be well placed to rise from the ashes, much as we did after dear Mr Major finally ran out of Margaret's Elixir.
EB: And... my place, my lord?
LM: Is assured, Edward. We will have to let David 'I like Bananas' face the public for a while. He is no threat, but he will not survive, even with his brother's support.
EB: I see, my lord. But what about... Harriet? She is ambitious.
LM: Ah, yes. Dear, dear, Harriet. She has worked so hard, and indeed we have allowed her to rise to a certain position, chiefly to absorb some of the scorn and disdain that would otherwise have been Gordon's. But as Official Leader? Let us not be silly. Have no fear, Edward. Wait. Be patient, and learn. Watch. And be ready when the time comes.
EB: My lord, I will.
LM: And now... leave me. I wish to contemplate the darkness.
EB: Yes, Great Leader.

Liberal-Democrat HQ
Nick Clegg: Well, now what do we do? They're falling over themselves to give us some bits and pieces... but who do we go with? Who can we trust?
Charles Kennedy: Awwww... it's tricky. Ye canna trust any of them. What say we nip down the pub and discuss it there?
Vince Cable: No. It's all about the economy, stupid. Who can we work with to solve the crisis? Labour? They got us here. It has to be the Tories, much as I dislike the idea.
Paddy Ashdown: I don't know. When you have enemies all around, that's the time to dig in, make sure of your defensive lines, re-define your mission objectives, lock and load...

A moment's silence.

Ming Campbell: I'm sure we could work to some extent with the SNP. Not, of course, to any great extent, but perhaps with some compromises we could do something.
Simon Hughes: The important thing is the British people.
All: Absolutely.

A moment's silence.

NC: So... who do we go with? Who can we trust?

Repeat to fade...

Any and all resemblance to any politicians alive, dead-but-walking or 'prefer not to say' is entirely the fault of my diseased imagination. And yours, of course.

Gordon makes his move

And it's out of Downing Street - by September. The Labour Party will hold a leadership contest. Gordon thereby increases the chances of a workable deal between Labour and the LibDems; he also thereby indirectly puts pressure on the Conservatives to up the ante to the LibDems.

Now, Gordon Brown might not have seen any chance of staying as PM, so has jumped before being pushed. But credit where it's due: he sounded very dignified in his statement. 'Nothing in his life became him like the leaving it'.

More thoughts later.

Saturday, 8 May 2010

While we wait

Mucho debate and soul-searching will doubtless be going on among all the parties. All of them are tired, all - for various reasons - disappointed, and all must be torn between wanting to go home and catch up on some sleep and getting stuck in again to see what might be salvaged, what might be compromised, what is and isn't negotiable.

None of them will want to go back to the country too soon; no money, no energy, not much prospect of a radically different result.

I've been looking into different voting systems, since it seems likely that that's an issue that won't go away, much as the Conservatives would doubtless like to shove it into a dusty committee-room somewhere and bury it. If the LibDems have any sense - and the cojones - they'll keep that one active in return for their compromise elsewhere. Voting and electoral systems come in dozens of different variants, and there will have to be a thorough discussion about it. At the moment, I doubt if you could find one in fifty voters who could concisely and accurately explain the differences between pure proportional representation and, say, single-transferable vote (STV). I know I couldn't - a few minutes nosing round Wikipedia has shown me I haven't enough knowledge to make an informed choice on this if I were to be offered a choice in a referendum.

I do remember that back in my college days we used STV in our elections for the student representative council - a body I myself adorned for a year - and it can throw up some odd results, such as the time that the first round of voting for one council post returned Rosso (the vice-principal's dog) and RON (i.e. Re-Open Nominations) in first and second place. Sadly one of the more nerdy constitutional experts got Rosso struck out since he wasn't in statu pupillari. We did try to get that sorted, but it turned out he couldn't be in statu pupillari unless and until he could 'matriculate' and that required a certain minimum number of O-levels. Rosso was mad as a package of sprouts, and we got distracted by other things like sex and beer, so our cunning campaign for a new style of student politics ended up like all the others - dominated by nerdy constitutional experts who weren't getting enough sex and beer.

Obviously I exclude myself from that - I was in charge of Ents, a wonderful job involving crappy local bands with aggressive roadcrews, illicitly bypassing the noise limiter in the main hall and running discos when too drunk to stand up for more than half a minute at a time. Enough said.

But I digress. The differences between some of the available voting systems used elsewhere in the world are huge, with big consequences on, for example, the level of local representation that emerges. So we'll need to get up to speed on all this pretty soon, I think.

That will, however, be for another day. I'm going to rejoin the real world and head off for a friend's 40th birthday celebrations. If I don't make it to the other side, it's been nice knowing you.

Friday, 7 May 2010

The day thou gavest Gord is ended

It feels pleasantly debauched to be having a cup of coffee and a cigar in the garden at 04.10 in the morning. I've done it from both sides, as it were, over the years, but today it was with the benefit of at least some sleep first.

A fascinating day and more to come. OK, the five hours locked in a client meeting hammering out the fine detail of a management services provision contract were less than enthralling, but the other 14 that I've been on the go have been interesting. The blogosphere has been going mental, with reactions on a scale from 'subtle, measured, insightful' to 'urgent call for Nurse Desirée and two sturdy orderlies - bring tranquilisers and restraints'. All great fun, but now the mists are gathering. Alcohol, nicotine and fatigue toxins are having the same effect on me as reported by my fellow blogger in the pleasant land of Beestonia, so it's time for bed.

Leaders into temptation

Who'd be a party leader right now? They're all facing some very difficult choices and some very big risks. Who will have the stones, the luck and the chutzpah to make it through?

i-Dave came achingly close and turned in what you have to acknowledge is a good set of results. But the gap between the final position and power is no trivial one. He's made an intriguing offer to the LibDems - but can he carry his party with him? Many of them will find it hard to give anything away to a party they will see as a distant runner-up and with - on the face of their stated policies - far more in common with Labour than with the Tories. Some Conservatives will also be wondering whether Dave did in fact run the best campaign possible? Gratitude is a thin veneer in politics and although to my mind one of the triumphs of the Conservative campaign was to put the party across as unified, we all know that can change very rapidly.

The Cleggster succeeded personally in his constituency but Clegg-mania seems to have done nothing for his party's position - and may even have been counterproductive. So there will be a lot of disappointment and potentially dangerous feelings among his party. Because of the LibDem constitution, the leader is strictly limited in what he can do without formal authorisation. They do have the opportunity to win at least some of the aims of their manifesto, but all come at a price. If they strike a deal with the Tories, the coalition would have a clear majority. If they strike a deal with Labour - a more natural position, perhaps - there might well be more on the table, but more complications because of the numbers. The small parties would play pivotal roles, and the arrangement could hardly be stable. The LibDems might actually end up with less by going with an overtly more promising deal. A subtle and nuanced decision awaits Nick and his colleagues.

Gordon Brown too has a very tricky problem. Does he do a runner now, this afternoon, or does he wait for Lord Mandelmort to nod coldly to Ed Balls or David Milliband?

I'm rather glad that the most pressing decision for me today will be between a dry martini and gin and tonic. Or beer. Or red wine. Actually, perhaps a coalition might be the right way forward, right for our country, right for our people...

Incidentally - while it's clearly going to take a little while to sort out who's going to do over whom, every day puts about £400,000,000 on the national debt. So it would be good for agreements to be reached, and reached soon.

Some things don't seem to change, however

"The 1992 General Election was, we were told (yet again), to be the moment when the Liberal Democrats would stage their breakthrough from the periphery into the main ground of politics. But, for all the confident predictions, the number of people voting Liberal Democrat actually went down."

The Political Animal by Jeremy Paxman, 2002.

Interesting times

No clear picture of who will form the next Government as we stand at just after 6am. No change here in Rushcliffe - Tory big beast Ken Clarke back with a nigh-on 16,000 majority.

Jacqui Smith: gone. The Greens have their first Westminster MP.

Time for a cup of coffee.

Thursday, 6 May 2010

A worrying thought

Mrs QO and I have had our go with the stubby pencils - good to see a queue at the polling station, though a little tedious to find another queue at the bar as soon as we'd got into the pub having done the democracy thing. Clearly democracy means the same to many of our neighbours as it does to us. Can't fault 'em, of course.

I was idly reviewing my blog posts and events of the last couple of days and a thought occurred to me. I mentioned the Greek financial crisis, and the next day three people were killed in the riots in Athens. Yesterday I made a passing reference to Nigel Farage, and today his plane crashed.

I do hope there isn't a 'Curse of the Quizzical Observer' at work. That would be terrible... I'd have to be so careful who I mentioned.

Anyway, I just wanted to have a word about Simon Cowell...

Wednesday, 5 May 2010

So... here we go

Election day tomorrow. I sort of intended to ignore the campaign as far as the blog went, but I couldn't help myself - I've got seriously interested. And my feeling is that the country has got more seriously interested this time too; there's a definite buzz in the air. That's a good thing for our country, whatever the result. It's like the old days when I were a nipper and everyone who wasn't a complete boring old numpty tuned into the Morecambe and Wise Show, then talked about it the next day. Only the jokes aren't quite so good, and I haven't seen Andre Previn on the stump, but you can't have everything.

Another good thing - and probably the root cause of the first - is that it seems as if real political shifts are taking place. Again, whatever the result, I think this is a healthy thing, and I may be able to park my plan to engage the electorate by paying celebrities to air political issues:

Britney Spears: "Oh, well, like, you know, I just adore i-Dave, he's like sooo on top of reducing the State and devolving power to local communities. And kinda cute, y'know?" *giggle*
Jedward: "Yup, Nick Clegg's our elder brother. He loves our music almost as much as he loves breaking the old two-party paradigm and offering a real political alternative. Vote for him and us!"
Coleen Rooney: "Eh, 'annit been a great season, laik, chuck? All we need now is for Gordon to get back into power and not threaten the economic recovery with hasty cuts in public spending. Gorraluvim!"
Lord Webber: "Nigel, you could be Dorothy."

Yeah, I know, that would be funnier if the Tories hadn't beaten me to it with Michael Caine. Oh well. Wha'eva.

Incidentally, make what you will of the order in which I placed the parties there, and the fact that some of them weren't included. You don't need a licence to receive Channel Observer, I don't have to give equal airtime to everyone, so suck it up. No overt statement from me, nor any endorsement of any candidate in any constituency should be inferred. OK, given that you'll know by now that I'm obsessing about cuts in public spending, you may have your suspicions. But that will - as far as the blog is concerned - remain a matter between my conscience and the ballot-box.

I will, though, make a heartfelt plea to anyone who reads this and is contemplating not voting to go out there and do so. Things are really, really serious out there, partly because too few of us have kept ourselves informed and made our voice heard to our representatives. Do what Mrs QO and I plan to do - go out around 6pm, exercise your mandate (big hairy thing, needs a lot of exercise), then bugger off to the pub.

Tomorrow, I shall stop being so pompous and pontificatory. I promise. Unless I found out you didn't vote, in which case... out you go, you're barred.

Further to yesterday

I posted about the economic crisis in Greece yesterday and went on to discuss our own. I was at points rather facetious, but today's news makes me wish I hadn't been.

Three killed as protestors set fire to a bank.

And the EU warn today that our budget deficit is likely to surpass that of Greece.

I'll leave it there.

Tuesday, 4 May 2010

Dang, I forgot the date

That's what comes of getting distracted with all this political stuff. Still, I'm just in time... Happy Star Wars Day.

No, really. This isn't just a gratuitous excuse to post a picture of Carrie Fisher in her metal bikini. Trust me.

Home truths

Last night I touched on the subject of Greece's financial state and thought I'd expand on that a little.

Doubtless their current crisis hasn't been helped by the international trading market having a bit of a punt, but fundamentally it seems to me they've dug themselves into it with great enthusiasm.

Reported by Malcolm Brabant, BBC News Athens:

"On Planet Greece, some civil servants get a bonus for turning up to work on time. Foresters get a bonus for working outdoors. At least they show up.

There are civil servants called ghost workers because they never go into the office, head to a second job and still claim a state salary. They can't get sacked, because a civil service post is for life. Unless the incumbent decides to retire in his or her forties, with a pension.

And the government can continue paying for the afterlife. Unmarried and divorced daughters of civil servants are entitled to collect their dead parents pensions. Another lucrative sinecure is to belong to a state committee. The government has no idea how many there are. It has been estimated that they have 10,000 employees and cost nearly £200m a year, and that includes the committee to manage a lake that dried up 80 years ago."

You mean Greek foresters have to work outdoors? Dear me, I can see why they'd need a bonus.

OK, having got the undoubted pleasure of smirking at foreigners out of the way, let's have a look closer to home.

EU estimated figures reported by the BBC here put the Greek budget deficit at 13.6% of GDP. That's appalling, and the Eurozone economies are supposed to observe a limit of 3%.

Ours is 11.5%. What saves us from being exactly in the same boat as Greece, with nothing in the coffers and a credit-rating of sod all, is the total debt. For Greece, it's 115% of GDP, while ours is a little under 70%, and a lot of ours isn't repayable right now but a fair way off. Those from whom our Government would seek to borrow money are - so far - taking the view that we have sufficient time to sort things out such that we can afford to make the necessary repayments when due. We therefore still have a good credit-rating and, accordingly, don't have to pay too much interest on the loans. But that can change quite quickly.

The size of our national debt is a huge, urgent concern - or should be - as it's now of a size where just servicing the debt consumes a terrifying amount. I've seen a figure for 2009 of £35 billion, about the same as the defence budget. We get nothing for that £35 billion, that's just to stand still without defaulting.

All the time we run a budget deficit, the total increases and the amount that has to be dedicated just to paying the interest increases.

This is not rocket science. It's exactly the same principle at work as if you keep on using your credit card and repaying less each month than you've put on it. We all know how that goes. OK, for a while you can roll it over by getting a new card and new credit to pay off the old debt, but eventually the merry-go-round grinds to a halt and you become more intimately acquainted with your local soup kitchens than you really intended. At a national scale, you have emergency measures which often fall hardest on the most vulnerable, riots in the streets and lots of foreign correspondents wandering around trying not to laugh. Oh, and if you're a public sector worker, or on a public sector pension... sorry, we can't pay this month. Not sure about next month, depends on the IMF chaps, so don't spend too much, eh?

The politicians competing for your vote on Thursday know this full well. *Pause* OK, I bet some of them don't, but they really should. Most voters don't - one recent poll suggested that 50% of voters think no spending cuts are required at all.

We're spending beyond our means as fast as the Greeks were, and it will end up the same way unless drastic action is taken. Taxes can only go up so far, the 'recovery' growth in our economy might or might not happen, so serious, painful cuts in public expenditure cannot be avoided. We can do this in a planned way that seeks to mitigate the effects as much as possible for those who really need public help (and only those - means testing will be a way of life soon), or we can have it thrust upon us chaotically by the IMF a few years down the line. You choose.

Still, one bright spot is I suppose we can be thankful that unlike the Greeks we haven't got a huge financial clusterf**k of an Olympics to pay for.

Oh, wait... bugger...

Monday, 3 May 2010

Old habits die hard

There's been much talk about the appalling mess in public finances (some of it by me), how the incoming government will have to roll back public sector spend, how we face the age of austerity yada yada blah. Despite the example of Greece now available to us, however, I don't think the penny has dropped yet - or at least, not where it needs to drop. Very likely, nothing substantive will be done until we, like Greece, need a bail-out from the IMF or the EU, such bail-out coming with strings attached which force us to start taking a serious slash-and-burn approach to public expenditure. In a sense, you can't really blame politicians, whether national or local, for carrying on as usual all the time we - the people (bless us and save us) authorise their activity by returning them to power.

All that said, sometimes people do take the piss. Look at some of the jobs available now, from the Guardian:

Contact Centre & Business Support Manager
"Leading the Contact Centre and Business Support Service for Environmental Services, you’ll look to reposition service delivery in a proactive, customer focussed way. This will see you reviewing business processes, streamlining working practices and developing a consistent approach to service delivery. This will be contained within an overall Contact Centre and Business Support Strategy that meets business objectives and enhances links with Nottingham’s communities."
Nottingham City Council, up to £36,313.

WTF does all that mean? Experience tells us that even if it were written in English it would be bollocks. Hands up any Nottingham City Council taxpayer who would vote for this job existing?



Assistant Director Partnerships and Performance
"Your priority in this role will be to transform the way we work and engage with and empower our partners in shaping how we deliver services.You will take the lead on corporate performance and external inspection like CAA and support to Warrington Borough Partnership to deliver Total Place. You will manage a diverse range of other functions including research, consultation, health and safety, land charges and emergency planning. You will be a key member of the Directorate Management Team and a regular advisor to the Strategic Management Board and the Executive Board."
Warrington Borough Council, up to £77,000.

Again we say: WTF? And if the humble 'Assistant Director' gets £77K, what on earth does his or her boss get?

Parking Processing Manager

"We are looking for a talented parking professional to manage our parking processing and concessionary travel services. This role has overall responsibility for representations and appeals, notice processing, debt recovery, and concessionary travel (Blue badges, Freedom Passes and Taxi cards). The role will also have responsibility for the financial management of the service."
London Borough of Haringey, £48,501-£51,414

Comment from me would be superfluous, so I shall content myself with banging my head on the desk at the concept of a 'parking professional'.

Business development officer

"The focus of this role is to drive continuous service improvement and transformation across all our services by:
* Building strong relationships with external partners to harness their potential in delivering excellent outcomes for residents
* Working in collaboration with partners and colleagues to implement service improvement initiatives across all areas of the business
* Developing and implementing innovative service initiatives
* Developing effective organisational plans in response to customer insight data and to meet best practice"
Tower Hamlets, £38-40K

"Customer insight data" is what we used to call complaints. But I must admit it does sound much nicer that way.

Enough, point made, I'm sounding disturbingly like Richard Littlejohn, and such a terrible thought is not one I propose to entertain on my birthday. I'm going to eat some of Mrs QO's beautiful sourdough bread, open a bottle of Rioja, and be happy.