Something strange is happening in Hackney

25 April 2010

A week last Thursday, the political lay of the land shifted. The mini earthquake thanks to Nick Clegg has resulted in people thinking differently about this election.

I do wonder why no pundits expected this. Didn’t they recall when, a couple of months ago the three Leaders agreed to these TV debates, everyone said that whatever else happens, Clegg and the Lib Dems will do well out of it.

I guess the mis-match is because ‘doing well’ wasn’t merely those commentators and pundits saying “Didn’t he do well?”, Bruce Forsyth style. It actually resulted in the electorate thinking he did well and making the link between that and the fact they’ll be voting in the General Election.

Well, national sentiment aside, since a week last Thursday my on-the-ground campaigning in Hackney North and Stoke Newington has thrown up something strange (good strange).

It’s the sheer number of people who are saying they’re voting Lib Dem this time. And not just those who voted Lib Dem last time and will again, but those who voted Labour before and will vote Lib Dem now.

There has been a shift in sentiment along these lines for a while. But not like this. The most interesting shift I’ve noticed is among Afro-Caribbean people. It’s fair to say that Diane Abbott’s vote among the Afro-Caribbean community was strong. But that now seems to be falling away.

It’s always difficult to make judgements based on the sample available, but the extent to which people are telling me and the Lib Dem team that they’re either voting for us or thinking of voting for us is significant. Old-style voting along tribalistic lines (“Always voted Labour; my family has always voted Labour”) is just not there in the way that it was.

With eleven days to go before it’s all over, anything could happen. A week’s a long time in politics, so they say (who did say that first?) and the best outcome of all from these debates is that people on the streets and the doorsteps in Hackney are thinking openly about casting their vote. No longer thinking “I’m voting Labour to keep the Tories out” they know the political landscape has shifted.

We’ll see.


No longer a hustings virgin

27 March 2010

Well, I survived my first hustings in tact. It was a lively event and was my first opportunity to meet a couple of the other candidates, including the venerable Ms Abbott. Oops, sorry, I meant vulnerable – given that I’m biting at her heels to take the seat of Hackney North & Stoke Newington :-).

A wide range of issues cropped up, from empowering community groups to who our political philosophers were. I answered that last question perhaps more honestly than I should have. The others reeled off their lists of philosophers, and when I got to me, I held my hands up and said I just don’t have a list of historical figures or philosophers I look to in that way. I reminded the audience of a question I’d been asked a couple of weeks ago, “what’s your favourite political film?”. I guess I could have done a bit of research to find a film that sounded good, but I answered honestly. It’s Erin Brockovich. If you’ve never seen it, it’s not really a political film per se, but a (true) story about an unemployed single mother who gets a job as a clerk in a law firm, and ends up fighting – and winning – a massive case against a corporate giant which poisoned a town’s water supply.

Anyway, it probably made me stand out as a bit silly, not quoting directly from John Stuart Mill or something, but there we go.

The rather embarrassing moment occurred 15 minutes before the event was originally due to end, because that’s when Diane Abbott turned up. No apology, and started with a joke about not being able to hang around after, because of her TV appearance on This Week, saying to the audience “so if I look haggared on TV later then it’s your fault!”. I would have thought that, having been MP for 23 years, she’d have picked up enough on the doorsteps of Hackney North and Stoke Newington to know that the one common response to her weekly appearances on This Week is that people would rather she spent less time on her media career and more as a constituency MP.

I admired the Tory candidate. Toryville Hackney is not, however, he absolutely stuck to his principles when responding to questions, so good for him.

There was one thing all four of us agreed on (me, Diane, the Tory and the Green) after the meeting had finished. It’s pretty poor that this is the only hustings we have in our diaries at the moment.

A proper Balls up

23 February 2010

It was interesting listening to Ed Balls on the radio this morning, trying to defend his government’s stance on sex and relationship education proposals for schools, and the opt-out he’s proposing for faith schools not to have to teach it in a fair and unbiased way.

Good quality education on sex and relationships is long overdue in our schools, and the original plans would have delivered a relatively fair and balanced approach to teaching it. The watering down of the proposals comes, by complete coincidence, after the Catholic Education Service undertook one of their most intense lobbying efforts on Ed Balls and the government.

It never fails to amaze me the lengths to which organisations such as the Catholic Education Service will go to promote their discriminatory brand of religion. But still, that’s their agenda and they seem as keen as ever to stick to it.

What old Mr Balls has failed to recognise is that the character, ‘ethos’, or whatever you call it, of any faith school is an ingrained part of that school’s culture, and will therefore naturally manifest itself to some extent in the way subjects are taught in the classroom. So why introduce a completely unnecessary amendment to the proposals if the ethos of a faith school is a natural part of the pupil experience anyway? The big problem is that this amendment goes further than that, by providing the ability for the school to completely contradict any of the messages, if they want to.

So why should the government stop at this particular juncture, if this is such an important issue? Why not extend such provision and opt-outs to the teaching of science, or for that matter, every other subject on the curriculum?

One thing we can be sure of is that this particular volte face from the government will stifle the slow progress of equality.

It’s all about the family, apparently

23 January 2010

So the Tories and Labour are rushing towards the bountiful world of good and plenty and all that’s right in this world. A rush to support the Family. For the Tories in particular, this manifests itself via a minor perk in the tax system.

I don’t understand it. If the underlying motivation to support the family is, as they say it is, to ensure that children get a good start in life, then the best way of achieving that is to ensure there’s top quality investment in children themselves. In their schools. In support outside school in clubs, sports and so on. And in supporting their home life through ensuring they get what they need like a home, food, and all the other stuff they need completely regardless of the structure of the particular family unit which they belong to.

I guess the reason this kind of posturing narks me is because it’s exclusive, not inclusive. A minority of people live in what we all think of as a typical family unit (married couple with children), with the majority living their lives in some other way. So why would a tax break for married couples, amounting to something like a couple of hundred quid a year, help in any way to achieve the above objectives? Would it ensure that family unit is more stable? If a married couple had that extra little perk in the tax system, would it make them think twice about divorcing if their marriage didn’t work out?

Of course it wouldn’t. And even if it had a scintilla of a chance of doing so, I’d hope that those involved thought the better of it. Staying together in a relationship that doesn’t work for the sake of a minor tax allowance? That doesn’t strike me as the best family unit for children to get the best start in life.

Of course, I’m lying when I say I don’t understand it. I understand all too well that the Tories – and Labour – need to reach out to those middle-England swing voters. The Mail and Express readers who like this kind of thing.

Done in the right way, support for families can achieve the underlying objectives that people are after. But that doesn’t mean it has to be done in such an exclusive way.

Today is a Good Day

7 January 2010

Jonathan Ross is leaving the BBC

’nuff said 🙂 🙂 🙂

The genius of Miroslaw Balka

31 December 2009

Just been to the Tate Modern to see the pop art exhibition, and the current work in the turbine hall. Some of the pop art stuff was great – Andy Warhol’s work is mesmerising. Some of it’s also pretty ropey, but that’s the way of it, I suppose.

Before leaving we took a look at the mammoth piece of art in the turbine hall – a work by Miroslaw Balka called “How It Is”.

Wow. It’s a huge metal box (about 60ft high and 100ft long) which is completely pitch black inside. You wander in up a ramp and are suddenly plunged into darkness – and blindness. It’s an odd feeling, especially with others around experiencing the same, and all the usual noises in the background. What feels odd is that you suddenly need to trust the artist in order to walk further into the darkness, as you’ve no idea what’s in front of you. After a few seconds I felt uneasy, and was convinced that the box was swaying. It wasn’t, natch, but it’s amazing what games the mind can play.

When you get to the far end of the box you turn around and are faced with the wall of the turbine hall, back in daylight. And, just as it seemed someone had turned the lights off when entering the box, when turning around at the far end, you can clearly see everything and things are back as they were.

I love good modern art. My personal yardstick of its greatness is the extent to which it challenges my thinking, perceptions or senses. Balka did the latter big time.

It’s good to have your perceptions challenged full-on, sometimes.

Zac Goldmine – a Tory liability that David Cameron can’t see

30 November 2009

So Zac Goldminesmith confesses to being a ‘non-dom’, and tells us this isn’t a problem as he’ll relinquish this status to become UK domiciled in the future. This story is interesting on several levels.

Firstly, there’s a general point about the utter contempt with which Zac treats those he wishes to represent – those whose vote he’ll be asking for next Spring so he can be their guy in Parliament. As far as I know he only said he’d change his tax status when others unearthed the fact he was not UK domiciled. I’ll more than happily stand corrected on this one, but it is astounding that his response is to do something about it in the future with no apology for claiming this tax status in the past – and only do it when he got found out.

Secondly, there are some very specific points around the benefits that UK residency and domicile rules confer on individuals. I know something of this – having gone through UK residency and domicile tax training as part of a previous job. So, I know full well that Zac saying “my annual tax returns are signed off by the Inland Revenue” is missing the point entirely. This isn’t about illegal tax evasion – it’s an issue of what some call ‘tax efficiency’. Using and testing the rules to their limits while ignoring the broader will of the tax system. Hey, that reminds me of a similar situation where a bunch of people said they were acting ‘within the rules’ and thought that was justification for their actions? I’ll have no more thoughts on floating duck houses and get back to the point…

Zac has also said he’s ‘tax resident in the UK’. That may be true. But that doesn’t mean he’s ‘tax domicile in the UK’. The two are different things, because if you’re not UK domiciled you don’t pay tax on overseas earnings kept outside the UK.

Leading nicely onto point number three, and that’s the country pile Zac lives in, and his £7.75m house in Richmond. Sorry, did I say his house? I meant to say the house he lives in, because the owner on the property deed is an offshore Trust in the Cayman Islands. So his suggestions about being UK registered for inheritance tax purposes are interesting on another level, as they won’t include his UK properties of which he’s a beneficiary but not the owner. This underlines the problem with the system – the Tories can mess about with raising inheritance tax thresholds, but it won’t matter a jot for people like Zac as the UK properties this particular UK resident lives in will never be considered as part of his estate for inheritance tax purposes.

There are some people who are non-UK domiciled but are working in the UK for a period of time for whom some of the UK tax system is designed, so as not to unfairly penalise them by, say, taxing them twice over. Parts of the tax system relating to non-doms needs sorting out – for sure – but the elephant in the room that Mr Goldsmith, David Cameron and the Conservative party have missed big time is that you can’t have someone using loopholes in the UK tax system clearly not designed for their benefit as someone ‘born and brought up in the UK’ to seek election as a Member of Parliament and representative of the people – and think there’s no problem squaring both those things off.

This kind of thing increases the corrosion of opinion that British people have about politicians. But that aside, the damage this has done to the Tory brand is, surprisingly, something that Team Cameron has not spotted.

Take stock of what’s important

10 November 2009

Those are the paraphrased words of Falklands war veteran Simon Weston in response to the Gordon Brown letter saga, the sentiment of which I couldn’t agree with more.

So the situation is this: Gordon Brown pens a letter to the mother of a soldier recently killed in Afghanistan. This isn’t a letter that one of his people have drafted for him to merely sign, it’s one he’s taken the time to write by hand.

This tells me two things: firstly, aside from any wider decisions to continue with a military campaign in Afghanistan or any decisions (or lack of) on equipment and resources, he feels a personal sense of responsibility over what’s happened. Secondly, that sense of responsibility extends to taking time out of his day, time precious in the extreme as Prime Minister, to write a letter.

However, the letter was a bit sloppy in its presentation – as many of us have seen on TV, online or in the papers.

So, Mrs Janes receives the letter and is outraged. I would imagine she’s feeling a painful mix of raw and intense emotions right now, so unsurprising that she reacted.

But then The Sun got involved. The paper that just a few weeks ago decided it didn’t support Gordon Brown or the Labour Party any more. Cue a most disgraceful act of opportunism by publicising the letter in the way they did.

Gordon’s immediate response? – phone Mrs Janes and apologise.

I’m really pleased that the reaction of many people is in support of Gordon Brown, as I would despair if he thought he couldn’t or shouldn’t shoulder the responsibility for life lost as a result of our military interventions.

I feel very sorry for Mrs Janes. I feel sorry for two reasons: firstly, and by far most importantly, for the terrible loss of her son. The other reason I feel sorry for her is the way The Sun has manipulated her and this story into something it’s not.

We need to take stock of what’s really important here.

It’s funny, but not that funny

29 October 2009

I keep on seeing posters on the tube, promoting Avenue Q. I saw Avenue Q last year, and it was great fun.

However, some of these posters seem to have the headline: “It was so good, I p***ed my pants!”. It was certainly something quite similar to that.

Unnecessary reference to wetting oneself in improper places, I’d have thought. Especially for the poor person who has to sit in the same seat for the next performance.

Two returns

5 October 2009

Really pleased when I read the Strictly Come Dancing headline “Strictly, she’s back – Arlene returns to judging panel”. She was their best judge, and as lovely a person Alesha Dixon is, she doesn’t have the knowledge to be a judge, as evident by her lack of technical feedback during the show.

But pleasure turned to sorrow when I read the article, which went on to say Arlene would be judging on a tour of the show, not the TV programme. Boo.

The second ‘return’ relates to something rather more annoying. On the Today programme on radio 4 this morning, Michael Gove, Conservative education spokesperson, was using phrases such as “when we’re in government”, “in a future Tory government”, during the interview.

I know he’d explain away these phrases by saying they’re not there yet; the people have to decide; and so on. But the tone he was using gave the impression it was a done deal, and that narks me big time.

Opinion polls have been telling us for ages that the next government is likely to be a Conservative one, so I understand why Tories are thinking themselves into government. But a bit of humility wouldn’t go amiss, especially when it really isn’t a done deal.