Posts Tagged Politics

The Big Lunch 2010 and the importance of “social capital”

The Big Lunch 2010 - Sudbourne Road“I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit… If he may come into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors” (Hanifan, L. J. 1916)

Last Sunday, 18th July, the residents of Sudbourne Road, Brixton, gathered to celebrate “The Big Lunch 2010″. Under appropriately blue skies our sleepy, if perfectly formed, slice of south London was transformed for an afternoon into a theatre of food, music, dancing, playing, face painting, badge making, ice cream slurping and neighbourly celebration.

Pre-dating the now ubiquitous “Big Society”, TBL is – like all good ideas – a very simple one. By encouraging neighbours and communities to come together and socialise within the simple construct of a street party, they believe we can:

  • Build and improve community spirit and engagement
  • Make the third of us who live alone feel happier, closer and… friendlier
  • Conquer our natural shyness, to open our curtains, doors and minds and look out for one another
  • Share stories, skills and tools, so we all end up richer in every sense
  • Discover common ground across age, class, faith, race and the garden fence.
  • And you know what. It might just work.

    I’ve lived on this street for over two years.  It’s a beautiful place. Yet we only knew the wonderful couple who rent the flat below us and our neighbours to the right. And really, that was it before last Sunday. And it’s interesting how that seems entirely acceptable for so long. How you can live in such close proximity to so many people and yet live so very far apart.

    I won’t deny to being a little bit cynical when Lucy Sherwood (our fearless leader for 2010) dropped the first of the leaflets for this year’s event through the door. It’s just easier that way it seems. But I couldn’t help but notice that as the day grew closer the greater my anticipation – and hopes – grew. The evolutionary psychologist in me would have diagnosed this as the natural reaction of any innately social animal, but it was also in part triggered by my long held interest in behavioural psychology – particularly when concerned with collective/group behaviour – both in the workplace and in society at large. In particular, two of my favorite studies on the role and importance of community or social capital, kept playing out in my mind.

    In 1995 Robert Putnam published a groundbreaking study of the growing fragmentation and associated dislocation of community and group life in America. Initially published as an article in the Journal of Democracy ““Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, a book of the same name in 2000 went on to be a bestseller.  According to Putnam, social capital “refers to the collective value of all ‘social networks‘ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”. According to Putnam, social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy. Putnam’s studies of modern American life led him to conclude that social capital is declining in the United States. This is seen in lower levels of trust in government and lower levels of civic participation. Putnam also says that television and urban sprawl have had a significant role in making America far less ‘connected’. Putnam believes that social capital can be measured by the amount of trust and “reciprocity” in a community or between individuals.

    Anyone familiar with life in N. Ireland or wider United Kingdom will recognise that the trends described by Puttnam are mirrored here. As The Big Lunch website itself reminds us:

  • Two million more single person households are forecast by 2019.
  • We have more rich, poor and ethnic ghettos than ever before.
  • There has been a 7% annual drop in trust between neighbours from 2003-05.
  • Social trust in the UK halved and now among the lowest in Europe.
  • While there are subtleties to be recognised with regard to some disadvantages and inequalities associated with the creation and distribution of ‘social capital’, in the main commentators agree that it can be an extremely positive force – increasing civic and political participation (“The Big Society“), contributing to our personal and collective mental well-being (The New Economics Foundation) as well as improving our physical health and life expectancy.

    Those of you who have read Malcolm Gladwell‘s excellent Outliers, will be familiar with what has become known as “The Roseto Effect”.  In the mid 1960′s medical researchers – led by Stewart Wolf (a physician) - were drawn to Roseto (a close-knit Italian-American community Pennsylvania) by a fascinating but puzzling statistic: defying medical logic, Rosetans died of heart attacks at a rate only half that of the rest of America. The men of the village smoked and drank wine without moderation. They worked out their days doing hard manual labor in nearby slate quarries. The Mediterranean diet, with its preference for olive oil rather than animal fats, had to be compromised as poor immigrants couldn’t afford to import cooking oil from their homeland and so instead they fried their sausages and browned their meatballs in lard (don’t we all?). Yet, they retained unusually healthy hearts in spite of their unhealthy diet and lifestyle. The question was: How?

    In “The Power of Clan”, a report on studies conducted by Wolf and John Bruhn (a sociologist) over a broad period of time from 1935 to 1984, they found that mutual respect and cooperation contribute to the health and welfare of a community and its inhabitants while a lack of concern for others and self indulgence have the opposite effect.

    Studying the history of Roseto, they found that early immigrants were shunned by the English and Welsh who dominated this corner of eastern Pennsylvania. As a result, the Rosetans turned inward and built their own culture of cooperation and community.

    “People are nourished by other people,” said Wolf, noting that the characteristics of tight-knit community are better predictors of healthy hearts than are low levels of serum cholesterol or tobacco use. He explained that an isolated individual may be overwhelmed by the problems of everyday life. Such a person internalized that feeling as stress which, in turn, can adversely affect everything from blood pressure to kidney function. That, however, is much less likely to be the outcome when a person is surrounded by caring friends, neighbors and relatives. The sense of being supported reduces stress and the disease stress engenders.

    More recently studies in both the USA and here by the BMJ have confirmed the correlation between an active social life/set of social connections and longer life expectancy.

    And though it my not have felt that way as  I hoovered up Sudbourne Road’s finest samosa’s, jerk chicken, potato salad, sausages, ice cream and baked goods; there was an undeniable feeling of hope, optimism and yes, “well being” (personal an collective) as the evening drew to a close.

    New neighbours had been met; interesting conversations held; ideas on matters of interest to the local community – schooling and local planning applications in particular - were exchanged; histories shared; new friendships made. We appear – and it’s a shame on me that this was even remotely a surprise – to live among wonderful people with shared aspirations, hopes and fears for our street, their families and themelves.

    And so in the midst of all the semantic scuffles about The Big Society (or more locally known as Lambeth’s “Co-Operative Council”), what it is and what it might/must become it was a delightful thought that something as simple as a set of street parties, held across the UK, bringing neighbours together one day in July, might just be doing more for all of us than David Cameron’s band of merry social architects as yet.

    “People are nourished by other people”.  That’s the Big Lunch. Literally and metaphorically.

    Long may it run.

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    Deliberative Democracy, a beautiful echo and another appeal to Lambeth Labour

    Labor
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    On 4th June I managed to string together a very brief post on the then much anticipated launch of Lambeth Labour’s white paper and citizens consultation on it’s much heralded “Co-operative Council” strategy.

    My post was a very humble and basic set of hopes/recommendations for the good people at Lambeth Labour to guide them in their proposed “public consultation”. Sadly, though lets be honest, not unsurprisingly, no one at Lambeth Town Hall reads my blog.  As I’ll soon be posting, the much vaulted White Paper and ensuing consultation process has been quite a disappointment thus far.

    However – while I am saddened by the rather haphazard approach being adopted here in SW2, I was heartened (really heartened) that Matthew Taylor  (Chief Executive of the RSA since November 2006 prior to which he was Chief Adviser on Political Strategy to the Prime Minister) posted an eerily similar piece to his RSA Blog on the challenges of Government run “public consultations”.  And he’s a man who knows having been responsible for “The Big Conversation”. Remember that?

    Just four days after I made my entreaty to Lambeth Labour to place an exercise in deliberative democracy at the very heart of it’s “co-operative government” consultation, Matthew Taylor suggested this particular approach as possibly the only genuinely valuable strategy to engage and gain endorsement from the public on tough policy decisions.

    It’s on the rare occasion like this that I feel genuinely a little better about myself. I know this is a inappropriate and misplaced vanity, but it reminds me that sometimes I do have something useful to say when I can stay my limited intellect long enough to craft an argument.

    It’s just a shame he didn’t post a little sooner. I sense the words of the Chief Exec of the RSA carry more weight in the corridors of power in SW2 than those of a well meaning if ill qualified part time blogger and one time consultant from up Acre Lane.

    So – deliberative democracy. Lambeth Labour – it’s not too late; but are you listening?

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    Co-operatives, Consultations and Lambeth

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    Back in February, The Guardian ran a front page story on Lambeth Council’s proposals to create a “co-operative council”.  Following much speculation and some additional explanation from @LambethLabour, tomorrow will see the publication of the Council’s detailed proposals for this new LG co-operative AND the establishment of a “Citizens Commission” made up of local people to consult on said proposals.

    For anyone interested in participative democracy or indeed the “Big Society” this is all rather mouth watering.

    There has been more than enough coverage on the merits of the “co-operative approach” proposed by Lambeth Labour and the “no frills” approach to Local Government to be trialled by the Conservatives in Barnet (including by me on this blog: here) so I’ll leave that for now and instead offer some humble suggestions on the “Citizens Commission” consultation which will – one trusts – guide Lambeth Council on it’s journey toward mutualisation.

    Jason Cobb over at ONIONBAGBLOG asked the perinent question of Cllr Steve Reed when the date for proposals to be published and the associated consultation was announced: “How will citizens for this commission be selected?” The response from Cllr Reed:

    Wiki

     This is potentially exciting stuff – proper democratic engagement on proposals to change the very nature of Local Government service provision in our area. But it also has the potential to go the way of so many previous public consultations between Government and citizen. Errrm, nowhere.

    So some humble suggestions for the team @Lambethabour to make this consultation count:

    • Be prepared – technically and operationally

    If I am invited to consult on tomorrow’s proposals either Online, via wiki or in some other format, please be ready to process my comments. The internet in particular is littered with instances of failure to anticipate and handle the taffic that comes with an invitation to participate….and once bitten; twice shy. Make the channels for comentary available and accessible from Day 1 and be ready to respond to early technical or operational glitches to ensure immediate authority/integrity of the process.

    • Ensure a there is a representative sample of citizens consulted

    It will not be enough to simply open a passive set of feedback channels to the general public in Lambeth on these areas. The matters at stake are too important. At least in part, the Council must ensure that a representative sample have been consulted and their views recorded. This is particularly important in the case of those members of our society (the elderly and the socially disadvantaged) who are least likely to either be online or informed of such a consultation but yet are often more likely to depend on local government services under debate

    • Is a Wiki the best approach to online consultation?

    Wiki’s are useful but when badly set up they require excessive moderation to ensure focus and they can become unwieldy. It can also be resource intensive to draw out natural conclusions from contributions made – particularly important here. It is a true shame that www.yomoot.com does not have a mobile app plug-in that could be used to better facilitate an online conversation but maybe next time….for now, as a half-way house, why not simply use the model adopted today by the Government Coalition and its (eventually) comment enabled “Programme for Government” document: http://programmeforgovernment.hmg.gov.uk/. The interface is simple and comments are focussed on a particular area of Government, it also helps a little to mitigate against the “free-styling” that an open wiki can sometimes result in. However – and most importantly – neither exisiting wiki/online polling tools as yet support the ability to engage a ‘deliberate democratic discussion’…

    • How to ensure a deliberate discussion?

    Successful public consultations typically rely on the participants having a shared and clear understanding of the context of the debate and are fully briefed on the various proposals being presented for their commentary - so they can make a more reasoned/informed contribution. How will those consulted be informed? Have you considered adopting the “deliberative democracy” model for this consultation? It might lead to a more considered, less populist outcome. This may be an additional overhead on the process but empirical evidence suggests that it could result in increased savings, improved service provision and higher voter satisfaction with their local councils.

    • Consistency across channels

    Linked to the point above – without a broadly consistent set of questions across channels it will be very difficult to usefully collate and compare commentary/contribution. This is an important consideration to avoid complicating what is already likely to be a lengthy process of data analysis.

    • Be clear on how the consultation will work and keep your promises:

    How long will it last? what channels are available to comment? who will moderate contributions and should they be moderated at all? how will comments be considered/actioned? what happens to ideas that are not actioned in this round of a consultation? The list of questions goes on. Crowd-sourcingis not an easy business – have you thought through how to identify and manage special interest groups? How will you ensure transparency even when commentary may be critical? And once you have asked for opinions – are you actually going to do something with them? A quick search on the recent ‘Your Ireland; Your Call’ crowd-sourcing initiative provides an insight into the challenges of running a consultation like this (albeit YIYC was on a national scale). The old Number Ten Downing Street petition site became something of a poster child for the failure of online feedback to generate online action (although interesting to note that the new coalition guarantee a formal debate on any isse attracting 100k signatures…interested to see how that works out)

     

    I really don’t mean to be obstructive or negative – all these points are made in the spirit of someone who welcomes this attempt at public consultation. But I am also wary. For what we are being consulted on is in fact a strategy that will require individuals and groups across Lambeth’s civic society to take on responsibility for the delivery of public services. And that is a construct that requires an engaged population who trust in their elected officials to support them in their endeavors. How this consultation runs might well influence how engaged we are in the ‘co-operative Lambeth’ and certainly the trust we can place in our elected officials as part of a mutualised local government.

    In a way then, this consultation is the first test of the Lambeth ’co-operative model’ and so the stakes are high. I wish them well.

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    Polls Apart? Designs for a participative democracy

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    Voting is one of the great privileges of living in a modern democracy. While we know there are many who choose not to exercise this fundamental human right – for various reasons known to themselves alone – there are also many who are denied the ability, or who have difficulty in, exercising that right even though they wish to do so.

    When casting my ballot today I thought of the excellent campaign being run by Scope to ensure disabled voters are not denied or discriminated against in the election process: http://www.pollsapart.org.uk/

     As they say:

    “At every election, thousands of disabled voters are denied the chance to play an equal part in our democracy. Scope’s ‘Polls Apart’ campaign aims to end this exclusion”.

    I hope they were heartened by the link I sent to them of the award winning work on Norwegian Polling Stations which is currently being showcased at the London Design Museum:

    http://www.norskdesign.no/the-design-for-all-award/blanke-ark-polling-stations-article14159-8215.html

    http://www.kadabra.com/eng/projects/sdk_eng.htm

    Based on a “Design for All” principle, the ‘Blanke Ark’ framework is a beautiful example of considered social design meets functionality:

    “Blanke Ark employs the principles of Design for All by being a design for a wide variety of people, which means that the design provides functionality to people, regardless of age, sex, cultural background or ability”.

    The ability to vote is perhaps the ultimate expression of an individuals active participation in society. No one should be denied that right – particularly not on the grounds of disability.  Here’s to design for a truly participative democracy. 

     

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    Northern Ireland, David Cameron and his weapons of torture

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    Posted in response to Eamonn Mallie’s piece on www.sluggerotoole.com re David Cameron’s comments on the size of NI’s Public Sector last Friday.

    Eammon has this spot on. The analysis was right, the language and timing were naive and amateurish at best.

     I’ll never vote Tory but Cameron is absolutely right in his ultimate assessment that NI must grow it’s Private Sector and reduce our over reliance on the Public Sector. We have an unhealthy imbalance and without a stimulus in the private sector – particularly in attracting a range of jobs which pay in line with and above average Public Sector jobs we are incredibly vulnerable and have been for some time to Public Sector cuts and also any increase in interest rates (likely in the next parliament) which will hit many of our overstretched “property boom” keyholders. I wonder how many interest only mortgages there are in NI held by people borrowing multiples greater than 3 against public sector wages likely to be capped/frozen in the next parliament? 

    All our politicians know this is a fact. Many are on record re this in the past. The executive is on record as agreeing with Camerons sentiments on Private Sector growth – the 2009 IREP report recognised it. Many commentators and the occasional blogger like myself have been suggesting for some time that this was the real elephant in the room (http://www.shanepcarmichael.com/2010/01/a-new-vanguard/) while the Executive stalled and bickered over scraps from the sectarian table. An inclusive, burgeoning private sector economy supplementing our proud Public Sector makes sense not just economically but socially and politically – any post conflict society analysis tells us that employment and it’s associated benefits has one of the biggest impacts on the process of “normalisation”. University of Ulster recently published a report telling us we probably already knew – that young people with limited job or development opportunities are more likely to engage in anti social behaviour (including political and racial violence). 

    And yet our representatives on the hill have spent the last few years doing exactly what about this? Think of the time wasted while Stormont has been suspended or in sectarian stand off mode when they could have been addressing this issue given anyone with any secular political nous knew it was coming. And maybe that lack of secular nous is at the heart of this. 

     In spite of a rational if poorly executed SDLP call for a revised NI budget last year to reflect the realities of an economy in freefall nothing happened and an opportunity to stimulate a flagging economy was lost. 

    More alarmingly, at a public event in Westminster before Xmas i asked a senior political NI figure (vying now for a Westminster seat and to whose political views I am broadly aligned) what he thought of IREP and his views on developing our private sector given the chances of public sector cuts in the next parliament. His response not only suggested he had barely read IREP but he actually went on to say that he “had no time for these multi national corporations coming in for a few years and then swanning off to Singapore or wherever they get a better deal. The future of our economy has to be the 1-2 person family business…”!! Seriously – you couldn’t make it up, particularly as it came 2 weeks after the great news of NYSEs support centre investment and the audience that night contained at least one potential investor from a financial MNC. It’s just an isolated example but part of a larger failure –  Politicians like that should be vilified far more than Cameron on this issue. This problem has not been addressed on their watch.

    But here’s the immediate and rather sad reality for Cameron and the Tory/UU alliance. In spite of the fact all other parties agree in principle with what Cameron says, in spite of the fact they are responsible for allowing the situation to develop, all of them have the good sense to know the timing and turn of phrase he used was an act of political naivety at best and suicide at worst. It not only brings into question the nature of the Tory/UU partnership but also his own political judgement.

    The scent of blood (and cuts) is in the air. In a more mature political society Cameron may have been lauded for his honesty and it might even have triggered the long overdue advent of a more secular political debate on the issue at hand. It is badly needed –  anyone who thinks a simple cut in corporation tax is the answer to our problems is surely mistaken. It’s a much more complex consideration and needs early attention. But that’s a separate debate.    

    Unfortunately it won’t happen now in the mouth of an election – as Cameron should have known. And it might turn out to be a debate shaped by others than the Tory/DUP alliance, for in politics, perhaps more than anywhere else, “to the victor the spoils” and as Helmut Kohl once said: “You don’t win elections by putting the weapons of torture on display”.    

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    A very Modern Devolution of Government?

    Following their reasonably clever crowdsourced alternative to the Government’s 2010 ICT Strategy earlier this year, the Conservative Party this morning are once again seeking the wisdom of crowds by launching a project to crowdsource the analysis/scrutiny of the latest budget from Chancellor Alistair Darling.

    Irrespective of whether this yields much political fruit in the form of new votes, it is undoubtedly clever from a party that actually does seem to be grasping the potential benefits of drawing upon the collective wisdom of the nation – even as an exercise in public consultation. Whether anything useful comes from the analysis or not (the site itself is rather basic – reflecting I guess the need to rush to get something out there) you can be sure that it will garner news headlines, those with an interest will feel engaged and it offers real efficiencies for Conservative HQ and their effort to respond to yesterday’s announcements by The Chancellor.  It’s hard to see how they can lose on this. I see Liam Byrne has suggested that it reflects the fact that the Conservatives “need help” with their response. I think that’s a potentially dangerous line to take on this one but we’ll see…..

    Their recent “Cash Gordon” campaign online via Twitter was undoubtedly a disaster – be wary of trying to manipulate the web dwelling public into becoming a conduit for something they haven’t initiated or truly believe in – but on this one (for now) I doff my social(ist) media flat cap.

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    Six degrees of separation (and breakfast)

    Bizarre.

    In the course of finishing my previous post in which I commented on the recent furore surrounding the resignation and re-instatement of Joanne Cash as the Conservative Party’s candidate for Westminster North, I realised I have, in the past shared a breakfast table with her husband, Octavius Black.

    Joanne Cash and Octavius Black

    Joanne Cash with her husband – and friend of David Cameron – Octavius Black. Photograph: Alan Davidson

    As founder of The Mind Gym, Octavius was kind enough to treat me and the one and only Rob Gibbs to a breakfast meeting as we discussed doing some business with the Mind Gym on a (to remain unnamed) Government account on which we were working.

    A very nice man, charismatic in the extreme, intellectually engaging and founder of a very interesting and entrepreneurial company. And the breakfast was good too.

    Small world indeed.

     

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    What it meant…

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    Someone actually asked me for an opinion the other day. Its been a while since I actually had to think so it took me a little by surprise but nonetheless it was flattering.

    What did I make of David Cameron‘s rather unexpected and I have to say, slightly uncharacteristic, attack on Gordon Brown the man/politician than Gordon Brown the leader of the Labour Party, calling him a “secretive, power-hoarding, controlling” character.
    I think it simply meant two things.

    First, the ideological dividing lines in this election are so fine to be almost entirely non-existent. When some of the bigger bones of contention include how many years we should take to cut the national deficit (and even then itsa debate separated by 2 years!) and the recognition of marriage within the tax system, we can say for certain that there’s been a whole lot of political cross dressing going on down in Whitehall and some-one’s going to get injured in the trample for centre ground.

    Twenty years on from “there is no such thing as Society”, the party of Margaret Thatcher are positioning themselves as the party of social inclusion, ready to pull out the band aids and mend our ‘Broken Britain’ while Red Gordon skirts around the edges of financial reform, hankering still, one suspects, for the maintenance of a loosely regulated free market economy (and not just in the City) but across Government service provision. Stange times indeed.

    In short, if Labour lose this election it won’t be on the basis of policy or ideology, it will be because voters will simply have grown tired of the personalities implementing these policies. Same game, new faces. Anyone watching Nick Robinson on his recent travelling ballot box series will recognise what I mean….not once have I heard anyone identify an issue of policy which distinguishes Conservative from Labour. But I do hear a lot of…well, “Labour have had their chance, it’s time for a change”. (As an aside – worryingly for Labour that’s a harder tide to turn than one based on a consiered and informed policy debate ironically).

    I don’t think this homogenisation of politics is necessarily a bad thing however. The fate of an entire nation or nations(s) and their people shouldn’t be a hostage to a political system of two extremes for the sake of maintaining tradition.  A considered, centralist approach to our problems is a good thing – whether that be in hues of Red or Blue. But it is making for a dull pre-election campaign and so Cameron went personal. He said very little really, but it spoke volumes for our politics today.

    Secondly, it told me that in the week he launched such a personal attack on Gordon Brown he probably needed to more be careful about interfering in local Conservative Party business to re-establish the CCHQ status quo i.e. this week’s rather shabby Conservative Party Westminster North candidate row where “DC” intervened quite clearly to ensure that his favored candidate Joanne Cash got what she felt she needed to run (at some cost to others long standing in the party BC (if you’ll indulge me) it is alleged) as the Party’s elected candidate for that seat. 

    For if he wants to stand in front of some very bored (and I have to say – incongruously petitioned it seemed) students railing against Gordon Brown’s dark and stifling instinct for control, secrecy and omnipotence and have us believe that his leadership style – allegedly democratic, open, devolved – will in fact be that and as such, represent one of the few distinctions between his party and that of Her Majesty’s Government he will have to do better, for it smacked just a little too much of those characteristics he had just finished railing against – “secretive, power-hoarding, controlling”. Careful David, that was naughty naughty naughty.

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    Will the real Gordon Brown and David Cameron please stand up?

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    The last few weeks have left me still puzzled by both the leader of the Government and the leader of the opposition.

    Yesterday I watched a large portion of the Prime Minister’s latest meeting with the Parliamentary liaison Committee. It was fascinating not just in the range of subject matters but also because it demonstrated the undeniable grasp Gordon Brown has on all aspects of Government. His performance was assured, informed and in parts both deferential and humorous.  He seemed more at ease then I’ve seen him for some time. It was a reassuring performance.  I wonder does he sense the tide turning with latest polls suggesting a rather meagre 7% gap between the parties?

    He seems, if anything, to hve been emboldened by the abortive, potentially divisive and certainly irresponsible (speaking as a Labour voter) ‘leadership challenge’ of Hoon and Hewitt.

    And yet still, so often, in Public he fails to project the same reassuring persona/political force as he did in front of fellow parliamentarians yesterday. And the Clare Short testimony has raised more questions about who Gordon Brown really is – the sulking, whispering, marginalised coffee drinker or a conscientious war objector whose Political loyalties took precedence over his personal instincts? The general sense coming out of the Chicott enquiry will be tat he left the Dept Defense vulnerable as a result of major cost cuttin in the months aftr the Iraq war. But is should be made clear that all those testifying – including John Reid – agreed that the actual needs of war in Iraq were met, the overall impact on the Armed Services was significant.  This is a subtle but to his opponents unimportant difference and at today’s PMQ David Cameron was back on top as he dished out a good od fashioned battering of the PM on this basis.

    Meanwhile across the house, apart from todays PMQs,  it has not been a great few weeks for Mr Cameron or the Conservatives. Flip flopping first on recognising/rewarding marriage within the tax system (something I vehemently disagree with on a number of grounds – not just scientifically) and then on the extent of cuts in the first year of any Conservative Parliament…”not swingeing”?! And yest the Shadow Chancellor continues to sound slightly more bullish on the extent of savings that must be made immediately. I wonder how they felt in Davos when almost every other country in attendance was in the Brown/Darling camp of “its too early to stop spending and risk falling back into recession”.  Of course – the rest of the world – including the US could be wrong and Cameron and Osborne could be right…. I wonder.  The pressure continues to come for his party to reveal more specific details of their economic plan and the word “inconsistency” seems to be appearing more and more in headlines associated with the Conservatives. If the Labour Party is smart there is ground to be made up with that line if it is played well.

    And then, with my Northern Irish hat on, his Political naivity in the role he played in the infamous “Hatfield House” Unionist Unity talks. Did he take a moment to think how these might appear to the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland? How on earth can he expect to play the role of independent peacekeeper and arbiter for NI politics in the ext Parliament is he was now to be elected?

    The embarassment of the Lord Stern announcement and subsequent retraction might seem like small beans but it was embarassing and is just another suggestion of the naivity of a party who want the General Public to elect them to manage one of the most challenging periods of social and economic upheaval many of us have known.

    Some of his sheen and confidence has clearly been knocked. The Prime Minister has been in the main resurgent at recent PMQs (today excepted) and it feels like, if not seismic, there has been a slight shift in the fortunes of these two leaders.

    As Sir Alex Ferguson likes to say, this is now the business end of the football and Political seasons, what he likes to call “squeaky bum” time.  An interesting battle of style, personality and political nous is playing out between these two men who would be king.  I wonder who’s bum is squeaking most right now?

     

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    Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes (N Ireland style)

    Growing up in Northern Ireland it takes a lot to surprise you after a while – particularly anything remotely political or paramilitary.  We seem to specialise in the ridiculous.  But this excerpt from a posting on Slugger O’Toole today left me quite speechless.

    In an article about Community Restorative Justice Schemes, the piece cites this BBC Radio report:

    “Harry Maguire is an ex-IRA prisoner who was convicted of murder. He now works for Community Restorative Justice, an organisation who try to stop punishment shootings. “A number of the shootings that have taken place over the last year have been done in a very haphazard manner,” he said. “They’re unprofessional with what they’re doing. There’s been a number of these punishment shootings where the intention has been to shoot someone in the knees. On one occasion a person was shot in the shoulder.”

    Yes, let me repeat that:

    “There’s been a number of these punishment shootings where the intention has been to shoot someone in the knees. On one occasion a person was shot in the shoulder”

    I’ve only fired a gun a few times – and almost always legally of course and even I fancy my chances of hitting a knee in the course of close up act of “community policing”.  At worst I’d settle for back of the thigh and put it down to nerves. But the shoulder…..the shoulder?!?! Who are these people?!

    I shouldn’t laugh but really….all together now….”head, shoulders knees or toes (knees or toes?!)”?

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