Archive for the Politics Category

What this election needs is a good old-fashioned husting!

Posted in Politics with tags , on April 14, 2015 by Tom Leatherbarrow


Yesterday, the Prime Minister met a voter, a proper voter not one with a press badge.

He went for a walkabout (my god the daring!) in Alnwick. Now, admittedly, it was 3pm on a Monday afternoon in a small Northumbrian market town, hardly Oxford Street on a Saturday morning, but it’s a start.

Will it catch on? I doubt it. The biggest problem with what is turning out to be one of the most boring campaigns in modern history is that our politicians and their advisers are so fearful of a Gillian Duffy or Sharon Storer moment that all life has been sucked out of the campaign.

Instead we get a succession of set-piece speeches and hi-vis photoshoots with no engagement from the public. When a politician does go onto a building site, workers and tradesmen (the great unwashed) are kept at arms-length. How I long for an electrician to interrupt all this nonsense and say, loud enough for the microphones to pick up, “Excuse me Prime Minister, could you just move a little to your left I need to put some cable trunking there.”

Quelle surprise, there is no movement in the polls. But why would there be when everything we see on our TVs is so insipid.

However, there is hope. Despairing of any political engagement in my own safe Tory constituency (the election effort so far stands at one small poster on the A38 and a leaflet) I went to the marginal Worcester seat (2010 result: Conservative majority 3,000) for a terrific evening of political debate in the Cap ‘n’ Gown pub.

Enterprising landlord Ted has invited all the candidates every Monday of the campaign to a good old-fashioned political husting, each time on a specific subject. Last night was the NHS.

Ably moderated by Ted himself (at one point I wanted to vote for Ted so detailed was his grasp of German GDP to health spending ratios) we hit all the big issues, both national and local, from euthanasia through to extortionate PFI contracts, the closure of a local walk-in medical centre and overcrowded A&E departments.

The night had it all, heckling from the public; a flash of anger from a nurse; despair from an overworked young doctor, with the debate ebbing back and forth as the candidates slugged it out and voters helped themselves to the Hook Norton beer.

This is politics as it was meant to be, real democracy in action for over two hours and pub was packed! The candidates in particular deserve great respect for taking part, putting themselves out there without the safety net of an invited audience or advance sight of the questions.

There is a lesson here. I suspect voters were swayed last night. Minds were changed or made up. It mattered, which is more than another insipid speech to a hand-picked audience will ever do.

Speak for England, Margaret!

Posted in Banking, business, Politics with tags , , , on March 12, 2015 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Public Accounts Committee chair Margaret HodgeMargaret Hodge has been accused of being rude. She was. Margaret Hodge has been accused of being bullying. Possibly. Margaret Hodge has been accused of losing her rag. Definitely, and I envy her.

In an age of carefully choreographed media appearances, this week’s grilling of HSBC bosses at the Public Accounts Committee translated into a tour-de-force performance by its chair, the Labour MP for Dagenham.

If you haven’t seen Rona Fairhead, chair of the audit committee at HSBC, squirm when asked why she hadn’t quite grasped the fact that the bank’s Swiss business might, just might, possibly, potentially, be used for tax evasion, you can watch it here.

As Simon Jenkins comments in today’s Guardian, even a child knows that Switzerland is a tax haven. Apparently this little fact had escaped Rona.

Why do I envy Margaret Hodge? Because I recently closed down two HSBC accounts. I’d had enough of the money laundering, manipulation of LIBOR, playing around in the North American Mezzanine Credit Default Swap market, bonuses – I could go on but you get the point.

I marched into my local branch in Bromsgrove intent on giving the stuffed shirt who runs the place a piece of my mind when he, surely, would  ask me why I was deserting the sinking ship?

Only he didn’t ask. He directed me to a chair and then went off to check whether I had any money in either of the accounts or whether my salary was paid into them. I know this because I got out of my chair and looked over his shoulder.

When he found out that my salary was paid into another bank, he didn’t bother asking. He just turned on his heels leaving me with a colleague to cut up my cards.

So, I never got my Margaret Hodge moment and to add insult to injury a week later I got an automatically generated postcard from Head Office which said “It’s sad to say goodbye”.

No it wasn’t and well done Margaret.

For Christ’s sake Ed, put your hands in your pockets like everyone else!

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on May 27, 2014 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Labour Party Leader Ed Miliband Speaks At The Scottish Labour conferenceI’ve had enough. I’ve tried to give him the benefit of the doubt.

I’ve tried to place policy above superficial appearance. I’ve tried to take solace in the fact that he’s got some of the big calls right – phone hacking, bankers, the Daily Mail.

I even had some sympathy with the whole bacon butty cock-up. And I have to say, if asked, I wouldn’t know how much we spend at Chez Leatherbarrow on our weekly shop either.

But what I cannot forgive is Ed Miliband’s hand gestures, they are driving me to distraction. Who speaks to a member of the public, teacher or nurse with their finger-tips pressed together like they’re thinking through the Theory of Relativity?

Oh and the voice coaching and believe you me there has been voice coaching. The average speaking rate is somewhere around 125 words per minute. By my reckoning Ed is down somewhere around 70-80 and all it does is make everything he says sound intensely patronising.

Meanwhile, Nigel “Man of the People” Farage is on a celebratory pub crawl through every watering hole in Southern England. Nigel is the very epitome of a man at ease with himself. No forced hand gestures here, mind you he can’t as he usually has a pint in one hand and a fag in the other.

And then there’s the one liners, they’re the best bit. My favourite was the one after the Eastleigh By-Election, “We’d have won but the Conservatives split our vote”. Even my Dad, who is a Pro-European, wine-loving, baguette-eating Francophile, currently residing in the Limousin, thought that one was funny.

Nigel’s legacy may well be something like that of the 1950s French politician, Pierre Poujade, whose populism coined the phrase, ‘Poujadism’, which is still used today whenever a politician blatantly courts public opinion. Expect ‘Faragism’ to take a similar place in the UK’s political dictionary.

Mind you, Ed has tried populism as well with his Fuel Price Freeze, fat lot of good it did him. Perhaps if he just put his hands in his pockets?



Miliband’s Dad – should Ed bring back MailWatch?

Posted in Media, Politics with tags , , , on October 2, 2013 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Daily MailI suspect there is a lot of debate this morning (at least there should be) amongst PRs about how they would have advised Ed Miliband to respond to the Daily Mail’s attack on his father.

PRs are naturally conciliatory. God only knows I’ve taken it in the teeth often enough and not bitten back, but I think I would have been tempted to in this case.

PR wisdom is that you should never take on the man with the microphone, in this case Mail editor Paul Dacre, but there is plenty enough historical evidence to justify a more robust response.

A university friend of mine once wrote to former Senator Lloyd Bentsen (he of the great put down to Dan Quayle “you’re no Jack Kennedy”) to ask him what went wrong with the Dukakis campaign in 1988 as part of the research for his MA. Incredibly the late Senator replied and said the big mistake had been not biting back hard enough when the Bush campaign and right wing media laid into them in the spring of 1988 when they had a double digit opinion poll lead.

Clinton learnt that lesson in 1992 with his rapid rebuttal techniques only for John Kerry to forget it again when faced with Swift Boat Veterans for Truth.

New Labour also learnt the lesson with Alistair Campbell initiating MailWatch in the late 1990s as a rapid rebuttal to anything derogatory  that appeared in that day’s paper. Ultimately, under pressure from Blair who wanted a more conciliatory stance and the Mail itself (“if you can’t take it don’t dish it out”), Campbell stopped, but was tempted on more than one occasion, according to his diaries, to bring it back.

Which brings us to Miliband. In my book the response is a hit both morally and politically. I’m not sure you can let that sort of thing lie but he gains in two ways.

Firstly, he looks a more sympathetic figure this morning and not the policy wonk he has always been portrayed as. Secondly, he dominated the news cycle on Tuesday wiping the Tory Conference out.

As for the Mail, misjudgement does not sufficiently cover it. Jonathan Freedland in today’s Guardian says it offended the British sense of fair play, but if I was in charge at The Daily Mail and General Trust, owners of the newspaper, I would be more worried by the Twitter response, which was not anger, but ridicule, and that is much, much worse

NSA leaks could put a slow burn under Silicon Valley business plans

Posted in business, Politics with tags , , , on July 15, 2013 by Tom Leatherbarrow

facebook_google_apple_logosYou could be excused for struggling to keep up with NSA leaks story which has been running for the past month or so.

If, like me, you are only now catching up with this, here is the story so far in a very abridged form. Edward Snowden the former US National Security Agency operative has revealed to the world that the NSA has been collecting, in bulk, meta data from search providers such as Google and Yahoo and also Facebook, Hotmail and anything else they can get their hands on, from Americans and non-Americans for years.

We also know, courtesy of the Guardian, that Skype has been compromised as has Outlook, whose encryption was unlocked even before official launch. The scale of the operation is staggering and is global – the French and Germans in particular are furious.

How have they got away with this? That is a good question, particularly in light of the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution which asserts the rights of people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizure.

Whilst the Founding Fathers may not have had the internet as a primary focus of their concerns for individual liberty it is clear that, in the modern world, search and seizure of information has as much to do with meta data as it does with paper.

The diplomatic implications are enormous, as are the potential implications for the big technology companies like Microsoft and Google who have been handing over the information (although they claim it has been under duress).

Web users are fickle and can quickly switch their allegiances to new social media or search providers with the click of a button. In fact, we might already have a clue to what the ‘Silent Majority’ of web users think of the ‘co-operation’ that has been offered to the NSA.

Zero tracking site DuckDuckGo for example, which pledges not to track or store data about its users went from serving 1.7 million searches per day at the start of June to three million within a fortnight.

The nightmare for the big players, Google in particular, is that the revelations accelerate the fragmentation of search which is already occurring in the States. The April 2013 ComScore results suggest Google lost 0.6% market share during the previous year to its rivals, which may not sound like a lot, but does demonstrate a clear trend and could potentially be worth billions in lost revenue.

It is too early to say what long-term effect these leaks will have on web users but, if the future is zero tracking, there are a lot of technology companies out there that will have to radically rethink their business plans.

Starbucks will get a hot reception if it ever plans to open in Bromsgrove!

Posted in business, Politics with tags , , on November 14, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

I attended last night’s Labour Finance & Industry Group (LFIG) Annual Lecture by Chuka Umunna, shadow business secretary, an account of which has been expertly placed with the Guardian’s chief political editor and can be read HERE.

Umunna spoke well without going into real detail which demonstrated how far Labour has yet to travel in formulating specific policies.  However, it is always the Q&A session after the main address which is the most fun and this time was no different.

After a variety of topics were covered, from social enterprise through to LEPs and skills, a councillor from Bromsgrove District Council asked for Umunna’s opinion on Starbucks’ tax avoidance techniques.

As the councillor pointed out, one major coffee chain in his High Street, namely Costa Coffee, last year paid £64 million to the Exchequer in Corporation Tax.  Starbucks paid the princely sum of well er… nothing!

Apparently, Starbucks claim that it has never made a profit in the UK (all losses can be written off against Corporation Tax) and that it imports all its coffee from Switzerland.  As my local councillor questioned, “Since when has coffee been grown in the Swiss Alps?”

Presumably this is another form of tax dodge which the Select Committee appearance by the Starbucks executive, along with representatives from Amazon and Google, may have shed some light on if he had been able to answer even seemingly simple questions.

Anyway, there are two points to make.  Firstly, I am very impressed by my local councillor’s forensic examination of the financial statements of major coffee chains.  Woe betides Starbucks if they ever try to open in Bromsgrove!

Secondly, surely this sort of deliberate tax avoidance brings the day of in-country financial reporting by multi-nationals a step closer.

We can only hope.

A hero will rise and his name will be Norbert Walter-Borjans!

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on October 29, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

Sometimes a great story passes you by and you have no choice but to kick yourself that you missed it.  This happened to me in Austria a few weeks ago when I got into conversation over a late evening beer with a German client of mine.

He was explaining the German political structure to me and the fact that the power continues to reside at state-level and Chancellor Merkel can’t actually do much without the say-so of individual state prime ministers.

By way of illustration, he told me the story of Norbert Walter-Borjans, finance minister in North Rhine Westphalia in the Ruhr, who may look like an accountant but has the roar of a lion. Herr Borjans has been more than a little irritated of late by wealthy German tax evaders who spirit away their hard-earned to various Swiss banks before he can get his hands on it, circa Jimmy Carr and Gary Barlow over here.

Traditionally, finance ministers moan about tax evasion but do precious little to stop it. Not so Herr Borjans, who appeared on national television and made an offer of €2 million to the first employee of a Swiss bank who could supply him with a compact disc full of names of Germans with secret Swiss bank accounts.

Lo and behold a few weeks later a compact disc was delivered to Herr Borjans who then went on national television again and, holding up his new present, said the following (I’m paraphrasing): “Right, if your name is on this disc, you have a month to start paying your taxes or we’re coming after you.”

His actions have caused uproar in the normally conservative German political establishment. Chancellor Merkel publicly condemned him, but then started desperately trying to cobble a tax agreement together with the Swiss authorities. Relations between the two nations have also reached rock bottom. In the words of my client, “the Swiss hate us”.

However, Herr Borjans can console himself that the vast majority of ordinary Germans are on his side even if they don’t want to get too close to him. As my client says, “this is not a nice man, but he’s effective”.

For the record, Herr Borjans continues to get little gifts from across the border and Chancellor Merkel’s tax agreement looks like it has hit the rocks.  All of which sends Herr Borjans close to the top of my list for Man of the Year.

It’s the swearing that will get Mitchell, not just the plebs!

Posted in Politics with tags , , , on September 25, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

One of the great joys of the Nixon Presidential Library in Yorba Linda, California, which I visited on my honeymoon (my wife’s a lucky girl!) is how the Watergate scandal is presented to visitors.

After a tour through Nixon’s triumphs, the Kitchen Debate; the Silent Majority Speech; détente with Russia, rapprochement with China, you finally come to a long, dark tunnel which houses the Watergate exhibits.

Here, you can listen to the tapes, secretly recorded in the Oval Office.  Interestingly, many of these specially selected titbits have also had to be redacted to blot out Nixon’s swearing.

Watergate is complex but there is one thing most historians agree on, namely that the extent of Nixon’s swearing did for him just as much as any cover-up.  It was Nixon who introduced the term “expletive deleted” into the English language which, crucially, was at odds with his public persona of a god-fearing Quaker.

Which brings us neatly to Andrew Mitchell, chief whip of the Conservative Party, who has been accused of calling a policeman a “pleb” for refusing let him ride his bike out of the gates of 10 Downing Street.

Today’s revelations in the Telegraph from a police log of the incident are not good reading for Mr Mitchell.  Not only did he call the policeman a pleb, but the police also allege he included the phrase as part of a Gordon Ramsey-esque rant.

According to the police log, Mr Mitchell said the following (I have used Watergate-style deletions to protect the faint of heart):

“Best you learn your [expletive deleted] place … you don’t run this [expletive deleted] government … You’re [expletive deleted] plebs.”

Now I don’t take the view that the police are infallible, not after Hillsborough, phone hacking and Ian Tomlinson, but I’m not sure that a policeman doing his best to protect 10 Downing Street deserves this sort of rant.

I also suspect that Middle England, where elections are won and lost, still respects the rule of law and won’t take kindly to this either.  What’s more, I suspect it is female voters, who Mr Cameron is already struggling to connect with, who will be most repulsed.

Forget the viral, Clegg’s problem is Number 11 Downing Street

Posted in Politics with tags , , on September 24, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

You know it’s bad for a politician when they became an object of ridicule.  Nick Clegg’s “I’m sorry” viral puts him right up there with George W Bush’s “I call upon all nations to stop these terrorist killers.  Now watch this drive (golf shot)” or Mitt Romney’s recent “47% of Americans don’t pay income taxes” in the political faux pas calamity stakes.

However, it would be wrong to think that Clegg’s problems are purely down to people taking the mickey out of him.  The LibDems hover perilously close to the abyss according to the opinion polls with many putting only a chink of light between them and UKIP.  In fact, Nigel Farage reckons his party is polling much better than the polls show because many do not even give respondents the option of voting for UKIP.

In response, Clegg’s ‘spin-meisters’ have been hard at work for this week’s LibDem conference with the slogan “Fairer tax in tough times” which on the face of it is not bad.  Similarly, the mansion tax idea is not bad (in fact it’s so good that even Labour are looking at it!).  What’s more, the idea of using parental pension pots to get people onto the housing ladder is certainly innovative.

The central problem though is that these policies have next to no chance of getting through the Treasury and a certain Mr Osborne.  In much the same way, Vince Cable has been talking of an infrastructure bank since before the last election, but has been unable to get it through Number 11.  Clegg can float these ideas all he wants, but I suspect many voters know that there is no chance of them actually happening.

Not with his current coalition partner anyway!

UK Economy: why does a stimulus have to mean big infrastructure?

Posted in Politics with tags , , on August 22, 2012 by Tom Leatherbarrow

There is a fair amount of talk that the UK economy needs some sort of stimulus to get it moving again.

Come 3rd September the drumbeat will only become louder, particularly with the party conference season just around the corner.

What is puzzling however is that all the talk of a stimulus involves the government dipping its hand in its pocket to fund big infrastructure projects, which usually means roadbuilding, rail, tunnels and new airports.

I sense the hand of the construction lobby in a lot of this.  Fair enough, construction output is at worryingly low levels and if any sector needs a stimulus it is the builders, but the danger is that the government, in sanctioning big infrastructure projects like a new London Airport in the Thames Estuary (Boris Island as it is already being called), places all its chips on a bet which is unlikely to come in before 2020 at the earliest.

This is a bit like the old trickle-down economics theory – big infrastructure equals jobs and ultimately consumer expenditure, but we will have to wait for it while our grindingly slow planning system works through the detail.  And, of course, it doesn’t always trickle-down.  The banks have been given billions in QE but most have missed their Project Merlin targets.

What is missing is the sort of direct stimulus which worked brilliantly during the dark days of early 2009.  With boiler and car scrappage or “cash for clunkers” as it was called in the US, consumers were given a “deal”, a voucher that could be cashed in and had direct monetary value.  What’s more, these sorts of schemes are pretty much revenue neutral.

I’m not saying I’m against big infrastructure, but it needs to be balanced by a direct consumer stimulus as well.  Without it, the big infrastructure projects will grab headlines for a day or so but then go into abeyance for years.  Just think HS2.