Thursday, 9 June 2011

When the electors find you out

I wasn’t surprised that the Liberal Democrats took an absolute drubbing in the local elections, nor that the referendum on the Alternative Vote resulted in an over-whelming ‘No’ majority.

Throughout the year, I spend a lot of time on the doorstep across my constituency just talking to and listening to people about their aspirations and concerns. This means I get continual feedback about the mood and feelings of local people.

Over the last couple of months, even I was surprised at the depth of the vitriol towards Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader and Sheffield Hallam MP. This was most vehement from people who had switched to voting Lib Dem at the last general election. They used words like ‘betrayed’, ‘lied to us’, ‘broken promise after broken promise’, ‘I no longer believe a word he says’, ‘he says he’s proud of Sheffield; let me say, we’re not proud of him’…………

It wasn’t the fact that he’d gone into a government coalition with the Conservatives. It wasn’t the fact that any government right now is likely to have to make some difficult decisions.

It was the revelation that he’d never had any intention of keeping his promises on issues like student tuition fees, even if he’d won the last general election. It was his attempt to blame public-spending levels for all the country’s ills, when the record shows that he demanded higher spending in every budget. It was his statement that ‘no Lib Dem council has closed a library or Sure Start centre’ when every Lib Dem council was planning big cuts in both library and Sure Start budgets.

Now, Nick Clegg is trying to spin a new line about the Liberal Democrats demanding changes in the coalition government’s NHS proposals to ‘protect the NHS’.

Before the last general election, Nick Clegg was a co-author of the ‘Orange Book’ in which it was suggested that the NHS be replaced with health insurance schemes. Then, in various speeches, he proposed that national health targets and standards should be abolished – effectively imposing local postcode lotteries for all health services.

Since the Liberal Democrats went into the Conservative-led coalition government, Nick Clegg personally signed off the proposals in the NHS Bill.

There will be changes in the NHS Bill, because of the mounting opposition from doctors, nurses and patient representatives as they have seen the proposals as a prelude to breaking up the NHS and then privatising health in the UK.

I’m sure the electorate will find Nick Clegg out on this as well when they realise the coalition government’s unwelcome intentions are exactly what he’d proposed and supported.

Fueling inflation

This week, the rail companies announced that there had been a 5% increase in passengers in the first quarter of this year. Bus operators report similar increases. They said this was because high petrol prices were making commuters look for a cheaper alternative.

In itself, this is no bad thing. In our area, the dramatic increase in commuting by car followed the deregulation of the buses by the Thatcher government twenty-five years ago. This was particularly the case in South Yorkshire, with its low fares and high frequency service policy. Many people, who lived in North Derbyshire, but worked in Sheffield, commuted by bus. Deregulation meant increased fares, fewer services and dramatically fewer passengers – resulting in big increases in car use and massive increases in congestion.

In opposition, David Cameron promised to keep down the cost of fuel by pledging to introduce a ‘fair fuel stabiliser’: this would vary taxation on fuel based on changes to petrol prices. He said "when fuel prices go up, fuel duty would fall. And when fuel prices go down, fuel duty would rise. This is regardless of the wider economic situation.” He claimed: "If a Fair Fuel Stabiliser had been introduced at the 2008 Budget - fuel would be 5p per litre cheaper". It was little surprise that his announcement produced newspaper headlines proclaiming “Tories vow to slash fuel duty” in the week before the general election.

So, what happened to this promise? Last September, Cameron’s newly established Office For Budget Responsibility advised against a ‘fair fuel stabiliser’ as it would have a significant negative effect on UK finances. So, there appears to be very little prospect of that promise being kept.

And what has happened to fuel prices? World energy prices have increased considerably and the prospect is for further increases. However, George Osborn did keep his promise to reduce fuel duty – by 1p a litre – but at the same time increased VAT to 20%, increasing fuel prices at the pump by 3p a litre! So, it’s been give with one hand, but take three times as much with the other.

The result has been a very high cost of fuel which is driving up costs to business of transporting goods and therefore prices in the shops, hitting families in the pocket twice. It’s been a policy which has driven inflation and halted growth, at the very time when we need a strategy which cuts inflation and promotes growth.

The Old Bill Bill

The Conservative-led government seems determined to press on with its Police Bill to have a directly-elected Police Commissioner to replace the existing police authorities.

This is despite the fact that, in the latest poll, less than a third of the public supported the proposal and senior police officers are overwhelmingly opposed because they believe it increases the politicisation of policing. Last week, the House of Lords also opposed the proposals.

The politicisation concerns were heightened this week when David Cameron, following a national newspaper campaign, heavily leaned on the Metropolitan Police Commissioner to divert resources away from the priorities the Police Authority had already agreed – including tackling gun crime and distraction burglaries – to investigate the disappearance of Madeline McCann in Portugal four years ago. Of course, we all understand that the McCann family want to bring all the resources possible to discover what happened – but so did the Needham family from Sheffield when their young son Ben disappeared twenty years ago. And so do all the other families whose children have disappeared.

What appears on the face of it to be fairly innocuous orders from David Cameron, it’s a fairly short step from this to telling the police they have got to investigate one thing rather than another. What is the likelihood of one of these directly-elected police commissioners being able to resist the pressure of a local newspaper editor – to investigate thefts at the local golf club? – before instructing the Chief Constable that these thefts take priority over anti-social behaviour or distraction burglary? I think the dangers are obvious and the proposals should be halted now.

Incidentally, South Yorkshire Police has launched a new initiative to tackle distraction burglary – this is where villains knock on front-doors, usually of elderly residents, and often claim to be from one of the utility companies to gain access to the home, before stealing cash and goods and then make off.

As a colleague pointed out to me, someone in the police force must have both political insight and a sense of humour when they gave the initiative a name. So, what have they called this scheme to tackle people who knock on your front-door and promise you one thing and then do another? ‘Operation Liberal’! Spot on.