Wednesday, 23 March 2011

Sketch: George Osborne's petrolhead's budget

If the Chancellor of the Exchequer’s budget red box could be personified, it would probably take the form of Jeremy Clarkson, driving a dirty great Ferrari. And as if Treasury civil servants had discretely passed Osborne’s budget statement to the producers of Top Gear for editing, Osborne delivered a gas-guzzling, petrolhead-placating budget, the opening paragraph of which appeared to have been written around a BBC conference table with Richard Hammond and James May pitching in every fourth line or so.

With a frog in his throat, possibly caused by the Chancellor being asphyxiated on the exhaust fumes created by parking his supercar budget in the Commons chamber, the occupant of the space opposite – let's say a quiet and thoughtful Toyota Prius such as the Green MP Caroline Lucas - must surely have considered it a blast of carbon monoxide in the face to anyone hoping that the Tories might be taking green issues a little more seriously. (Actually, the Member for Brighton Pavilion was more concerned with a Green Investment bank that isn't really a bank, and a windfall profit on nuclear energy via a carbon floor price, but let’s not let small details get in the way of a good sketch).

“Last year’s emergency budget was about rescuing the nation’s finances and paying for the mistakes of the past” said the Chancellor.

“Today’s budget is about reforming the nation’s economy so that we have enduring growth and jobs in the future.

“And doing what we can to help families with the growing cost of living and the high price of oil!” he shouted.

It’s on everyone’s mind of course. The crises in the Middle East have crystallised debate over many a breakfast table, by every water-cooler and in every corner shop. How on earth are we going to continue to feed our poor, starving cars?

It was a budget for making things and not for making things up, apparently. It was about the difficult decisions we’ve already taken.

“We gambled for a debt-fuelled model of growth that failed” continued the Chancellor on his motoring analogy, already laden with metaphors.

He then turned to the forecasts for the next few years, delivered with the same sort of measured aplomb as Lord Prescott's attempt at the Shipping Forecast for Comic Relief. It's just a formality really, the Chancellor's forecast.

“It has been known for Chancellors to rattle these off at such great speed that no-one will keep up or notice.

Not so for George in his first 'non-emergency' budget.

The outlook wasn't great, to be fair. Growth had been weaker than expected in the final quarter of 2010, although slightly stronger growth in later years was expected over Cromarty, Forth and Tyne. Visibility, moderate occasionally poor.

Further wrath was incurred for Gordon Brown and the Scandalous Selling Of The Gold Reserves. The Conservative benches are always up in arms at this, and the Chancellor announced that “we will purchase a range of high quality assets, to replenish our reserves”, accompanied by indignant cries of anguish.

“We will not be able to replenish the gold reserves sold at a record low” said Osborne, now morphed into a Billingsgate fish merchant, wheeling and dealing cod, haddock and plaice.

But the most amusing thing about these budgets is the obscure announcements which are thrown up. Savings in the transport department meant that we could afford more investment in regional railways.

“We can commit to Swindon-Kemble redoubling scheme!”, he announced, which will quite literally move mountains of ballast in the Cotswolds. No doubt the Chancellor had been watching Richard Wilson's expose of the country's rail network on Channel 4 on Monday night and like the veteran One Foot In The Grave actor, had decided that reading your Guardian in a carriage toilet just wasn't good enough. It was certainly a case of “I do believe it” for one or two Coalition MPs in that area.

It all ended with a bit of karaoke from the Labour benches, in not-so-angelic unison.

The Leader of the Opposition talked about the Prime Minister's priorities for “growth, growth growth!”. But it was “DOWN, DOWN, DOWN” according to the bellowing basses and screeching sopranos in the opposition.

“And when the economy retracted in the fourth quarter, what did he do? He blamed the snow! He was away on the piste!” jeered Mr Miliband.

“The right type of snow for a skiing holiday, the wrong type of snow for our economy!"

As Mr Miliband said, the Chancellor should just calm down a little bit. He might actually break something...

Tuesday, 22 March 2011

Constituency profile: Ipswich

A little look at the politics and the people of my home town, which had a Tory-Liberal Democrat administration before it became fashionable.

The historic Wet Dock - one of Ipswich's more sought-after areas
As the administrative capital of Suffolk, and one of the few English counties with no motorways, it's hardly surprising that the town of Ipswich has tried for city status in recent years. Despite first impressions, an 'everyone knows everyone' vibe radiates from the main shopping streets to its football ground. The earliest continuous settlement in England, dating back to the seventh century, Ipswich was, and still is a major East Anglian shipping port. The town's name comes from the medieval Gippeswyk, meaning 'town on the Gipping' (the river Gipping a tributary of the picturesque river Orwell – inspiring the pen name of the author of 1984 and Animal Farm).

Deceptively close to the capital – London is but an hour away on the Great Eastern main line – Ipswich has many parallels with towns such as Reading or Northampton, but none of the advantages of Norwich, its historic rival.

Yet for all its market-town spirit, there's still a somewhat urban feel about the town centre, which in parts retains a weathered 1960s grittiness. The local football team, Ipswich Town, much maligned since its Premier League days is a constant reminder of this contradiction – a large stadium on Portman Road surrounded by tall modern office developments.

Ipswich has actively sought new economic fortunes in the last 20 years or so, with the decline in big industry biased towards agriculture and the growth of the DINKY - 'double income, no kids' - class. Under Labour, the local authority aspired to attract young professionals to new and converted apartments on the Wet Dock, providing desirable homes for the workforce of Ipswich's insurance giants which have clustered there over the past 40 years or so, as well as those who choose to commute further.

Apart from short interludes in the seventies and late eighties, the town's industrial past has unsurprisingly lent itself to long periods of Labour rule. Surrounded by Conservative MPs (Tim Yeo to the south, and Dan Poulter to the north) as well as a Tory Suffolk county administration, it was hardly surprising that the MP for the majority of the town would slip out of Labour's hands in 2010. Benedict Gummer, son of former Suffolk Coastal MP John, keeps the family torch burning in this corner of East Anglia, beating the Labour incumbent Chris Mole by just 2,000 votes.

Yet some locals feel that the sort of growth in evidence in the town just a few years ago has already begun to reverse:

Ipswich has had a somewhat depressed feel in the last, say, two years compared to the buoyancy of four or five years ago” says Rob Adams, a local financial adviser.

Adding weight to this view was the announcement by French insurance giant Axa, who in recent weeks have announced that up to 56 jobs are under threat. “The greatest indicator of this is the rapid development and expansion of the building around the docks. As well as the new apartments, a lot of bars, restaurants and hotels also opened, making for a very desirable residential area” adds Rob.

But with the economic 'pulling in of horns' brought about by the banking collapse of 2008, that expansion has ceased."

This new type of development contrasts with the high-end properties around Christchurch Park in the centre of the town, the traditional retreat for those who 'made it' and chose to live within the borough's boundary.

The town has benefited from a higher proportion of students, making for a night-time 'buzz', and as Rob observes, “it's no coincidence that one of Ipswich's most thriving bars is just a stone's throw from the main University College Suffolk building!”. New facilities house clinical skills, sports and exercise laboratories which are giving local young people new opportunities.

It wasn't always like this however.
The gap between the old, industrialised town and the new centre of aspiration was hard for some. Like many provincial towns, Ipswich suffered its own brain drain and despite a number of good or outstanding schools, many young people have fled the area.

I counted down the days to leave, got as far away as possible and won't go back!” said another native, Anna Browning, now resident on the south coast. “I didn't feel it had any character or anything going for it – it was just another place at the end of the A12”.

Some locals are more optimistic about the town's fortunes. The choice of MP for the area will more likely reflect national opinion, but the make-up of the council has pointed towards the 'new politics' for some years. And, if the Westminster coalition government was an unholy alliance in 2010, this was nothing new in Ipswich. The borough council was run by Labour for a solid quarter-century until 2004 when a Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition took over. Frequent borough elections have not altered this arrangement and although Labour is currently the largest party - with 23 councillors - it remains in opposition. The controlling majority is composed of 18 Conservatives and 7 Lib Dems and there are few signs that this may change any time soon.

On a county level, Labour support continues to be concentrated in the tough Priory Heath and Gainsborough, and despite the general collapse in support for the party in the Suffolk county elections in 2009, it continues to hang on to two seats in the centre of the town.

This core support, coupled with tendency of this urban concentration to turn red, means that Labour could well regain the parliamentary seat at the next general election.

Wednesday, 2 March 2011

Catch me on the radio

Last Friday I completed a two-week stint of jury service at Southwark Crown Court, which was an interesting and fulfilling experience, although quite tiring at the same time.

already published some of my initial thoughts about the experience, which resulted in a phone call from a researcher on Radio 4’s Law in Action programme. On Saturday afternoon I found myself with another recent juror at Broadcasting House to take part in an interesting recorded discussion for the programme with Joshua Rozenberg. The programme was broadcast yesterday afternoon at 4pm. And although our ‘bit’ only covered about 10 minutes, we covered quite a lot of ground around the topic of juries and whether they’re prepared and equipped from their courtroom experience to make decisions which do, of course, affect many peoples’ lives.

Have you been a juror or had an interesting courtroom experience? As Rozenberg points out, it’s illegal under the Contempt of Court Act to discuss anything that happened in the deliberation room, but I invite you to
listen again and comment below on what you think about our thoughts. I come in at about 20 minutes into the programme. The other voice you’ll hear is the fabulous Milly Hill. We could have gone on for hours had the studio not been needed for The Archers...

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