Monthly Archives: April 2008

What d’ya want, Guv?

What is it about YouGov?

It claims to be one of the leading polling organisations, and has made huge profits for its founders. Perhaps that is because of canny knack of “discovering” just what its clients expect.

So we come to its polling for the Evening Standard on the London mayoral election. Over recent weeks, YouGov has been able to play to the Standard’s Kenophobia by showing vast leads for the Tory candidate. A month ago, after calculating second preferences, the gap was an astounding 14 percentage points: 57-43. Then, a fortnight ago, it was still 12: 56-44. Suddenly, a week back, it was down to eight: 54-46. Now, it has eroded to just six points: 53-47. Recently, that lead has been eroding, until, now, with just a week to go, the gap is more credible:

Johnson (Con) 44% (Down 1)
Livingstone (Lab) 37% (Down 2)
Brian Paddick (LibDem) 12% (Up 2)
Sian Berry (Green Party) 2% (Unchanged)
Others 3%

What is missing here (and, moreover, it is a telephone poll) is a confidence indicator. The Standard article does not give one, and — more surprisingly — nor does the YouGov source document seem to. Let us assume, however, that it is a 3% margin of error — and in view of the sudden shifts in this poll’s recent history, that has to be a valid assumption (either that, or the poll respondents are playing funny buggers). So that means the Tory candidate may lead by a stupendous 13% (which would suggest the earlier polls were correct), or by as little as 1% (which is in line with what the Guardian-ICM poll said earlier this month). That is also the finding of this week’s Mruk Cello poll for the Sunday Times.

More pertinently, perhaps, Andrew Rawnsley does a piece on Politicshome. This derives from a weekly tracker poll, PH100, using a panel of 100 political insiders. So watch this:
Rawnsley’s comment:

If the gap between the contenders continues to narrow along this trend, the Boris and Ken lines will roughly meet each other on May 1st. That, of course, just happens to be election day in London. This could be a nail-biter.

And Malcolm’s view?

It says a lot about the “sophisticated” London political scene that we are stuck with two “chancers” as the only credible candidates. Two of the also-rans, Brian Paddick and Sian Berry, seem at least house-trained. Both are refuges for a conscience-vote, knowing that it will all come down to second-preferences.

At the last, though, it is not a hard decision. Malcolm is repelled by the serial adulterer, the man who was sacked from his Party’s Front Bench, not because of his affairs, but because he blatantly lied about them. How can we take seriously a paltroon, who regards emotion that a 62-year-old man (Ken Bigley) is beheaded by an Iraqi death-squad, as “mawkish sentimentality”? What do you call a man who repeatedly betrays his wife, impregnates his girl-friend after lying to her about marriage, then talks her into an abortion? And is exposed for it by the girl-friend’s society-lady mother in the London scandal-sheets and even the Daily Telegraph? How is referring to “piccaninnies” with “water-melon smiles” not racist? It’s certainly racist enough to win the fascist BNP vote.

Pass the sick bag, Alice.

So Malcolm’s vote will tally for Ken Livingstone next week.

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The waters swell before a boisterous storm*

In the beginning ..

… there were nine private companies supplying water to the good folk of London. And a Royal Commission saw that this was not good, and recommended setting up a single authority. And, so, in 1903, Arthur Balfour’s Conservative Government set up the Metropolitan Water Board. It was controlled by the local boroughs; and everyone saw that it was good.

And then Metropolitan Water Board begat Thames Water. And Margaret Thatcher saw that it was good; and so Thames Water was privatised.

The Treasury wrote off all the debts of these new privatised water companies. That was worth £5 billion. A further £1.6 billion was thrown in as a “green dowry”. The shares were then sold off at 22% discount on asset value. A generous pricing regime was promised. The new water companies were given exemptions from taxes on their profits. And Sid was happy with his quick buck.

And the Thatcherites saw that it was good.

And, lo, the capitalists saw also that it was good. Prices for water increased by a half in the first four years. Allowing for inflation, over the first nine years profits increased by 46% in real terms. The number of disconnections, because the customer could not pay, increased in close proportion: by 1994 the rate had tripled since the days before privatisation. There was also an increase in dysentry. In 1996 Save the Children calculated that the families at the bottom of the social heap were paying 4% of their income on water. By 1996 customers of the water companies were each paying £92 a year to support those profits. British water companies continue to enjoy profits at four times the level of France, Spain and Sweden. And the Stock Market saw that it was very good indeed.

Enter Herr Doktor Kuhnt

In 2001 Thames Water was bought by RWE, formerly Rheinisch-Westfälisches Elektrizitätswerk AG, of Essen. Nor should we forget that RWE’s Chief Executive, until recently, was a Kuhnt, Dr Dietmar Kuhnt. Coincidentally, in 2001 the Environment Agency rated RWE Thames Water as the worst polluter in England and Wales — for the second year running. And RWE saw that it was good, because it used Thames Water as a platform to buy $8.6 billion of American Water Works. And the American consumer saw that it was not good.

By then Thames Water had acquired debts of £3.2 billion. Even so, in October 2006 RWE unloaded Thames Water onto Kemble Water Limited (a consortium run by the Australian Macquarie Bank) for £4.8 billion. And, within days, the company was being fined by Reading Magistrates for supplying dirty water. Meanwhile, Thames Water continued to lose, through leaks, 900,000,000 litres of water: enough to supply some 5 million homes. So the company asked for, and got drought orders: and they saw that that was good.

And now?

Well, tonight Reuters has this:

Thames Water is among a list of 11 debt-laden utilities at financial risk from the credit crisis, an investment bank has warned.

The country’s biggest water company, which has around 13 million customers in the greater London area, has debts of 6.8 billion pounds and a regulatory asset value (RAV) of just 6.5 million pounds, according to specialist bank Reynolds Partners.

“Utility companies have built up massive debts, leaving little scope for further borrowing if they are hit by a financial shock resulting from, for example, paying for repairs caused by natural weather disasters,” Reynolds Chief Executive John Reynolds told Reuters.

Clever guys, these accountants.

From a “green dowry” to massive debts and potential bankruptcy, via huge and barely-constrained profiteering, selling off land-banks, reducing employees, contracting out, in under two decades.

So, can we have our Water Board back?

* Spoken by a Citizen, Richard III, Act II, scene iii, line 44.

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The Sunday whinge, weakly

The Sabbath is unfailingly ruined by the bile of the Sunday Times. The tone of Murdoch’s arm-breaker is unfailingly sneering and negative. It no longer makes any pretence of balance.

However, what’s with David Smith doing a comment on the economic outlook? It certainly goes against the party line:

  • there is modest support for the Bank of England’s approach to the mortgage crisis;
  • there is a lack of remorse on the part of the banks that smacks of arrogance and insensitivity.

Then he comes to employment, and this is to be read with considerable care:

Last week brought news that the job market remains extraordinarily strong, with a rise of 152,000 in employment in the December-February period. In the past year, employment has climbed by 456,000 to a record 29.51m.

This is another of those figures that, if you averted your eyes from the money markets and the gloomy headlines, you would be thinking described a very powerful boom. There are nearly 700,000 job vacancies, the highest since the current series began in 2001. The unemployment claimant count is at its lowest since June 1975.

Confidence among consumers is very low but this, so far at least, reflects fear rather than reality.

Now that could come straight off a Treasury briefing-sheet. It certainly isn’t a line being peddled by the likes of George Osborne (of which more anon).

But note carefully the next bit:

Not for the first time, the figures did not get the coverage they deserved, drowned out by modest City job losses, gloom from Britain’s chartered surveyors and the “news” that the government’s official house-price measure fell in February; it always does. Some even tried to find bad news in the employment figures.

“Some even tried to find bad news in the employment figures.”

Indeed. But who are the “some”?

Well, there’s this for a taster:

Signs that the credit crunch is hitting Britain’s jobs market emerged yesterday as official figures showed the first rise in the number of people out of work and seeking benefit since 2006.

Economists said that despite strong overall employment numbers, there were real fears that the jobs market could weaken over the coming months. The official employment figures showed redundancies across the finance and business sectors have risen more than 11 per cent in recent months.

That’s Steve Hawkes and Gráinne Gilmore doing their level best to chill the blood in … The Times, only last Thursday. This, too, is a fascinating piece of misrepresentation: for example, unemployment is up, but

the employment rate rose to 74.9 per cent – the highest since its records began in 1971 – in the three months to February. The number of people in work is 29.51 million. However, the number of people seeking jobseekers allowance rose in February by 600 – the first rise since September 2006.

So, how does one argue that black is white? Well:

However, the number of people seeking jobseekers allowance rose in February by 600 – the first rise since September 2006.

Six hundred! Wowee! Compare that to next door and the Great Irish Tiger Economy, that example to all of us:

Last month the Irish Unemployment rate rose to a 7.5 year high, coming in at just under 5%. The 4.9% figures haven’t been seen since the year 2000. The main reason cited for the higher rate, is the Irish economy’s dependence on the United States as well as the hole in the Irish construction market. Since the mid 1990’s more than 600 American multinationals have setup in Ireland. But with the ever weakening dollar/euro rate, companies are finding it harder and harder to keep their operations in Europe afloat. There are now 179,400 people claiming unemployment benefit (this includes part time workers). This figure has risen 14.3% year on year.

Malcolm reckons that it would be perverse if the current economic turmoil does not lead to an increase in jobs being lost. It will also make firms more wary and efficient in their practices: and thereby improve productivity. Not least of all, among the bonus-bloated Masters of the Universe at all those big banks that talked us into this fine mess.

However, let Malcolm revert to that anomalous David Smith in yesterday’s Sunday Times. He then proceeds to dispense with two other whinges:

First, the Brown Government is somehow derelict in its duty not to have prepared for the down-turn in housing:

There are, however, some strange charges flying around.

One is that under Brown the government bent over backwards to boost the housing market and we are now paying for it. Sorry? Under Brown at the Treasury mortgage-tax relief was abolished and stamp duty raised to punitive levels, particularly on more expensive properties.

If people mean that Labour should have reintroduced credit controls – something that would have been condemned as a return to the 1970s and impossible without the reintroduction of exchange controls – they should say so. If they mean that the Bank should have kept interest rates at levels that would have given us slower growth, higher unemployment and a big inflation undershoot, that is a pretty strange set of priorities too.

And, secondly, Blair and Brown were wrong to have adopted the consumer-prices index rather than the retail-prices index as the bench-mark for inflation:

This, apparently, took the Bank’s eye off the ball because CPI, unlike the retail-prices index, does not include a house-price component.

Yes, it was a daft thing to do, because nobody much believes in the CPI. But I cannot pinpoint a single interest-rate decision since then that would have been different had the old target (RPI excluding mortgage-interest payments) remained in place. The Bank is a bit brighter than it is given credit for.

Both of those, of course, are complaints lifted from the George Osborne play-book. Oh dear.

All this is far too balanced, sensible and positive for the Sunday Times. Perhaps David Smith was really writing a job-application to another paper.

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The great guzunder

Last week Malcolm hailed the “enstoolment” of Brian Cowan as the leader of Fianna Fáil, and so heir presumptive to the thankless Taoiseachship, now the economy has turned.

Another week, another leadership “election”. Another bloodless coup.

Today it’s Peter Robinson finally inheriting the Dear Doctor’s panoply of state.

If it’s an “enstoolment” for a Taoiseach-to-be, what diminutive can Malcolm find for a “First Minister in waiting”?

So let’s celebrate the empottiment…

… of the Rt Hon Peter David Robinson, MP, MLA. Let us, indeed, acknowledge his achievements.

Now, what might they rightly and honourably include?

An armed invasion of a neighbouring juristiction?

As at Clontibret, County Monaghan, in August 1986?

Five hundred Orangemen staged a take-over of a border village (population 300, including the odd pet dog). Two Garda were manhandled. The invaders drilled in the square. Then, all passion spent, they retreated home for tea and sympathy.

The Anschlűss it wasn’t.

Robinson was arrested, charged with unlawful assembly in a Drogheda Court, and fined £17,500 (in Irish punts). He will forever after be “Peter Punt”

As a great resistance leader?

Let us remember the Ulster Hall rally of November 1986.

This was to launch “Ulster Resistance”, an attempt to bring together the UDA and the UVF, and — more significantly — to arm them.

This gave Robinson a chance to posture in full paramilitary gear.

He also achieved his token martyrdom: he was gaoled (as was his wife, Iris).

The Munich bierkeller putsch it wasn’t.

As a law-abiding citizen?

Ulster Resistance then went into bank robbery, taking £300,000 from the Northern Bank in Portadown. This was to buy a third of an arms-deposit taken by the Lebanese militia from the PLO.

AK47s, Browning pistols, RPG rocket launchers and hand grenades were imported through Belfast: much was promptly captured by a raid on a Markethill farm. There was a proven direct link betwen the Markethill cache and the DUP.

The Larne gun-running it wasn’t.

As an accessory to espionage?

Ulster Resistance stole plans of missiles from Short Brothers. These were to be traded with the Apartheid régime in South Africa for further arms supplies.

At the Hilton Hotel in Paris, three enterprising Ulster Resistance types (again with a direct links back to the Paisleyites) were arrested in the company of a South African diplomat and an arms-trader.

Al Yamanah this was not.

As a job-creator?

No fewer than six members of the Robinson family are on the take public pay-roll. Robinson himself employs a son and daughter, both full-time, as part of his support staff. His wife, Iris, manages to take up the slack and has a son and daughter-in-law full-time on her staff of six. So the six Robinsons outnumber even the five Paisleys.

Kim il-Sung? Almost.

So … one of Northern Ireland’s best known and most highly respected unionist leaders … ?

Oh, absolutely!

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How the Brown Bear has the last laugh

In the High and Far-Off Times, O Best Beloved, when the world was young, the Great She Elephant ran our bit of the jungle. There was a blond giant called Hez-el-Tine, (though others called him Tar-Zan because of his hair and the way he swung sticks around).

The Great She Elephant and her friends like Hez-el-Tine wanted to be nice to the Sow-dees because they had great heaps of gold and lots and lots of oil.

Hez-el-Tine signed a piece of paper with the Sow-dees. He wanted to sell them what they wanted — lots of things that went whizz, bang, crash. He knew he would get some of those great heaps of the gold, that the Sow-dees wanted to give away, so they could have things that went whizz, bang, crash. Because there were too many millions of folk in Hez-el-Tine’s country without work, he also hoped some of the great heaps of gold would help our part of the jungle to make jobs for those millions of folk.

So, there was cheering for Hez-el-Tine and the Great She Elephant who was in charge the Jungle, when the Sow-dees paid for the things that went whizz, bang, crash with some of their great heaps of gold.

Then people began to wonder if some of those great heaps of gold might have been taken by the jackals, who live in the country of the Sow-dees and even in the jungle run by the Great She Elephant.

Indeed, did the whelp who is the Great She Elephant’s dear Boy Mark share a little of the jackals’ gold? Even two million round gold pieces of it?

Time passed.

The Great She Elephant ambled off into the bush, hardly to be heard of again. Even Hez-el-Tine lost his bellow, and disappeared from the scene. The whelp who is the Great She Elephant’s dear Boy Mark continued to get himself into various scrapes, which cost him a lot of money, caused others a lot of pain, and everyone else laugh at him even more.

Then the Sow-dees came looking for even more things that went whizz, bang, crash.

By this time it was Tone-ee the little Poodle running our part of the Jungle. He was happy to give the Sow-dees more things that went whizz, bang, crash because he wanted more of those piles of gold, and he wanted to keep people in their jobs, but most of all because the Sow-dees’ oil was even better and nicer than it had been.

Sad but true, there are naughty chimps who wear funny wigs. They like to wave their bottoms at the likes of Hez-el-Tine and Tone-ee the little Poodle and even at the Great She Elephant herself. They also like playing their games, which often involves throwing rotten fruit at important people.

The naughty chimps who wear funny wigs threw rotten fruit at Tone-ee the little Poodle, until he got fed up and went to find other parts of the jungle to romp in. That left Tone-ee’s friend, Gore-don the Brown Bear, to look after our bit of the jungle, and wait for the naughty chimps who wear the funny wigs to find more rotten fruit. Meanwhile, though, Tone-ee the little Poodle and Tone-ee’s friend, Gore-don the Brown Bear, had been clever and got the Sow-dees to sign another piece of paper, promising even more of the great heaps of gold in exchange for even more things that went whizz, bang, crash.

Eventually the naughty chimps who wore the funny wigs really laid one on poor Gore-don the Brown Bear. They found all the rotten fruit that had been left behind by Hez-el-Tine and the Great She Elephant. They threw it all at Tone-ee’s friend, Gore-don the Brown Bear.

So, O Best Beloved, it looks as if we are going to hear all about what the Sow-dees, the blond giant called Hez-el-Tine, the Great She Elephant, and the whelp who is the Great She Elephant’s dear Boy Mark got up to. We may even hear how some of that great heap of gold might have been stolen by the jackals. Even by the whelp who is the Great She Elephant’s dear Boy Mark.

Should Tone-ee and his friend, Gore-don the Brown Bear, worry?

Not if most of the rotten fruit misses them and hits the friends of Hez-el-Tine and the Great She Elephant and the whelp who is the Great She Elephant’s dear Boy Mark. That will make people remember what our bit of the jungle was like when it was run by the Great She Elephant, and how they didn’t like it one little bit.

And that, O Best Beloved, is why, this time, Gore-don the Brown Bear is not too worried by the naughty chimps who wear the funny wigs, and throw rotten fruit, and like to wave their bottoms at important people who run (or ran) our bit of the jungle.

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Corrupt Tory? — Shock! Horror!

Mr Suresh Kumar, distinguished Tory Councillor for Valentines Ward, on Redbridge Council, Chairman of the Redbridge Cultural Association, etc., etc., is finally — finally — up before the Beak for soliciting bribes. He:

asked two businessmen in London for £20,000 in bribes to help them with a property development, jurors heard.
Suresh Kumar, 44, even suggested half the money should be paid into his local party, Southwark Crown Court heard.
But his demands were secretly taped by an undercover reporter, it is alleged.
The former Redbridge councillor, from Newbury Park, east London, denies three counts of corruption between 11 November and 12 December 2004.

Now Malcolm is shocked, deeply shocked by such an accusation.

He remembers those long-gone days when the phalanx of Tory Councillors in that neck of the woods were upright, honest Estate Agents, Property Developers, and their associated tame solicitors and accountants.

Such worthies were far too honourable to be involved in the taking of or asking for bribes.

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A murmuration of Starling’s [sic]

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