Thursday, 29 April 2010

Meanwhile, back in Ithaca

Woken by a text message from a friend in Greece who had just seen the Gordon Brown Rochdale footage. "That's it finished," he concludes.

"Doesn't Greece have enough problems without having to tune in to the British election?" I text back.

Labour campaigners, and my Greek textmate is one of them, will be understandably gloomy this morning after that disaster on the doorstep for Brown.

Refocusing on the bigger picture, the economy, the danger of a Tory win for the poor, and how the progressive agenda could be unwound will be difficult.

But in our close-up focus on the 24-7 news story the political village we're prone to forget that for most people the election is about more than one woman on the doorstep and unguarded remarks that every politician, as Nick Clegg said, has made at some time.

And that early morning text from Greece - it's like a tweeting canary in my own coalmine vision of anything outside the election campaign.

Everything that has gone on into the campaign, and everything that might come out of it, could be wiped out by an economic hurricane coming out of Athens and quickly consuming the continent.

In that context the election hoopla reminds me the final scene from the Coen brother's movie, A Serious Man. All the plot lines have been resolved, the family unit has survived, the film looks like ending where it began, in an orderly school in the American Mid-west. The outcome looks assured.

Then, on the horizon a big, black tornado bears down on the school, sweeping away everything in its path.

Wednesday, 28 April 2010

Gordon' Brown's Ally MacLeod moment

Oh Gordon
Some people are calling Gordon Brown's off-mike comments a classic In the Thick of It moment.

I think these images of Brown, head in hand as he heard his own insults being played back to him, are more like Ally MacLeod's Argentina '78 moment when in dawned on the Scotland manager that his campaign was falling apart. But that was only a football game.

Talking off-mike is a common political crime but this one is a disaster in two ways. It crystalises the image of Gordon Brown as being short-tempered and two-faced, but worse than that insulting a natural Labour voter in a working class area of Rochdale is excruciatingly bad politics.

Brown will be beating himself up badly over this, but, hey at least he didn't swear or punch the car seat.

Is it is a turning point in the campaign that today was about shoring up the core Labour vote? If so, there is no point in blaming "Sue" or anyone else except Gordon Brown.

PM Cam's Scottish trip could be crucial

Come in Mr Cameron, you're cleared for landing

Idle speculation, the kind that fills the media vacuum before the TV debates, in today's FT about a minority Tory government seeking the support of nationalists to govern.

The scenario is that the Tories could be 20 or so seats short of a majority - not shown in the polls right now but the swing in marginals might be greater so they may get there. Three could, mights and mays in that last sentence but bear with me.

Instead of going to the hated Lib Dems and having to concede to demands electoral reform the Tories could turn to the Celtic fringes. The Democratic Unionists in Northern Ireland would provide nine votes and Lady Hermon, the independent formerly UUP MP will make it ten.

In Scotland the SNP might have seven MPs on current projections and Plaid Cymru three. That's another ten votes in the bag.

The SNP would get concessions and the list of demands, like releasing the fossil fuel fund isn't very ambitious, so Cameron could stay Union Jack blue and

The SNP say they wouldn't enter any formal deal - but nothing is for nothing. They would be handcuffed to a Tory Queen's Speech and to supporting a Tory budget.

I see Kirsty Wark nailed Salmond on Newsnight over voting on English issues, which the SNP do not generally do unless they see a chance of beating the government.

Salmond conceded that the SNP would "have to review our general attitude" to voting in Westminster. Mmm, that's an interesting hint which could make Cameron's promised visit to Scotland in the first week of a Tory premiership a real talking point.

The electoral cost for the SNP in propping up a Tory government can't be quantified, but it can be guessed at. Within a year the SNP government will face a Holyrood election and with the public sector being squeezed badly by that time they may reap a whirlwind.

Conventional thinking is that the SNP would welcome a Tory win because they believe it would strengthen Scottish support for independence. But supporting a minority Tory government would have consequences in Scotland. Be careful what you wish for.

Tuesday, 27 April 2010

SNP await TV judgement -wonder what they're hoping for?

Waiting for the Lady Smith to pass judgement in the Court of Session over the SNP legal appeal at being excluded from Thursday's big debate.

I think the SNP leadership will be secretly mortified if they actually succeed. If Salmond gets on screen he'll be seen as a preening gatecrasher, and not just in England.

Worse, if the judgement prevents Scottish viewers from seeing the most important political television event in the UK, the backlash against the SNP will be phenomenal.

Also, if the SNP do score a legal win it will remove the inherent sense of grievance in nationalist credo and deny Salmond a May 7th excuse for what looks to be a fairly pedestrian polling performance in this election.

Not that the SNP don't have an argument. As Salmond said the debates are the campaign now, and I think the SNP has to be included in the coverage somehow.That should be a matter of arbitration and the BBC, hamstrung by its multi-layered, no risk management, should have included the SNP in discussions rather than deliver a fait accompli.

But Salmond himself - having refused three of the four TV podiums offered him and not even standing for election or the office of Prime Minister - is in a weak position to be fighting the case.

It's a matter of degrees - do you give equal billing to a party that has 1% of MPs or even none? UKIP is now threatening to join the legal bandwagon. Arguments for another time, if the SNP can't force its way aboard this election.

Meanwhile, the internal party analysis, however cynical, has to be that failing is good for the cause. The SNP gets the headlines it has found hard to generate during the campaign and the supporters who gave their bawbies to the court action will feel twice-thwarted. After all, grievance doesn't feed itself.

IFS - the cuts no party will come clean about

Now to some serious stuff. The Institute of Fiscal Studies, the respected economic thinktank, has come out with an eye-watering assessment of what the parties aren't telling us about the cuts that will be necessary by whatever hue of government is elected to rebalance the nation's books.

The IFS thinks that the parties are keeping us in the dark about what really needs to be done because, as the Tories discovered at their last party conference, the austerity approach bombs with the voters.

In short the IFS say the party manifestos don't identity 87% of the cuts Labour would have to make if they stuck to their election promises, 82% of the Tory cuts that would come your way, 74% of the cuts the Lib Dems would have to make.

It's this refusal to spell out the cuts agenda that made Labour's morning press conference such a raucous affair (That an Andrew Neil goading Adam Boulton beforehand that he was going to have a go, which pumped Boulton to go on the attack, then Nick Robinson felt he had to prove.. and just became ridiculous)

Robert Chote, Director of IFS, delivered these opening remarks at the IFS 2010 Election Briefing. This is a long extract, I had to read it twice to understand it, but you come away feeling better informed, though not be any of the political parties.

Chloe said:

"For the voters to be able to make an informed choice in this election, the parties need to explain clearly how they would go about achieving it. Unfortunately, they have not.

The opposition parties have not even set out their fiscal targets clearly. And all three are particularly vague on their plans for public spending. The blame for that lies primarily with the Government for refusing to hold a Spending Review before the election.

But let us say what we can from the information we have. Over the last two years the current Government has set out a fiscal tightening package – a combination of tax increases and projected spending cuts – that will build gradually to an eventual 4.8%of national income or £71 billion a year in today’s terms, roughly the size of the hole in the public finances that the Treasury believes the financial crisis has created. The opposition parties have not challenged this figure and we assume that their silence implies consent.

Labour plans to withdraw its temporary fiscal stimulus package this year, start the tightening next year, and complete it in 2016–17. The Liberal Democrats have informally endorsed this timescale.

The Conservatives want to start tightening this year and then move more quickly, getting almost all the job done a year earlier than Labour and the Lib Dems in 2015–16. This would make the tightening even more front-loaded than it already is, at a time when the recovery remains fragile and the effectiveness of monetary policy remains under debate. But it would not make an enormous difference to the long term outlook for the public finances.

The Conservatives would still end up borrowing £604 billion over the next seven years, just 6% less than Labour and the Lib Dems. And, assuming no further change in borrowing beyond 2017–18, the Conservatives would bring government debt back below 40% of national income in the same year as Labour and the Lib Dems.

The differences between the parties appear much bigger when it comes to the composition of the tightening. Labour favours a ratio of 2 to 1 between spending cuts and tax increases, the Lib Dems 2½ to 1 and the Conservatives 4 to 1. Although by the end of the fiscal tightening the differences in the levels of government spending between the parties and in the levels of the tax burden between the parties would both be less than 1% of national income. No party is proposing radically to change the size of the state from its pre-crisis level.

On tax, measured as a share of national income and converted into today’s terms, Labour has already put a £17 billion a year tax increase into the pipeline for the coming parliament.

We estimate that Labour would need to announce further tax increases worth £7 billion a year in today’s terms to meet its goals.

The Conservatives have announced a £6 billion net tax cut on top of what is in the pipeline, but we estimate that they would need to reverse about half of this to meet theirs.

The Liberal Democrats have announced a £3 billion net tax increase and would not need to do any more unless they found the squeeze on spending unacceptable.

When David Cameron said of the Liberal Democrat income tax cut in the first
debate “It’s a beautiful idea. It’s a nice idea. We cannot afford it” that is a slightly odd accusation for a party advocating a net tax cut to make of one advocating a net tax increase.

On spending, no party has announced plans for significant welfare cuts and, without them, their plans would require deep cuts to spending on public services. Over the four years starting next year, Labour and the Liberal Democrats would need to deliver the deepest sustained cuts to spending on public services since the late 1970s.

While, starting this year, the Conservatives would need to deliver cuts to spending on public services that have not been delivered over any five-year period since the Second World War.

All the parties have said they wish to protect some parts of public services spending. By 2014–15 the Conservatives need to find cuts of almost £64 billion a year in their unprotected areas, Labour almost £51 billion and the Liberal Democrats almost £47 billion.

No party has come anywhere close to identifying where their savings would come from.

The Liberal Democrats have identified about a quarter, the Conservatives less than a fifth and Labour about an eighth of what they would need.

But bear in mind that the Liberal Democrats would need to find more spending cuts than the others in 2015–16 and 2016–17.

The Conservatives and Labour would claim to have found bigger cuts than these, because they have found efficiency savings. But even if they can find them – which will be very hard to verify even after the event – we believe that it is misleading to count claimed efficiency savings as a contribution to the looming spending cuts.

Presumably the parties would try to spend public money as efficiently as possible whether or not they were trying to cut spending and would implement most if not all of these efficiencies anyway. And if the efficiencies the parties claim to have found to turn out to be genuine, then presumably whoever forms the government would strive to implement them.

Thinking about the overall composition again, it is worth noting that when the last
Conservative government faced the need for a big fiscal tightening in the early 1990s, we estimate that the ratio of tax to spending cuts was roughly 1 to 1. This may suggest that all the parties are being overambitious in the extent to which they expect spending on public services to take the strain.

If so, the next government may rely more on further tax increases and welfare cuts than any of the parties are willing to admit to beforehand.

Let me turn briefly to the note on the parties’ tax and benefit proposals. Be aware that the total figures for the net tax increases or cuts for each party are slightly different in this note, because the base for comparison is the tax and benefit system is as it is today rather than last year, which needs to be the case when we look at other spending measures too.

And the second note also costs all the measures as if they were introduced straight away. Unfortunately we cannot quantify the total gains and losses by household as we would like to do.

Many of the measures the parties propose – particularly some of the Lib Dem
revenue raisers – are impossible to model accurately. But we can identify some patterns.

The tax and benefit changes already in the pipeline from Labour are progressive taken as a whole, with small losses for poorer households that increase in size on average as households get richer.

The Conservatives would make the pattern less progressive, reducing the losses of households at the top of the income distribution proportionately more than those at the bottom. The Liberal Democrats would make the pattern more progressive,
redistributing resources from the wealthy to middle-income households (though not the

The rise in the tax burden from Labour’s measures will weaken work incentives for most people. Relative to these measures, the Conservative plans would strength the incentive for many people to be in paid work at all, but would do almost nothing to encourage most existing workers to earn a bit more.

The Liberal Democrats would probably strengthen the incentive to be in paid work for more people than the Conservatives, as well as increasing the incentive for those earning less than £10,000 to earn more. But they would do more than the other two parties to harm incentives to work and save among richer households.

Looking at the structure and efficiency of the tax system, Labour’s pre-announced measures are not an attractive package (even given the need to raise revenue). The Conservatives would not improve matters. They would partially reverse what is probably Labour’s least bad tax increase and add new complexities and distortions of their own.

The Liberal Dem package would remove some undesirable distortions and inconsistencies of treatment. But their plan to restrict pension contribution relief is misguided. Although it is somewhat more coherent and less complex than the other parties’ plans it applies to many more people."

Debate? Not here says arc of prosperity inventor

Sula Sgeir - epicentre of arc of prosperity, home of the Gazette Guga

All eyes on the Court of Session this afternoon to see if the SNP can force its way onto the final television debate.

With the SNP so keen to be part of the election debate why do I get news from the Western Isles that the nationalist candidate, Angus MacNeil, is refusing to take part in the traditional Stornoway Town Hall hustings?

Apparently the SNP candidate has found the three dates offered for the debate inconvenient? What else is there to do in an election campaign except put yourself in the front of the voters?

Labour's Donald John MacSween says his rival is running scared. The Peoples' Party is thinking of putting a man in a Mirror Chicken suit, like the one that followed David Cameron around, on the SNP's trail.

A man in a "Gazette Guga" suit would do the job better. A guga from Sula Sgeir could help the SNP pinpoint the "arc of prosperity", the soundbite policy that Angus MacNeil claims to have invented while standing on the shore at Ness.

Monday, 26 April 2010

MacSween takes on volcano cloud - and wins

Good news for air travellers to and from the Western Isles, who were more inconvenienced than most by the Icelandic volcano cloud.

Labour election candidate Donald John MacSween (pictured planting trees before David Cameron even thought of hugging a husky) took up the cause of stranded passengers. After hearing reports that Flybe, which flies the route to the islands for franchise holder Loganair, was refusing to pay claims for food and accommodation of delayed passengers the Point councillor swapped his spade for a pen.

Sensing a Ryanair situation in the making MacSween went straight to Scott Greir, the Loganair MD who has a lifetime experience of the island routes.

MacSween pointed out the law, the European regulations, the small print and the huge profits Loganair have partly courtesy of the air discount scheme the government operate on the island routes.

Result - success. Now MacSween has pledged to personally get refunds for any island passengers who still encounter difficulty with the airline.

"Any passengers who found themselves stranded in Edinburgh or elsewhere and were refused assistance at the time, should send their receipts for reasonable accommodation and meals expenses, and a letter explaining the circumstances, to me," he said. "I will take up their compensation claims with Loganair myself.”

As a local politician MacSween already has a reputation for getting things done. Now he's demonstrated that in the heat of an election campaign there's a difference between talking hot air and taking on a volcano cloud. It's called delivery.

Picture from Hebrides Today

Sunday, 25 April 2010

Leaders' Wives lighten the Sunday load

Bit of light relief on the campaign trail from these funny people at the BBC. I recognise Sarah Kendall, as Sarah Brown, in there but as in real life it's Miriam who steals the show.
And here's the link if you can't see this properly on my council telly website.

Alasdair Carmichael, who does he think he is - Olaf the Red?

Carmichael, barely recognisable in this rehersal shot for the Sky debate.

Sky TV's Scottish leaders' debate was actually quite enjoyable (how sad is it to admit that?) with the political insults flying as fast as the policy statements. The freeflowing, combative format made for more entertaining, if not more informative, television with a surprising result.

The cybernats were out to make sure the instant online polling gave Salmond a win but I have to give the man of the match to - wait for it - Lib Dem Alasdair Carmichael.

I know, I never thought I'd say that either, but Salmond and Jim Murphy were both under performing for most of the 90 minutes while Carmichael and Tory David Mundell, with more to gain and a lot less to lose, went hell for leather to score points.

Murphy did score one bullseye on Salmond, accusing him of "sleeping for Scotland" by not voting for the minimum wage in Westminster while the Tories stayed up all night opposing it.

But for a large part of the time Murphy had to fend of fiesty parries from Mundell and Carmichael.

The flash of passion from the Islay boy over the Iraq War dead and his "real life" experience of the legal system in Scotland put weight behind his punches. At one stage I swear Salmond said "I agree with Alasdair" and I was forced to tweet: "Alasdair Carmichael, who does he think he is - Nick Clegg?"

Mundell accused Salmond of being the "only politician on the planet" not to believe that cuts were necessary but Salmond's touchstone answer - cut Trident, the Scottish Office and the House of Lords - are soundbite politics for lots of public sector workers who know that the worst is yet to come.

In fact, in one of the below radar comments Murphy implicitly admitted that the recession hadn't really started for some people who had only recently been made unemployed. He's right.

Scotland's public sector economy kept the wheels turning during the worst of the 2008-09 recession but it's when public spending gets reined in places that rely on the state sector - as Cameron indicated he'd do in his Newsnight interview - the real misery begins.

Salmond picked up on the lack of debate on public finances in his closing remarks, which was the only point he struck a statesmanlike, father of the nation, tone which might have served him better throughout.

Fuel prices got an airing - but no politician will say "use your car less" in that argument. The price of oil was debated, but that could go to a six-part docu-drama all of its own without any agreement on whether it's Wur oil and whether, in Murphy's words, you should base the nation's economic future on the most volatile product in the world.

For me Salmond sounded weakest on the issue that has deflated support for the SNP - the global financial crisis and how Scotland would have dealt with it on it's own. We would have coped, said Salmond, well no doubt - but at what price? The arc of prosperity (it still exists somewhere between the Flannan Isles and St Kilda) hangs around Salmond's neck like a sack of gannets, I fear.

Murphy insisted the financial crisis meant that “the economic case for breaking up Britain has never been weaker. That’s not just the Labour Party that says it - the Scottish public say it loud and clear.”

I understand the SNP's frustration with not being in on the main debates but most of the Twitter traffic at the beginning asked what Salmond was doing on in the first place - he isn't standing in this election.

In the free-flow Mundell was quite spikey on what Salmond has been doing at all. "You can’t run an economy on soundbites - you’ve got to have substantive policies and the SNP simply don’t," was one of his best.

That was until Salmond complained that, like Wayne Rooney, he was on the B-list of guests for the Pope's visit. Mundell scored on the rebound with the line: “Wayne Rooney has more coherent policies for Scotland than you do.”

Ouch. 1-0 to the Tories which, on current polling, might be as high as they score in Scotland ten days from now.

Thursday, 22 April 2010

Marginal gains for all in pre-debate tealeaves

Kevin Schofield, the former Record man in this seat and now with the Current Bun, has just posted the latest YouGov/Sun poll.

It has the Conservatives on 34% (up 1) Labour on 29% (up 2) and Lib Dems on 28% (down 3). The Others are on 9% (no change).

That could be a sign that the Lib Dem bubble is deflating ahead of tonight's debate.

The result would make Labour the biggest party with 283 MPs, Tories on 254 and the Lib Dems on 84 and Others on 29. (Sorry, but none of the electoral calculators let us crunch the numbers down for Others so how it reflects for the SNP I don't know.)

There is one other poll, the latest Reuters/Ipsos MORI poll of marginal seats ahead of the slew of figures that will come out this evening.

The poll of marginals - seats the Conservatives must win to be sure of outright victory - indicates that although support for Labour and the Conservatives has fallen in these constituencies - their relative positions are unchanged since the previous survey on April 8.

The Liberal Democrats have doubled their projected vote share in Labour-held marginal constituencies but the swing comes mainly from voters who were previously not sure they would vote.

The poll, conducted between April 16 and 19, showed support for Labour fell to 36 percent compared to 41 percent two weeks ago, while Conservative support dropped to 32 percent from 38 percent. Liberal Democrat support jumped to 23 percent from 11 percent.

The numbers of people saying they are now certain to vote has also surged: to 68 percent from 59 percent. Significantly, however, 47 percent of voters say they may still change their mind.

Labour relies on Lib Dem voters in these constituencies not to believe their own propaganda and carry on voting tactically to keep the Tories out.

Labour are full of nudges and winks to Lib Dems but they are going to have to move onto the territory of making a direct appeal to Lib Dem supporters in exchange for bigger promises on PR voting, as Clegg demanded in the Independent this morning.

Waiting for Gordo and the next slew of polls

For newspapers every Thursday of this campaign is like election day itself - there's nothing really to do until quite late in the evening when the action is over.

Meanwhile there are a few things happening - Shadow Defence secretary Liam Fox was burgled in one of these bizarre campaign twists. A Tory press conference was cancelled as a result. Distressing to be robbed but Thatcher walked out of the rubble of Grand Hotel in Brighton and went to the Tory conference the next morning.

In further news the SNP and Plaid have been told by the BBC Trustto forget it - they are not getting in on the big boys leaders' debates. The SNP have been left raging against the machine. Oh, and Nick Clegg has been branded a Nazi in an almost Comical Ali headline in the Daily Mail.

The Telegraph have had a go at Clegg over political donations too but he insists he has done nothing wrong, and will prove it. Sooner the better for him.

He will be bruised though not floored by the allegations. Pretty much everyone thinks the dirty tricks will backfire on the Tories and that it may already be too late for any negative stories on the Lib Dem leader to get any traction

Interesting how the Tories, or rather their media attack dogs, have gone negative while Labour is almost lovebombing Clegg. Peter Mandelson was on Radio 4 at lunchtime defending him more robustly than any Lib Dem would. Mandelson was there just to make sure the story becomes "Tory smear".

Extraordinary for one party figure to come out so strongly to defend someone in another party. He accused the Tories of "pushing the smear button".

“I think the coverage is frankly disgusting. I am not a defender of the Liberal Democrats, I am an opponent of the Liberal Democrats,” he said. “It offends against basic decency, it violates basic rules of electioneering in this country

There's lots of shennanigans going on around Clegg and the media's handling of him right now. The Independent has positioned itself as a kind of outsider newspaper - mirroring Clegg - and has been repaid for its advertising campaign, namechecking Rupert Murdoch, with a visit from the News International heavies from Wapping led by Rebekah Wade, or so we're told.

Wednesday, 21 April 2010

George Osborne's new hair - the mature look

Courtesy of the wonderful Paul Waugh of the Standard

Cleggmania - were you actually at the game?

Bit of a story swirl on the election trail today - Cameron gets hit by egg, not great - Clegg bandwagon begins to stall, maybe.

Clegg did get monstered on expenses and immigration in a car crash interview on Radio 1; St Vince did get stripped of his sainthood in chancellors' debate.

Meanwhile Ken Clarke raised the spectre of the IMF running Britain in the event of a hung parliament and Brown in danger of slipping off the agenda.

In the midst of all that I'm indebted to Gary Gibbon, of Channel 4 news, for picking out the last paragraph of the Times analysis of its own polling.

Peter Riddell(as much of a polling legend as Robert Worcester of Mori, who was in this very office this morning) has been drilling through the polling figures that put the Tories on 32%, Libs up ten on 31% and Labour on 28%.

In the last few paragraphs Riddell finds that nearly half the public - 49% - claims to have watched last Thursday's TV televised debate; more than twice as many as actually did watch it in reality.

Gary Gibbon comments: "They may have caught the coverage on news bulletins, it may seem bad form not to have watched or they just want to be part of the national phenomenon that people are talking about"

And that is the Clegg bandwagon in a one, though it doesn't make it any easier to deal with on the election trail.

The figures to watch, according to all pollsters, is the gap between Labour and the Conservatives. It has to be about 6% for the Tories to win, and it is in that territory right now.

Labour's big danger is that the anti-Tory alliance, with Lib Dems lending their votes to keep the Tories out in many marginal constituencies, begins to unravel.

The mood, reflected in the polls, is that this does appear to be happening as voters want to give the establishment parties a kicking. The result is that these Lib Dems who held their nose and voted Labour before might not get the political reforms they want.

Brown is still relying on that long tunnel walk to the polling booth, when voters really do decide if they will flirt with something new or stick with what they know. Two debates, numerous polls and two long weeks to go.

Tuesday, 20 April 2010

Salmond appeal to England - put me out of the game

I'm struggling to follow the logic of Alex Salmond's appeal to English voters to outflank Labour and the Tories by voting Lib Dem.

I'm quoting the reliable Severin Carrell from the Guardian here who says Salmond made an explicit call to block Labour and Tory candidates today.

Salmond said: "Voting for the objective of denying the Labour or the Tory parties an overall majority would be a legitimate and proper thing to do. It also seems to be one idea which is gathering a great deal of strength."

My thinking is that the bigger the block of Lib Dem MPs the fewer votes from other minority parties a coalition government would have to find.

A Lib Dem surge in a hung parliament cannot be good news for the SNP at all.

The nationalists would be left as onlookers in the maths of a hung parliament on current polling performance. The SNP wouldn't have Westminster "hanging by a Scottish rope" so much as be left holding onto a piece of loose string.

However,the Labour party has found a Westminster function for SNP MPs - as voting fodder for the Conservatives.

Consider these stats unearthed by Scottish Labour that show the SNP's Angus Robertson outperformed Tory David Mundell in his support for the Conservatives last year.

Since 1st April 2009, David Mundell has voted with the Tories 95 times.

Since 1st April 2009, John Mason has voted with the Tories 101 times (including 5 times when acting as a teller with the Tory vote)

Since 1st April 2009, Angus Robertson has voted with the Tories 98 times

Source:, drawn from Hansard data

New Scottish poll ahead of leaders' debate

There's a new poll out from Ipsos Mori ahead of the Scottish leaders' debate tonight at 9pm.

The results found that among those certain to vote, the figures are:

Labour: 36%
SNP: 26%
Lib Dem: 20%
Con: 14%
Other: 4%

If the results were translated into seats, Labour would win 40 of the 59 constituencies in Scotland. The LibDems would hold the 11 they won in 2005. The SNP would gain ultra marginal Ochil and South Perthshire from Labour and the Tories would once again send a solitary MP to Westminster

There's some commentary from top political pundit, STV's political editor Bernard Ponsonby, on the STV site

Make your mind up - vote register deadline today

A bit of fun from Total Politics on what is the last day to register to vote in the May 6th general election.

Only play this video if you a) want to have the Bucks Fizz tune going round and round in your head all day and b) want to see Angus MacNeil getting cuddly with a teddy bear.

Just in case you don't recognise them all here's the cast (in order of appearance)

Alastair Campbell
Peter Tatchell
Anne Diamond
Nadine Dorries
Andrew Hawkins
Angus MacNeil
Phil Willis
Nigel Farage
Lynne Featherstone
Cross-party band 'MP4' (Greg Knight, Ian Cawsey, Pete Wishart and Kevin Brennan)
The Bloggers: (Jessica Asato, Alex Smith, Guido Fawkes, Tory Bear, Shane Greer, Mark Pack, Tory Rascal, Anthony Painter, Phil Hendren (Dizzy Thinks), Emily Nomates (Lazy Hyena), Mark Thompson (Mark Reckons) and Helen Duffett (Lib Dem Voice))
Mark Pack
Ann Widdecombe
Chris Mullin
Iain Dale

Trident's £100bn footprint across the UK

That last post mentioning the Butec base at Kyle, and the SNP manifesto launch today, reminded me of a piece I did on how the Trident nuclear deterrent has roots in constituencies all across the UK.

I tracked the various ancillary industries that support the base at Faslane and found that the Trident industry extends from Caithness in the far north to the south coast via unlikely places like Beith, Ayrshire, Dumfries, Penrith, Derby and the London suburbs.

The article doesn't make a judgement, it just shows how rooted the deterrent is in the economy and that getting rid of Trident isn't just as simple as sailing the boats out of the Gare Loch.

Trident's Footprint
Torcuil Crichton

Sunday Herald 9 Dec 2006

From Dounreay to Devonport, the UK's nuclear deterrent casts a shadow over the whole country, consting millions of pounds a year

Stand on the pink-white beach of Sandwood Bay, with its eerie sea stack on one side and the cliffs running to Cape Wrath on the other, and you can feel quite lonely. Of course, you are never alone, even on this remote northwestern shore. Stare straight out into the teeth of the inevitable north Atlantic gale and you are looking at Trident's backyard.

Somewhere beneath the grey majesty of the ocean, a sleek 150-metre, nuclear-powered Vanguard-class submarine is on patrol. It might be close by or in a deep Atlantic trench, but one of the UK's four submarines is out there, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, its 132- strong crew drilling over and over again to unleash armageddon.

The sea northwest of Scotland is what used to be called the Greenland/ Iceland-United Kingdom Gap. Once upon a time, the subs of the Soviet nuclear fleet would glide down this corridor from their Barents Sea bases in times of Cold War tension.

Now the undersea hydrophones rarely hear the hum of Soviet engines. The Russian Northern fleet, hobbled by obsolescence and deterioration, spends most of its time tied up at Severomorsk. The Trident boats stake out their territory largely unopposed, poised to deliver instant retaliation against a threat from another era.

Trident's domain is not just the deep Atlantic ocean. From the north Atlantic coastline, the UK's Trident trail makes its way as far south as the market towns of Berkshire, by way of more totemic points of geography - such as Faslane - and unexpected backwaters such as the quiet town of Beith in Ayrshire. Following this route of Trident technology offers a real insight into just how embedded into the geography and economy of the British Isles the nuclear deterrent has become.

The crinkled outline of the west coast of Scotland, with its deep lochs and glens, is one of the most heavily militarised regions of western Europe. The Highlands and Islands play host to war games, missile tests, bombing ranges, torpedo trials, nuclear bunkers, armament depots and, of course, moorings for the nuclear submarines.

The cradle of Britain's nuclear programme, the Dounreay plant in the far north, is still used to test submarine reactors. At HMS Vulcan, the naval reactor test establishment, a small naval team liaise with 300 Rolls-Royce workers. The testbed gives naval crews hands-on experience of running nuclear reactors while safe on shore.

A short distance north of Sandwood Bay is the Cape Wrath bombing range, part of the 253,000 acres of Scottish land owned by the Ministry of Defence. The military has the run of the sea too. There are some 26 submarine exercise areas on the west coast of Scotland, extending from the Butt of Lewis to the southern shores of Arran. This is where submarine crews come to practise and occasionally mispractise.

In November 2002, HMS Trafalgar, one of the navy's nuclear-powered attack subs, ran aground on a well-marked outcrop off the north of Skye during a captains' training programme. The vessel returned to Faslane for embarrassing repairs costing £5 million.

The incidents aren't always hilarious or at the expense of the navy, though. In November 1990, four crewmen on the Carradale-based fishing boat Antares were drowned after its nets were snagged by the nuclear submarine HMS Trenchant, which was taking part in a Perisher exercise for training submarine commanders. After the Antares tragedy, the navy introduced the Subfacts scheme, broadcasting where submarines are due to exercise and when fishing areas are closed.

Some of Britain's deepest waters are found in the few miles between the Isle of Raasay and the mainland Torridon mountains where the ocean plummets to depths of 1500 feet. This is where submarines can run at full speed and where Trident boats come to have their sonar footprint recorded and calibrated.

The British Underwater Test and Evaluation Centre (Butec) was set up in Kyle of Lochalsh in the 1970s to test torpedoes and sonar. The base, which employs 115 people, is operated on behalf of the MoD by QinetiQ, the defence contractor created by privatisation of parts of the Defence Evaluation and Research Agency in 2001.

With a shore base at Kyle of Lochalsh and a range head at Applecross, Butec measures the acoustic signature of surface ships and submarines using underwater hydrophones. Sound patterns from the tests are recorded at a complex on the island of Rona.

Nearby Broadford Bay on Skye is designated as one of the few remaining Z berths where nuclear submarines can lay up in an emergency. The others are Loch Ewe, close to the Aultbea refuelling depot, Coulport and Loch Goil, near the home base of the fleet, and Rothesay. But nobody has seen a large black submarine berthed at the Clyde holiday resort for some time.

The submarines are easily seen by anyone taking the ferry to Bute though, or by anyone at the Rhu Narrows near Dunoon. Faslane has been a naval base since the 16th century and the submarines have been in its deep and easily defended waters since 1917.

THE UK's hunter-killer fleet slips in and out of the Faslane base through the morning mist, sleek, sinister and black, but at 16,000 tonnes displacement, the gigantic Trident boats are harder to miss. The omegas of warfare fill your line of vision as they are nursed in by a school of tugs and bobbing protection dinghies.

Here, just a short drive from Glasgow, past the mansions of Helensburgh, behind a vast expanse of razor wire, lies the beating heart of Britain's nuclear arsenal. Faslane, the Royal Navy Clyde Submarine Base - or, to give it its official designation, HMS Neptune - is where the submarines come in from ocean patrol. Yet you could drive through the whole of pine-covered Argyll without ever realising the immense destructive power housed just around the next glen and bay.

Apart from the perimeter wire and graffiti left by anti-nuclear protesters, there's little to indicate that Gare Loch is home to Britain's nuclear submarine fleet. All four of Britain's intercontinental missile submarines (the Vanguard, Victorious, Vigilant, and Vengeance) are based at Faslane. Each is armed with Trident D5 missiles, purchased in the last days of the cold war and with the power to unleash 1500 Hiroshimas.

Faslane is the largest single site employer in Scotland. More than 7000 military and civilian staff work here for the navy and defence company Babcock Naval Services. By comparison, the Chrysler car factory at Linwood, which wreaked economic devastation when it closed in 1981, employed just over 8000 people at the height of production.

In 2004 there were more than 24,000 members of the MoD and armed forces working at military sites all over Scotland - 15,000 military personnel and nearly 9000 civil servants. Some £1.5 billion of defence expenditure is spent directly in Scotland. The bill for Trident is just a little more, about £1.7bn a year or 5% of the defence budget. Trident, and its proposed replacement, costing about £25bn, will go down in history as the most costly UK industrial projects ever undertaken in peacetime.

In addition to the Trident fleet, Faslane also houses five conventionally armed Swiftsure nuclear submarines (Sovereign, Sceptre, Spartan, Superb and Splendid).

Just six miles along the road from Faslane on the Rosneath peninsula is Coulport. Lined with genteel Victorian villas and the original site of the Kibble Palace, before it was moved to Glasgow's Botanic Gardens, the area is now a vast warehouse for Britain's Trident missiles stockpile.

At the Royal Naval Armament Depot (RNAD) at Coulport on Loch Long, 16 underground atom bomb vaults with airlocked doors have been built into a ridge overlooking the shore to store spare missile warheads. The warheads can be detached from the Trident missiles and unloaded using a custom-built lift on a huge covered jetty.

The missiles themselves can also be removed at Coulport, but this is usually done at the Strategic Weapons Facility Atlantic at Kings Bay, Georgia, in the United States. RNAD Coulport and the huge munitions depot in Glen Douglas, covering an area of 650 acres, are also storage and loading facilities for conventional torpedoes.

From Coulport, Trident watchers can track the nuclear warhead lorry convoys as they make their way back and forth from Aldermaston and Burghfield in England. Every loch in this part of Scotland seems to have a military function.

Carving deep inland, Loch Goil is home to another QinetiQ testing facility, while nearby Loch Striven was used during sea trials of Vanguard submarines, though nowadays the casual visitor could not fathom any military purpose.

Deep into the Ayrshire countryside is the next link in the Trident chain. Covering more than 1000 acres and with 21 miles of internal roads, the defence munitions depot at Beith produces, tests and stores missiles and torpedoes for the armed forces.

Behind six miles of razor wire, 18,000 cubic metres of high explosives can be stored in buildings designed to implode in the event of an accident. Beith is also sub-contracted by BAE Systems to produce Spearfish torpedoes, the heavyweight Trident self-defence weapon. The torpedoes are tested at the Butec range at the Kyle of Lochalsh.

Across on the other coast of Scotland, at Rosyth, are the hulks of seven redundant nuclear submarines, including all four Polaris boats. The docks are no longer used to service the nuclear submarine fleet - that work is now carried out at Devonport.

The helicopters that would drop sonar buoys to listen for Russian submarines as the UK nuclear fleet left coastal waters have also moved south from HMS Gannet at Prestwick. Although the danger has lessened, helicopters still fly from their Cornwall base to accompany a change in the Trident patrol. And the Nimrod surveillance aircraft at Kinloss still look for hostile submarines.

Just before the Trident trail leaves Scotland, it pauses briefly at the Chapelcross power station near Annan in Dumfries. The decommissioned plant's original function was to produce plutonium for the nuclear weapons programme, but it was also a crucial supplier of tritium, a vital part of Britain's bomb. For Trident's replacement, an alternative supply of the material - probably from the US - will have to be found.

South of the Border, the first encounter with Trident comes with the radio masts in a cluster of BBC and World Service aerials at Skelton near Penrith. The transmitter keeps the Trident subs in contact with onshore commanders. Anthorn in Cumbria, nearer the coast, is a Nato transmitter that serves the same purpose. Other stations in Europe and the United States are available to communicate orders from command posts in the UK.

Were it not for the Sellafield works, the Cumbrian coastline might feel as empty as Sandwood Bay. Sellafield is where old nuclear submarine reactor cores are stored, so radioactive they cannot be reprocessed.

Further down the English coast, across the sands of Morecambe Bay, at Barrow-in-Furness is where the nuts and bolts of the Trident operation are. The enormous Vickers yard, now run by BAE, has a symbiotic relationship with Trident. It depends on orders for nuclear submarines for its existence, and without the human skills here, Britain could not have a nuclear deterrent programme.

The much-delayed and over-budgeted Astute-class submarines keep the yard working, but the 200 highly skilled submarine designers and technicians at the yard are part of the reason the government is injecting urgency into the Trident replacement programme. If their jobs are made redundant through a lack of orders, the capability to build submarines in the UK will be lost forever.

Derby is the powerhouse of the Trident operation. The reactors that power Trident subs are built by Rolls-Royce just outside the town. The fuel rods - using 98% highly enriched uranium, as high as or higher than is used in the warheads - are also manufactured here.

The servicing of the submarines proper takes places on Britain's south coast at the Devonport Royal Dockyard in Plymouth. HMS Vanguard was re-fitted here, Victoria is here at the moment. Old reactor cores go to Sellafield and old submarines remain on site.

The holy grail of deterrence is the Atomic Weapons Establishment at Aldermaston, near Reading, an hour's train ride west of London in rural Berkshire. This is Britain's bomb factory, the epicentre of nuclear weapons design and production. It is responsible for the manufacture, maintenance and decommissioning of Britain's nuclear warheads.

Aldermaston cooperates extensively with nuclear weapons laboratories in the US on developing of the next generation of nuclear warheads that will replace Trident. More than £1bn has already been spent modernising the facility and recruiting scientists to produce the next bomb. Although the MoD owns the site, private companies run the day-to-day operations.

Aldermaston is synonymous with nuclear weapons, and the CND - launched by the philosopher Bertrand Russell and Canon John Collins - grew out of a demonstration held outside the site during Easter 1956.

Not far away is Burghfield, the huge ordnance factory where the Trident warheads are assembled and maintained. Once complete, warheads are stored temporarily then loaded on to lorry convoys for Coulport.

Three to five lorries, plus escorts, make the three-day journey every couple of months, passing around London on the M25 and either north around Edinburgh or through the centre of Glasgow on the M8, completing a circular Trident trail around Britain.

There is only one location left. Trident's nerve centre, the connection between its political brain and the military muscle is, surprisingly, in London suburbia.

The Northwood command centre of the Royal Navy is where the signal to launch a nuclear attack would be sent from. The control centre has been recently modernised, but peace campaigners reckon the computer system involved for nuclear operations is at Whitehall buildings of the MoD in central London.

There is no way of confirming this or the recent claim by Sir Michael Quinlan, former permanent secretary at the MoD, that Britain's nuclear submarines now go to sea without any target plans. It is likely that the systems are a lot more flexible and that target co-ordinates can be changed from Moscow for Tehran within seconds. It may also be possible that the strategic nuclear deterrent, prowling the oceans day and night, costing £1.5bn a year, may have the ultimate weapon targeted at nobody at all.

Hustings hit on Lib Dem Trident policy

Butec base at Kyle - scene of the Trident debate and associated jobs

My good friend Alasdair Stephen, an SNP candidate for Ross, Skye Lochaber, claims to have scored a hit on the Lib Dems and their plans for a Trident replacement.

Alasdair had former Lib Dem leader Charles Kennedy admit at a hustings meeting in Kyle (remember Kyle, remember hustings meetings) last night that the party policy was not to scrap the nuclear deterrent completely.

“We need some clarity here," says Alastair. "The Liberal Democrats are a pro-nuclear party, and intend to maintain the current Trident fleet. This would cost £2.5 billion per year for the next 20 years - a total of £50bn."

The Lib Dem policy, from their manifesto page 65, is not to go ahead with a like-for-like Trident submarines but to find some kind of alternative under the strategic defence review. That sounds very woolly and not at all like the anti-nuclear stance of the SNP.

The wisdom of Alasdair raising this point in Kyle, where the Butec underwater testing base base supports about 60 jobs associated with torpedo and nuclear submarine testing, is a moot point. But it does show the power of the old hustings meeting to open up politics a bit.

By the way, bit of a bad show that the Labour candidate only sent apologies and that the party wasn't even able to find a substitute from the ranks of their three Highland MSPs at the very least.

Monday, 19 April 2010

Matthew 20:16 and Cleggomania polls

If you thought the Evening Standard was getting biblical with it's "Gordon's Ark" headline this morning, I found myself drifting towards the King James Bible when the latest Guardian ICM poll came out later.

For the first time since polling began in 1984 ICM have Labour on third place, having been leapfrogged by the Facebook phenomenon that is Nick Clegg.

The Tories are on 33%, down four, Lib Dems up ten points to 30% and Labour down three points to 28%.

Bizarrely this would leave Labour as the biggest party in Westminster - 0n 275 seats to Conservative 245 with the Libs at the upper limits of what the electoral system allows them on 99 seats.

In the words of that biblical psephologist Matthew - "the last shall be first, and the first last: for many be called, but few chosen".

As I said earlier Labour might think the problem is all the David Cameron's but if Labour is replaced as the anti-Tory party in the UK, what then?

I expect Clegg can do well in the second debate too - just keep the tie on and mention Iraq four or five times and that should see him ride through on this wave. Gordon will be Gordon, of that we can be sure, but what will Cameron choose to do? Attack, as Tebbit wants him to or try to keep relaunching the "big society" idea as he does in tonight's fairly unpersuasive political broadcast.

None of the party strategists know where this will end up - that's the really exciting part about it. I don't know - air travel has come to an end, Ross County are in the Scottish Cup final, Nick Clegg is topping the polls - I'm going to wake up soon aren't I?

Volcanoland - latest report and pics from Iceland

Eyjafjallojokull eruption in Iceland in full flow

Some stunning pictures coming out of Iceland during the volcanic eruption. This one from the Iceland Weather Report, who credit it to Mike, a resident volcanologist,who has the latest situation report. Read it on the click through.

"Gordon's Ark" is the headline in the Evening Standard, above a picture of the big aircraft carrier on the way out of Portsmouth. It's the Falklands all over again (he hopes).

Ball on the slates -what's Labour's response?

Labour's subliminal message to Lib Dem supporters in marginal seats

I don't know, you go away for one weekend and...

After suffering a technical and possibly existential crisis at that exact moment between the end of Thursday's election debate and my newspaper's deadline I decided I'd take a weekend away from politics.

Where did I end up? At Winston Churchill's House, Chartwell, in the Kent countryside with headlines pumping Nick Clegg as being almost as popular as the wartime Prime Minister.

(That's Churchill who went on to lose the following General Election, as George Jones, former Telegraph pol ed, reminded me this morning).

The last words I heard on Thursday night before tuning out were Andrew Neil's, declaring that we should ignore the polls for the next 48 hours as they would be all over the place.

Well, four days on Clegg is still almost as popular as Churchill and Labour are third in the share of the popular vote in the opinion polls. It's a big headache for Cameron too because he is now so last year. There's a New Change candidate in town now, and like a new brand of washing powder he's scooping up the market share.

Gordon Brown laughed off the Lib Dem roll at this morning's Labour press conference in London. "I have some experience of short honeymoons," he quipped. Truth is no one knows where this will end up.

By quirk of the constituency boundaries Labour would still emerge as the largest party in Parliament on today's polls even if it is third in the popular share of the vote.

In the current electoral system the Lib Dems with 30% of the vote can still only get between 60 and 80 MPs. If they did really well they would get up to and possibly over100 MPs and that looks like the outer limits.

But laughing off the Lib Dems won't quite do.If the Lib Dems are seen as the main anti-Tory party of 21st century British politics that provokes a bit of an existential crisis for the Labour party itself.

Let's deal with that philosophical point another time. In terms of vote Labour strategists doing the numbers over the weekend know that in the 15 or so Labour/Lib Dem marginals they could suffer if the Clegg balloon does not deflate in the next two debates.

The Tories could suffer very badly down there in the South West where they hoped to lawnmower the Lib Dems down to about 45 MPs. These assumptions are off for the time being.

The really interesting place is the 100 or so Labour- Tory marginals where for the last three elections Labour has relied on Lib Dem supporters to vote tactically and lend them a vote to keep the Tories out.

If that informal alliance begins to unravel in the marginals, presumably because Lib Dem supporters begin to believe their own propaganda and vote Lib Dem thinking they have a chance of power (they don't), then Labour could be in big trouble.

The result is that the Tories could win in the marginals, and win a majority, but it is a question of which of the two parties bleeds the most support to the Lib Dems. Just now it looks like for every two Tory votes going to the Lib Dems one Labour vote is going. All this three-way and four-way chess is something that the Scottish electorate is quite used to but it's a novel development at UK level.

It really is a case of small Lib Dem surge, bad for Tories, big Lib Dem wave bad for Labour. Labour have to start learning to surf, and learn very quickly, to ride the Lib Dem wave back into power. Somehow Lib Dems have to be persuaded to keep on voting Labour when their own party is at it's highest level of support ever. Tricky, but not as hard as what David Cameron has to do - appeal to people who want change when he looks like last year's change model.

Gordon Brown doesn't think it's going to be about looks in the end - it's about the economy stupid. That's why Labour majored on that at their press conference today, tomorrow and all of this week when GDP figures, unemployment and inflation figures are coming out.

You've got to admire Brown's doggedness, he looked quite confident today. He does not know the meaning of defeat. It reminded me of a quote I saw at the Churchill exhibition at Chartwell from one of his commanding officers in India along the lines of: "that fellow Churchill, I don't like him, but one day he'll be Prime Minister of England"

Thursday, 15 April 2010

Latest Tory Poster praises Supreme Leader

Funny Tory attack poster being put up in Manchester this afternoon ahead of the big match. It's even funnier if you know Ian Bundrid and Kenny Young, the loons holding open the door.

Eddie Izzard goes viral for Labour

The webosphere is going crazy over the Eddie Izzard PPB for the Labour Party, which is actually quite good. It ends with a David Tennant voiceover, which raises the question why don't they use the former Dr Who in vision.

Anyway, click on the video if you want to, I only post it so I can retell my favourite Eddie Izzard joke, which I told him when I met him at a Labour conference in Manchester a few years ago:

"Then I spy Eddie Izzard and rush over to share with him my favourite Eddie Izzard gag. Eddie (we're firm friends now) played a gig in Stornoway once and in advance one of the tabloids did the predictable thing and phoned a Free Presbyterian minister for his reaction to this cross-dressing comedian arriving on the "deeply religious island".

Sure enough the paper got their headline, with the Protestant minister slamming Eddie as an "abomination".

The night of the gig, Stornoway Town Hall is packed to the rafters, loaded with expectation. Eddie totters on to the mike, his heels clicking in the tense silence, to deliver a killer opener: "That Reverend John MacLeod, who does he think he is - the Pope."

Eddie laughs, just as the crowd did, even though he's heard the joke before. Anyway, as I was saying to Nancy..."

Update: Whovian Tom Harris, Labour's Glasgow South candidate, informs us that David Tennant was happy to give time to do a voiceover, a matter of minutes, but the busy actor could not commit to a whole day or more to recording an in-vision piece. There's me thinking he was a Timelord.

Ken Clarke, the volcano blockade runner

Correction : Ken Clarke is now rushing north on a train - not a helicopter. There never was a helicopter, no such helicopter ever existed, and if it did exist...I think this means the Tories couldn't find a helicopter at short notice but I'm happy for the clarification of travel arrangements.

A bit spooky and quiet this morning, on the airwaves as well as in the air.

In politics everyone is in a hiatus, or a train heading to Manchester, just waiting for the TV debate tonight while miles away the Iceland volcano has grounded all air traffic in the UK.

Ironically, everyone I phone across Scotland and the UK is reporting what a wonderful, clear, blue sky day it is. There's a great live map of UK air traffic here that shows the empty skies above Britain.

Vince Cable and Bob Ainsworth have cancelled trips to Scotland today but the Tories, I hear are hiring a helicopter to take Ken Clarke north, flying low like some kind of crazed Colonel Kilgore in Hush Puppies (What happened to the Quattro?)
(I've since been corrected Colonel Ken has commandeered a train to take him north)

The big three party leaders are all in a holding pattern around Manchester, doing a few visits before final rehersals for the debate.

If you really need a political fix there's First Minister's Questions in the Scottish parliament, which is bound to have an electoral tinge.

There's a weekly Scottish take on the Sun's daily YouGov poll, small sample buried in the Scottish editions. The poll has Labour up five points to 40% on last week, SNP down three points to 21%, Lib Dems up one to 18% and the Tories crashing down four points to 17%.

As I said, small sample but small comfort for the Conservatives in particular with signs of the Quattro mis-firing at the prospect of having to cough £1.30 a litre for petrol.

Meanwhile, back in Iceland, people have a few more problems than grounded flights. Alda who blogs the excellent Iceland Weather Report - rarely to do with weather always to do with economic meltdown - gives this account of the latest eruption this morning.

Here's an extract: "So yeah, the new eruption is between 10 and 30 times stronger than the one we’ve had over the last three weeks. It started beneath the ice cap so caused a glacial surge [or j√∂kulhlaup as it's called in Icelandic, when large amounts of meltwater are released at the same time -- as someone mentioned in the comments to last post].

Around 700 people were evacuated from their homes last night and by midday the flood was huge. It washed out one bridge and the Ring Road was broken to allow the water to flow through — i.e. they purposely dug through it in two separate places to allow the water to flow through to the sea and so it doesn’t wash out more bridges.

Fortunately barriers that exist in the area have managed to protect the farms in the area — none of those have broken. How long this will last is still not known — it could be days or weeks or months. They are predicting that there will be surges of water coming through every now and again, so I guess it remains to be seen what sorts of precautions they will take."

As usual, it sounds like it's all happening in Iceland.

Wednesday, 14 April 2010

Getting interactive on the big debate

For The Record 15/04/10

THE Facebook generation will be able to give an instant verdict on the historic party political leaders’ debate tomorrow night.

The social networking site has set up its own Democracy UK page will host a “dial test” that will allow users to vote, in real-time, on whether or not they like what the candidates are saying during the first of the live political TV debates.

The programme at 8.30pm on ITV1 on Thursday will be the first ever leaders’ debate in the UK in what has become the tightest general election campaign in a generation.

With opinion polls showing that no party would win an overall majority at Westminster the series of three debates over the next three weeks is seen as crucial.

Over half the population is expected to tune in to help them make their minds up for May 6.

ITN, which is hosting the first of three leaders’ debates, is to issue its own instant poll after the 90 minute clash finishes at 10pm.

The strict rules of the TV debate means that there can be no comment on screen during the broadcast. But ITV also plan to live videostream the debate online showing a focus group reaction tool that will rate audience approval.

The “worm” as the fluctuating line is known, will display approval disapproval or neutral feelings, as it crawls across the screen.

Party spin doctors and politicians will be online too, giving instant twitter comment on their opponents, in the hope of shaping the debate and the final verdict.

With millions of viewers now in the habit of watching TV with a computer on their lap or a i-phone in their hand Facebook is expecting a large number of users to be talking about the debate and engaging with its new tool.

The first of the debates will be about domestic policy, much of which is devolved to the Scottish parliament, but it is the personality of the leaders, and how they handle the gladiatorial arena, that people will be watching for.

But there are fears that a rigid format of the debates, with over 70 rules of engagement, could turn viewers off.

David Cameron attempted to play down expectations of himself by complaining yesterday that answering just eight questions over the 90-minute show could be “slow and sluggish”

On the campaign trail in south London, the Tory leader made a tacit admission of how high the stakes are. “I can’t pretend I’m not nervous,” he said.

But he added: “I do public meetings around the country. I’ve done 72 of these Cameron-direct public meetings and I try to get through 25 questions in an hour and I do worry that we may have ended up with a format that’s going to be a bit slow and sluggish. “

All three parties wrangled over how the head-to-heads would be conducted and have agreed a defined format but are now concerned the regulations could stifle the debate.

For each of the three primetime clashes, the first half of the show will be based on a specific theme and the second will feature questions on any issue.

Audiences will be picked to reflect support and questions are submitted in advance but party leaders will have no prior warning.

They will be able to open and close each debate with a prepared statement and have drawn lots to decide which order they will speak in. Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg will open the first debate which focuses on domestic affairs

All three leaders have already spent a large amount of time rehearsing for the event in Manchester.

Gordon Brown, who has looked more at ease as the campaign progresses, has been going through mock debates with Alastair Campbell, Blair’s old spin doctor, and Douglas Alexander playing the part of David Cameron. He said speaking to the public on the campaign trail was the best rehearsal.

Cameron, who is thought to go into the debates with the advantage of being a more fluid tv performer, has been jousting against his shadow cabinet members Damian Green (as Brown) and Jeremy Hunt playing Clegg.

Scot Michael Gove plays the ‘moderator’ for Cameron. Team Clegg has Chris Huhne playing Brown, David Laws plays Cameron.

Cameron will take the centre stage spot in the first debate. Clegg will appear on the left of the stage and Brown on the right, as the viewer sees it.

While the positioning of the three leaders may seem trivial it is seen as important by party insiders.

When Vince Cable appeared centre stage in the Chancellor’s Debates on Channel 4 recently, he was allowed to appear as an arbiter between the squabbling Darling and Osborne.

The Conservatives complained about that but for Cameron being “piggy-in-the-middle” runs the risk that the other two will gang up on him.

Clegg, who hopes his party’s chances will be turboboosted by the TV appearances, is understood to have been given the central spot for the second debate next week.

For the third debate on the economy, hosted by David Dimbleby a week before the election, Brown may not automatically get the centre spot which could be drawn by lots.

Boulton warns Cam - don't mess with the rules

That's the manifestos out of the way - except the SNP's next week - so everyone is beginning to focus on tomorrow night's leaders's debate.

Brown and Cameron have been playing down expectations - Brown admitting he's no good on presentation and that he could have done more on banking regulation. Cameron is worried that he might look boring and fears the debates might be "slow and sluggish".

That brought quite a riposte from Sky's Adam Boulton, who I didn't realise blogged quite as much as he does because the Sky site only show the top three paragraphs of each lengthy entry.

Click through here for the full Boulton treatment in which he warns David Cameron not to mess with the rules that the parties themselves insisted in putting in place.

Monday, 12 April 2010

Standstill poll for Scotland tonight

A Yougov poll of the regions last night showed the parties fighting each other to a standstill in Scotland.

The poll of just over 800 people showed Labour on Labour on 38%, the SNP on 24%, Conservatives on 17% and Lib Dem on 16%.

On that outcome the parties would come out with almost the same share of seats as the 2005 election.

Labour have on 40 MPs, assuming they regain Glasgow East, and the SNP could go back up to 7 MPs if they gain Ochill and South Perthshire though Labour’s Gordon Banks is favourite to hold the seat.

The Lib Dems would have 11 seats and the Tories would be stuck on one. Same old, same old.

Sunday, 11 April 2010

Ross County - "You know who we are now"

This isn't a football blog but - Ross County 2 Celtic 0!

My phone went bonkers yesterday afternoon when the result came through. As a footballing bystander who would have thought to tune in to the Scottish Cup semi-final between Celtic and Ross County. A foregone conclusion surely?

That's how you miss sporting history, I suppose. And in sporting terms it is historic.

The SFA tried their utmost to kee Ross County and Inverness Caley out of the Scottish League for many years, citing Highland remoteness, andthe danger of lowering the standard of the game. Ha!

Inverness Caley are now top of Division one and Ross County join them as footballing giant killers.

I love Ross Country goalscorer Martin Scott's response to Robbie Keane, who said before the match that he had no idea who the Dingwall outfit were. "You know who we are now," said Scott.

Now Raith Rovers vs Dundee United today, that is a game I'll watch. Raith Rovers are the Prime Minister's team so it could have political as well as sporting consequences.

Thursday, 8 April 2010

Two wheels -and one pedal -on the Danube

Outskirts of Budapest, darkness falling, just 9km to go, and Crichton loses a pedal.

I nearly forgot that my pal Kevin MacNeil's documentary is on BBC Alba tonight at 9pm. I imagine it will be on i-player too.

Kevin, poet, writer, singer, good guy, decided to cycle 1000km along the banks of the Daunube from Germany to Hungary on a fixed wheel road bike last September.

Don Coutts, who is producing the movie of Kevin's novel "The Stornoway Way",and Jerry Kelly filmed the whole thing and a couple of us were invited along the way.

Work meant that I could only make it for the last few miles - which proved to be eventful enough thanks - and we had a hoot. I haven't seen any preview tapes but Kevin says he's pleased with the result.

Five years ago this month I was cycling my way through Britain, from Lands End to John O'Groats to cover the 2005 general election. The outcome of the election was so predictable that I could afford to take to the road for three weeks.

You couldn't do that with this election but I'd recommend the cycle journey, which I completed, to anyone. By the way, did Kevin tell you he did the whole Danube route on a fixed wheel gear...

Kenny MacAskill waves hello to Cameron

Interesting to see Kenny MacAskill, Scottish Justice Secretary, sending out a wee signal to the Tories when he hit the election trail today.

MacAskill joined forces with the Tories in attacking Labour's proposed proposed 1p NI rise in 2011.

He could have welcomed the 1p rise as a useful bulwark to protecting public services - and protected health and education budgets mean bigger Barnett consequentials for Scotland - but instead chose to give a sign that the SNP is prepared to side with David Cameron in the event of a hung parliament.

MacAskill warned Labour’s plans would cost Scottish police and fire services £10m a year. The 1p rise, one of several Labour measures to aid economic recovery, equated to the wages of 275 police officers or the running costs of the Scotland Office, which he said should be abolished.

To be absolutely fair to MacAskill he cursed both their houses - Labour and Tory.
He said: "The Tories are planning a special cut for Scotland despite being funded by Scottish resources, while Labour are going for a double whammy, hitting Scotland with a £400m real term budget cut and a National Insurance policy which will hit frontline services."

Last week Alex Salmond outlined his shopping list of demands for a hung Westminster parliament. But that was only half the story. The SNP would have to sell their votes to get any concessions and be bound in a budget vote and a confidence motion.

When I asked him directly if SNP votes would be used to prop up a minority Conservative government he dodged the bullet. In other words he has not ruled out making a deal with the Tories in exchange for SNP votes in Westminster.

Reuters marginals poll - Tory swing but not enough

Here's an interesting poll from Reuters in the key marginals that will decide the election.

Top line is that some 38% of voters said they would vote Conservative - up from 37% a fortnight ago. That compares to 41% who said they would vote Labour.

That represents a 5.5% swing to the Conservatives from Labour compared to the last general election in 2005. The Conservatives need a swing of 6.9 percent nationally to gain a majority in the House of Commons.

A 5.5% swing, according to the BBC swingometer, gives the Tories 301 MPs compared to Labour's 263, Lib dems on 59 and others 27.

On a universal swing it would take the Tory advance in Scotland into Ochil and South Perthshire, where Gordon Banks is campaigning like fury, and Stirling where Anne McGuire is the well-kent sitting Labour MP.

Drilling into the voter responses in these marginals is fascinating. The IPSOS Mori poll for Reuters shows that voters rate Labour leader Gordon Brown more highly than Cameron on almost all leadership measures.

However, the poll also shows nearly 60 percent of voters want a leader who represents change. Guess which party has the "time for change" slogan?

It is a dilemma that explains why the country is still on course for a hung parliament in which the Conservatives fall short of an overall majority in the 650-seat Commons.

The leaders' debates - which Cameron should walk - are going to be crucial. Some 46 percent of those polled in marginals say they may change their mind about who to vote for and 60 percent say the debates will be important in helping them decide how to vote. Hold onto your hats.

Wednesday, 7 April 2010

Brown pledges referendum, no not that one

Just back from the Gordon Brown speech at Centrepoint in London - a location that didn't really speak to the subject matter, the renewal of Democracy.

Sound speech though - three pages long , nine commitments, five new announcements. If only all policy speeches were so rich on news and short on rhetoric.

With the backdrop of St Paul's, the river Thames and the Swiss Re building(The Gherkin) behind him Brown declared that he was the man to clean up British politics.

The list of commitments is long but this is the first time Brown has said fixed term parliaments will be in the Labour manifesto.

Labour would also ban MPs working for lobbyists, give constituents the power of recall and make politicians seek permission to take on outside jobs.

In the Commons it's all power to the backbenchers with secret ballots of all MPs to determine select committees and their chairs.

That last one is a wee bit beltway (or district and circle) but there is also a pledge for a free vote in parliament to reduce the voting age to 16.

Not finished yet, also a Democracy Day referendum in Autumn 2011 on a change to the voting system for Westminster and the democratisation of the House of Lords.

Brown gave details on the staged reform of the Lords, with a third of peers being elected over the next three parliaments.

But, of course, what struck me was - referendum in 2011, isn't there one planned for Scotland at the same time?

Last waltz in the Commons

Last Scottish Questions and last Prime Minister's Questions of the parliament coming up in a few minutes. Bumped into a few Scottish MPs milling around in a strangely quiet Commons.

I find the mood amongst Scottish Labour MPs and candidates buoyant but slightly brittle. They're in good heart just now but if there were three days of a bad air war, or bad polling, then I get the feeling that the heads could go down.

Saw some SNP MPs as well, some confident some more fatalistic about their chances but ready to fight all the way.

Off to the chamber then where Jim Murphy will rally his troops, the SNP will shout about Purcell, Cameron will pin National Insurance as a tax on jobs and Brown will say the economy is safe in his hands.

Tuesday, 6 April 2010

Liam Fox takes the High Road to, where are we?

Hello Aberdeen!

Campaign fatigue is already setting in, according to my snouts on the east coast of Scotland.

The following is apocryphal and unverifiable expect that it was all captured on tape for the evening TV news.

Liam Fox, the Conservative Shadow defence minister - who is a Scot - stepped off the Tory campaign bus in Edinburgh today and said how delighted he was to be in - Aberdeen.

On STV news the poor wee soul said: "We're here in Aberdeen South...Edinburgh South even."

This son of East Kilbride (thanks Mark) might have been shamefaced in the capital but what are they going to say about him when he actually gets to Furry Boots City?

Communists: tax the rich - but not too much

Press release of the day comes from the Communist Party of Great Britain who take the populist view that the rich ought to pay for the financial crisis.

Communist Party of Britain general secretary Robert Griffiths says that the public finance deficit could be closed by taxing the wealthiest 10 per cent of the population, who own 44 per cent of all the country's declared personal wealth.

"A 1 per cent Wealth Tax on the super-rich would raise around £39 billion a
year, a speculation tax on the City another £30 billion a year, and a
windfall tax on energy, banking and retail monopoly profits an extra £16
billion," Mr Griffiths declares.

To which we say: The Communist party want to tax the rich for only 1% of their wealth? That seems a trifle generous.

Shouldn't the rich have their property confiscated by the state and turned over to social housing, their furs burned in pyres in the streets and their assets assigned to senior party members?

Mmm,on second thoughts that kind of stance might risk alienating some floating voters - better just stick with the 1% tax.

Marc Livingstone is standing for the Communist Party in Glasgow North West, one of six seats the party is contesting.

Fire up the..oh damn, we've mugged it up

First of the election paraphernalia has arrived - and as you can see it was a bit of rush job.

The Tories very quickly turned a Labour poster - "don't let him take us back to the 1980s" - to their own advantage. But this Tory mug of the poster, with David Cameron as Gene Hunt, came out upside down.

It's like firing up the Quattro, hitting the accelerator and forgetting you left it in reverse gear. Honestly, if they can't print a mug properly...

I can see that mug making it to the Antiques Road show in years to come though.

Four weeks of polls, pundits and tweets to go

Good to get a reality check this morning while doing some Gaelic radio with Coinneach Mor. We were talking politics and my genial host sighed on behalf of his loyal audience and said do we have to go through four more weeks of this.

Of course I countered that this was the most exciting four weeks of politics in Britain in a generation and that it would be over, and the course of the country mapped out for a decade, in the blink of an eye.

But with the helicopters hovering over St James Park and the entire political and media class watching the wall to wall television coverage of the morning's events (when they're not taking part in it) it is easy to forget that for most people this is just another ordinary day.

Actually, it's the first genuinely warm, sunny day on Thames-side this year so that, at least, augers well for those hundreds of candidates and canvassers on the election trail.

The pundits micro-monitoring the election in the press lobby are giving David Cameron the first round of the campaign. He was out of the blocks and talking, all windswept on the South Bank, while Brown was still sorting out the ranks of ministers for his launch in Downing Street.

Sarah Brown - top tweeter

But first out in the tweet wars is Sarah Brown, the Prime Minister's wife. Having built up a following of over 1 million people on twitter (incredible, 1.1 million actually) she's going to put her pulling power to good effect during the campaign. You can follow her on sarahbrown10

I'm on twitter myself, simply as Torcuil, and I'll cross reference by blogs and any breaking news to my, er, 400 odd followers, there during the next four short/long weeks.