27 January 2008

Curious timing

There has been much in the media lately of private schools being forced to justify their charitable status to the Charities Commission which has been gleefully implementing the new Charities Act 2005 - or as some of us would have it - doing the government's dirty work.

Quite why it is thought to be a good idea to make it more expensive to send children to private schools - and therefore out of the reach of more people - escapes me, rather in the same way as it escapes the Charities Commission that saving the public purse the cost of educating a significant number of children and improving the economy by providing thousands of well educated young people is actually a public good.

It is no co-incidence that my alma mater, the Dragon School, is in the Observer today which reports that it is giving lessons in generosity in a bid to be more charitiable in the eyes of the Charities Commission.

However, I wonder if it is more of a co-incidence that my other mater, Eton College, has been in the public eye following the broadcast of only the third ever documentary in its history filmed with its co-operation. A Boy Called Alex was shown last week on Channel 4 launching the new series of Cutting Edge (the documentary filmed at Eton about 15 years ago, when I was there, was also under the auspicies of Cutting Edge) and it traced the story of the remarkable Alex Stobbs pursuing his goal of conducting Bach's Magnificat whilst battling cystic fibrosis.

The film showed Eton at its very best. Not only is Alex a music scholar on a full fees bursary but the school was providing him with every possible assistance so that he could continue to attend whilst being treated for his debilitating condition. The film showed hardly anyone from Eton other than head of music, Ralph Allwood (a dedicated teacher if there ever was one) and Alex's nurse and a few interviews with Alex's contemporaries who were performing. As a result, it portrayed a school comprised exclusively of motivated and talented students. Hmmmm.

But as much as the film boosted Eton and showed what it is doing for a musical prodigy, it also raised awareness of cystic fibrosis. So, I wonder what parents of cystic fibrosis sufferers now think of Eton and whether they would want to strip it of its charitable status - especially that famous one, Gordon Brown?

22 January 2008

Ken on Dispatches

The Dispatches programme last night on Channel Four was a rare example of the media giving serious attention to the office of London mayor. For most Londoners, if you do not read the Evening Standard, you would not hear anything about what goes on in City Hall. Although I was delighted to watch Ken take a pasting. I thought that Martin Bright dwelt too heavily on trivia and conjecture and thereby diluted all his decent points.

Amongst the trivia, the "revelations" about Ken's drinking and the news that out of tens of millions, the LDA has made a few grants to companies that have soon after failed. On the latter, it would be extrordinary if any public body making grants to businesses did not have the occasional failure - thriving businesses with strong cash flows rarely apply for grants. If Bright had evidence of corruption or negligent procedures, he should have put this on TV, but his hackneyed tactic of turning up at abandoned offices was not worthy of the complex issues being discussed. As to the drinking, I couldn't give a monkeys.

The issue of Ken's foreign policy is more of an issue. Whether London has its own missions in foreign cities is neither here nor there if they actually provide some benefit to London and its economy. However, it would have been more interesting to know what is the cost benefit analysis of a London "embassy" in Beijing or Mumbai - rather than a sneering commentary.

The programme dwelt heavily on Ken's relations with Venuzuela. The deal can be summed up simply as it is a bad deal for the poor of Venuzuela and that it would no way cover the costs of the half price travel for 250,000 people as Ken claimed it would.

However, the fact that the Mayor of London is able to conduct his own foreign policy independent of the UK government is frankly absurd. Whose fault is that? Surely those who framed the legislation have got this to answer for and is an obvious area for reform by the next Conservative government.

The allegations around spending public money to discredit Trevor Phillips and to pay for people working on Ken's re-election campaign were the most significant and direct allegations of corruption.

But where was the material about Lee Jasper (as revealed by the Evening Standard) or Ken's approach to local democracy when he extended the Congestion Zone into west London? Or why he thought it a good idea to put bendy buses on London's streets or why traffic has apparently been deliberately fouled up by badly phased lights and pedestrianisation schemes, such as around Trafalgar Square? Why was there no investigation or explanation of the cost of Ken to the London tax payer and where was the analysis of the delays caused to the Tube modernisation from the battles he had with Brown over PPP?

Still, for all its faults, if the Dispatches programme encourages more people to back Boris, it is not a bad thing.

20 January 2008

Me and John McCain

Nearly eight years ago, I had some spare time between finishing law school in June 2000 and starting my training contract in March 2001. So I headed out to the US and found a nice little House of Representatives race in western Massachusetts where the Republicans, in the form of Pete Abair, were making a concerted effort to win back the only district in Massachusetts which was even vaguely winnable, but which had been Democrat since Bill Clinton entered the White House.

The highlight of the campaign was a visit by John McCain. I wrote it up at time in an email I sent home to a long mailing list (this was before I discovered the joys of blogging). Since Mac is now back, I thought this was a good time to reprint the extract from my email, with a few snaps I took on the day, so here it is:

"From the time he touched down in his jet, to the time he took off again, he was on our turf for no more than 2 hours, yet still his visit has been the major event of the campaign. For the programme to be a real success we were relying on the weather, since the first event was a welcome rally at the airport, complete with the West Springfield high school band in attendance. In fairness, whilst as a Brit, I would never think the weather in October reliable enough for an open air event, it has been pretty good - Don's [the campaign manager] jeep still hasn't got it's cover on (although the snow today may change that). However, the day McCain came the temperature dropped 10 degrees and the heavens opened - raining particularly hard during his speech. I nearly missed his airport speech, as one of the less helpful volunteers had left all the refreshments for the event back in the campaign office, and I was sent off with Matt - one of the more helpful volunteers (volunteer is not quite the right word for Matt, as he is actually getting credit points towards his college degree for working on the campaign - if I could have done that in Bristol, I might have got a first!), to fetch it all. Heading back towards the airport, Matt said "there he is" pointing towards the small jet flying across the road.

We had spent the previous evening painting signs for everyone to wave on his arrival. I had seen campaign workers distribute such signs when I was down in Philadelphia for the National Convention back in August, indeed I had even waved a sign saying "Welcome Dick Cheney" (usually a strange sign to wave but appropriate enough at a Dick Cheney welcome rally). With this expertise alone I was made head sign honcho, and merrily got a whole group of people painting "Welcome Senator McCain" and "We love McCain" etc with several different colours of emulsion paint. The "McCain Abair 200?" sign was supposed to suggest that Pete will be his running mate for President some time in the next decade, but no one else really got it. I seem to have been put in charge of all graphics - which is very funny, since I can't draw for toffee - although I am with the right party, since I can do an elephant from behind - the elephant being the symbol of the Republican Party. I have been producing flyers,
I made the 'This Bear is for Abair' sandwich board [above], and the office volunteer wall chart. However, I am most proud of the fact that my flyers for the McCain event were adapted and turned into adverts in the local press - so my artwork has now been published! In the end, with all the rain, nobody really waved a sign, as they were too busy holding umbrellas.

McCain made light of the rain, referring to "this balmy Arizona day" (he is Senator for Arizona). Later
he joked that in Arizona they have so little rain that the trees chase the dogs. We then put him on a bus with the press, which we called "The Straight Talk Shuttle" in deference to his "Straight Talk Express" campaign earlier in the year. The press were on top form asking him such tough questions as "Senator, do you think there needs to be more civility in politics?" (he does) and "Senator, certainly the country's thoughts and prayers were with you through your cancer surgery this summer, what is the prognosis?" (excellent).

With our police escort, no less, we got to our destination probably at the same speed (there is not a lot of traffic that can be held up in Holyoke, MA), as we would have done anyway, but it gave the proceedings a touch of glamour. The main event was being held in a converted warehouse, and cunningly renamed, "The Wherehouse?" (reminds me of the joke about the dyslexic pimp, who bought one). The first problem was that we had set aside a room for the big sponsors who had contributed $500 or more, where they were going to have their photos taken with McCain. However, this was not being properly policed and every Tom, Dick or Harry was wandering in. Then the press wanted to come in. I was pretty sure they weren't allowed in, but was not confident enough to chuck them out. Finally Don turned up and told everyone in a loud voice what the situation was, and I had great pleasure in helping him to evict the interlopers. Luckily, despite not paying $500 I was allowed to have my photo with McCain - sharing my moment with Matt. Apparently, it is the done thing to send the photos off to the office of the famous guy in the photo, where he will then sign it and return it to you. I am thinking I should sign the photo myself and send it to McCain, as a memento of his visit.
[I still have this somewhere, but sadly not scanned]

Upstairs for the main event, and more speeches. It was all going so well, the tree/dog joke, and some other choice lines until McCain, trying to refer to Pete, called him 'Brian', corrected himself, and said 'I mean Jay' and proceeded to call Pete 'Jay' until enough people in the crowd called out 'Pete'. He recovered pretty well, when a minute later he referred to entering his 'declining years' and then added, 'as I just demonstrated'. Then when Pete took the microphone again, McCain came up behind him, and said, 'You can call me Frank'. Still, Pete took it all well, so when Matt and I were idly drafting his thank you letter to contributors, Pete accepted Matt's suggestion to style himself Pete 'Jay' Abair at the bottom of the letter.

On the way back to the airport in the bus, there weren't so many press, so I saw my opportunity to speak to the Senator. I had already met him briefly in the Wherehouse? where I had tried to explain that I would have tried to get on his campaign if he had won the primaries - he had looked slightly baffled. This time I had a better cover. A few days ea
rlier, whilst reading the Spectator magazine over the Internet (for those who are not familiar, despite its name, it is a political weekly, not another type of magazine you'd expect to find on the net under that name, although I am sure they get plenty of hits due to mistaken identity), I was frustrated to see that the cartoons were a bit too small to read some of the text. So I sent an email to the online editor. As I was writing, I had the idea to suggest I wrote an article on politics and the internet, or on the US political campaign. Much to my surprise, the editor, Toby Young, wrote straight back, saying yes, but how about an article on US politics and the Internet? So I replied, yes - when do you want this article and by when? Again, I got a reply within the hour - 1000 words by Monday, if you can. So my assignment became a pretext for speaking to McCain. By a stroke of luck, his primary campaign stands out as the best ever use of the Internet by a politician or political campaign, so my pretext was further enhanced. Most of what he told me was already in articles had previously read, but it was nice to hear it from the horse's mouth, so to speak.

McCain is a living legend in the US. The story of his 5 years as a Vietnam prisoner of war leaves in no doubt his status as a true hero. The Vietnamese offered him early release, since as he was the son of the US General in command of the Pacific region (although not directly in charge of the war), it would have broken the morale of the other captives. When McCain refused, he was tortured more. He said the beatings weren't so bad, because after a while he would just pass out. I hate it when people are described as heroes, when all they are doing is taking the only route to survival - they deserve praise indeed, but McCain had a way out, and for good reason didn't take it. After returning, he went into politics. As a politician he has led the crusade to clean up US politics, in particular the pork barrel system, whereby in return for supporting a piece of legislation, the Congressman or Senator inserts an 'earmark' or rider into the bill, spending, X million dollars on some project in the home state.

This is the concept of 'bringing home the bacon', and some of it is worthy, and many legislators boast about how much they have brought home to their state or district. However, much of it is promoted by lobbyists hired by the Congressman's constituents, at great expense, and often lots of money somehow makes its way from the lobbyist to the politician. The other corrupt part of the system is the 'soft money'. Individual campaigns, such as this one I am working on, cannot accept donations from companies or from individuals in amounts exceeding $1000. However, the National Parties can take unlimited amounts of 'soft money' from corporations and spend it on behalf of campaign. Also companies (or unions or anyone else) can set up Political Action Committees or PACs as they are known, which can give up to $5000 to a campaign. Because of this, and the astronomical cost of campaigning, the Republicans are totally dependent on money, for example, from the drug companies, whereas the Democrats get millions from trial lawyers. The drug companies want to keep their products less regulated, but the trial lawyers want more regulation, giving them more opportunity to sue, you guessed it, the drug companies. About the only workers with any rights are union workers, because the only people to give money in return for workers rights, are the unions.

McCain was never the favoured candidate of the Republican Party because he was standing up against this system, and in the end, it was the sheer weight of Bush's warchest - raised as per above - which sank him. Personally, the whole thing has come as a shock to me, although if I have explained it properly, you will understand the system better than the average American - or dare I say, American journalist. I am just pleased to find myself on the 'right' side of this argument.

McCain's visit raised some valuable dollars - not anywhere near the $50,000 we wanted, but more importantly it raised the profile of the campaign ten fold. We were on the evening news (if you pause at the right spot, you can just see me in the background) and on the front of all the papers. We have used footage from the event as the basis of our Campaign commercial - which I have tried to put on the Internet ..."

If this post gets any traffic, I might be tempted to post more of my juvenile correspondence home. If you would like to read more, let me know in the comments.

14 January 2008

Party funding - does it matter that much?

Ever since Lord Nolan reported on standards in public life as cover for Labour's plans to introduce "transparency" in party funding (before it blew up in their face so spectactularly), I have been suspicious of attempts to limit the ability of individuals to donate to political parties. It is unfair, for example, that a busy person who chooses to donate more than £5000 must appear on a public register, but a person with a lot of free time can work unpaid for a political party and it is lauded as a healthy part of the process. In the US, it is treated as a question of freedom of expression that political donations can be made - albeit with certain limits imposed on donations to individual candidates.

As usual, I digress.

In amongst the funding scandal have been regular discussions of whether or not political parties should be funded by the state - here, for example. Given that both Labour and the Tories could probably get by on £20m per year and presumably the Libdems on a lot less, the amounts in question are a drop in the ocean, even when compared to the running costs of Parliament let alone overall government spending which runs at about £1bn per day.

Clearly, if there were to be state funding, the key issue would be as to how the money is handed out - and the advantage of incumbency would be completely unfair and open to abuse. Surely a perfectly fair route would be to combine donation limits with tax relief and/or match funding.

To be clear, I do not think donations should be limited, but sometimes when the writing is on the wall it is better to go for the least bad solution.

13 January 2008

One rule for them...

Speaking as someone working in a sector regulated by the various bits of draconian anti-money laundering regulation, I have no sympathy for politicians such as Peter Hain who have so flagrantly managed to breach the funding rules and then try to explain it away as "administrative error".

At least one solicitor has been sent to prison for failing to abide by the money laundering rules when the judge agreed that he was completely unaware that there was any criminality involved or that he had profited by more than his usual fee of £399 for doing the work he was asked to do by a acquaintance - details here. On the appeal against the sentence of 15 months (reduced to 6 months) the judge also noted that the solicitor, Mr Griffiths "had lost his practice as a result of the conviction and the impact on his health and personal life had been ‘dramatic’". However, he agreed with the first instance judge that ‘society demands a high degree of professionalism from solicitors’, and predicted that Mr Griffiths will ‘rightly’ be struck off the roll.

Compare this to the standard demanded of our politicians.

06 January 2008

Offset your infidelity

My friend Tom over at the Wobbling World blog (the link to which in my blogroll, I have just repaired) has recently highlighted an amusing little site - Cheat Neutral. This site allows anyone who is considering adding to the general misery of the world by cheating on their partner, to offset their cheating by making a donation to keep a faithful partnership together.

The site is a joke, obviously, but makes the serious point that carbon offsetting is also a joke. Although I am no expert in this area, it did strike me sometime ago, that if a person is concerned about the size of his carbon footprint, then the sensible thing would be to try to reduce that footprint before spending money on schemes which purport to reduce carbon dioxide on the other side of the planet.