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Friday, 30 September 2011

Ed Miliband Has Offered An Alternative – But Will Anyone Vote For It?

Miliband's indisputable leftward shift has put Labour at ease with itself but risks making the party less relevant than ever.












Ed Miliband hopes his vision, that he set out at conference, will connect with 'the country's wider shared values'.

Many years ago, I was walking down a street in London with a rising Labour politician. On a lamppost we caught sight of a poster advertising a SWP meeting. "Is there a socialist alternative to Kinnock?" the poster asked. "Yes, there is a socialist alternative," laughed Gordon Brown. "But the problem is that no one will vote for it."

Ed Miliband is certainly no Trotskyist. But his speech to the Labour conference in Liverpool this week is already raising some of the same questions that the old SWP poster did. For Miliband is gambling that there is an alternative to contemporary orthodoxy. He believes that the experience of financial collapse, public spending cuts and recessionary inequalities requires a resetting of the collective moral and economic compass. Crucially, he believes that the electorate can be persuaded to embrace it.

Miliband chose his words very carefully. Terms like socialism and capitalism do not appear in his speech. But they were implicit in it. Read in conjunction with the recent New Statesman article by Miliband's strategist Stewart Wood, this week's speech adds up to an attempt to reclaim social democracy as Labour's core route-finding principle. Cautious it may be – Wood sees Labour's aim as the creation of "a better capitalism", which won't please everyone in the Labour ranks – but the argument is put with clarity. It is indisputably a leftward shift from the New Labour years. It is also what Miliband has always wanted, which helps, sort of.

The large question now is whether Labour will succeed in shifting the national argument so that his version of social democracy stands at the centre of public debate. Miliband's conviction that it can is central to his entire leadership. It was embodied in the many sections of this week's speech that tried to connect Miliband's own vision with the country's wider shared values. If he succeeds in setting an agenda of market, welfare and community reforms that voters really want to and do believe in, then he may indeed reshape British politics. But if he fails, Labour's slide to the political margins will continue.

Less than three days after the speech, most of the reaction to it has already fallen into one of two camps. These strike me as too crude in both cases. On the one side there are those who welcome Miliband's commitment and think he can succeed – this was the general mood at Liverpool. On the other there are those who dismiss what Miliband said and think his approach is doomed to failure – which is what the Conservatives will undoubtedly say next week in Manchester.

In fact, the impact of Miliband's speech could be less straightforward than that. This is not an argument between a wholly laissez-faire approach and a wholly dirigiste one. In reality it is an argument about shifting the balance within a narrower set of priorities than those who insist on talking about the end of neoliberalism ever admit. Even so, this was one of the few party leader's speeches that may be remembered for longer than a week after it was given. Most of its actual phrases may already have gone down our mental chutes into the waters of oblivion. But it is quite likely that a lot of people will remember this as the moment when Miliband turned the party away from the New Labour orthodoxy that compromise with global markets is inevitable.

But there are turns and turns. To take an obvious example, which Miliband will have to address eventually, there is all the difference in the world between maintaining the coalition's tax and spending levels and committing to raise them. There is also a gulf between attacking economic predators and extolling producers, as Miliband did this week, and putting strict regulations in place to deny the former and promote the latter. And there is a massive difference between being a party of free trade, a principal that the left has always managed to embrace, and being a party of protection.

If he is dumb, Miliband may be tempted to do what the Tories would love him to do and promise to clamp down directly, almost certainly ineffectively and in all probability with unintended consequences, on morally indefensible excessive pay and bonuses. If he is smart, he will use the bully pulpit, as he did on Tuesday, at least as much as the tax system to encourage the better capitalism, and the better companies, to which he aspires.

The idea that there might be a workforce representative on remuneration committees caused outrage in the rightwing press this week, but it ought to be just the start, not to an expanded role for the unions, but for well-argued and flexible new models of workplace co-determination of the kind that have done so much for German companies.

The best news for Labour I heard in Liverpool is that Andrew Adonis is planning to focus on new thinking about industrial policy, a subject riddled with old ideas, especially in the unions, but which is crucial to any long-term reimagining of the UK economy. It does not follow that the left's traditional state-centred responses are the new centre ground just because people are outraged by the bankers and by indefensible wealth.

The experience of the last three years suggests public opinion has moved to the view that government deficits are part of the problem, rather than the solution. Thursday's vote in Germany and this week's budget in France were the latest reminders of that. Labour was canny about the economy this week: Ed Balls got the balance right in his speech. But parties of the left are losing ground across the world right now and Labour shouldn't imagine there is a magic moral bullet that will enable it to buck that trend.

Labour's move to the left can be, and has already been, exaggerated – by friend and foe alike. Yet it has been a significant declaration by the party nonetheless. The coalition parties will undoubtedly respond, and not merely with abuse and caricature. Expect surprise moves that try to undermine Labour claims to ethical uniqueness.

Electorally, the danger for Labour is that the party will have convinced itself that it has rediscovered its own sense of ethical virtue without persuading sceptical voters that it can run the economy. The party may be more at ease with itself but less relevant than ever. Miliband may want to see himself as the new Clem Attlee. But his ratings suggest that the voters still see him as the new George Lansbury – an unworldly leader and an electoral failure.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Wrongful Arrest Robbed Me Of Chance To Grieve For 3-Year-Old Son, Says Mum

A grieving mother has told of her agony when she was wrongly arrested on suspicion of murder after her three-year-old son died of a chest infection.
















Alfie died of a chest infection aged three.
















Abby Podmore says she was robbed of the chance to say goodbye.

Abby Podmore described how her ‘horrifying’ ordeal had robbed her of the chance to grieve for Alfie, who passed away in his sleep.

An investigation has now been launched by the Independent Police Complaints Committee.

The 20-year-old dental nurse has also received an apology from the hospital which mistakenly sent Alfie home after failing to spot the serious lung infection that killed him.

Ms Podmore told an inquest: ‘I couldn’t believe what was happening – my son had just died and I was being treated like a criminal. Looking back, I feel like I was robbed of a chance to say goodbye to Alfie.

‘I wanted to be with his body, just wanted to be with him.’

The boy was taken ill at nursery on February 2 and seen at Birmingham Children’s Hospital the following day but was discharged after medics said he was only suffering from a gastric virus.

They prescribed antacid medication rather than antibiotics that might have saved him from an ‘aggressive’ bacterial infection of pneumonia.

Alfie died at home on February 6 despite his mother’s attempts to revive him.

But when an ambulance arrived, it was joined by 15 police officers in two riot vans to detain Ms Podmore and her partner.

At Birmingham coroners’ court, Judge Aidan Cotter condemned police for the way in which they showed ‘no compassion’ and that, in her shoes, he ‘probably would have gone round and thumped a police officer’.

Det Insp Moira Blackburn said police arrested Ms Podmore after a neighbour falsely claimed the mother and her partner had been heard arguing.

Recording a narrative verdict, Mr Cotter said Alfie died as a result of failings by the hospital – and that doctors had made a clinical misjudgment.

Hospital bosses accepted liability and apologised to Ms Podmore, insisting lessons had been learnt.

Friday, 23 September 2011

Planning Reforms: Greg Clark Admits Changes 'Could Have Been Clearer'

Greg Clark has admitted that there are flaws in the Government’s controversial proposals to reform the planning system.












Greg Clark MP, planning minister, signalled there would be changes to the National Planning Policy Framework.

In the first public debate since Prime Minister David Cameron intervened in the row earlier this week, the planning minister said that some of the proposals on brownfield land, housing targets and "sustainable development" could have been clearer.

The comments provide clues to how ministers are likely to amend the controversial National draft Planning Policy Framework, which has attracted fierce criticism from countryside campaigners, after a consultation closes in the middle of next month.

Mr Clark told a seminar at a London law firm organised by the British Property Federation that it was difficult to express the Government's intentions at the same time as reducing bureaucracy.

He said: “When you distil more than 1,000 pages to around 50 ... Inevitably it is the case not every thing is expressed in the clearest way possible but that does not signal malign intent or an intention to subvert the process."

Protesters have accused the Government of trying to rip up the planning system by removing protections for the countryside in favour of development.

Mr Clark strongly denied this suggestion and said that the Government was willing to listen to critics. He said: “This is a genuine consultation. It does not imply any agenda of the Government to change the nature of planning.”

Afterwards, Mr Clark told The Daily Telegraph: “Any consultation wants to make sure that everything are expressed more clearly. My view is that these safeguards are there and are clear to all, but if people think they are not we will respond to them.”

Mr Clark is pushing through plans to replace 1,300 pages of planning regulations in England with just 52 pages in the new NPPF.

The framework writes into the rules a new “presumption in favour of sustainable development”, without defining clearly what it means, leading campaigners to fear that large areas of England will be concreted over.

Mr Clark added: "The intention of the presumption in favour of sustainable development is not to provide a loophole where alien developments will be imposed on the community rather the NPPF wants to replicate the kind of policies a reasonable local authority would put in place."

Campaigners, led by the National Trust, have suggested the Government has tried to change the planning system so that it is biased in favour of promoting growth, rather than the environment.

The Daily Telegraph is also running a campaign called Hands Off Our Land urging the Government to reconsider its plans.

There was a breakthrough this week when Mr Cameron personally assured the Trust in a letter to its director general Dame Fiona Reynolds that the environmental benefits of developments would be assessed before new projects were given permission.

Mr Clark hinted at some of the clarifications that he was planning as part of the Government’s response to the consultation, which ends on Oct 17.

He suggested that a presumption to build on previously developed areas or “brownfield” sites, which is in current rules, would be written back into the guidance.

He said: “It was never my intention, and it certainly was not the Government’s intention, to depart from the obviously desirable situation in which derelict land should be brought back into use. That is always the intention.”

“If not mentioning brownfield at all leads people to conclude there is a different intention, then without pre-empting the consultation, that is something that I am hearing being said.”

Mr Clark also said he had been misunderstood over targets for local authorities to provide 20 per cent more land for building.

He said that this does not necessarily mean that more houses will be built, but simply that more options for development are made available. The intention was “not to have more homes built than the locality needs”, he said.

Mr Clark added: “Not every site that is earmarked for development turns out in practice to be developable. Problems arise. So you always need to have something of a buffer to make sure that the number you plan for is developable.”

He also admitted the “presumption in favour of sustainable development” was open to interpretation and needed further work.

He said: “I think the presumption in favour of sustainable development requires sustainability to be there, to be guaranteed but we will listen (to the consultation).”

Campaigners welcomed the softening in tone in the minister’s comments. Shaun Spiers, chief executive of the Campaign to Protect Rural England, said: “Mr Clark was acknowledging that there are clearly huge parts that can be improved. It helps the tone of the debate and it has good to feel that the minister is listening.”

Dame Fiona Reynolds, director general of the National Trust, told the meeting that she had been "horrified by the draft" because the document focused on promoting the economy over environmental concerns.

She added: "It’s good to hear Greg Clark's confirmation of the goal of balance and his warm words about genuine consultation. I now look forward to seeing amendments to the draft NPPF which deliver balance - this is what's now needed.”

Students End Stage Sit-In Over Fees

A group of students protesting against Scotland's leading arts academy's decision to charge fees of £9,000 to students from England, Wales and Northern Ireland ended their sit-in this afternoon.









A spokeswoman for the group said it was "neither practical nor effective" to stay in the foyer of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland overnight.

Around 30 students started occupying the building at around 11.30 this morning.

They said the protest was part of a rolling programme of "wildcat" occupations over Scottish universities' plans to charge fees to students from the rest of the UK (RUK).

The RCS, which recently changed its name from the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, is to charge students from elsewhere in the UK £36,000 for four-year degree courses and £27,000 for three-year courses from 2012/13.

The Glasgow-based institution has said the charge reflects the exceptionally high cost of programme delivery in conservatoires, which substantially exceeds the £9,000 fee.

The sit-in at the conservatoire ended shortly after 3pm.

A spokeswoman for the protesters said: "By facilitating fee increases for RUK students the RCS is setting a dangerous precedent in Scotland.

"Despite promises from the SNP Government that Scottish students will not pay fees, we believe that the huge disparity in fees between Scottish and RUK students will become intolerable and will inevitably result in fees for all students.

"Whatever tokenistic measures are introduced, a financial market in education will always result in discrimination against those unable to afford fees, whatever the level.

"Education is a right, and must be free, as it was for generations.

"The Conservatoire's Student Union has abandoned its responsibilities by backing the decision by management."

Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Aberdeen and the Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) also made announcements on fees for RUK students today.

RGU adopted a "tiered approach", with three bands of undergraduate fees.

Business, management and social science courses will cost £5,000 a year, fees for art and design, architecture and built environment, computing, engineering, health and science courses will be set at £6,750 a year, while the master of pharmacy course will be the most expensive at £8,500 a year.

The Scottish Agricultural College (SAC) said fees for RUK students would be £27,000 for a four-year degree, with fees set at £6,750 a year.

The announcements came after St Andrews and Edinburgh universities set fees at the maximum level of £9,000 per year for students from the rest of the UK, meaning that a four-year honours degree at the universities will cost £36,000.

Aberdeen and Heriot-Watt universities also announced £9,000 yearly fees, although both have capped the cost of a degree at £27,000.

Glasgow School of Art also capped fees at £27,000 for a four-year course.

Currently, no full-time undergraduates domiciled in Scotland pay tuition fees at Scottish universities.

The conservatoire said the fee its board of governors has agreed is exactly the same as that charged by comparable conservatoires in England which offer four-year undergraduate degree courses in music and three-year undergraduate degree courses in drama and dance.

The conservatoire, whose alumni include James McAvoy, Robert Carlyle, Billy Boyd and Tom Conti, already operates an extensive scholarship programme.

It said that from 2012/13 it will introduce additional scholarships, which will be means-tested, for new undergraduate students from the rest of the UK to partly offset the introduction of increased tuition fees for that group of students.

Scholarships of £3,000 a year will be available for students from a household whose income is less than £25,000 per annum.

The RCS was not immediately available for comment.

What Ed Miliband Should Say At Labour Conference, But Won’t

It is now beyond question that Ed Miliband is moving his party to the left, or redefining the centre ground if you prefer, or drawing a line under the New Labour era. Or whatever.










The latest symbolic move has been to back Palestinian statehood in advance of a vote at the UN. This is a peculiar decision that makes no real sense before knowing what the Palestinians are putting on the table, except to send a strong message to the party faithful that Ed Miliband is shifting policy on the Middle East. This line on Israel/Palestine is one that Tony Blair and Gordon Brown would never have countenanced and that is the whole point.

Ed Miliband is determined to ditch the legacy of the Blair-Brown era (which is odd considering that he is its creature) and I can’t help thinking this is a terrible strategic error.

The opposition is hamstrung by the fact that it still hasn’t found the right language to take on the government. Miliband has squeezed himself into a tiny ideological sliver, where he can’t move any further to the left for fear of inviting ridicule, but can’t entirely embrace the achievements of the Blair-Brown years either.

In welfare to work, education and health, the Cameroons are engaged in implementing the Blairite reform agenda. The logic of Ed Miliband in the new post-New Labour era should make it possible to oppose this from the Left. But there are still too many Blairites around him to quite pull this off. With Liam Byrne in charge of the policy review it will be impossible to dump the New Labour policy agenda in its entirety.

Instead of trying to persuade people that Cameron is a Thatcherite in disguise, Labour should concentrate on questioning the Tories’ competence in government. Ed Miliband’s conference speech should recognise that all the most adventurous ideas of the new government are stolen from New Labour and give them a cautious welcome. He should then say that the job of opposition is to forensically examine the government’s record on delivery and stand back.

He won’t do this, of course, because to embrace the Blairite legacy would mean immediate death within the party.

David Cameron: 'Recovery Out Of Recession Will Be Difficult'

Prime Minister David Cameron has warned that the recovery from the recession will be ''difficult'' as shares continue to fall and investors worry about the global economic outlook.

video

Addressing the Canadian parliament in Ottawa, Mr Cameron said the economy was still suffering from the economic collapse of 2008.

Finance ministers and central bankers from the G20 group of countries have promised a "strong and co-ordinated response" to the problem.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Lid Dem Conference: Portait Of A Party In Denial

Facing disastrous polls, stuck with an unpopular leader and short of star names, the Lib Dems should be panicking at their conference. So why does it feel like a holiday camp?












Nick Clegg on stage at the party conference.

Arriving at the Liberal Democrat conference at Birmingham's ICC on Monday, I'm confronted with a strange, becalmed atmosphere. At first I think everyone present is still in a state of shock, reeling from the double-pronged assault on the senses presented over the weekend by Hugh Grant's appearance and the minister of state for children and families' attempt at standup comedy, but it appears to be something else, a sort of blithe cheeriness.

I've never been to a party conference before and I've come expecting dissent. But apparently I've missed the boat: I should have been at the spring conference in Sheffield, when there were "a lot of angry people inside the conference and out", the latter group including 4,000 people marching in protest at the cuts. Now, the delegates at least are all pacified, convinced that a corner has been turned, that a line has been drawn under the tuition fees debacle, that public anger at the cuts is due to subside. The spirit of the party who in 1981 leapt to their feet, fleetingly convinced by David Steel's line about going home to their constituencies and preparing for government, is very much abroad.

The moment when a lone voice shouts: "Rubbish!" as Danny Alexander suggests Gordon Brown spent too much money turns out to be a dizzying pinnacle of insurrectionary excitement that the conference will never scale again. It's all glossy optimism, and woe betide anyone who attempts to suggest that said glossy optimism might be bordering on the delusional. A man from the BBC quotes a few poll figures at a Guardian Q&A panel, but no one wants to know. Someone bellows: "Did Miliband send you?" A woman seated behind me starts pretending to snore. "You're a miserable sod," snaps Lynne Featherstone, the equalities minister. Everyone cheers. The BBC man leaves.

My own search for dissent is equally fruitless. You would think that somewhere within the ICC lurked hand-wringing angst at the ongoing state of affairs, desperate to unburden itself to a representative of the press, but if it's there, I can't find it. I try Liberal Youth, surely at the sharp end of public displeasure thanks to the the spectre of tuition fees, something they continue to oppose. Nothing but visions of a bright future, in which Britain suddenly wakes up to the brakes put on Tory policy by the presence of the Lib Dems in the coalition and flocks to their bonded side.

So I try the people who look like party traditionalists, who are substantially easier to spot than some reports have suggested. One idea posited in the papers is that the very fabric of the party has changed, that the traditional beards-and-sandals Lib Dems have been displaced by the hard-nosed political operators in Heston Blumenthal specs. If you wanted to prove it, you could certainly get a shot of the delegates that doesn't feature anyone who looks like a Daily Telegraph cartoonist's idea of what a Lib Dems looks like, but you couldn't take it with a wide-angle lens, and you might have to crop it in Photoshop later. They're everywhere, the beards ranging from 50s jazz enthusiast to competitor in The Great Egg Race. Perhaps somewhere behind them lurks the simmering discontent conspicuous by its absence elsewhere. Perhaps not. They clearly like power – "before, you'd debate a policy at conference and think, well, the absolute best that's going to happen is that another party's going to nick that idea," offers one local councillor – and its trappings, or at least some of them. "There are a lot more lobbyists around conference these days," shudders one delegate, principles being something that are noticeably easier to keep when no one's interested in buying them. But for most part, even the lobbyists' baleful presence seems to be cancelled out by the positives, high among which ranks the preponderance of TV cameras and microphones. You can't walk far without overhearing someone expressing astonished delight at being canvassed for their opinions by the media: "I've been waylaid by Anglia TV!" cries one elderly gentleman.

The mood even seems to surprise Nick Clegg. "Heavens! What docility!" he says during a Q&A on Monday afternoon. "It's like a North Korean party conference." One theory is that it's all evidence of the redoubtable Lib Dem character, forged in endless adversity. You hear a lot about the time under Paddy Ashdown when Lib Dems were represented by an asterisk in the opinion polls: after taking into account the 3% margin of error, they were unable to say that the party had any discernible support at all. However bad the polls get, they've seen worse, even when the polls strongly suggest they haven't. Another is that they realise power is a temporary blip in a life of opposition and they're trying their best to relish it, which necessarily involves ignoring what's going to happen in three-and-a-half years' time.

The most prosaic answer is that a lot of delegates seem to view the conference as a kind of holiday. Like holidaymakers who've paid a lot of money to get away from it all – "more than £1,000, less than £2,000", suggests one delegate when I ask him how much it's cost him to be here; "more than a week in the south of France", offers another – they don't really care to be reminded of what's going on back home. "Do I wish that there was more robust debate?" frowns one local councillor. "No. I get enough of that on the doorstep."

And, if you wanted to relax, there are worse places to come than the Lib Dem conference, where it's frequently hard not to be lulled into a torpor by what's going on onstage. Part of the problem is that the Lib Dems are evidently in desperately short supply of stars. On Monday night, Vince Cable is booked to speak at three fringe meetings at exactly the same time. Outside, a jovial Brummie police officer approaches a gaggle of press photographers, apparently baffled at how they prosecute their business: "Have you lot got a Who's Who or something? I haven't got a clue who any of them are." His theory seems to be borne out when you visit the Liberal Image stall, where a Lib Dem hi-visibility jacket – something a cautious man might think twice about wearing in public – will set you back £14.50. There's a selection of badges available featuring the faces of the party's MPs: they seem to be doing a brisk trade in Welsh Lib Dem leader Kirsty Williams – "we've sold about 12" – but you'd defy anyone other than a party wonk to recognise most of the others.

But the real problem is that what stars they have are hopeless at public speaking. It's hard not to feel that party president Tim Farron's rise is predicated on possessing an identifiable personality, something almost everyone else who gets in front of a microphone seems to have been surgically deprived of. You can mock Nick Clegg's closing speech all you like, but it's like Alexander the Great's address at the battle of Issus next to the orations of Chris Huhne, a man who sounds like he's reading out the building's fire regulations even when he's quoting John Donne (he gives a speech quoting John Donne for the specific purpose of proving this). He gets a standing ovation at the end of it, which makes you marvel afresh at the dogged resilience of your average Lib Dem delegate. They're determined to be roused regardless of whether what's on offer is rousing or lethal.

Given the climate, you start to find yourself baffled as to why Sarah Teather's standup routine went down so badly. In fairness, her awful jokes were no more awful than anyone else's, and everybody else's seem to be greeted with widespread hysteria. Vince Cable tells one about bankers having their pants around their ankles, "showing us their assets – if they've got any". A woman two rows in front of me nearly dies laughing. Perhaps what Teather should have done was mention the bankers, which it quickly becomes apparent is the Lib Dem politician's equivalent of Peter Kaye saying "GARLIC BREAD?": no matter how many times you hear it, it always seems to get a round of applause.

The reliable arrival of banker gags aside nothing really seems to be happening. Journalists looking for something to report are reduced to making headlines out of the fact that Huhne is sorry about the effect that his affair had on his wife. But even at a Lib Dem conference where nothing appears to be happening, there's always the Glee Club, the ritual last night of conference knees-up. It's existence is – at last! – a matter of some controversy within the party. There are those who think it's part of a rich, glorious and idiosyncratic tribal tradition. There are those who clearly view its existence with profound embarrassment: "Lembit often MCs," says one local councillor, darkly. To the impartial observer, however, it simply represents an opportunity to have your mind repeatedly blown: if you thought the general air of positivity at the conference was a bit unreal, then the Glee Club is on hand to teach you that "unreal" is very much a relative concept. You don't even have to go to get the effect of being subject to an intense hallucinogenic experience. You just have to pick up the songbook, which is the best £3.50 you could spend at the Lib Dem conference, Liberal Image's enticing selection of badges featuring MPs notwithstanding.

For some reason, I'd expected it to largely consist of 19th-century political songs: The Land, stirring stuff about free trade and Gladstone. They're certainly present, but they're pretty much dealt with by page six. It's what's in the remaining 52 pages that knocks you sideways, not least when you get to the song about the coalition set to the tune of Making Your Mind Up by Bucks Fizz: "You gotta Lib it up and then you gotta Con it down, coz if you believe that our coalition can hit the top you've gotta play around."

By the time I arrive, Lembit Opik is very much in evidence, playing his mouth organ to a less dismayed reaction than you might expect. Some Welsh delegates favour the room with a rendition of Cwn Rhondda: if nothing else, it permanently punctures the myth of Wales as the land of song. Paddy Ashdown does a little standup routine. Tim Farron takes the stage and performs a comical version of That's Not My Name by the Ting Tings: "They call me Shirley, but I'm not a girlie." There has been some discussion at conference about the necessity for the Liberal Democrats to convince the British public that they're different from the other parties. If all else fails, they could always show them this. In the corner, a lobbyist looks on, wearing the kind of frozen, aghast expression that makes me think of the first-night audience at Springtime for Hitler in The Producers.

The next day, at a fringe meeting just before Nick Clegg's speech, the guy from Ipsos Mori lets them have it with both barrels. His Powerpoint presentation opens with a slide reading HOW DEEP IS THE HOLE?, but not all of it is as upbeat as that: if his news was any worse, he'd be wreathed in smoke and glowing green. Fifty-eight per cent of people who voted Liberal Democrat at the last election wouldn't again. A quarter of former supporters have swung to Labour. The Lib Dem voters that are left admire Margaret Thatcher. And, for the benefit of anyone who tends to the view that they've had worse, Nick Clegg is the least popular Lib Dem leader ever, beating a record David Steel has held since 1988 by 4%.

On and on it goes, until you wonder what Clegg can possibly say to lift their spirits – what price a new summer schools initiative and a few swings at Labour against the news that more than half your voters have deserted? – but they go bananas. Afterwards, I see one of the Liberal Youth activists, who's eager to tell me how encouraged he feels. The councillor who had more than enough robust debate on the doorstep is bucked, ready to face as much robust debate as the world can throw at her. Off they go, boundless optimism and Lembit's harmonica ringing in their ears.

Let’s Get A Tighter Grip On Defence Spending

Britain’s performance on defence procurement is poor – it’s time to make those responsible face the consequences.














Equipped to do the job: British armoured forces in action in Afghanistan.

The history of defence procurement is not a happy one. Ensuring that our Armed Forces get the best possible equipment they need, when they need it, is easier said than done. Today, Labour will publish the findings of a comprehensive 10-month study into defence acquisition policy that will inform a wholesale review of party policy launched by Ed Miliband last year. There are few benefits of being in opposition, but being able to take a step back and reflect is one.

Labour can be proud of the fact that we increased the defence budget by 10 per cent in real terms during our years in power. Defence procurement was reformed and equipment, from drones to personal kit, was transformed – so much so that, by 2009, the last chief of the defence staff, Air Chief Marshal Sir Jock Stirrup, remarked that our troops had never been so well equipped. The welfare of our forces, and crucially that of their families, was also improved.

But defence procurement is a complex and challenging activity. The lead times are enormous and technology changes So what is to be done? It is often said that there is a “conspiracy of optimism” in defence procurement. At best, there is a tendency to muddle through in the hope that both the customer and supplier “get there in the end”. At worst, defence procurement has been based on unrealistic assumptions and over-ambitious plans that balloon beyond all recognition, along with the costs. This conspiracy of optimism has to be replaced by a culture of consequences.

This must apply to the defence industry. In the past, the taxpayer has been left carrying the can for some of its lamentable failings, with some suppliers seeing the UK government as little more than a cash cow. Too many times, once a company or consortia has been awarded a contract, the price begins to ramp up.

First, we need firmer and fairer contracts that incentivise good performance, with industry asked to provide higher warranties for performance. There should be far greater penalties for those that fail to deliver on time and on cost, and the MoD should not be afraid of taking companies back to the initial approval stage, or indeed calling time on contracts that are simply not working. Experience should triumph over hope.

Second, in the case of de facto and actual monopoly suppliers to the MoD, there should be what is known as “open book” contracting once a contract is let. This means far greater transparency of costs and profits in a long-term partnering approach. Within such an approach, there should be not just an agreed price but an agreed target level of profit, too. If the MoD’s requirements change due to operational imperatives – where, say, our Armed Forces need something extra on top of the original specifications – industry must not be allowed to cash in and make super-normal profits on the change in price.

And third, we need shorter, less complex projects with streamlined processes and decision-making. In defence procurement, time is money.

But we also need that same culture of consequences inside the MoD. In the commercial world, promotion and bonuses are based on performance. But in the MoD, there is little sense that poorer performing individuals in very senior roles are ever held accountable. The people leading Integrated Project Teams (IPTs), who manage major procurement programmes, should have the authority, accountability and responsibility for project execution. Currently, they are given as little as four or five days’ training and tend to come from either the Civil Service or from the military – this does not always make them best able to manage hugely challenging commercial contracts.

These problems are compounded by the frequent changes in project managers. The norm in the MoD is to move jobs every two years. This leads to constant changes of strategy and emphasis, which are not helpful and avoid the need for managers to live with the consequences of their actions.

This autumn, the Government will publish its White Paper on the defence industry, but all the signs are that it will have little to say except – as is the case with the Bombardier contract for new trains – that we should give up at home and simply “buy off the shelf” from abroad. Today, Labour will present a host of ideas to reform defence procurement. But in beginning to shape policy for the future, all parties need to be honest about the past and learn from their mistakes.

Michael Dugher MP is shadow minister for defence equipment rapidly, as do our requirements, with the enemy having a say in all of this. And despite all the investment and improvements, we made mistakes. The problems of defence procurement have plagued all governments, but the huge delays and massive cost overruns continued on our watch.

That is why Labour in government commissioned the Gray Report in 2009 to identify the serious failures in acquisition. The current Government liked the report so much that it hired the author, Bernard Gray, to head up defence equipment and support at the Ministry of Defence.

The fact is Britain’s record is poor. Over the period for which there is consistent data (2003-2010), major projects costing the taxpayer in excess of £200 million, and those that were planned to take four to five years between “Main Gate” decision and entry into service, exceeded their most likely out-turn estimate of costs by more than 10 per cent on average – with extremes of up to 40 per cent. These programmes also slipped by 40-50 per cent – some by as much as 250 per cent – from their expected schedule.

So what is to be done? It is often said that there is a “conspiracy of optimism” in defence procurement. At best, there is a tendency to muddle through in the hope that both the customer and supplier “get there in the end”. At worst, defence procurement has been based on unrealistic assumptions and over-ambitious plans that balloon beyond all recognition, along with the costs. This conspiracy of optimism has to be replaced by a culture of consequences.

This must apply to the defence industry. In the past, the taxpayer has been left carrying the can for some of its lamentable failings, with some suppliers seeing the UK government as little more than a cash cow. Too many times, once a company or consortia has been awarded a contract, the price begins to ramp up.

First, we need firmer and fairer contracts that incentivise good performance, with industry asked to provide higher warranties for performance. There should be far greater penalties for those that fail to deliver on time and on cost, and the MoD should not be afraid of taking companies back to the initial approval stage, or indeed calling time on contracts that are simply not working. Experience should triumph over hope.

Second, in the case of de facto and actual monopoly suppliers to the MoD, there should be what is known as “open book” contracting once a contract is let. This means far greater transparency of costs and profits in a long-term partnering approach. Within such an approach, there should be not just an agreed price but an agreed target level of profit, too. If the MoD’s requirements change due to operational imperatives – where, say, our Armed Forces need something extra on top of the original specifications – industry must not be allowed to cash in and make super-normal profits on the change in price.

And third, we need shorter, less complex projects with streamlined processes and decision-making. In defence procurement, time is money.

But we also need that same culture of consequences inside the MoD. In the commercial world, promotion and bonuses are based on performance. But in the MoD, there is little sense that poorer performing individuals in very senior roles are ever held accountable. The people leading Integrated Project Teams (IPTs), who manage major procurement programmes, should have the authority, accountability and responsibility for project execution. Currently, they are given as little as four or five days’ training and tend to come from either the Civil Service or from the military – this does not always make them best able to manage hugely challenging commercial contracts.

These problems are compounded by the frequent changes in project managers. The norm in the MoD is to move jobs every two years. This leads to constant changes of strategy and emphasis, which are not helpful and avoid the need for managers to live with the consequences of their actions.

This autumn, the Government will publish its White Paper on the defence industry, but all the signs are that it will have little to say except – as is the case with the Bombardier contract for new trains – that we should give up at home and simply “buy off the shelf” from abroad. Today, Labour will present a host of ideas to reform defence procurement. But in beginning to shape policy for the future, all parties need to be honest about the past and learn from their mistakes.

Michael Dugher MP is shadow minister for defence equipment.

Mass Strike Ballots Will Go Ahead, Say Unions

Unions say they will go ahead with ballots for mass strike action over pensions, after talks with ministers fail to reach a breakthrough.













Several unions are holding votes on a "day of action" on 30 November, in protest at plans to increase pension contributions by public sector workers.

They say changes the are unfair and financially unnecessary.

But ministers insist that pension contributions must be increased to make schemes sustainable.

The meeting, between the TUC-led delegation and Chief Secretary to the Treasury Danny Alexander and Cabinet Office minister Francis Maude, followed months of inconclusive discussions.

'Not appropriate'

TUC general secretary Brendan Barber told the BBC there had been no "dramatic change", with the two sides still "a long way apart", but promised there would be further talks.

He added: "Unions will continue to step up their efforts with the ballots of their members and planning of industrial action.

"But we remain absolutely committed to this process, to try to see if it's possible to reach a negotiated settlement without the need for that industrial action."

Nine unions - including Unison, Unite, the Fire Brigades' Union, Prospect and the GMB - announced at the TUC's annual conference last week that they were preparing to ballot for industrial action or to register "trade disputes" with the government.

Four others who took industrial action in June - the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, the National Union of Teachers, the Public and Commercial Services Union and University and College Union - do not need to hold another ballot if they want to strike.

And the National Union of Head Teachers - which has never organised a strike in its 114-year history - announced on Thursday that it would ballot members, starting on 29 September.

'Constructive proposals'

However, the British Medical Association Council said on Wednesday that it had decided this course was "not appropriate" for its members, but did not rule out "industrial action of some kind in the future".

A Cabinet Office spokesman said: "We are totally committed to genuine engagement with the unions. We have a lot to talk about and there are proposals on the table for discussion."

He added that unions had to make "constructive proposals", saying: "It is extremely disappointing that the TUC is calling on union members to lose a day's pay and go on strike while serious talks are still ongoing."

Asked to condemn the strike plans in an interview with New Statesman magazine, Labour leader Ed Miliband - who was jeered at the TUC conference last week when he declined to back calls for action - said: "I'm not going to get into hypotheticals about strikes that may or may not happen.

"What I'm going to do is say government has a responsibility to properly negotiate and they're not doing it and they've got to do it.

"The unions have to make their own judgement about what they do."

Cameron Demands Stronger UN Action

David Cameron has urged the United Nations to be more ready to take action against oppressive regimes.













In a strong defence of interventionism, the Prime Minister said the Arab Spring uprisings and conflict in Libya demonstrated that the UN needed "a new way of working".

"To fail to act is to fail those who need our help," he told world leaders at the United Nations general assembly in New York.

Mr Cameron said the popular uprisings in north Africa and the Middle East had provided "a massive opportunity to spread peace, prosperity, democracy and vitally security" - but only if nations seized it.

"The UN has to show that we can be not just united in condemnation, but united in action, acting in a way that lives up to the UN's founding principles and meets the needs of the people," he said. "You can sign every human rights declaration in the world, but if you stand by and watch people being slaughtered in their own country, when you could act, then what are those signatures really worth?"

The Prime Minister said the international community needed to use a combination of military action or "hard power" and "soft power" like diplomacy and financial aid. He argued that the people of the Arab world had made clear their aspirations for greater freedom, more accountable governments and an end to corruption.

"As people in North Africa and the Middle East stand up and give voice to their hopes for more open and democratic societies, we have an opportunity - and I would say a responsibility - to help them," he said.

Mr Cameron said: "Here at the UN, we have a responsibility to stand up against regimes that persecute their people."

Asked by Channel 4 News whether he was blocking progress towards a Palestinian state, Mr Cameron said: "I am campaigning for Palestinian statehood. I want to help make it happen."

But he added: "We will only support measures and processes if they actually help to get these talks back on track. I'm a practical person, I don't believe in lofty declarations. I believe in rolling up sleeves to get things done."

Miliband To Face The People

Ed Miliband is to face direct questions from members of the public at Labour's national conference next week as part of his effort to show that the party is listening to ordinary people.












Some 2,000 members of the public, recruited through the local media, have been invited to submit questions on any subject which will be put to the Labour leader without any pre-checking, said party sources.

The question-and-answer session on Wednesday comes as Mr Miliband seeks to change the party's rulebook to allow non-members to take part in the election of future leaders by becoming "registered supporters".

The Labour leader hopes to secure the change at an eve-of-conference meeting of the ruling National Executive Committee on Saturday, when he will also push for the abolition of elections to the shadow cabinet.

In a foreword to the conference agenda, Mr Miliband argues that the party must use next week's gathering - taking place in Liverpool under the slogan Fulfilling the Promise of Britain - to show it has "the confidence to change".

In his keynote speech on Tuesday, he will tell his party that it is time to "rip up the rulebook" in order to challenge an economic and political settlement that has become the consensus over the past decades.

In a video message to supporters, Mr Miliband said there is a "quiet crisis" among the "hard-working people of Britain" over living standards, worries about their children's futures and irresponsibility in society.

He said: "We've got to change those things - we've got to do it by taking on the vested interests that hold our country back, from the banks to the energy companies. We've got to stand up for the grafters, the hard-working majority in Britain."

Writing in the conference magazine, Mr Miliband accused the Conservatives of being "out of touch" with ordinary people and too close to a "powerful and privileged few", of making "reckless choices" on issues such as NHS reform and the cuts programme and having "no vision for a better Britain".

"It is up to Labour to be the voice of those families whose living standards are being squeezed ever tighter, who worry that their children will find it tougher to get on in life and feel angry that irresponsible behaviour is rewarded," wrote Mr Miliband.

EU Fishing Fleet Rules 'Disastrous'

The rules governing the fishing fleet are an "unmitigated disaster", Scotland's Rural Affairs Secretary Richard Lochhead has claimed.











The SNP minister said the European Union's Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has failed to do what it was designed to achieve. Most of the stock is over-fished, valuable species are caught but thrown back into the sea dead and fishing communities are being damaged, he told MSPs.

Mr Lochhead, leading a debate at the Scottish Parliament, said: "I expect and hope that we can all agree that the CFP has been an unmitigated disaster. It has been a horror story since the day it was written. Fish stocks have been slashed, vital jobs have vanished and communities have been cut up.

"The very people who have to cope with its consequences are disenfranchised from the decision-making process. Our fishermen who struggle day in, day out, with the Byzantine regulations will certainly agree with that.

"I and the 27 other ministers - who have to sit in Brussels into the early hours in December attempting to decide the mesh sizes for individual fisheries from the Baltic to the Bay of Biscay - also agree."

The Scottish Government wants a guaranteed seat at the table in European negotiations, instead of representation by UK ministers, but Labour MSP Elaine Murray defended the role of Westminster.

She agreed that the CFP does not work, but added: "If an independent Scotland joined the EU, it would have to adhere to the Common Fisheries Policy. It could of course negotiate for itself as one of a large number of nations - there would be at least 36 by the time an independent Scotland joined."

She said the number of MEPs in Scotland would remain at about six from a pool of more than 700.

"Quite frankly, I and my colleagues on this side of the House fail to understand how this would better protect the interests of the Scottish fleet," she added.

"Surely the best way to protect the Scottish industry is to work to persuade our UK colleagues that the Scottish interest is also the UK interest?"

Labour Pledges Better Defence Deals

Labour has tried to draw a line under its history of disastrous military equipment spending programmes as it presented a report aimed at ensuring overruns never happen again.













Shadow defence minister Michael Dugher outlined the findings of a 10-month review into defence procurement which investigated how to cut delays and budget overspends in future deals.

Mr Dugher admitted that by holding its review Labour was "confronting the past" of contracts signed during its 13 years in power.

He said: "It is inescapable that the problems of defence procurement which plagued all governments continued on our watch. A future Labour government has got to do much better, which was why we wanted this review. We need big changes going forward."

Shadow defence secretary Jim Murphy claimed the 96-page report, which includes 37 recommendations, is "extensive, open and ambitious".

He said: "We have lived for far too long with a conspiracy of optimism. No more can we have a culture of frequently missed deadlines and estimates which are extended to the detriment of a delivery timetable. There must be more openness in the system and more ruthlessness when there are overruns.

"Being prepared to cancel projects when time and budget exceed 20% of their estimate is, therefore, an example of the recommendations to which we will give very serious consideration."

He said equipment was delayed too often because new technology offered improvements while the original order was still being built - delaying getting much-needed equipment to the frontline.

"The search for the exquisite can delay the deployment of the excellent," said Mr Murphy.

Operation Twist Won't Be Enough To Save The World Economy

Twist and shout....loudly, for help. The $400bn action taken last night to by the Federal Reserve to boost the US economy backfired, by alarming the markets it was meant to reassure.

Global shares fell sharply this morning with £56bn wiped off the FTSE 100 index - that's our pension money, by the way.

Taken along with the International Monetary Fund's stark warning of a 300bn euros black hole in the eurozone banking system, due to sovereign debt risks, the Fed's move was interpreted, correctly, as an index of just how bad the situation is out there.


















U.S. Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke hopes that Operation Twist will help boost the U.S. economy.

Operation Twist, as Bernanke's $400bn mission is nicknamed - is so-called either because it has not been attempted for 50 years, when the Chubby Checker song was in the hit parade, or because it is an attempt to twist the 'yield curve' - in simple terms, to bring down long-term interest rates and thereby boost economic growth.

I could explain this in full, but believe me, you wouldn't want me to.

Along with Operation Twist, the Fed issued a gloomy prognosis on the US economy and the risks from the eurozone, echoing the sentiments from the International Monetary Fund that time is running out rapidly to fix the vulnerabilities in the financial system.

The financial crisis that had its genesis in the banking system was always going to spread to sovereign nations.












The financial crisis that had its genesis in the banking system was always going to spread to sovereign nations.

Now we are indeed entering a new and dangerous phase, and the really worrying thing is the utter and abject lack of convincing leadership, the absence of any big world figure with a convincing vision of how to get out of this awful mess, and what the world might look like when we eventually do.

Share markets have been incredibly febrile so the FTSE 100 and other indexes are quite likely to bounce back.

But this is a deep and real crisis.

The eurozone is facing an existential crisis and the US as the world's dominant economy, is staggering under a mountain of debt.

Hang on to your hats.

World Bank Warns Of 'Danger Zone' As Global Stock Markets Are Sent Tumbling

UK shares suffered their biggest fall in nearly three years today amid fears a global recession.

It came amid a warning from the World Bank of a 'danger zone' and last night's backfired attempt by the Fed in the U.S. to prop up confidence.

All leading global stock markets indices plummeted with the FTSE 100 down 4.7 per cent - a colossal slump of 246.80 points to 5,041.61, its biggest points fall since November 2008.

The fresh sell-off was primarily sparked by America's announcement last night of a £250billion rescue operation to prop up its feeble economy.













Taking stock: A Barclays Capital trader holds his head while working on the trading floor at the New York Stock Exchange, which has seen huge amounts wiped off the value of firms.

The Dow Jones slumped on opening and was down 3.4 per cent by the time of the close in Europe. It adds to a fall of 2.5 per cent on Wall Street yesterday. Germany's DAX closed down 5 per cent.

Fresh evidence also emerged overnight of a slowdown in China and a warning from the World Bank further added to the panic in equity markets.

President Robert Zoellick said the world was 'in a danger zone'.

'Europe, Japan, and the United States must act to address their big economic problems before they become bigger problems for the rest of the world,' he said at the annual meeting of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund. 'Not to do so is irresponsible.'

'Some developed country officials sound like their woes are just their business. But my confidence in that belief is being eroded daily by the steady drip of difficult economic news. The world is in a danger zone.'

Banks were among the biggest losers, now the norm in sell-offs, with Lloyds Banking Group shares down more than 10 per cent at 32.51p and Barclays off 9.4 per cent at 138.85p.

Miners also fell victim, due to the expected slump in demand for commodities, with Vedanta Resources shares plunging 13.3 per cent and Antofagasta down 12.7 per cent.

The huge threat facing the British and global financial system was laid bare last night as the U.S. took unprecedented emergency steps to aid the world’s largest economy.

Frightening evidence that the crisis in euroland is spinning out of control also emerged as the International Monetary Fund revealed that a £263billion black hole has opened up in its banks.

The turmoil on both sides of the Atlantic will spark fears that the world is heading for its worst economic crisis since the collapse of Lehman Brothers three years ago.

The Federal Reserve, America’s central bank, launched a £250billion operation to lower borrowing costs for businesses and for consumers in the U.S., selling its shorter-term securities to buy longer-term holdings.

Its move came amid escalating fears over the health of its banking system.

A trio of the country’s biggest banks – Citigroup, Bank of America and Wells Fargo – had their credit ratings downgraded by leading rating agency Moody’s. The UK is in danger of being caught in a vice caused by the problems on both sides of the Atlantic as the eurozone and the U.S. are our biggest trading partners.

The Fed is already engaged in enormous efforts to stimulate U.S. growth and has held short-term interest rates near zero since December 2008.






04.35pm, 22 Sep 2011 FTSE 100 (UKX)
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It is under pressure to revive an economy that has limped along for more than two years since the recession officially ended.

As well as the rescue – the first of its type for 50 years when a much smaller exercise was undertaken – the Fed issued a grave warning about the ‘significant downward pressure on global markets’.


















Fury: People from all over the U.S. have gathered on Wall Street in New York to voice their frustration with the economy and banks.

It said this has been caused by the failure of the euro area politicians to take tough decisions to resolve the turmoil in the single currency area.

The Washington-based IMF echoed the Fed’s swingeing cricitism of Europe’s leaders for failing to rescue their banks and restore stability.

It said that if they do not do so quickly, lending across the region would dry up, accelerating the downward spiral which has brought growth to a shuddering and dangerous halt.

The IMF’s top financial stability official, Jose Vinals, said: ‘Sovereign [debt] risks have spilled over to the region’s banking system.

‘This has put funding strains on many banks in the euro area and has depressed their value.’ Since the euroland crisis flared up in Greece last year an astonishing 40 per cent has been wiped off the market value of Europe’s banks.

Mr Vinals called for an immediate bail-out of the banks across Europe even if this meant nationalising them.













Eurozone: Protesters hurl rocks at police during a violent demonstration against austerity in Greece, a financial crisis which continues to depress markets.

‘The worst thing that you can have are banks that cannot get funding,’ he warned.

Mr Vinals blamed inaction on ‘weak politics’. Failure of leadership on both sides of the Atlantic has led financial markets ‘to question their resolve’.

The IMF estimated the direct exposure of the banks to the struggling PIIGS – Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece and Spain – to be 200billion euros (£175billion). But when the banks’ lending to each other is taken into account the number climbs to 300billion euros (£263billion).

Britain moved to bail out its banks three years ago in the wake of the Lehman collapse when the government took big stakes in Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group and effectively nationalised Bradford & Bingley.

The IMF accused European leaders – German chancellor Angela Merkel and French president Nicholas Sarkozy – of failing to address problems full on.

The euro area needed to act ‘decisively and expeditiously’ to resolve the sovereign risks to the world economy and the spill over to the weak banks.

If there is to be a recovery in Europe then the ailing banks ‘need to have sufficient muscle to support economic recovery through lending’, the IMF said.

A leading IMF official acknowledged that in Britain the Project Merlin agreement between the banks and the Government meant that lending was taking place.

But the official made it clear that the targets need to be revisited on a regular basis and that lending to small and medium sized enterprises needs attention.
RIGHTMINDS

RUTH SUNDERLAND: 'The financial crisis that had its genesis in the banking system was always going to spread to sovereign nations. Now we are indeed entering a new and dangerous phase, and the really worrying thing is the utter and abject lack of convincing leadership, the absence of any big world figure with a convincing vision of how to get out of this awful mess, and what the world might look like when we eventually do. Share markets have been incredibly febrile so the FTSE 100 and other indexes are quite likely to bounce back. But this is a deep and real crisis. The eurozone is facing an existential crisis and the US as the world's dominant economy, is staggering under a mountain of debt.'

Meanwhile, disappointing news about China's economic prospects emerged overnight.

A key survey by HSBC revealed factory output in China fell for a third month running in September, sparking fears of a slowdown in the world's second biggest economy.

Sunday, 18 September 2011

Gay Marriage 'To Be Made Legal In Britain By 2015'

The coalition is to push ahead with plans for gay marriage following the personal intervention of David Cameron.

Liberal Democrat Lynne Featherstone will today unveil plans to legislate to bring in gay marriage before 2015.

The Equalities Minister will also announce that Britain should be a ‘world leader for gay rights’.












For whom the bells toll: David Cameron is backing legislation to legislate gay marriage.

Vowing to be a personal ‘champion for gay rights’, Miss Featherstone will risk controversy by arguing that the Coalition should go even further in future.

At present, gays and lesbians are allowed to enter civil partnerships, which offer most of the legal protections of marriage. But the term ‘marriage’ is not used.

Miss Featherstone will announce that a consultation will begin next March on allowing homosexuals to get married. A change in the law will follow the consultation.

Under the plans, same-sex couples will be able to have full marriages in registry offices, as heterosexual couples can.

But they will still be barred from getting married in churches and other religious buildings – even though some denominations want to offer the services. Coalition sources said ministers are determined to enact the change before the next election.

Downing Street made it clear that the Prime Minister had taken a strong personal interest in the move, and had insisted that progress be speeded up.

Under changes announced earlier this year, churches and other religious buildings will soon be able to host civil partnerships for the first time – although they will not be forced to do so.

The new move will be announced by Miss Featherstone, a divorced mother of two daughters, in a speech to the Lib Dem party conference in Birmingham today.


















Advocate: Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone.

She will say: ‘While on my travels as a champion for women’s rights, I am and will be a champion for gay rights too.

‘Britain must not get complacent. We are a world leader for gay rights, but there is still more that we must do.

‘In March, this Government will begin a formal consultation on how to implement equal civil marriage for same sex couples.

‘And this would allow us to make any legislative changes necessary by the end of this Parliament.

‘Civil partnerships were a welcome first step – but this party rejects prejudice and discrimination in all its forms.

‘And I believe that to deny one group of people the same opportunities offered to another is not only discrimination, but is not fair.’

Polls have shown that two-thirds of the public would support gay marriage.













Gay men could soon be allowed to marry in Britain as of 2015.

But Miss Featherstone’s emphasis on further steps will unsettle some Tories who backed Mr Cameron’s pledge to make the Government the most family-friendly in history.

The Coalition has pledged to consult on gay marriage on at least two occasions, but the lack of progress has forced Mr Cameron to intervene.

A Number 10 source said: ‘He was very keen to press ahead on this. This is something that the Prime Minister has taken a strong personal interest in.’

Last night Ben Summerskill, chief executive of gay rights group Stonewall, said: ‘This change will make a difference to a number of gay people who are concerned at the differing status of civil partnerships and marriage.

‘But it will not apply to churches and it seems unfair as a matter of religious freedom that if some denominations – such as the Quakers – wish to celebrate same-sex marriages, they should be barred from doing so.’

Former Tory Cabinet Minister Lord Tebbit expressed concerns about the Government’s enthusiasm for gay marriage.

He said: ‘I would have thought there were other priorities at a time like this.

There can be no such thing as gay marriage. Marriage is between a man and a woman to the exclusion of all others.’

Liberal Democrat Leaders Say Fair Taxation Is Key To Cutting Deficit

Danny Alexander outlines plans to kickstart economy by ensuring money hoarded by Labour is spent on infrastructure.












Liberal Democrats should fight the next election by aspiring to lift those earning less than £12,500 out of paying income tax, says Danny Alexander.

The Liberal Democrats should fight the next general election by aspiring to lift anyone earning less than £12,500 out of paying income tax, Danny Alexander said.

The chief secretary to the Treasury, a close ally of Nick Clegg, also set out the "next steps in our plan for growth", including a pot of £500m drawn from "unallocated funds" across Whitehall. Later, in an interview with the BBC's Andrew Neil, Alexander said these funds had been taken from savings found across government and did not amount to a stimulus.

Although this money comes from within the "spending plans", he said, the cash will now be disbursed with more urgency to kickstart infrastructure projects currently struggling for credit, with the hope of galvanising private spending.

It is the third indication from the Lib Dems in the past week that they intend to concentrate efforts on accelerating capital projects, which marks a subtle shift in emphasis towards greater public spending, without busting the headline deficit reduction plan.

Clegg made a speech on the subject last week, announcing that Alexander was now in charge of 40 projects across Whitehall, ensuring they are implemented rather than delayed.

They are pressing because they believe that if government funds already allocated can be spent rather than hoarded – which they believe was the case under the last Labour government – modest upfront sums "gear" up to become substantial amounts of fresh capital.

The business secretary, Vince Cable, also evoked the policies of Franklin D Roosevelt in the 1930s when he called for a "New Deal-style stimulus" for capital investment in an interview on Saturday with the Guardian. In his Q&A with Neil on Sunday evening at the party conference, Alexander refused to back Cable's language, but said he preferred to express it as the government "straining every sinew" to get the economy growing more.

As well as further schemes to drive capital investment, and the aspiration of the party going further in its bid to take the low paid out of tax, Alexander also set out measures to increase tax revenues.

He repeated a pledge made in last year's conference speech that there would be a clampdown on tax evasion, with 2,250 HMRC staff working on evasion and avoidance. He said the government was already raising £2bn in this way this year, which he pledged would rise to £7bn annually by the end of the parliament.

In one month's time, an "affluent team" will begin looking at the 350,000 wealthiest taxpayers who each earn more than £2.5m a year, in addition to the 5,000 who are already monitored: "These are the people who pay or should pay the 50p rate of tax," he said in his speech on the first morning of conference.

"My message to the small minority who don't pay what they owe is simple – I agree with the chancellor. We will find you and your money and you will pay your fair share," he said.

He was sanguine about the 50p rate of tax – which Tory colleagues expect will be dismantled if a review winding up in January shows it yields little revenue. Once Alexander had said he believed it was "cloud cuckoo land" the rate would be discarded despite Tory colleagues regarding him to agree he was not ideologically committed to it should it emerge to be unlucrative.

Tories say the debate behind the scenes is turning not on whether the 50p tax rate stays or goes but rather on what amount the replacement levy raises – the sum the previous Labour government intended it to raise when they introduced the tax; or the amount the 50p rate has actually brought in. The question then becomes what tax on the wealthy be brought in its stead.

Alexander said: "Fair taxation of the wealthiest is key to our deficit reduction plan. Of course, if a better way can be found to raise the money from this group, I will be willing to consider it."

Later in his interview with Neil, Alexander talked about ensuring the "tax burden" on the wealthy remained high.

Earlier in the day, Clegg also made it clear the party's negotiations on the 50p rate would not see them martial an ideological commitment to it, but rather they would accept its replacement by some other form of levy on the well-off.

He told the BBC's Andrew Marr programme: "It stays unless we can first make more progress on lowering the tax burden on people on low and middle incomes, and secondly making sure as the chancellor himself has said we can find other ways the wealthiest can pay their fair share."

In Birmingham, Alexander's speech was remarkable for placing an emphasis on how to push ahead with another aspect of the Lib Dem income tax policy, at the other end of the scale.

He told the conference hall: "In the next parliament, I want us to go further; our aspiration should be that someone working full time on the minimum wage should pay no income tax at all. An income tax threshold of £12,500 – think what that would do to work incentives, think what it would mean for basic fairness. Let's put that on the front page of our next manifesto."

The coalition agreement pledges that both parties in government will raise the income tax threshold to £10,000 by the end of the parliament and it is one of the policies the party is proudest of.

The policy has received support on the centre-right of the political spectrum with Tories sympathetic to its aims of cutting tax for the less well paid, but it has been criticised for being poorly targeted; in its original form this was a tax cut enjoyed by all, regardless of income.

The policy also has its Tory critics within the cabinet who fear a policy that removes people from paying tax would sever the relationship between government and the people.

Now the Lib Dems have committed themselves to raising the tax threshold still further, putting on the record an early indication of how they might seek to differentiate themselves from the Conservatives towards the end of the parliament.

Alexander's speech was occasionally heckled by one audience member with a shout of "rubbish" when Alexander criticised the Labour policies of Gordon Brown – a reminder that some delegates in the hall do not agree with the party leadership's decision to back plans to eliminate the structural deficit by the end of the parliament.

The coalition is currently trying hard to devise policies that will stimulate the British economy without busting either of the two targets they hope to hit at the end of the parliament – eliminating the structural deficit by 2014-2015 and bringing down the debt-to-GDP ratio.

While insistent they will not resile from the so-called "plan A" both on and off the record, the new imperative is to find ways of using existing capital spending commitment to encourage the private sector to part with their capital and increase the amount of capital in the economy.

On Friday, the business secretary Vince Cable, published a pamphlet for the CentreForum thinktank in which he suggested that alongside a new round of quantitative easing, he also believed new infrastructure projects were necessary including new roads built as toll roads.

This would have the advantage of encouraging the private sector to embark on a capital investment with a certain revenue stream not coming from the public purse.

Insisting his proposals amounted to a radical Keynesian package – using language and ideology not associated with the Conservative chancellor, George Osborne – Cable said that in the face of a stagnating economy ministers had to "pull all the levers available to government. We are not powerless."

Cable said: "It was four years after the Great Crash that Roosevelt came in and several years before they could do anything. Dams started being built 10 years after the Great Crash. What I have set out is a Keynesian approach to a demand crisis, but operating in a new world in which governments are highly constrained by these very febrile international financial markets. We constantly have to pay attention to them."

Now Alexander will disburse a "Growing Places fund", which he hopes enable the creation of local infrastructure across England.

"£500m to deliver key infrastructure and unlock development and create jobs. Providing a one-off upfront capital investment to kickstart developments that are stalled due to cash flow problems or lack of confidence.

"Putting local areas in the driving seat, enabling local government to invest in the key strategic infrastructure projects that they have identified as priorities and getting people into work."

Alexander said: "As Liberal Democrats, our judgments about what needs to be done should be driven by the liberal economy we want to build – sustainable, balanced, competitive, fair. To get there we must break down the vested interests – the enemies of growth that stand in the way of future prosperity."

"Too many businesses are being held back by congested roads, slow railways, inadequate broadband. Now more than ever, we need to get on with this work."

Hugh Grant: style watch

OK, so Italian politics has its problems, but at least they know how to dress. Hugh Grant, on the other hand, here lends weight to the old style adage that British men can't do casual.

When it comes to rocking a three-piece suit with a pocket square, the Savile Row gent still leads the world, but a certain type of British man still flounders as soon as let off the strictest dress code leash.

The trouble with this outfit is that the messages are mixed: was he trying to look smart but didn't have time to pull himself together and tuck his shirt in, or was he aiming for casual and put a suit jacket on as an afterthought? I suspect he was aiming for the kind of rakish dishevelment that Bill Nighy has made his own. But to pull that off takes effort.

Only the most perfectly fitted jacket looks good rumpled. Lucky for Hugh he's only addressing the Lib Dem conference. He'd never make it at London fashion week.

Top 50 Most Influential Liberal Democrats 2011: The Rise Of The Left

The battle to succeed Clegg and left-wing dissent over the party's role in the Coalition is reflected in this year's list of most influencial Liberal Democrats.












Establishment rebel: Lib Dem president comes in at number three.












Rebellion in the air: for how long will Nick Clegg remain Britain's most powerful Liberal Democrat?












Sticking power: Chris Huhne has been dogged be accusations over his driving - but keeps his top five slot.

If the opinion polls prove accurate - the last three showed the Liberal Democrats on 10% - this might be the last time we can find enough elected Liberal Democrats to form a viable top 50. The stark reality they face, and the internal debate that is now raging, is reflected in the top ten.

There is the whiff of succession planning in the air. The resilience of Chris Huhne is also hanging around – down just one place despite a difficult year in his personal life. Those in, or close, to the Clegg Operation (as Liberal Democrats a little self-consciously call it) remain powerful - his Chief of Staff stays at five. There have been recent changes reflected here, but the conflict between the government and the internal opposition has become much more of an equal one over the year.

As one MP put it, the year has been “about the rise of the left”. Confidence in the party outside Westminster has grown even as polling numbers remained minimal. Liberal Democrats seem to have discovered that even in government the world does not end if you disagree. And this has given rise to a new breed of rebel, personified in Tim Fallon, Lib Dem President and the leading establishment rebel (up 31 places to number three).

The Liberal Democrats have learnt a great deal about coalition politics this year. It is unclear sometimes which are the sanctioned and which the unsanctioned rebellions. If Nick Clegg is eyeing an eventual move to Brussels - to replace Baroness Ashton - then this is informing the positioning that is taking place now.

The experience of government has also lead to a rather different set of discussions this year. There was much more talk about the hidden wiring of the political game. Names like Ben Williams, a fixer from the Whips Office were discussed - and while he did not make the cut, James Gurling, who is modernising the party’s electoral machine, comes in at 46. Also in at 35 comes James McGrory, the leader’s favourite spin doctor. Described by some as a cockney thug he is not your typical Liberal Democrat, but he has also been described as the best press officer in the business. The highest new entry at 26 is also from the inside of the machine: Julian Astle comes in to the Clegg machine and into the heart of government as the newly minted Deputy Head of Number 10 Policy Unit.

The Liberal Democrats who hold Cabinet positions and can therefore, in theory, shape policy have had a mixed record this year. The sharpest debate surrounds Danny Alexander. He survives at number two because of his status as part of the mixed doubles Quad – Cameron and Clegg, Osborne and Alexander. But he has also been described as being dead in the party. Vince Cable, still hugely popular in the party, also slips down a little (three places to seven) and opinion is sharply divided on the extent to which he is a busted flush. Further down the food chain, junior ministers have struggled to make a mark and some have slipped back – for example Michael Moore but others have done obviously better, like Steve Webb, up two as Minister of State for Pensions. It depends on the extent to which they have delivered what is grandly referred as the Liberal Democratic Agenda in Government.

The discussion on Ministers vs the Party is reflected over and over again in this list. Does the party hate Danny Alexander because he is competent? Would they love him if he held the same post – they love to have Cabinet Ministers after all - but was utterly incompetent and ineffective in fulfilling his brief? One gets the impression that many of them would feel better, a little more like themselves, in these circumstances.

In the past when Liberals have formed coalition governments with the Conservatives, the ministers have tended to go native and be absorbed into the Conservative Party. Alexander matters while he holds office. The impression is that when the government ends so does his career in the Liberal Democrats. Any safe Tory seats going?

The big gainers, overall, have been from the left and it is here that the succession planning is really going on. Simon Hughes stays securely at sixth and Evan Harris is up 14 places to ten. Shirley Williams has campaigned across the board but especially on the NHS and is up 13 places to twelve. Brian Paddick pops in on the strength of the nomination to contest for Mayor of London and Caroline Pidgeon, Leader of the Greater London Assembly Liberals, squeaks in at 49 - one of a very few local government people to make it in on to the list. The party in the country, where it has clung on to power at local level, has had a quiet year.

Even though the left has made noise, the Liberal Democrats remain too fond of being in power to walk away from Clegg’s great gamble just yet. But the sound that we can hear this year from Liberal Democratic left, even up to the President of the Party, on the back benches and in the council groups that survive, is the sound of burying weapons for the battle of succession to come. The trouble is at 10% there might not be much left for Tim Fallon or A. N. Other, to inherit from the Cleggster.