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Archive for April, 2010

Six Days To Go …

It is now only six days until the country goes to the polls in what I think is the most interesting and closely fought election since 1974.

With a week to go in pretty much every election since then a clear winner has emerged and election night has simply been a confirmation of what was already known. But this time around the outcome is likely to be unknown until well into the night.

The opinion polls have always had David Cameron’s Conservatives ahead, but not with the type of vote needed to win an overall majority. But Nick Clegg’s strong showing in the first TV debate caused a major change and one of the biggest poll boosts seen in many years. Gordon Brown has largely struggled to persuade the public that this experience makes him a much better bet that his younger opponents and his poll ratings have not grown as he would have hoped.

Last night’s final debate did not change things too much. What surprises me is the widespread perception in the media that Cameron came out ahead. OK, I would expect the Spectator and the Telegraph to say that, but the BBC has come to a similar conclusion.

I saw a man avoiding questions, looking uncomfortable when pressed for policy commitments and looking shifty. Not the type of performance that marks out a potential Prime Minister.

What can the parties do in the closing days of this campaign to persuade the many floating voters that they are worthy of support?

This is now a three party election and that changes things. Our contenders have to take cognisance of this and frame their arguments in terms of the likely electoral arithmetic in the new House of Commons.

David Cameron will continue to press his case for change. He will argue that only strong government can take the actions necessary to reduce the deficit and continue economic growth. His fear must be that he gains the most MPs but cannot form a government due to a Lib – Lab deal.

Gordon Brown will warn the public against putting economic recovery at risk by voting for Tory cuts. He is already making noises about a deal with the Lib Dems, with some form of electoral reform on the table. But he has to ensure that his party maximises both its share of the vote and its representation in the new parliament to strengthen his hand in any discussions.

Clegg is revelling in his unexpected place in the spotlight. His call for fairness and an end to two party politics is appealing to the many voters turned off from politics by the expenses scandal. His newfound support will definitely increase the number of Lib Dem MPs and he will have a crucial role as kingmaker in the event of a hung parliament.

Our first past the post electoral system will ensure that tactical voting becomes important in the many marginal seats that will effectively decide the final result. For many voters the question will not so much be one of who they support but of who they would least like to see form a government.

And that can work in many different, and sometimes unpredictable, ways. It will not be enough to apply a notional swing figure at local level. Expect arguments over wasted votes to continue until the polls close as the parties fight for every seat.

A word on the smaller parties. They will have feared that the televised debates would marginalise their involvement in the campaign, and that has definitely proven to be the case. In Scotland, the SNP failed in a court case to be involved in the final debate and this lack of exposure may well cost them at the polls.

But in a hung parliament the votes of the parties in Scotland, Wales and Ireland will become very important. They will want considerable concessions for their areas in return for support and this will make deals difficult. Could a potential UK government save Scotland or Wales from cuts in return for votes and risk the ire of English voters?

One final point. At one time I feared that there would be a very low turnout in this election given the public’s perceptions of politicians. But I now feel that the debates and the media attention surrounding them will ensure that this doesn’t happen. The 60% of recent elections may well be exceeded this time around.

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This is the most crucial election in many years. There are difficult times ahead for the country whoever wins, but there are differences in approach between the parties and every vote will count.

I’m not going to try to tell anyone how to vote. The information is there – make up your own mind. But I will call on everyone to use their vote. We live in a democracy and no one should take that for granted

Whoever you support, please do make that visit to the polling station next Thursday.

And then sit back and watch the results come in. I may be sad, but I plan to be up most of the night to watch it all unfold!

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There was a lot of discussion prior to the series of three television debates involving the three main party leaders on what impact they would have in this election. And the answer would appear to be that their importance has been greater than anyone predicted.

Nick Clegg and his party have been the clear beneficiaries so far, seeing their opinion poll ratings reaching unexpected highs. David Cameron may well have expected great success, but it hasn’t happened. And Gordon Brown always knew that he wouldn’t come across as well as his challengers, although he hoped that his mastery of details would sustain his support.

But going into tonight’s final debate all was still to play for in an election that could yet produce no clear winner. A hung parliament, some form of deal between two or more parties or even a second election were still possibilities.

Clegg has seen his poll boost fade slightly, so tonight he will have been looking for another good performance to take into the last few days of the campaign. Would he be able to make as much of an impact as he did in the first debate?

Cameron knows his party is ahead, but still not likely to take an overall majority. He too will have been looking to perform well in order to take that final step. But could he persuade the public that he is a potential Prime Minister?

Brown would have planned to turn attention away from his widely publicised remarks about a supporter that definitely damaged his chances. And with the debate focusing on his strongest area, the economy, could he persuade the electorate that he is indeed a man of substance?

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Here’s what happened tonight in Birmingham, live on the BBC.

The opening statements saw David Cameron start with his favourite word: change. Rewarding work, tacking benefit fraud and promoting manufacturing were also mentioned, as was keeping the pound.

Nick Clegg also resorted to his favourite themes: new, fair, innovative and different. Fair tax and economic growth are the goals, and families are most important

Gordon Brown started by acknowledging his recent mistake but majored on his key role in the economic crisis and argued that only he could continue the recovery, while his opponents’ policies risked ruin for Britain.

The first question asked for details on spending cuts. Clegg said that major savings on government projects allied to more tax for the rich are required, as efficiency savings are not enough. Brown wants growth to be funded by tax rises for the rich and spending cuts, but protecting health, education and police from any reductions. He also stressed that immediate cuts would damage recovery. Cameron talked of protecting services but made no real commitments. He would have a public sector pay freeze and add a year on the retirement age, as well as making efficiency savings.

Next was tax. Brown recognised that times were tough. He also reminded the audience that his government had reduced basic rate tax while increasing higher rates and introduced the tax credit system. Cameron talked of government waste and pledged again to reverse Labour’s National Insurance rise. Clegg talked of a fairer tax system, attacking Labour for not doing more over its term of government.

Bonuses for bankers were attacked by all. Cameron wants more banking regulation by the Bank of England and a banking levy. He also wants high street banks to restrict their risk taking. Clegg called for no bonuses to be paid to top bankers at all and stated that loss making banks should give no bonuses to anyone. Brown reminded us of his actions to save the banking system, and also to recoup government money paid to the banks. He wants a global solution to levies.

How would the leaders rebuild Britain’s manufacturing industry? Clegg called for more bank lending, investment for the future and jobs for young people. Brown stressed that investment in new technologies for the future was supported by the government and defended the role of Regional Development Agencies. Cameron called for more apprenticeships, better use of training budgets and low tax for business.

The following questioner asked whether politicians are removed from the concerns of the public, especially on immigration. Brown talked of his links to his local community in his constituency, curbs on immigration in some industries and training for young people to make them more competitive in the job market. Cameron called for curbs on immigration, particularly from new EU countries, claiming that this would make community integration easier. Clegg stated that the immigration system was chaotic and needed to be overhauled, as well as a regional approach to settling immigrants.

Helping families in the housing market was next. Cameron repeated calls for tax cuts and also called for more house building. Clegg wants empty properties reused as family homes. Brown has already cut stamp duty, called for more shared equity schemes and more mortgage lending.

Abuses of the benefits system was next. Clegg talked about incentives for work to remove the benefit trap. Brown talked of compelling the long term unemployed into work or training and the positive benefits of work. Cameron said much of the same.

The final question was on opportunities for children in deprived areas. Brown talked of helping families through nursery education and tax credits, while also recognising that some children need more help in school to achieve their potential. Cameron stressed supporting teachers, increasing discipline in schools and allowing new organisations to run schools. Clegg pledged £2.5b to raise opportunities for the poorest children in order to bridge the gap in achievement with better off children.

In the final statements Cameron stressed family values and saw an optimistic future for the country under his leadership. Clegg called for a better and fairer society that the old parties could not deliver. And Brown emphasised the difference between the parties, especially on tax, and argued that only his experience and stated policies could lead the country to economic prosperity.

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Can any clear conclusions be dawn form this debate?

Nick Clegg performed well again and his appeal to families will have resonated. He overused the word fair, but will have scored on calls for a different type of approach to politics. And he explained his tax policies very clearly, emphasising the benefits for the lower paid. But his explanation of an amnesty for illegal immigrants is unlikely to have down well.

David Cameron evaded several questions and resorted to typical Tory rhetoric: Keep the pound, not the Euro. Reduce welfare benefits. Reduce government. He attacked Labour’s record but was weak on alternatives beyond tackling government inefficiency, and looked very uncomfortable at times. Overall it was not a good performance.

Gordon Brown performed well and showed great command of the economic arguments. He will have enhanced his position as the serious and statesmanlike candidate. Some of Brown’s jabs hit Cameron squarely too. He talked of ideology being put before recovery and of Cameron repeating past Tory mistakes by taking money out of the economy and jeopardising recovery.

All of the leaders were keen to point out policy differences where they could, which will assist some voters to make up their minds. They directly questioned and challenged each other. They disagreed with passion and conviction. This was a real debate rather than a tv spectacle.

The economy is the issue most often cited as the key issue and Gordon Brown made a strong case for the importance of his experience in government. Cameron and Clegg didn’t make the type of impact they would have hoped for on his record.

The next set of opinion polls will be very interesting. Cameron won’t see the increase in support he needs to make an outright victory possible. And the perceived likelihood of a hung parliament will now bring tactical voting very much into play.

This means all parties will now be making a major push to maximise their vote in the time they have remaining. Every seat will count when it finally comes to working out just what the next government will look like.

There is only a week to go until election day. And there are many votes still up for grabs.

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I posted a lovely satirical piece from Newsnight a few days ago. It showed the wonderful Sir Humphrey Appleby giving his views on the Conservative election manifesto.

Well, he has been at it again.

This time the ultimate Whitehall mandarin, played by Henry Goodman, gives us his take on the Liberal Democrat’s manifesto. And once again it is very funny.

There is one more to come, presumably a look at Labour’s commitments. Look out for that soon.

This is a bit of light relief before this evening’s final leaders’ election debate. That one should be very interesting, especially given the publicity that Gordon Brown’s unscripted remarks have had over the last couple of days.

I’ll post a review late tonight.

But for now, enjoy Sir Humphrey!

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Rock’s Best Female Vocalists

I was having a conversation with a friend the other night about women in rock music. We concluded that, despite it being a largely male dominated genre, there have been more than a few great female singers over the years.

But who is the best? Well, that’s a very interesting debate. Here are my views – feel free to comment, disagree or abuse me if I’ve missed out your personal favourite!

Firstly a few ground rules.

I’m not talking about best selling, or prettiest or sexiest here. Although there are obviously some who would make all of these lists. I’m talking about the woman with the best voice, and that of course makes the whole thing entirely subjective.

And I’m talking about rock music. It’s a whole other debate to define exactly what is and isn’t rock, but this is my blog and so I make the rules. That means soul is out, so no Aretha Franklyn, Diana Ross or Gladys Knight. No Madonna either; she’s pop to me. Or Ella Fitzgerald (jazz), Peggy Lee (jazz), Dolly Parton (country), Joni Mitchell (folk) or Edith Piaf. I’ve also had to exclude one of my favourite voices, that of pop singer Karen Carpenter.

So who does make my list, which I’ve narrowed down to a top three?

Just on the outside are some hard rocking woman.

Joan Jett is probably most famous for her cover of the anthemic “I Love Rock n Roll”. But she had great success with The Runaways before going solo and has been an influence on many female singers. Her voice is perfect for rock music and her live performances are always excellent.

Pat Benetar is another great rock voice with a very successful career as a solo artist. Classically trained as a singer at the prestigious Juilliard School, she has a string of hits to her name including “Love Is a Battlefield”, “Hit Me with Your Best Shot” and “We Belong”.

And Patti Smith just misses out too. She is one of the most influential women in American rock, having emerged from the 70s New York punk scene based around CBGBs. Smith is a legendary live performer and is now a member of the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame.

Number 3 on my list is Debbie Harry. Another to emerge through CBGBs, Harry can rightly be called a punk icon. With a string of successes, her band Blondie became one of the most successful chart acts, crossing from punk/ new wave into the mainstream.

Harry’s voice is both distinctive and versatile. She has the power necessary for tracks like “Picture This”, but also a sultry quality that exudes raw sexuality. The early single “(I’m Always Touched by Your) Presence, Dear”, is one of my favourite female vocal performances.

Number 2 for me is Stevie Nicks.

As well as being an integral part of Fleetwood Mac’s most successful period as both singer and songwriter, Nicks is also a highly successful solo artist. Think of songs like “Rhiannon”, “Gold Dust Woman” and “Dreams” or solo successes like “Stop Draggin’ My Heart Around”.

Her stage presence, based on a trademark look of costumes featuring flowing skirts, shawls and platform boots, is considerable. And Nicks might just have the sexiest voice in all of rock music, earthy and smoky with a low pitch. There is a vulnerability in her songs of love and loss, many written of her relationship with Lindsay Buckingham, but there is also resilience and strength in her delivery.

Stevie Nicks continues to excite and thrill in equal measures, and her voice is as strong as ever. Just listen to the live version of “Landslide” above.

My number one has to be Janis Joplin.

No one has ever had a voice as powerful, emotional and downright unique as Janis. She was a pioneer for women in rock music in the sixties and a role model to many. And despite her relatively short career, she leaves a body of work that still sounds fantastic 40 years on.

Joplin’s turbulent life took her from Texas to San Francisco in the flower power era, where she developed her psychedelic visual style and commanding blues based vocals. A stand out at Monterey and Woodstock, her incendiary vocals made her one of the greatest live performers ever.

But her stormy personal life led to heroin use and alcohol addiction. Ironically she spent time in Brazil in early 1970 and got sober for the first time in years, but just months later an accidental overdose ended her life. She died at the tragically early age of 27, and I can’t help but wonder just what she could have produced had she lived longer.

Janis’ amazing vocal performances on tracks like “Take Another Little Piece of My Heart”, “Ball and Chain” and “Summertime” live on, bringing her music to fans not even born when she was making her music.

Janis Joplin is my number one. The greatest of all female rock singers.

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Yes Minister and Yes, Prime Minister are the greatest political satires to grace British television, bar none.

A bold claim, but then I’m sure anyone who has watched the exploits of the hapless Jim Hacker (played by Paul Eddington) and how he is routinely manipulated by the brilliant Sir Humphrey Appleby (Nigel Hawthorne) will agree.

Indeed it has been claimed that it was documentary rather than humour, so accurate was its portrayal of life in Whitehall’s corridors of power.

Someone at the BBC has now had the wonderful idea of asking writer Antony Jay to bring back Sir Humphrey more than 20 years on. The video above is the first of a series of three special election sketches to be shown on Newsnight. 

Unfortunately Hawthorne is no longer with us, so the role is taken on by Henry Goodman. But the satire is a biting as ever.

This one gives a view on the Tory manifesto as Sir Humphrey prepares his advice for an incoming minister, and it is very funny indeed.

Look out for the second in the series on Newsnight this evening

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Marah.

The name comes from the Bible. It refers to undrinkable bitter waters, sweetened by Moses. And this great rock band out of Brooklyn, NY, by way of Conshohocken, PA, has made a living by making something beautiful out of the hard realities of life.

If you know the music of Marah, you are fortunate. If you have experienced one of their legendary live shows you are lucky. And if you are already a hard core fan, then I probably know you!

I first discovered Marah in New York City back in 2001. Someone I know had recommended that I go along, and so I did, knowing nothing of their music. Two hours later I was a fan.

And since then I’ve seen Marah live over 60 times in several different countries. I have every record they ever made plus recordings of more than 100 shows. I’ve shared some amazing road trips across the US with other fans and count band members, past and present, as friends.

Very simply, if you don’t know Marah you are missing out.

The video above was recorded in a place that rock fans will surely know of: the Stone Pony in Asbury Park, New Jersey. And I was in the audience that night. There are three very different songs on here. Check it out!

Marah describers their music as folk/ punk. But the unique fusion of classic rock music with elements of punk, roots and Americana, and even the odd banjo thrown in, really defies categorisation.

They have produced 8 studio albums to date and they are all worth checking out. But it is the band’s energetic and powerful live performances that have thrilled fans worldwide. And these fans include Bruce Springsteen, who has played with them, Nick Hornby and Stephen King, who described Marah as “the American U2.”

The band had had something of a rollercoaster ride over the last 15 years or so. They have come close to making the breakthrough and thought about quitting. The line up has changed so many times that the list of former members is extensive. But through it all they have continued to make great music.

A new album will be released in June and a US tour is already planned to promote it. And a visit to the UK won’t be far behind. Believe me, I will be spreading the word for that one when it is announced.

To close this piece, I give you one more video. This was recorded at King Tut’s in Glasgow two years ago and shows Marah at their rocking best.

Enjoy!

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With less than two weeks until we go to the polls all of the media attention is on messrs Brown, Cameron and Clegg. And the Scottish dimension to this election has largely been ignored.

The SNP is, of course, threatening legal action over its exclusion from the UK debates. There is a case for the decision being correct, as they concentrate on the parties from which the next UK government will be drawn. But SNP fears of being sidelined in the election have certainly proven justified.

So what is happening in Scotland?

This morning on Sky News there was a Scottish debate, but how many people noticed? 10:30am on a Sunday morning is hardly prime time viewing and the audience will not have been great.

SNP leader Alex Salmond, Labour’s Scottish Secretary Jim Murphy, shadow Scottish secretary David Mundell for the Tories and Liberal Democrat Scottish spokesman Alistair Carmichael were the participants.

The debate was perhaps more heated than the UK events have been, as greater time was given to debate, and there was much more audience reaction – they were allowed to clap this time! That gave an immediate feedback on the answers being given.

Questions were asked on subjects including the economy, youth unemployment, fuel tax and civil liberties. But frankly, little was said that would be new to informed voters.

This was a four party debate, not three, and so the dynamic could have been very different. And with both a Government minister and the Scottish First Minister on the panel, tensions between the representatives of the two governments were obviously high. But as Salmond and Murphy clearly outperformed the other two participants, this became a very polarised debate.

Salmond concentrated on the case for Scotland, blaming “London parties” for all of the nation’s ills and insisting that an independent country could have coped with the recession. Murphy on the other hand was keen to portray the election as a clear choice between Brown and Cameron.

Was there a clear winner? I scored it as a draw between Murphy and Cameron, with Mundell and Carmichael a long way behind.

Jim Murphy came across very strongly in a polished performance. He managed to put forward positive policies while also turning fire on Salmond, scoring a direct hit when discussing the national minimum wage. While Labour was introducing a reform that helped millions, he said, Salmond did not vote in an all night debate. Murphy taunted him : “Alex, you slept for Scotland!” and received the biggest audience response of the day.

Alex Salmond meanwhile, handled the debate in a typically combative manner. He is a strong personality and stated his case well, but his attempts at humour often slide into smugness. His key message, the need for Scottish independence, is something that you either support or don’t, and he won’t have won too many converts today. But his call for Scottish champions will have impacted well on his party’s support and he scored several hits on Labour’s record as a government.

David Mundell for the Tories demonstrated his party’s irrelevance to Scottish politics. He repeated Cameron’s calls for change but without any great conviction. His lacklustre performance will have done little to enhance their chances on building on the single seat that they currently hold.

The same can be said of Alistair Carmichael. He appeared unwilling to engage in the more confrontational moments and came across as weak. Even on civil liberties, traditionally a strong area for the Lib Dems, he failed to score points. Again, his party will have gained little from the debate. Clearly he is no Nick Clegg.

But are there key seats in Scotland that we should be watching out for?

The Electoral Reform Society, which supports a PR system, has claimed that 35 of Scotland’s 59 MPs have already “won”. These are seats such as Labour’s strongholds in Glasgow and the West, where the majorities are so large that no one expects a challenge.

But there are contests that could result in gains and losses for the four main parties.

Salmond has set the SNP a target of increasing its numbers from 7 to 20, which appears overoptimistic. They will be looking to take Ochil, Dundee West and Kilmarnock & Loudoun from Labour, but will surely lose Glasgow East, which they won at a by-election.

The Lib Dems will challenge Labour in Edinburgh South and Aberdeen South, and possibly Edinburgh North, but with the Clegg opinion poll boost largely absent they won’t make too many gains.

The Tories are defending one seat, and will be looking for more. They are challenging Labour in Dumfries and Galloway and will also target Edinburgh South. They will also be looking to overturn a slim SNP majority in Perthshire North and would love to take Renfrewshire East from Jim Murphy, but this seems unlikely. The Cameron factor doesn’t seem to be anywhere near as strong in Scotland, and it would seem that disappointment awaits the Tories north of the border.

Labour will be concentrating on defending its current seats. They will win back Glasgow East and would hope to take Dundee East from the SNP. Dunfermline West is also a realistic target with boundary changes making it almost a safe seat. And the one Tory seat is a possible gain, but a large swing would be required.

The general election will not be won or lost in Scotland, that much is clear. But there are possible outcomes that could lead to interesting scenarios.

If David Cameron does somehow manage to win a majority we would return to the Thatcher scenario: a UK government with no support in Scotland. And you can be sure that Alex Salmond would soon use that to advance his case for independence.

And the likely outcome of a hung parliament would leave the SNP, along with its allies in Wales, with a block of votes that they would try to use to gain concessions. But who would they make a deal with?

So there is a distinct Scottish dimension to this election, even if only in the marginal seats. And when the dust settles Scots MPs could be among those at the centre of attention in the new House of Commons, whatever that may look like.

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