Thursday, May 31, 2007

Cribbing is the sincerest form of flattery

Whatever else you say about the Tories, you've got to give them this: they have a redoubtable ability to put a smile on our faces. I'm not thinking now about Cameron announcing he's the heir of Blair, just at the time when most of the nation are counting down the days until the PM finally shuffles off his super-mortal coil. What's amusing me is the Tories' apparent embarrassment about having drawn to their ample bosom two city councillors formerly stranded on the Independent bench.

What with the Witney Wonder himself taking the unusual step of setting foot into Oxford to find out what the two were like, you would have thought that they might have wanted to blow their trumpet. But they're obviously lost for words. And when, finally, something was posted on their website, it somehow didn't feel quite right. It was not only that the Tory party was here revealing that one of the councillors had left the Liberal Democrats because his then-colleagues had judged that he was not up to being on Oxford City Council's Executive Board. It was that all the words seemed somehow familiar -- and, indeed, they are identical to the words of the Oxford Mail originally reporting the defections.

Now, we knew the Conservatives were desperate but this takes it into a different league. What I wonder is whether Giles Sheldrick, the journalist who is been unwittingly writing the Tories' press release, is getting his royalties. Or will he demand that they remove his well-hewn prose from their website? It's hard to imagine that the Mail's Chief Reporter feels flattered by their act of piracy.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

I was robbed

It's rare enough that I write a blog that gains much attention. Then, even when I do, its popularity remains unacknowledged. Through a 'technical hitch', I don't make it to the Golden Dozen on LibDem Voice.

I don't know whether it makes it better or worse that the Dozen was, on this occasion, not compiled by ward colleague. Instead, it was drawn up instead by an Oxford councillor from a completely different ward. I'm not the suspicious type.

Friday, May 18, 2007

Tories in Oxford: remember, you read it here first

So the story of the mass defections from Oxford's Independent Group to the Tories has broken. As attentive readers of this blog could have read about this back at the start of last month, this can hardly count as new news. Except for that fact that the predictions were for at least three Tory councillors -- but they've only mustered two.

Clearly, the silver-tongued smooching of the latest Camerooney failed to persuade those other councillors who were the objects of his attention. Amazingly, those other councillors decided that the idea of moving from a small group to an even smaller one lacked something in the enticement stakes.

It does leave the acrid scent of desperation hanging in the air. It's just a question of who is more desperate: Oxfordshire's Conservatives, who in the Witney Wonder's own backyard can't get anyone with a blue rosette near to winning an election in the county's capital. Or the formerly Independent-minded councillors, counting the days to the next election campaign and deciding that being in any party whatsoever is better than none.

It's a curious political journey for the individuals involved, one of whom has discussed joining at least two other parties before, while the other is a regular attendee at 'Save the NHS' marches. I suppose that will now be out and in will come support for charging for residents parking permits, anti-European rhetoric and backing for the Iraq war. We should wish them luck for their last few months on Oxford City Council.

Monday, May 14, 2007

Civil partnerships: why we are lucky

Have I mentioned I was in Italy a couple of months ago? I might have alluded now and again to the fact that work forced me to visit a country I thoroughly enjoy. There is so much that I relish there – but, recently, there has been one issue that has made me thank the Lord that I am British.

Civil partnerships: the Labour party has a patchy record on such issues, understandably so for an organisation which does not see civil liberties as at its core. But, while they are still reprobates on matters like ID cards, we should at least give credit for the fact that, at last, civil partnerships have been legalised here.

Not so in Italy, where a bill called ‘Dico’ is the patata calda. Remember: many commentators have said that this bill legalising civil partnerships, rather than an American airbase near Verona or the number of troops in Afghanistan, is the real reason why some venerable senators brought down the first Prodi government. The second government has not yet dropped the bill but the pressure is on them. British experience would lead us to expect demonstrations in favour of such a bill – I bumped into one in Rome when I was there – but what we don’t expect are mass demonstrations against such a commonsensical, liberal measure. But that is what exactly happened this weekend, on ‘Family Day’ – not, you understand, a cross-generational celebration of Doris Day, but a mass protest, with an American title, in support of ‘family values’.

The Catholic church stayed away, but then they didn’t need to be there: the Vatican diktat had already gone out that any MP who called themselves a Catholic had to vote against the bill. Silvio Berlusconi, now the leader of the opposition, did turn up. He claimed it was because of a scurrilous cartoon (which goes something like: woman to man ‘oh no, there are going to be so many clerics on the march’, man to woman ‘what, would you prefer to leave them at home with the kids?’). The cartoonist said the Catholic church should give him 200 years plenary indulgence for encouraging Berlusconi to attend. Silvio was joined by a million others.

The intervention of religion so forcefully in public life, the inability to divide the ethical from political: in some ways, it seems, the Italians are more American than their Anglo-Saxon European partners. We can’t be complacent, we shouldn’t be proud – but how I wish my favourite nation would lighten up a little.

Sunday, May 13, 2007

What I miss about not being a councillor

It’s that time of year when, as the cheers subside and the hangover finally relents, hundreds of men and women across the country wake up to realise just what they have let themselves in for over the next four years. If you are a new councillor reading this, you might want to stop. You might prefer to continue to believe the claims you heard that it would not take up much of your time, hold on to the dream that it would take up, oh, only about five, at most ten, hours of your week. It can change the way you live, the way you work. I remember those carefree days when I was a mere ‘Mr’, not ‘Cllr’. And in the hitlist of things I miss from those days I would certainly include:

  • having evenings when you can decide to go to the cinema on a whim
  • not having to read the local newspapers every day (though, of course, our journalists are the most insightful, balanced and entertaining in the world)
  • being able to have dinner before 9:30 each evening
  • being able to write with a sense of irony
  • not being recognised by strangers as you go about your everyday life
The most bizarre occasion when I was recognised was a couple of years back during a summer walk in the Oxfordshire countryside. The two of us turned onto a path to see a woman running towards us, pursued by a herd of cows. ‘The cows are coming’, she not unreasonably noted but added, ‘they’re going to kill us.’ And then, she stopped, the panic subsided for a moment and she asked with curiosity in her voice: ‘are you David Rundle?’. Before I could answer, she noticed the cattle again and said ‘what are we going to do?’ which was patently a rhetorical question as she demonstrated her running-very-fast escape technique. I like to think that she realised from my gait that I was the author of nuanced studies on Renaissance intellectual history, but I suspect it was not my life as an academic that had brought me to her attention. None of us were killed by the marauding bovine menace, by the way.

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

LibDems lack ambition -- shock

I love my party, I really do, but when I see a poll on an esteemed website, to which my ward colleague is a contributor, of such parochial pusillanimity, I weep...

I refer, of course, to the 'favourite federal conference venue' vote. Lugubrious settings from Blackpool to Torquay are in the running - but why should we, a European party, tie ourselves to such tired conventions and convention-centres? Why don't we storm the Parisian barricades, or roam in Rome? If we must avoid air travel, why, Paris is still on the map, or we could amuse ourselves in Bruges (no scent of Thatcher there)...

After all, I thought we were the party that can show them how to party!

Wiping Cameron's smile off his face

So, we’re told the Tories are back on the map. Last Thursday was their good-news day, we hear. Well done to them – but should they really look so smug?

The Conservatives in the past have had this problem: premature concentration. They – and their voters – have focussed too early on areas where they do well, rather than working to spread support efficiently across the constituencies they want to win. Have they learnt to master their unfortunate condition? The evidence from one patch doesn’t bode so well for them.

The Tories in Oxfordshire could celebrate this past weekend because they got a whopping increase in councillors in parts of the county – except, it was concentrated in the seats where they are established kings. In the Vale of White Horse, most of which is in their LibDem-held target seat of Oxford West and Abingdon, they managed, against all expectations, not even to hold their own. They lost out hugely to the LibDems, leaving Abingdon without any Tories at district or parish level.

In other words, in Oxfordshire, the Witney Wonder is winning votes – but not where it matters. They’re piling up their votes in their heartlands, but sliding back elsewhere – and they are still without any councillor whatsoever in the county’s capital.

The strange case of Oxford and the Conservatives is one I’ve mentioned long ago. The rumours persist that at least one City Councillor wants to put a smile on a Tory face. Whether there are enough of is another matter: the Colossus of the County, Kaiser Keith, is too shrewd an operator to accept just one or two city councillors changing allegiance. After all, on his own Council, two may be company, but nothing less than three is a group. And nothing less than four would look respectable if the Tories wanted to claim they were making a real break-through. But finding four humans in Oxford – let alone that sub-species, councillors – who would stand up for Cameron’s right-wing agenda, well, if the ‘new’ Conservatives believe they can do that, frankly, they’re out of their newly-drawn tree.