I'm about to catch a plane from JFK, arriving at Heathrow tomorrow morning at some unearthly hour. Blogging should resume from Ceredigion at the weekend.
Tim Collins, the Tory's education spokesman, got his knickers in a twist on Tuesday morning on the Today programme. Why, he was asked, did the Tories bang on about immigration and not about education?
Ah, he retorted, it's all a plot by the left-leaning BBC. He was always more than happy to talk about education - it was those slimy pinkos at Broadcasting House that were preventing him.
Two points here. Firstly, it is highly ill-advised of any mainstream politician to blame the media for their own failure to get points across. It was a bad idea when Neil Kinnock did it in 1992. It is a bad idea for the Tories to do it now. It pleases the faithful (see Laban Tall for more details), but it does little to enthuse anyone else. Politicians are much derided by the general population, and for the Tories (remember, the most successful democratic party in history) to seek to portray themselves as the Westminster equivalent of victims of playground bullies makes them look, quite frankly, slightly ridiculous.
Secondly, Collins is being at best disingenuous in accusing the BBC of stifling the Tory message. For his point to hold water, one would expect the Tory-supporting papers to be going on constantly about Conservative education plans, and hardly at all about immigration. Or has the BBC infiltrated the Daily Mail and the Telegraph, who have similarly failed to give Tory school policy the prominence with which Collins seems to think his party has been trying to imbue it?
Before anyone shouts foul, all this is not to say that media bias is not an important topic (there are plenty on the right and the left who spend a lot of time proving their points). But it is a foolish politician from any one of the big parties who claims that his failures are not his own but those of someone else whom, on the whole, the public is much more willing to trust.
Via Shot by Both Sides, I see that the Labour party is considering giving victims greater say in criminal trials by having lawyers in court to represent their views. The Labour party website has, as yet, nothing to say on the issue.
This, of course, sounds like lovely stuff. Who doesn't think that victims should be treated better? But behind it lurks a more serious potential erosion of the nature of the criminal justice system.
Any trial must be between the accused and the state. It is not between the accused and the victim. If the victim is to have some sort of say in the punishment meted out, this changes the balance considerably. If a mugger attacks someone who is good at making tearful pleas in court, are they to be punished more severely than if they attack someone who believes that life must go on and that a stiff upper lip is the best policy? Or if someone attempts to murder someone who believes in turning the other cheek, are they to get off more lightly than if they attempt to murder an adherent of hanging and flogging?
Bringing the victim directly into the court proceedings in this way risks encouraging the creeping sentimentalisation of public life.
By all means treat victims well, by all means treat criminals harshly. But trials must remain dispassionate arenas for justice, not emotions.
How long can the great English tradition of St George's Day survive? I fear that its demise will be sooner rather than later.
I have written before that the insistence on ignoring its national day is one of the many things that defines the English nation for me, and makes it different, unique and special.
It's so sad then that, on this 23 April, there is more and more pressure to homogenise it into the same kind of drinking and flag-waving that happens all over the world and the absence of which has, until now, distinguished the English from other nations.
May your St George's Day pass uneventfully. And long may this uneventfulness continue.
Yesterday, a junior Labour minister stated council tax would be scrapped as it was too 'regressive', before being slapped down in no uncertain terms by party bosses. I doubt a cabinet seat is being kept warm for her..
But all three main parties have got into various bother over this least loved of taxes. I'll take them one by one:
Labour's position is that council tax stays as it is, with a revaluation taking place in England, until a report on its future is published later in the year on which the government will act. Quite frankly, this is a weaselly position. To say that they would do 'something' on council tax once a report is published is vague and cowardly for a government that has been in office for eight years. They could easily have arranged for this report to be ready in time for the election.
What they might end up doing could turn out to be an improvement, but arranging things so that the options cannot be discussed as the country goes to the polls is truly craven politics.
The Conservatives want to postpone indefinitely the revaluation of properties in England. Is there any non-opportunistic defence of this idea? Revaluations must take place - we cannot be still working on 1991 values in 2060. We have already waited the best part of 15 years. The longer it takes, the more difficult it gets, as the further values will have moved from 1991. So best get it over with now.
For the Tories to postpone the revaluation is crude populism that does nothing to solve the underlying issues. They are looking for short-term advantage now, knowing full well that a difficult decision will have to be taken at a later date. If Labour are craven, the Tories are unprincipled.
The Lib Dems' bold idea is to replace the council tax with a local income tax. On the face of it, this seems quite sensible. Income tax is directly related to people's ability to pay. In practice, though, there are some knotty problems; some of these have been widely discussed, some have not.
By moving to a local income tax, the Lib Dems would be excluding large number of people from paying, such as many pensioners. Nothing wrong with that, but it will mean that the introduction of the new tax will be painful as the same amount of money will be extracted from a smaller pool of people. Given that losers shout louder than gainers, the transition could cause a lot of noise.
Another problem, which I have not seen discussed in any detail, is the administrative problems that a local income tax would create. Would it be collected by the Inland Revenue via PAYE, as the Lib Dem website implies? Would this not put an extra burden on employers who would need to calculate different levels of tax depending on the home addresses of their employees? What about those not on PAYE?
Indeed, is the Inland Revenue set up administratively to collect different amounts of tax from different boroughs and counties - including small changes from one parish to the next? I doubt this very much. All this would necessitate new and complex bureaucratic structures. Not an impossible task, but time-consuming and, more importantly, very costly.
So the Lib Dems, while having a superficially attractive policy, still need to provide more meat on the bones to make their proposals convincing.
But it gets worse
But there are deeper issues to do with the way local government is funded and run that none of the three parties seem to want to address. The main headache stems from the fact that local government raises comparatively little of its own money itself. The council tax, or indeed any new local income tax, accounts for considerably less than half of local government spending. The rest comes from Whitehall.
As a result, if a local council wants to raise more money it has two options. Either it must go begging to the Office of the Deputy Prime Minister. Or it must raise its own taxes, and do so disproportionately. Crudely put, in order for a council to increase spending by 1% it must raise council tax by, say, 5%, to make up for the fact that the council tax is only a small part of its budget. This is why council tax bills can rise so sharply, without any apparent rise in council spending.
As Whitehall provides the lion's share of the money, Whitehall inevitably wants a say in how it is spent (remember 'loony left' councils?). So Whitehall sets rules, ring-fences, audits, interferes. This leads to demoralisation amongst local councillors, who feel second-guessed at every turn, and disillusionment amongst the local electorate, who see their local councils as irrelevant.
So why not get Whitehall out of the picture, and let local councils raise all their funds themselves? Nice in principle, but in practice it would mean that poor areas would have to have swingeingly high tax rates to fund much-needed local services, while rich areas would hardly be taxed at all. Not a serious political option.
But as long as the present situation continues, the tensions between local and central government will remain, and the public dislike of local taxes will continue.
No party wants to address the underlying issues. But until they do, the parlous state of local government in the UK is unlikely to improve.
I've just been contacted by an outfit calling itself the Oxford Internet Institute who want me to take part in a survey about election blogging. A quick browse on the Internet shows that there actually is such an institute, but provides no details about this survey.
Anyone know what's going on? The questions they ask are innocuous, but it would be good to hear from anyone who has any real info.
Tired of the UK election already? Bored with endless political discussions, empty promises and yet another Paxman interview?
Well, to get the world in perspective, take a trip across the pond and spend some time in the US. Here you will discover how important the British election really is: ie, not at all.
Yet again today I find no reference to the election in that venerable grand dame of the US media, the New York Times. Not a whisper on Morning Edition, the US equivalent of the Today programme. And as for the main television news programmes - please. Anyone who has an overinflated view of Britain's position in the world should come here to realise how insignificant we really are. Sobering.
UK election themes also seem quite bizarre viewed from here. To think that US presidential candidates would lower themselves to talk about the cleanliness of hospital wards or the number of forms police officers have to complete is laughable (not least, of course, because there's absolutely nothing they could do about them..).
Europeans often snigger, and not always without justification, at US insularity and lack of interest in foreign matters. And yet in many ways the US electoral system and the US electorate is much more engaged with foreign affairs that their UK equivalents.
It would be interesting to compare the role foreign policy played in last November's US election, compared with this year's UK election. I have heard precious little about it from UK politicians. It was one of the main themes of the US election, both for the politicians and for members of the public. In Britain, as always, foreign affairs will be left to languish in the election wilderness. Once again, this is cannot be a good thing.
By the miracle of international jet travel, I'm going to spend the election not in my rather distant vantage point in Manhattan, but rather in the very best constituency in the whole United Kingdom. Which is, of course, this one.
I'll post in more detail on the race there soon, but imagine my delight to discover that it is one of the select places in the country to have a Veritas candidate. Joy and bliss. Nothing like a lost deposit to bring a smile to the face...
One of the great joys of the Internet age is being able to follow minute-by-minute events in the motherland. The time difference makes things a little odd, but the miracle of broadband brings me the World at One at breakfast, PM at lunchtime and Newsnight with my afternoon tea. Every British newspaper is delivered direct to my screen, and even party political broadcasts are mine to peruse should I feel so inclined.
But one thing I can't get access to is that intangible something in the air that is also an important part of political life. That feeling that things are going one party's way or another's.
I find it therefore surprising from my vantage point here in New York to learn that the Tories' campaign is doing really quite badly. Not that I have any sympathy with them at all, but it did seem that they had made the running in the first few weeks (and before) of the campaign. But their reward has been a slump in the polls. Are the polls wrong? Can Labour really be doing this well?
I prophesied a few weeks back a Labour majority of 90. I'm sticking to it, although until today I was seriously considering reducing it substantially.
It will be interesting to see how the Tories react to another crushing defeat (if that is what happens). Will the nice triumph over the nasty? That will be a fascinating debate indeed.
After 1983, Labour was split between those who thought it had lost its way by abandoning the true faith of socialism, and those who thought that moderation and the centre ground was the way back to power. The Tories face a similar dilemma. Are they losing because they sounded too much, or not enough, like New Labour? How they resolve that question will shape much of the political landscape in Britain over the coming years.
I remember last year seeing an interview on French television with the then Interior Minister. The opening gambit by the political journalist grilling him was:
Minister, would you care to tell us how your policies have made France a safer place?
Not quite Jeremy Paxman.
Here in the US, leading politicians face the media on the Sunday morning news shows. The questioning is measured, polite, some might say soporific.
John Humphrys it is not.
In Britain, politicians drinking habits are openly questioned, their intelligence impugned, their integrity ridiculed. Every day of the week front benchers from all the main parties have to subject themselves to humiliating grilling on the Today programme or on Newsnight, a level of access that would make most US journalists weep.
It's a difficult balance. On the one hand, British voters have, via their media, an immediate and daily access to politicians, warts and all, that is unthinkable in most countries. On the other hand, this has hardly led to any increase in engagement in the political process. We know more, but we care less. Hardly a healthy state of political affairs.