If you’re in Eastleigh and you’re reading this, do something worthwhile and VOTE HUTCHINGS today

Craig Barrett 11.02am

Another Thursday, another by-election. Following the resignation in disgrace of Chris Huhne, voters are today going to the polls in a constituency that has been a tightly fought battleground between the Tories and the Lib Dems since the previous by-election, in 1994. A Lib Dem majority of fewer than 4,000 votes belies a seat where the Lib Dems have a very active party machine and hold all of the local council seats.

Needless to say, all parties in contention have thrown everything at it.  UKIP’s sole spokesman, Nigel Farage, declined to stand again in the seat which he fought in 1994, presumably thinking that he couldn’t win and to fail to win once again would be a humiliation too far.

The Labour party has John O’Farrell, former joke-writer for Gordon Brown, who has been roundly criticised for his comments lamenting the fact that the IRA failed to murder Lady Thatcher in Brighton in 1984.

The Lib Dems have selected a local councillor, Mike Thornton, who, in best Liberal Democrat tradition, has voted in favour of housing developments which his leaflets suggests he opposes.

Our candidate, Maria Hutchings, is a working mother with four kids, a genuine local campaigner whose campaign has been masterminded by the energetic, relentless, indomitable Michael Fabricant, whose endless stream of tweeted photographs shows the entire Parliamentary party (and their cousins and their aunts, not to mention their dogs) has visited the constituency to ensure that Maria’s message of being a local campaigner who can be trusted has been strongly made to every voter. I haven’t been down myself but my reading of her message is that she has sound Conservative views and will be a hard-worker for her constituents. The race appears to be too close to call.

My suspicion is that the biggest winner out of all of this will be SouthWest Trains.  Nevertheless, if you’re in Eastleigh and you are reading this, do something worthwhile today: VOTE HUTCHINGS.

Follow Craig on Twitter @mrsteeduk

The ‘greenest Government ever’ needs to restate its commitment to a greener Britain

Nik Darlington 9.30am

The European Commission is proposing to reform the controversial Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) to maker it ‘greener’. The first negotiations over these reforms begin at the European Council begin today.

Last week, Caroline Spelman, the Environment Secretary, said she was “disappointed” with proposals that “could actually take us backwards”. Defra wants more targeted payments to reward farmers for their valuable environmental role, and for agricultural subsidies to be gradually reduced.

This is something that Jim Paice, the farming minister, told a fringe meeting on food security at the recent Conservative party conference in Manchester.

Mrs Spelman told the BBC yesterday (from 2’30” in video below) that European farmers need to produce “more food sustainably”.

It is true, as Mrs Spelman says, that UK farmers “go out of their way” to preserve the environment and at present they are not being properly rewarded for the provision of that public good.

We do, moreover, need a greener CAP. One that is appropriate for the needs of the 21st century, not les agriculteurs of the Fifties. And a greener CAP shouldn’t mean taking land out of the production, something that Mrs Spelman thankfully agrees with. This would be disastrous for Britain’s food security.

Yet while Mrs Spelman does like to talk green - and, if you’ve noticed, wear green clothing - we should be concerned about the coalition’s commitment to environmental protection.

The Chancellor’s speech to the Conservative party conference earlier this month suggested, as the Guardian's Damian Carrington blogged, a “lack of faith in the power of green policies”.

The FT (£) reveals today that solar power subsidies are being “slashed” and onshore wind subsidies could follow. However, wave and tidal power are being increased. This could be seen as a pragmatic move for an island nation with hundreds of miles of coastline, not very much sunshine and a population (usually rightly) opposed to landscape-blighting windmills. Nevertheless, a pragmatic investor doesn’t put all its eggs in one basket; and even if technologies are not so applicable here, they will be elsewhere, and Britain is well placed to capitalise on green technology growth.

Furthermore, a £1 billion carbon capture scheme has been abandoned in Scotland, while the reforms to the planning system, if not significantly tightened up, pose a real threat to our natural environment.

It is all well and good saying that we need a greener CAP. We do, and I hope that Mrs Spelman and her team force significant reforms to an invidious policy.

But the "greenest Government ever" needs to restate its commitment to a greener Britain too.

50p tax is another soundbite tax and the Lib Dems are putting party ahead of country

Craig Barrett 11.12am

"95 per cent of statistics which appear on the internet are made up." ~ Albert Einstein, echoing an earlier statement by Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

As someone who does his mathematics in true Douglas-Home style (with matchsicks), I find statistics, analysis, pie charts and graphs often to be somewhat baffling.

However, one piece of analysis that has emerged - namely that a 50 per cent tax bracket raises no additional revenue - was something that was always patently obvious to me. When this country had a top rate of tax on earned income of 83 per cent, 11 per cent of tax revenue was paid by those who fell into that bracket; when the top rate fell to 40 per cent, the proportion rose to 25 per cent. In the years prior to the introduction of the 50p band, the richest 1 per cent paid 23 per cent of income tax, whilst the top 5 per cent gave an astonishing 42 per cent of tax revenue.

Any fool must be able to see that in order to cover the lost revenue from each individual of those 5 per cent who departs, those who remain must pay more, or more jobs must be created. In a stagnant economy, neither of these options are possible.

I wrote a few weeks ago about how a Tobin Tax is essentially just a ‘soundbite tax’. The ability of companies to shift headquarters for tax reasons is remarkable and one of the reasons why the British tax system must remain competitive. The same is true for the 50 per cent income tax bracket.

The way that some people are talking - with a righteous excess of vitriol - you would be forgiven for thinking that 50p taxpayers pay no tax at all. As it happens, those taxpayers are not the super-rich (who have advantages such as non-dom status, portable capital, expensive advisers etc). Most of the people paying the 50p rate are hard-working middle-class professionals - in other words, net contributors that this country cannot afford to lose.

You do not need to be able to understand a Laffer curve to know that cutting taxes can actually increase the total tax take. What should also be obvious are the subsequent benefits: a simpler tax system is cheaper to administer and police (for both businesses and HMRC) as well as providing for increased spending power.

So what is the point? Well, the 50p rate is just another soundbite tax. A mind that was warped enough to build a tax system that over-taxes everyone, then pontificates about whether to give each individual some of their own money back again is warped (and cynical) enough to create a tax purely for political reasons.

Sir John Major sagely said: “The Tories are elected to govern, Labour governs to be elected.”

Thirteen years of economic and constitutional destruction demonstrate the contempt that the Labour party has for this country and its people, the culmination involving the introduction of a tax designed simply to make life difficult for an incoming alternative government.

The 50p tax brings in no revenue yet it is used by the Left to whip the population into a frenzy by discreetly associating it with the “evil” of the bankers. As such, its retention is supported by a public whose only knowledge of it is what Ed Balls, the shadow chancellor, tells them.

Even worse is the support for the 50p rate in certain quarters of Whitehall. Chris Huhne, a man of the Left at heart, rules out its abolition, which comes as no surprise seeing as Mr Huhne has always seemed slightly more interested in what benefits Chris Huhne than his own country. Danny Alexander, on the other hand, has always seemed so much more sensible.

The Liberal Democrats who support its retention are at best economically naive and at worst, politically cynical.

Julian Glover had an excellent article on the Guardian website yesterday, telling Nick Clegg to remind his party that they are in power.

"To govern is to choose", said Nigel Lawson, the Chancellor whose reduction of the top rate of income tax created a massive increase in tax revenue. I am afraid that the Lib-Dems need now to choose to do something that is good for the country, however unpopular.

Follow Craig on Twitter @MrSteedUK

It’s a bit Dr Moreau, but Isle of Wight’s ‘Eco Island’ dream is a good advert for localism

Nik Darlington 6.00am

The Isle of Wight has always had an independent streak and pioneering spirit. It was not a part of England until the 15th century. In more recent years, it became the home to the world’s first hovercraft and the development site for British space exploration. Dame Ellen MacArthur lives there and, when he is not staying in 5-star Arctic hotels, it is home to celebrity explorer Bear Grylls.

Now England’s largest island (and most populous parliamentary constituency) is striving to become a designated 'Eco Island'.

Whilst the rest of the Cabinet seem to be on holiday, on Tuesday the Energy & Climate Change Secretary, Chris Huhne, visited the getaway island of choice for Queen Victoria and Charles Dickens. Rather than hitting any of the island’s top beaches, Mr Huhne was there to discuss how the Eco Island initiative is being put into practice. Local authorities used the opportunity to update him on the progress being made on various renewable energy projects.

During a visit to the turbine firm Vesta, Mr Huhne examined the opportunities that exist in linking the development of offshore blades to the proposed wind farm west of the famous Needles.

Cllr David Pugh, leader of the Conservative controlled council, said: “It is clear that there is a huge amount of common ground between the opportunities we have here on the island and what Mr Huhne is looking to achieve. We are also heartened to hear his view that tidal energy has an important role to play in reducing carbon emissions.”

Mr Huhne is the MP for the neighbouring constituency of Eastleigh, just a short boat journey across the Solent. He praised the islanders for the ‘big society’ ethos that underpins the Eco Island scheme: “The island has the great advantage of being relatively small with lots of people able to talk to each other and therefore being able to make more progress more quickly.” A similar sentiment has been expressed on these pages by Rory Stewart, in relation to broadband initiaitves in Cumbria.

The Eco Island concept is gimmicky, with more than a whiff of the Dr Moreau about it. Forgetting the regrettable branding, it is a genuinely good attempt to create a discrete, sustainable community. Of course, Mr Huhne pinpointed the reasons why the Isle of Wight has an advantage over other parts of the country. Nonetheless, similar environmental schemes are being trialled by small communities such as Appleby in Cumbria.

Not only was this short visit a visible reminder of Chris Huhne the effective and respected Secretary of State (rather than under-fire speeding points dodger), it was a reminder of the power of proper localism at a time when its ethos is under threat from a grossly dangerous National Planning Policy Framework.

We should all observe developments this historic island with interest. It may have been the last part of England to convert to Christianity (in 686 AD), but it appears to be leading the pack in converting to sustainability.

Follow Nik on Twitter @NikDarlington

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PMQ’s review: Ken Clarke in dock over rape comments

Nik Darlington 12.59pm

Last Saturday evening, whilst the rest of the country was dusting off atlases to determine the location of Azerbaijan, I was watching Piers Morgan’s endearing interview of Lord Prescott. The former deputy prime minister is fast become a national treasure. Hull’s newest aristocrat was jovial and honest; frank and humorous. Even Tories have warmed to him after his prominent role in the No2AV campaign.

What astonished me when looking back over John Prescott’s life story (even more than his matinee idol good looks) was how he got away with it all. The trade union totem was indispensible to Tony Blair in keeping Old Labour remotely on side. But above all, as Blair said after his deputy punched a voter, “John is John.” Somehow, the incident even increased his standing. No one else could have got away with that.

If you’ve been following the airwaves this morning, you might have an inkling of where I’m going with this.

When a journalist friend’s e-mail landed in my inbox with one word - “Clarke” - in the subject line, I rolled my eyes. What had Ken done this time?

Now, Ken Clarke is the President of the TRG. You will struggle to find anyone in that organisation who holds him in anything but the highest regard. These pages are not under any corporate diktat (we have editorial independence) but I’m loathe to attack Ken - not least, as I wrote here, because his policies and presence in Government are commendable and valuable. So when Peter Hoskin asks on Coffee House - “Has Ken Clarke just signed his own political death certificate?” - I am at pains to answer “no”.

And certainly so if you compare this morning’s faux pas to Chris Huhne’s speeding points scandal. Huhne must be relieved today to have the heat on someone else, for he is wise enough to know that even poking fun at Liberals cannot stir the antipathy of the Tory grassroots more than Ken Clarke’s ‘soft’ justice policies.

So, can we turn, shrug, and once more utter, “Ken is Ken?” The Prime Minister did his best at PMQ’s, saying that he hadn’t heard the radio interview and that sentencing of rapists is a matter for the courts. Yet when Ed Miliband said that Ken Clarke “shouldn’t be in his job by the end of the day”, Cameron didn’t exactly say that he should.

However, he did give something amounting to a defence of Clarke’s policy, if not his wording of it, pointing out the depressing statistic that “only 7 per cent of rapes are prosecuted”. Altering sentencing could encourage more defendents to plead guilty; it could also save rape victims the harsh ordeal of being branded liars in court by defence lawyers, perhaps avoiding the 688 days of trial endured by the female Radio 5 listener this morning.

Honestly, I don’t know how this will play out. My instinct, and my hope, is that Ken Clarke will be safe. Tony Blair retained faith in John Prescott despite his many gaffes and misdemeanours because Prescott could reach out to areas of the country and his own party that Blair could not.

Most importantly, what happened this morning was no more embarrassing, nor a sign of poor judgement, than Vince Cable’s slip-up in December, Chris Huhne’s insubordination during the referendum campaign, or Huhne’s current imbroglio. Perhaps we are soon to see confirmation of whether or not the rules that apply to Liberal ministers apply to Conservative ones too.

UPDATE, 2.50pm: The Times (£) reports that Number 10 is demanding Ken Clarke clarify his views on rape. A spokeswoman said: “I would hope the Justice Secretary would want to make clear how seriously he takes rape and what an atrocious crime it is.” David Cameron retains confidence in Clarke but a U-turn on the controversial proposals is in train.

UPDATE, 3.10pm: Ken has been on Sky News (NB: not BBC, like this morning) to clarify his comments. No outright apology but an insistence in less legalistic language that the policy is the right one. Also insists that he was not forced to apologise by Number 10. I still believe this will blow over but time will tell. The Prime Minister does not want to - indeed, I don’t believe he can - sack Clarke; but if a swift U-turn is indeed in train, it might force him to resign.

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Vote ‘No’ to AV, but not because Baroness Warsi says it helps the BNP (it doesn’t)

Nik Darlington 1.13pm

The coalition is going through a sticky patch over the AV referendum, which is a shame because for the most part the contest between the two parties, personified at the top by David Cameron and Nick Clegg, has been gracious and mature.

Temperatures have risen this week after Baroness Warsi and Chris Huhne (pictured, above, in happier times) exchanged unpleasantries following an article by the Tory party chairman, in which she wrote that AV would “give more power to extremists” and legitimacy to the BNP.

We should not forget that the article appeared in the Sun, so one should allow for a certain belligerence. It isn’t the respectable language of the middle-class dinner party (where, of course, we indulge in innocent Islamophobia, not electoral reform).

Baroness Warsi is indubitably a forthright and inspirational woman; nonetheless, she has a tendency to confound reasoned pugnacity with hotheaded hyperbole. Her argument is, as the Lib-Dem peer Baroness Falkner has said, “baseless scaremongering.” Her Cabinet colleague, Mr Huhne, also overstepped the mark of decency by describing the remarks as “Goebbels-like” propaganda, but on this particular issue (if not AV in general) the Energy Secretary is right and Baroness Warsi is wrong.

The BNP is opposing AV because “it is fundamentally unfair to smaller parties”. And it is. Smaller parties’ votes will always be redistributed to the bigger parties. Caroline Lucas might be supporting AV now but in February 2010, the Green party leader wrote:

"AV is still slanted in favour of the bigger parties… We need a simple, fair and inclusive electoral system, not a fake reform that covers its embarrassment with acronyms and jargon."

Mrs Lucas was right to oppose AV because it is unlikely that she would have won Brighton Pavilion with only 31 per cent of first preference votes. Without a majoritarian system, Britain might still be waiting for its first Green MP. The only party that plausibly stands to gain (or stood to gain) from AV is (or was) the Liberal Democrats, as an academic study shows.

So if you want to keep out the BNP and other extremists, vote ‘Yes’ on 5th May. But of course, in reality I urge you to vote ‘No’, not least because FPTP does a good job of keeping out extremists anyway (see the BNP’s own analysis). Far more importantly, I urge you to vote ‘No’ because FPTP is fairer, easy to understand, and more accountable. That is the straightforward, three-pronged argument used by David Cameron and it is what the ‘No’ campaign should have stuck to throughout instead of relying on tasteless posters, spurious cost arguments, and what Chris Huhne referred to as ‘Nazi propaganda’.

The bookmakers William Hill might have the ‘No’ camp at 8/11 favourites but I am far from convinced. The anti-political sentiment that has engulfed Britain since the expenses scandal threatens to turn this into a referendum on politics in general, which many are unhappy about, as opposed to the voting system, which many don’t care about. The official No2AV campaign’s failings have also meant that the Conservative party has had to become more heavily involved, as I warned in February. This threatens to turn it into a referendum on the Government, in much the same fashion as the No2AV campaign has tried to paint it as a referendum on Nick Clegg. A low turn-out will also help the ‘Yes’ campaign.

There is cause for retaining faith. AV is an unfair and flawed system that no one wants - even those that do want it only do so because they see it as the thin end of the wedge. Like Caroline Lucas says, it is “a small step” in the right direction. The British public knows when it is being conned, which is also why I’m so concerned about some of the arguments coming out of the ‘No’ campaign.

But I trust voters to ignore much of this nonsense from politicians, and to see that the biggest con of all is the Alternative Vote itself.

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