The earliest post on this blog is from 24 November 2008 on the benefits of low taxation (actually the blog wasn’t public until nearly a month later, on 17 December, but that was the oldest surviving test post).

In it I suggested that the temporary VAT cut probably wasn’t that good a measure, and that efficient and effective government was a much better way of putting money in people’s pockets.

I still hold to that. I don’t think the VAT cut really helped that many people (I have saved a few quid over the year, but I’ve probably not spent any more or less than I otherwise would have). The poorest benefited least, because a larger part of their spending was on VAT-free or reduced VAT items. And I suspect the impact of the rise will more than outweigh the effect of the cut – not because the figures are any different, but from the purely psychological effect a tax increase has.

And then there are all the other tax increases. A 45% tax on high earners. A 50% tax on banker’s bonuses. In the current climate, in which being a high earner is becoming a mark of shame and bankers deserve hanging, drawing and quartering these will doubtless be popular. I’m sure Darling is hoping they’ll be enough to help people to overlook the years Labour spent cosying up to the City or that it was the financial powerhouse behind a lot more years of growth than years of recession.

The ½p increase in National Insurance will perhaps be less popular (since it is, effectively, a tax rise) and public sector workers will, no doubt, be disappointed to hear that they will be having a 1% cap on pay increases for two years (a good chunk of which will be wiped out by the National Insurance increase).

There was some other tinkering. I can only view his boiler scrappage scheme as petty politics since he clearly knows I’ve just replaced my boiler. And I’m sure Gala Bingo in Tooting will welcome the drop in bingo duty. But the deferral of the corporation tax increase for small businesses obviously has to be welcomed.

However, the key problem, the elephant in the room, is the borrowing. And nothing here really seems to be tackling the problem the next government will have to face – indeed, he raised his borrowing forecast. So while we have the promised bill to half public debt in four years there is nothing to back it up.

Darling had the chance of being the real Iron Chancellor today, putting politics aside and making announcements that might be politically painful but in the national interest. His announcements may not have been electoral bribes, but failed to grasp the nettle of public spending.

And, like a year ago, I come to the same conclusion – the best solution is good, efficient, Conservative government.

I thought it might be worth putting a Labour Party Election broadcast on here.

For me, the key line comes in at exactly one minute: “You cannot cut your way out of recession, you’ve got to grow your way out of it.”

Compare and contrast with the his speech this afternoon, being heavily spun as talking about cuts. This, of course, is the man who used to tell us that Britain was the best-placed to come out of recession, but we’ve now seen France and Germany – among others – come out before us.

Now it seems there’s agreement on the scale of the problem, who do you trust to deal with it? The Conservatives who have always been honest about the need to address public spending? Or the man who, as Iron Chancellor, created the problem, as Prime Minister failed to tackle the problem, and as dead man walking realises the Conservatives are right?

I’m still not sure what to make of David Cameron’s speech on cutting the cost of politics yesterday.

Obviously there’s a lot in there with which I agree. I am a Conservative member and activist, after all. But I often find myself in a minority of one when it comes to subjects like this (a position with which I’m perfectly comfortable) and I’m just not a fan of hair-shirts.

I’ll reiterate, there’s a lot in the speech with which I agree. I’ve never really understood the Standards Board when, as Cameron states, it’s usually seen as the job of the electorate to hold politicians to account (I have to declare an interest that I’m doing a fringe meeting at their conference later this year). I can’t argue with his points on the Electoral Commission or Regional Assemblies. On the number of MPs, well, I’m fairly agnostic.

It really is just the hair-shirt that causes me concern.

Of course, this isn’t actually a hair-shirt for the Conservatives. It’s largely a choice to wear a slightly less nice shirt than their predecessors – most incoming Conservative ministers will never have drawn a ministerial salary before and, for those that have, it was so long ago they will not notice the 5% cut after 13 years of inflation.

They may notice the removal of subsidy on food in the Palace of Westminster. But then so will the many many more secretaries, assistants and researchers (some working for free) for whom the subsidised food is, in reality, a little compensation for salaries that are frequently below market rates.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not defending ministerial salary levels, nor am I trying to make any judgment on their ideal level; I honestly don’t know the proper salary level for a minister. But what I do know is that the 5% cut is a gesture. And to be fair Cameron himself admits the saving is “trifling” and it is more about the message.

My concern, as with any gesture politics, is that the gesture can detract from the deed. The gesture got headlines today. And will doubtless get a few more headlines when the first Conservative ministers start drawing their reduced ministerial salary. And there’s absolutely no doubt that proposing cuts to politicians will be publicly popular.

But gestures are easy, and Cameron needs to make sure they don’t detract either himself, his future ministers or the public from the incredibly difficult times ahead.

My usual end of week wrap-up of bits and pieces I want to highlight or didn’t post about at the time.

Pre-summer council meeting
Wednesday saw the council had it’s last full meeting before the summer recess. Of course, the council doesn’t take a holiday in the same way that Parliament does, but there’s a break in meetings during August before starting again in September. And, like any large organisation, things get a little quieter because of holidays.

The July council meeting always seems to reflect a pre-summer lethargy. I’d always blamed the bad ventilation in the Council Chamber, which made it hot and stuffy in July. But following the collapse of the roof and our move to the Civic Suite I discovered that July is a flat meeting for other reasons.

The debates lacked spark (despite some excellent contributions on our side) and the meeting was other remarkably quickly for a full council.

Of course, there’s also a slight lull because everyone knows that a general election is coming and whatever there are going to be major spending cuts, but politics means that neither party can really address these. Hence the ridiculous language of “0% raises” from Gordon Brown and endless offers of cash that, mysteriously, end in 2010/11 (thus making the next guy seem like the scrooge).

This affects councils of every political complexion, not just Conservative, and while it might make for interesting politics, it’s not the way a country should be run.

I can’t not mention the debate, opened up by the BBC, on CCTV cameras. It is definitely an interesting one; but what I found fascinating (as well as a little reassuring given my feelings on civil liberties) was the common ground I had with Shami Chakrabarti on them when I did BBC Breakfast. It might be a strange alliance, but I think it was something of a victory for common sense. As is often the case, it’s not the sensationalist headline, but the detail behind it. It doesn’t really matter how many cameras any organisation has, it’s the controls behind them that counts.

Another bit from the last week I’m rather pleased with is the discussion started on this blog and continued here, here and elsewhere, about surgeries. Yes, it might seem a minor issue – over the course of the year it’s only 150 man-hours in Wandsworth – but it’s good to see that a blog can start a little debate which, I hope, might lead somewhere.

Meeting the police
This week also saw one of my more formal meetings with the police. While I seem to see them fairly often, one way or another, I do have a regular session with the Borough Commander, Chief Superintendent Stewart Low so we can both catch up with what each side is doing.

Obviously a lot of the meeting is not for repeating here. However, one thing did come across clearly (and shows in the crime maps on this site) is that the recession is having an impact on crime. This is not just a Wandsworth phenomenon, it’s happening across London and the rest of the country.

Burglary is one of the crimes that really seems to be on the up. While the police are doing a great job there’s still a lot we can do to avoid becoming a victim of crime. The Met’s crime prevention pages and the Council’s Community Safety Division both suggest lots of ways you can make yourself safer.

BusBecause of my blogging, Twittering and dabbling in other things digital-engagement I seem to have fallen in with a crowd who are passionate about the power of social media to change the world. Sadly, I am a cynic, a pessimist who recognises that for all its power, it’s limited.

Limited by the people who use it because for all the Twittering in the world, if you don’t actually do anything, it makes no difference.

And limited by the people who don’t use it. For all the huge numbers bandied around of facebook users and Twitter accounts, the overwhelming majority of people do not use them. Many people just do not access the internet at all, others only for a bit of eBaying or online bingo.

But if we are going to make it all work then the early adopters have a responsibility to use it wisely and show how it can be a force for good.

But this seems to happen so rarely, and brings me to a rant that has been building for a few days. It involves Tom Watson, Sadiq Khan, buses and public spending – and I think an example of how we shouldn’t be using social media.

Tom Watson’s name may ring a bell after he got caught up in the Damien McBride smear scandal. However, he is also something of an unlikely poster boy for the advocates of digital engagement. He is one of the most prominent Twitterers in Parliament and a blogger. And last week launched an online petition, aimed at Sadiq Khan – recently appointed a minister of transport (who can attend Cabinet where he can, apparently, watch the Cabinet not talking to each other). The petition asked Khan to “Please sort a ‘where’s my bus?’ mobile app.” The detail suggesting “GPRS technology makes it easy for your mobile phone to tell you where the next bus is. Please sort it out for the UK.”

Why do I think this is a bad example? For a number of reasons.

First, we need to have a real debate in this country about public spending, and the Prime Minister has already announced a “0% rise”. Surely this is something we can really debate and start having some of those discussions online – where everyone can participate.

Petitions, however, are not the way to go. Even as I was highlighting the No. 10 ‘resign’ petition I accepted that petitions push a single issue without regard for the alternative.

Second, which follows on from this, is the cost. According to Bus Zone (the best I could find), there are around 32,000 buses in this country. Back of the envelope calculations: let’s say it’s £100 per bus to fit a GPS unit. That’s £3,200,000 gone. You then need to set up the infrastructure, I can’t even begin to guess the cost of that. But on top of that you have to factor in the running costs. The buses will have to communicate with the centre – so you will effectively have to buy 32,000 air-time contracts year. Even if you got a deal at, say, £10 a month per bus, then you have £3,840,000 a year running costs. Then factor in unit failure, maintenance and replacement…

And these figures are very conservative. The government does not have a great track record of implementing large IT projects – so you can bet it would be more than the £22,000,000 my figures come to for the first five years. Can you think of better ways of spending £22,000,000? I certainly can.

Third, it’s another of those example of pushing a technological solution for a problem that does not really exist. Perhaps if we had a more extreme climate that might make standing at a bus stop for a few minutes a problem. But actually, is waiting a few minutes for a bus such a hardship? Even in those areas where buses are less frequent, timetables exist. Somehow public transport has operated – more or less – successfully for generations without everyone knowing exactly where the next bus is.

Fourth, the people who would benefit most are the people who need it least. Those who have to rely on buses, particularly out of London, are often the less well off who cannot afford the latest mobile phone to track their bus, or are from sections of society who are digitally excluded and would not know what to do even if they wielded the latest iPhone or Nokia.

Fifth, and finally – this is just a bad example of social media campaigning. As I write only 55 people have ‘signed’ by re-tweeting the petition, despite Tom Watson having over 4,000 followers.

To make matters worse, Sadiq Khan hasn’t even responded, except to thank Tom Watson “for directing hundreds of people my way.”  No comment on the issue, not even a “I’ll look into it”.

This is disappointing.  If we are to believe social media can give ordinary people power, it has to be something of a blow to our confidence when people who have real power aren’t even getting a 140 character answer.

This is a bit of a rant. But if we are to start getting social media taken seriously as something that can engage and empower people, then it’s for MPs and ministers to start using it properly, on serious issues that will make a difference. There are an infinite number of nice things we can have petitions on, but why not start discussing some of the more fundamental issues and seeing where it goes. You might find people participate while they are waiting for the bus.