What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

November 27, 2005

Left or Right...? Bored now.

I have slated the media before for their tired attempts to polarise British politics into sterile 'left' or 'right' cliches.

So it's been with escalating exasperation that I've followed the letters pages of Liberal Democrat News, in which various correspondents - over several monotonous weeks - have been knocking seven shades of shite out of each other over the party's future direction. Indeed, they've driven me to write in myself:
Dear Madam,

Enough already! Can Liberal Democrat News correspondents – whichever ‘wing’ of the party they have chosen noisily to represent – please call a truce to the increasingly petty tit-for-tat sniping in which they have been indulging via your letters pages?

I am bored with reading our party must either ‘drift left’ or ‘lurch right’ if we are to stand any chance of appealing to those who have voted Labour or Tory in the past. This is a false choice. As members of a party which rightly disdains the über-simplistic binary labels of ‘left’ and ‘right’ we really ought to know better.

Let us all have the self-confidence, please, to champion liberal policies that will appeal to liberal-minded voters. And leave worrying about their previous party allegiance to EARS.

Yours faithfully,

Cllr Stephen Tall

It is of course vital that the party has a serious debate about its future direction. Not to do so will see us eclipsed either by Gordon Brown’s New-ish Labour or David Cameron’s Tory-lite brand. But the debate must be on our own terms.

At its heart must be how the Liberal Democrats would run the economy better. From this will flow how we can afford our priorities. What would a liberal health service look like? Surely not Labour’s centralised state-ist monolith? What would a liberal education system be? Surely not Labour’s prescriptive micro-managed curriculum? What would a liberal pensions policy be? Surely not Labour’s over-complex means-testing, or compulsory retirement age? And so on…

My point is simple: let’s work out our liberal response to the problems facing this country. Then we can worry about our targeting strategy confident that we have a manifesto which puts forward a liberal vision.

November 18, 2005

Political interviews that leave us in the dark

The Jeremy Paxman Show - or Newsnight as it rather quaintly persists in calling itself - was on sprightly form last night. "David Cameron, do you know what a Pink Pussy is?" barked the Grand Inquisitor, presumably for a bet, as there was little other justification for such a specious, single entendre question. (It's a cocktail, by the way.) Still, it set the tone for what was to prove a listless, harmless, pointless bit of political knock-about. This was a set-piece set-to that never set-alight. Why not?

Well, by his own standards, Paxo failed to stuff Mr Cameron. In the clichéd, macho argot of the news-room, he scored no 'palpable hits', delivered no 'killer lines', landed no 'deadly blows'. Mr Paxman didn't repeat the same question 14 times, a trick he infamously pulled on the Young Pretender's mentor, Michael Howard, back in 1997, when Mr Howard's leadership hopes were dashed by the encounter.

Indeed, Mr Cameron did well deftly to parry his interrogator's rhetorical thrusts, protesting - in a carefully-scripted fit of pique - that, "This is the trouble with these interviews, Jeremy. You come in, you sit someone down, you treat them like they are some cross between a fake or a hypocrite, and you give no time for anyone to answer the questions. It does your profession no favours at all."

This might have sounded a tad more convincing, but for the fact that Mr Cameron had just argued, with consummate pained sincerity, that he had "genuinely changed" his mind about university tuition fees. He had been opposed at the last general election - "furious with Labour for breaking its promise" - but is now, just six months later, fully in favour of them.

I have no special insight into the workings of Mr Cameron's mind, but I suspect this might be a more honest take:
"I always believed tuition fees to be the right policy. They are the only viable way in which universities can be funded. I thought Iain Duncan Smith was absurdly opportunistic (and utterly desperate) to commit the Conservative Party to opposing them. We should have ditched the policy when we ditched IDS, but, frankly, it was about the only popular thing we had going for us. That's why we kept it in the manifesto."
It is precisely because politicians refuse to give this kind of straight answer that the brusque manner Mr Paxman has made his own (and which some of his colleagues unsuccessfully attempt, rather embarrassingly, to emulate) is so popular with the public. Witness some of the eulogies from viewers on the Newsnight website: "The interview with Cameron was great! Watching him getting grilled was the highlight of my evening. Only Paxman could get the juicy info from Cameron." Or: "Not for the first time does Britain owe Mr Jeremy Paxman a great debt for exposing a politician." And: "I thought Jeremy Paxman was brilliant! Cameron got really agitated by his superb questioning."

Mr Paxman has another champion, probably a more important one for him to keep on-side: Peter Barron, the editor of Newsnight. In his Editor's Column on the programme's website (under the headline, What is the point of Jeremy Paxman?) Mr Barron mounts a staunch defence of his star's televised confrontations with Messrs Cameron and Davis:
"They are standing for high public office and it's right that they should be subjected to detailed scrutiny of their principles and policies. In a few weeks' time one of them will be leader of the Opposition and, in a couple of years, perhaps Prime Minister. He'll face withering exchanges at the dispatch box and if elected Prime Minister torrid crises at home and abroad. Voters surely want to know if their man is up to it or if he might crumble. Our job on these occasions is to try to find out."
It is difficult to gainsay such high-minded principle. (Though I am unconvinced that being roughed-up on Newsnight has any equivalence with "torrid crises", whether foreign or domestic: being interviewed by Paxo is clearly far more stressful.) Yet it is even more difficult to square this self-proclaimed devotion to scrutiny of principles and policies with Mr Paxman's habit of demanding yes or no answers of his victims: for example, "Do you think gay couples should be able to adopt?" or "Do you believe in free, universal child-care for all?"

Now some people may be able to do justice to their views on these important topics by uttering just one word: if they can, I won't vote for them. I harbour a visceral disike of binary politics, in which every argument must be reduced to black-versus-white, positive-versus-negative, synonym-versus-antonym. I want to see politicians who respect complexity, wrestle with difficulties, grasp subtleties, and who are able to distil this confusing swirl into a clear, reasoned proposition.

It was put best in the US television series, The West Wing, when the fictional President Josiah 'every-liberal's-wet-dream' Bartlett took a verbal swing at a Dubya-like Republican red-neck Governor, whose stock in trade was 10-word sound-bites:
"Ten-word answers can kill you in political campaigns. They're the tip of the sword. Here's my question: What are the next 10 words of your answer? Your taxes are too high? So are mine. Give me the next 10 words. How are we going to do it? Give me 10 after that, I'll drop out of the race right now. Every once in a while, every once in a while, there's a day with an absolute right and an absolute wrong, but those days almost always include body counts. Other than that, there aren't very many unnuanced moments in leading a country that's way too big for 10 words."
Mr Barron is of course right that I want to know how either Mr Cameron or Mr Davis might handle those nuanced moments which would face either one of them were they to occupy 10 Downing Street. To watch an interview which reveals how they think - which shows their minds at work, grappling with tricky issues - would be fascinating. But the Paxman approach gives us the very opposite. The politicians he cross-examines are completely on their guard, so conscious that a word out of place, a careless slip-of-the-tongue, could spell disaster for their careers that they put up their mental shutters and turn off all the lights. Leaving us in darkness.

November 12, 2005

Sir Christopher and the Secret Keepers

Sir Christopher Meyer, the UK's former ambassador to Washington, is in trouble. His former civil service colleagues, Lords Butler and Renwick, have accused him of a "breach of trust", and of flouting a well-established "self-denying ordinance". The Foreign Secretary, Jack Straw, has gone far, far further, dissing Sir Christopher's behaviour as "preposterous and very demeaning… completely unacceptable". What could have prompted such condemnation? Has Sir Christopher been plotting against Her Majesty's Government? Has he betrayed his country?

No. The offence which has prompted this highfalutin umbrage from what might once have been regarded as 'The Establishment' is the serialisation of Sir Christopher's chattily indiscreet memoirs, DC Confidential.

If an autobiography is to be at all interesting - and certainly if it is going to justify the publisher's advance - it will have to cause upset. And it is not hard to work out why those who are named and shamed by Sir Christopher might feel hard done by. Mr Straw is described as "tongue-tied" when meeting US officials, as "someone more to be liked than admired", who took "a long time to find his feet" in the Foreign Office. The chippy John Prescott may not be thrilled to see immortalised in print his references to the "Balklands" and "Kovosa". And Mr Blair could probably have foregone the headlines suggesting he was "seduced … by the proximity and glamour of American power" in this, his latest worst week as Prime Minister.

Sir Christopher's memoirs have two schools of critics.

The first, and most understandable, is represented by Mr Straw, who - doubtless smarting from the ex-ambassador's disdainful put-downs - has thrown an 'It's so unfair!' teenage strop. Naturally, the Foreign Secretary has had to dress this up to avoid looking pitifully thin-skinned, and so has invoked Sir Christopher's chairmanship of the Press Complaints Commission (PCC): "He is in the newspapers saying controversial things. If people want to complain to the newspapers about what he has said, who do they complain to?" As Mr Straw will be fully aware, the PCC has the power to adjudicate only if a complaint has been filed by someone directly involved. So, if Mr Straw truly wishes to discover what will happen "if people want to complain", the answer is within his personal gift.

The second, and more significant, school is represented by Sir Christopher's peers, those such as Sir Michael Jay, head of the UK's diplomatic corps, who stoically urges eternal anonymity on his colleagues: "we cannot serve ministers effectively unless they trust and confide in us, which they will only do if we respect that confidence, not just when we're doing our jobs, but afterwards, too." This is - and I mean this phrase to be damningly pejorative - a very British argument.

The civil service, according to Sir Michael's injunction, is the 'secret keeper' of government ministers, irrespective of party. The questions asked, the advice dispensed, and the decisions taken: all must remain clasped to the bosom of the government's devoted retainers until their dying breath. They should see no evil, hear no evil, and speak no evil. Well - and I say this with all due respect to Sir Michael - bollocks to that.

For a start, it is clear that politicians no longer "trust and confide" in their civil servants: they are too well-schooled in Yes, Minister to risk that. One of the incidents, dripping in bathos, which Sir Christopher recalls is being told by Mr Blair's chief of staff that the Prime Minister would prefer to have his communications chief, Alistair Campbell, accompany him to supper with President Bush, in place of the ambassador. Sir Christopher's robust response would have earned Mr Campbell's approval, at least for its explicit style: "If this happens, you will cut me off at the fucking knees for the rest of my fucking time in Washington. Is that what you want?" In the end, both Mr Campbell and Sir Christopher were able to step up to the plate, and bring their smarts to the dinner table.

Nor is clear to me that the amount of trust which politicians are willing to invest in their advisors is in any way related to the propensity of those advisors later to write about the experience. That Mr Campbell kept a diary during his Downing Street years was well known within Westminster. Yet this did not stop him remaining Mr Blair's closest political confidante.

But Sir Michael's remarks are indicative of a more dangerous assumption: that the role of the civil service is to counsel ministers in private, and to keep schtum about it for ever. Now, of course, there are occasions when delicate negotiations require secrecy: most obviously, when the British government denied it was talking to the IRA at a time when, to reveal this fact, would have jeopardised a successful outcome. However, these are the exceptions, not the rule; no matter that our political culture inverts this principle.

Though the Freedom of Information Act (2000) has brought out much into the open that was formerly hidden, its success is overly reliant on the benign patronage of the unelected position of Information Commissioner - whose rulings can, in many circumstances, be over-ruled by ministers. Yet without openness and transparency, there can be no true accountability; and without true accountability there can be no real responsibility.

All secrets are about power: the knowledge one person has which another does not gives him the edge. That is why they are precious, why they are hoarded by those who wish to retain power. To share a secret is to diminish the power of its keepers, to break the sacred conspiracy of silence of the Magic Circle.

Sir Christopher's memoirs are not exceptional, not scandalous, not traitorous. They simply allow us a glimpse inside those ego-filled rooms where decisions are made in our names. We now know a little bit more about those decisions than we did, and a little bit more about those who took them. As a result, we are a little bit more powerful than we were, and they are a little bit less powerful than they would like. And that is why Sir Christopher is in trouble.

November 10, 2005

Mr Blair and the 'Sod you' Legacy Agenda

Today's headlines put it pretty bluntly: 'The beginning of the end'. The politicos' consensus was that the Government's surprisingly heavy 31-vote Commons defeat, Mr Blair's first as Prime Minister, is the first nail in his pre-ordered coffin.

If he is unable to persuade his own backbench MPs that legislation he believes is vital to the security of the realm should become law, then what chance has Mr Blair of winning them over to his market-based health and education reforms? If they are dead in the water, what is to become of Mr Blair's much-touted 'legacy agenda'? Put simply: what is the point of Tony Blair any more?

All this is, of course, to under-estimate, to over-state, and to extrapolate.

It under-estimates the magnetic force of Mr Blair's charisma; which, though weaker than in 1997, still exerts real pull among Labour voters, and the wider, wavering public. Too much has, I think, been read into opinion polls showing overwhelming public support for 90-days' detention without charge. (The question won't have been, "Are you a spineless supporter of Al-Qaeda who regards terrorist outrages as a legitimate form of free expression, or do you believe our brave bobbies should be given the essential tools to do their bloody difficult job?" But any reader of a tabloid would have assumed that was their choice.) Yet there can be no doubt that Mr Blair's stance will have impressed those centre-right, authoritarian-inclined voters who he tempted away from the Tories eight years ago, and whose concerns he so artfully articulates. Witness Mr Brown's johnny-come-lately endeavour to pander to this powerful bloc's prejudices.

It over-states the danger Mr Blair is in. This defeat is part of politics natural rhythm, its ebb and flow. Six months ago, after his third election victory, the Prime Minister's authority was said to be in tatters: his majority had been slashed by a hundred, and it might have been worse but for Gordon Brown's popularity with Labour's 'core' vote, and a woefully inept Tory campaign. Three months ago - after Mr Blair helped London secure the 2012 Olympics, stood up resolutely to the 7/7 terrorists, and identified himself with Live8's anti-poverty campaign - he bestrode the world stage, dominated the British political arena. Today, he is written off as a lame duck. What will be written three months from now? That Mr Blair has bested Mr Cameron at the despatch box, and that Tory MPs are already worried by the jittery performance of their inexperienced new leader?

And it extrapolates from one vote, and assumes a trend. Yesterday's rebellion was large, certainly; but the whips have seen worse. In the last Parliament alone (2001-05), there were four rebellions with larger numbers of dissenters than yesterday's 49 defiant Labour MPs: on Iraq, top-up fees, foundation hospitals, and the Prevention of Terrorism Act. Some of those who revolted are normally loyal (for instance, the former local government minister, Nick Raynsford) and/or were acutely conscious of the significant Muslim populations in their constituencies (Leicester South's newly-minted Sir Peter Soulsby). There is considerable 'churn' in the rebels among Labour's ranks. Between 1997 and 2001, 133 Labour MPs rebelled against their Government on 96 separate votes: they did not all do so on every issue. To assume Mr Blair's 'legacy agenda' will not be delivered on the basis of this one civil liberties vote cannot be assumed.

A lot will depend on how smartly the Tory opposition plays its hand. It has two courses open to it. It can, as it did yesterday, shoot the Government down in flames, and revel in the schadenfreude. This destabilises Labour, and boosts the morale of the Conservatives (the vicious mockery of the über-right-wing press notwithstanding). Yet, perversely, this has the effect of lancing the Labour boil: anger against Mr Blair will diminish every time one of his unpalatable reforms is defeated; and, with it, the pressure from within the Labour Party for him to stand down sooner rather than later may subside. The perception and reality of policy drift, though, may well increase the media pressure on Mr Blair to hand-over.

Alternatively, the Tories might decide - especially when it comes to market-led public service reforms - to hug Mr Blair closely, and to prop up his Government. This could have two advantages. First, it places the Conservatives firmly in the mainstream centre-right which Mr Blair has so long, and so successfully, occupied. Secondly, Mr Blair's continuing Parliamentary success would seriously antagonise the Labour rebels, whose impotence in the face of this New Labour / Tory pact might trigger a revolt which brings about the Prime Minister's political demise.

What is certain is this: the Tories would be well advised to choose whichever option they believe will hasten Mr Blair's departure from Downing Street. Gordon Brown's assumption (in more ways than one) of the top job will give Labour an inevitable boost in popularity. Novelty has charm, and is yet to disappoint. However, the Chancellor presents a far easier target for the Tories to attack than Mr Blair, and they will not want him to have the chance two or three years down the line to call a 'cut and run' election during his honeymoon. The sooner they can run out Tony, the longer they have to bowl out Gordon.

What yesterday's vote demonstrated is Mr Blair's increasing determination to talk over his party direct to the public. Clare Short took the opportunity to (yet again) accuse Mr Blair of succumbing to "hubris", the sin customarily ascribed to leaders of longevity. I think this is a clichéd, simplistic interpretation of Mr Blair's motives. Rather we should see it as an integral part of Mr Blair's legacy agenda. It might be termed more accurately his 'sod you' legacy agenda.

The Prime Minister could have compromised on 90 days: his Home Secretary wanted to, and would have settled for (say) 42 days. The Government would then have won the vote (probably). This would have enabled Mr Blair to prove how tough are his anti-terrorism credentials, and still to have tainted the Tories as 'soft'. So why didn't he? As he said so recently himself: "Every time I've introduced a reform in government, I wish in retrospect I'd gone further." You can't get much clearer than that. Wait a minute: yes you can! For what did Mr Blair declaim at Prime Minister's Questions yesterday: "It is better sometimes to lose doing the right thing, than to win doing the wrong thing."

Mr Blair is the canniest political operator of his generation. Yesterday's defeat was not a slip-up or a miscalculation: it was the Prime Minister anticipating his retrospective validation by history. The one legacy Mr Blair believes he can definitely achieve is to be able use his lecture-tour retirement to preach "I told you so".

November 07, 2005

Let's hear it for partisan politics

Charles Kennedy often gets a bad press from within and without the Liberal Democrat fold. So let's also give credit where it's fully due. In today's thegrauniad, CK sets out a compelling, and unabashedly liberal, response to the Government's latest attempt to make the law into a Kafka novel.

A couple of paragraphs in particular caught my eye:

"A crucial division of opinion is opening up between the party of civil liberties and the party of authoritarianism. Liberal Democrats are on the side of civil liberties. Labour - which had a proud libertarian tradition when Roy Jenkins was home secretary in the 1960s - is now the party of authoritarianism. The prime minister embodies a shift that is becoming a defining issue of our politics. ...

"Our political opponents try to suggest that the Liberal Democrats' passion for civil liberties somehow makes us 'soft on terror'. I totally disagree. Certainly, we may find ourselves defending the rights of very small and unpopular minorities - those accused of terrorist crimes, those seeking asylum, those seeking to avoid deportation. But all of us are in a minority at one time or another. All of us could be wrongly accused of a crime we did not commit. All of us could express views or do things the government of the day does not like. All of us do unpopular things or utter unpopular thoughts. And we all need the protection which the impartial rule of law gives us."
It brought to my mind one of the many memorable speeches uttered by every liberal's favourite US President, Jed Bartlett, in the brilliant West Wing epsiode where he sticks it to Governor Ritchie, the right-wing nutjob transparently modelled on 'Dubya':
"I don't think Americans are tired of partisan politics; I think they're tired of hearing career politicians diss partisan politics to get a gig. I've tried it before, they ain't buying it. That's okay, though. That's okay, though, 'cause partisan politics is good. Partisan politics is what the founders had in mind. It guarantees that the minority opinion is heard, and as a lifelong possessor of minority opinions, I appreciate it. But if you're troubled by it, Governor, you should know, in this campaign, you've used the word 'liberal' 74 times in one day. It was yesterday."

I'm not a poet, and I'm aware of the fact

I promise: I won't make a habit of this... below is a pome what I have writ. I wish to make abundantly clear what will, in any case, become crystal clear. I am not a poet: my best scansion is done by computer, and my meter can be measured in yards. But, once a year*, I indulge my Muse.

An Ode-ious Canvasser


He dusted off the clip-board,
Pinned on his rosette,
And rehearsed his patter word-for-word.
(Until the mirror crack’d.)


He strode up to the first door,
Ready to demand
To know: “Who are you voting for?”
(Answer came there none.)


At the fifteenth house he finally found
Someone who was in:
“You’ll vote for me, I’ll be bound!”
(Alas, his luck was out.)


An hour gone, he paused for breath,
And counted both his pledges:
“That’s not so bad, I must keep the faith.”
(Though God had given him up.)


The rain set in, and darkness fell:
An obvious metaphor.
“My luck is turning, I can tell”
(It wasn’t, and he couldn’t.)


At last, the night was over:
Time to reflect, perchance?
“It’ll be a landslide, no doubts whatsoever.”
(He told his broken mirror.)


On election day, he toured the town
Shouting his instructions.
“Vote for me, you ignorami, not that other clown.”
(Their faces said it all.)


The result, of course, was on the cards,
And, to nobody’s surprise:
“The people have spoken. The bastards!”
(It’s all over ‘til next year.)

* The excuse is the annual Headington Poetry Competition, which raises the profile of the Christmas Fun Day (4th Dec), and raises money to support the town's Christmas lights.

Have I got the political X-Factor?

In days of yore, you would just be told by your line manager if you were doing a good job: a Christmas bonus if you were; a stiff injunction to pull your socks up if you weren’t.

Then came appraisals, in which you would dialogue with your boss: “this is a chance for you to feed back on how I’m doing so we can both work together to achieve mutual empowerment”. It’s moved on a stage further now: 360-degree reviews mean you know exactly what your ‘co-colleagues’ think of your ‘core competencies’; and everybody is required to self-assess their individual performance. Which was fine when it happened to other people. But now it’s happened to me.

All city councillors were recently sent a self-assessment questionnaire “as part of your development process and the Council’s capacity building programme”. There were three sections – but, not being very important, I had only to complete the first of these: on my role as an elected member.

I was helpfully informed that the “questionnaire is divided into clusters of competencies, such as, community leadership, regulating and monitoring, and communication skills”. I was then asked to rate myself, honestly, on the following scale:

* exceptionally effective at this
* generally effective
* not consistently effective
* not confident that fully effective

But, dear reader, I have a confession: I refused to fill it in. I said (a tad pompously maybe) that “it was not a good use of my time”. And as the residents of Headington are my only line managers, I feel I must explain why to you/them (delete as appropriate). The easiest way to do so is to quote five of the questions. (To repeat them all would be tedious for you; and a possible breach of copyright by me.) Take a look, and see if you can understand my reasons.

How effective are you at…:

1. Engaging proactively with the community, canvassing opinion and seeking new ways of representing others.
2. Being approachable, empathetic, understanding and encouraging trust.
3. Understanding and acting on your judicial role in order to meet your legal responsibilities (e.g. duty of care, corporate parenting).
4. Quickly analysing and assimilating complex information and taking account of the wider strategic context.
5. Achieving goals by co-ordinating others, maintaining task focus and persisting in the face of set backs.

Now I don’t think of myself as old-fashioned or Luddite. It is very easy airily to dismiss phrases such as ‘best practice’, ‘performance management’ and ‘capacity building’ as meaningless management bullshit. Behind the inevitable jargon, though, are some useful protocols, from which we can all learn, about how to behave as grown-up professionals in the real world. So I didn’t refuse to complete it as some futile, reactionary protest against our new-fangled human resources fetishism.

Two points did strike me, though.

First, who on earth is going to have the arrogance to self-assess themselves as “exceptionally effective” at any aspect of their job? (I shall tread cautiously here for fear my Council colleagues and friends might have done just that; will read this; and now be offended I’ve labelled them arrogant. But really...)

The reason I stopped filling in the survey is that, after a few questions, I realised I was ticking “generally effective” for everything. Now, I hope and think I’m a pretty good ward councillor. I’ve been elected three times by the residents of Headington, so hope and think they mostly agree. But I know I’m not perfect, or “exceptional”, and that there are areas where I can improve (at least if there were more hours in the day).

Secondly, I have absolutely no idea to whom I should compare myself. Should it be to my fellow councillors; or to all councillors everywhere? If the former, I will do well compared to some of the less diligent (no names!); and less well compared to those who (for instance) are full-time councillors. If the latter, I have no idea even where to start.

I suspect if I had asked for advice on filling in the survey (and I know I should, but, truly, life’s too short) I would have been told that I should compare myself as a councillor to my perception of an ‘average’ councillor in Oxford.

But this, of course, is where my real beef with the questionnaire was.

A survey which seeks to set up an average, a ‘norm’, will skew the answers towards that average: deviations will be seen as just that, even if they are an accurate reflection of the majority. We should, it seems, all cluster within the safe obscurity of the morass of mediocrity, rather than dare to risk exceptionality.

So I have taken my stand, and declined to tick my boxes. However, if you are a Headington resident, and want to assess my performance as a councillor, please let me know, and I will e-mail you my appraisal form to fill in for me: it takes only 20-30 minutes. (And, if you’re nice about me, I’ll publish the results.)