What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

February 28, 2006

The Daily Politics... but without the politics

They call it The Daily Politics, but I'm not sure why.

I've just caught up with today's Lib Dem leadership special (cleverly timed to have bugger-all impact unless you're hand-delivering your postal ballot) - in which "Andrew and Jenny" obsessed over Chris Huhne's wealth, asking the most mind-numbingly banal questions imaginable. Chris handled it well, rebutting strongly and with humour.

The way in which politics programmes increasingly ignore politics - and fetishise gossip - is a disturbing one. The media now spends more time talking about betting odds, office furniture and MPs' spouses than it does about things that actually matter a damn.

It says a lot about journalists; and a whole lot more about us, the public.

Trusting in local democracy

An excellent article by Philip Stephens in today's Financial Times: read it quick, before it disappears behind their firewall. Here's a teaser to encourage you...

Time to put trust in local democracy

... For the past several decades ministers of all colours have promised to devolve power closer to the people. The same politicians have pledged to abolish the so-called postcode lottery. Hospitals, schools, police forces, social services departments, refuse collection – all must be set free. As long, that is, as councils offer identical services. Pluralism is fine until it becomes a threat to uniformity. Localism is laudable if it does not challenge centralism. ...

We no longer pretend that there is some great political choice between capitalism and socialism; spreading affluence has seen tribalism give way to individualism. I would add the conduct of the media, above all, broadcasters. Television and radio has all but abandoned the reporting of public policy in favour of gossip and intrigue at Westminster. Interviewers make their names by scoring points rather than eliciting truths. ...

Is all this [talk of local power] empty rhetoric or a signal of serious intent? There is a simple test. Local democracy can be restored only if financial power is devolved. That in turn depends on an overhaul of local government finance that allows councils to raise most of the money they spend. As long as town halls must rely on central government for 80 per cent of their cash, Whitehall will always know best.

Devolution should not be unconditional. Councils must not be permitted to impose their own brands of stifling uniformity by barring, for example, schools from establishing innovative new partnerships. But unless and until ministers are ready to trust local people, we should treat their words as so much hot air.

Cameron's Clause Bore

From The Daily Telegraph...

"The new Conservative leader is a proper Tory, who believes that the function of the state is to serve the individual, rather than the other way round. He believes in freedom under the law, strong defence, equality of opportunity, security for the old, reward for hard work, freedom of choice and care for those who cannot look after themselves. In all this, we fully support him."

... of 2nd January, 2004.

The only surprise about yesterday's announcement by David Cameron of his vision for a "modern, compassionate" Tory party is that the BBC's political editor, Nick Robinson, persuaded his bosses that his hagiographical 'scoop' was in any way newsworthy.

Mr Cameron's "defining Clause IV moment" this was most certainly not.

February 27, 2006

Because guessing's fun

The Apollo Project is hosting a Lib Dem leadership prediction competition thread here.

So, folks, why not pop over, and prove how in tune you are with the party membership's psyche...

February 26, 2006

On being taken seriously: part III

John Rentoul’s column in the Indy on Sunday is usually worth reading, if only to find out what is the current Blairite line on any given issue. Today is no exception, except that I agree with him.

Rentoul highlights approvingly a speech made last week by the implausibly named Julian le Grand, Tony Blair’s former health policy adviser. Entitled ‘The Blair Legacy? Choice and Competition in Public Services’ it is, as you might expect, a staunch defence of Tony Blair’s attempts to introduce market reforms to improve our public services. It is well worth reading in full here, but below are a few, ahem, choice extracts. (The headings are mine.)

Why markets empower individuals

Chaining people to their local GP practice, hospital or school meant that providers who offered a poor or a tardy service could continue do so with impunity; for those badly treated had nowhere else to go. Giving providers a monopoly has never been a good way to improve a service of whatever kind; and the ‘old’ health service and school systems were no exception. …

What is needed instead is a system with incentives for reform embedded within it. Then providers will automatically provide a high quality service without having to be told to by the top. And these incentives should come from the users of public services: for, at the end of the day, it is the user’s needs and wants that have to be satisfied, and he or she is the ultimate authority on what those needs and wants are.

Choice is popular with most people…
In fact, contrary to ... much anti-choice propaganda, choice is popular. Results for the latest British Social Attitudes Survey (22nd report) are even more revealing. In total, they showed a similar picture to the surveys. Asked whether patients should have choice of treatment, hospital and outpatient appointment time, 65% of those surveyed thought that patients should have a great deal or quite a lot of choice of treatment, 63% of hospital and 53% of appointment time.

… and especially popular among society’s most disadvantaged

this study also broke down the results by gender, social class and income. And these results many will find quite unexpected.

• 69% of women wanted choice of hospital; 56% of men.

• 67% of the routine and semi-routine working class wanted choice, compared with 59% of the managerial and professional class.
• 70% of those earning less than £10,000 p.a. wanted choice, but only 59% of those earning more than £50,000.
• 69% of those with no educational qualification wanted choice, compared with 56% of those with a higher education qualification. …

These results – sustained majorities for choice, especially among the disadvantaged – are not even confined to this country. The Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies in the United States conducted a National Opinion Poll in 1999 on education support for vouchers and school choice.

It found that:

• nationwide, 52 per cent of parents, and 59 per cent of public school parents, supported school choice.
• 60 per cent of minorities supported vouchers.
• 87 per cent of black parents aged 26-35 and 66.4 per cent of blacks aged 18-25 supported vouchers. …

So in general it is the poor, the dispossessed and the disadvantaged who want choice more than the allegedly rabidly pro-choicemiddle class. Nor, on reflection, should this be surprising. Because it arises from the fact that the middle class already do well out of the unreformed no-choice NHS and education system. With their loud voices, sharp elbows and, crucially, their ability to move house if necessary, the middle class get, as we saw earlier, more hospital care relative to need, more
preventive care, and better schools.

The question for those who oppose the choice agenda
I think it is legitimate to ask those who question this proposition whether they really believe that having local monopolies is the best way to achieve good local services. For, in rejecting choice and competition, that is implicitly what they are advocating.

Why choice could save the welfare state

The Government is pumping a massive amount of resources into public services. It is essential that this investment pays off - and is seen to pay off. But, if public services were left unreformed, the investment would not succeed. And in that case taxpayers would legitimately ask why they were pouring resources into services that were not delivering. And the result could be irresistible pressure to cut taxes and ultimately to dismantle the welfare state.
I have argued on this blog
before that the Lib Dems’ knee-jerk opposition to the ‘choice agenda’ is short-sighted.

Local accountability and decent funding are vital for successful public services: but so too is the right of the public to exercise choice over the service they receive, and which their taxes are paying for.

Liberals who believe that individuals and communities are best placed to run their own affairs should aim to break down monopolies wherever they exist, whether in the public or private sector. That is the best way to improve standards, and the best way to deliver social justice.

On being taken seriously: part II

There is a consensus emerging among serious political commentators: the Liberal Democrats matter more now than at any time since our predecessor parties in the mid-1980s.

Take the ever-brilliant Alan Watkins in today’s Indy on Sunday:

The Lib Dems are once again “relevant”, even interesting, to those who possess a strange and unusual taste for politics. This will remain so, irrespective of whether it is Sir Menzies Campbell, Mr Chris Huhne, or, most implausibly, Mr Simon Hughes who comes out top (perhaps after a second count) on Thuirsday.
Or the shrewd Bagehot in this week’s Economist:

… the biggest reason for taking the Lib Dems seriously is that they are very likely to hold the balance of power after the next election, as current spread-betting prices show. According to calculations in the 2005 British Election Study, an academic survey, a Tory lead of between one point and 11.8 points would leave no party with an overall majority. …

The leadership of a party that on many issues represents the main opposition, and which is highly likely to be in a strong position to decide who will form the next government, is not a trivial matter.
But with great power, comes great responsibility. And Andrew Rawnsley’s Observer column today, from which I quoted extensively below, should be read every day by every single Liberal Democrat member from now until the next election:

The new Lib Dem leader will need to show that his party has a distinctive voice which is compelling. The opportunity is there providing the Lib Dems are prepared to think bravely and imaginatively, to live a little dangerously without acting stupidly.

… There is still a great deal of demand for a party that is the guardian of civil liberties against the authoritarian instincts of the other two parties. There is ample space for the Lib Dems to fashion an approach that is distinctive from the statism of Gordon Brown while being more committed to social justice than the Conservatives are ever likely to be. There is a large constituency of opinion that is disillusioned with Labour and sceptical of the sincerity of David Cameron's makeover of the Tories.

If the Lib Dems can be a crucial voice between now and the next election, they could be the pivotal player at Westminster after it. …

The prospect of a hung parliament is a hugely tantalising one for their next leader. He could achieve what eluded Jo Grimond, Jeremy Thorpe, David Steel, Paddy Ashdown and Charles Kennedy. He could get Liberals back into the cabinet for the first time in more than half a century.

This means they will have to get very serious about their policy-making. It is one thing to make promises when you know, the media know and the public knows that you will never be in a position to deliver your pledges or called to account for why you haven't. A much more disciplined approach is demanded when it is highly conceivable that your commitments may follow you into government.

Lib Dem policy has often escaped searching scrutiny in the past because no one expected them to be in a position to implement anything. They cannot afford the sort of shambles they made of presenting policy at the last election if they want to look like credible contenders for positions of power.

On being taken seriously: part I

I’ve said it before, and I’d say it again - this leadership contest has not been what it could, or should, have been - except that Andrew Rawnsley has done it better than I could have in another excellent analysis in today’s Observer:

Where they have differences, the candidates have been deliberately blurring them. Not wanting to be cast as a leftie loon who would repel voters in the shires, Simon Hughes has muffled his more radical instincts. Not wanting to be painted as a patrician who looks down on the hairier activists, Sir Menzies Campbell has been cautious about giving a modernising message to his party. Not wanting to be seen as a risky right winger, Chris Huhne has made populist noises designed to arouse the applause of Lib Dem members rather than to provoke them to think. They have all played it safe.

Where the party has big dilemmas to face and crunchy choices to make, the wannabe leaders have failed to confront them. None of them has had the courage to boldly tell their party what needs to change if it is not to be another half-century before they are a part of a government.

They have failed to challenge their party's comfort zones. They have not told the Lib Dems how they need to modernise with the urgency of Tony Blair running for the leadership of the Labour party or David Cameron campaigning to take over the Tories.

I have a lot of time for Chris Huhne, and hope he will have a big part to play in the Lib Dem shadow cabinet if (as I suspect) Ming wins the vote on Thursday. His campaign has been professional in the best sense of the word. However, Rawnsley’s point is a good one. Chris had the best opportunity, as the rank outsider, to raise the level of debate in this contest… and I’m still waiting.

Three issues have dominated this contest: eco-taxes, nuclear energy and withdrawal from Iraq. All three are vital, don’t get me wrong. But they are not going to be the issues which decide the next election: as James Carville famously remarked, “It’s the economy, stupid”.

Chris’s supporters, most notably Lynne Featherstone and Susan Kramer (stars, both of them), have told us Chris’s biggest USP is that he can convincingly take on Gordon Brown on the economy at the next election. They may well be right. But, having attended two husting events, I’ve still not heard nearly enough from Chris on this. I’ve read his manifesto, and parts of it get close, for instance:

Liberal Democrats are also believers in competition, because choice gives power to the consumer. There are still too many parts of the private sector that lack the cut and thrust of intense competition. That is bad for prosperity, and bad for our prospects of creating winning businesses.
Quite correct, and well said. But there’s a couple of words missing from that sentence – that’s right, any reference to the 'public sector'. There are elliptical phrases elsewhere such as, “Local control of public services like health and schools will mean creativity, experimentation, innovation.” I’ve been longing for Chris to unwrap these concepts, to elucidate his thinking.

But, as the campaign has rattled along, and his prospects of winning have become much greater, so has his campaign played it safer. This is understandable – when you’re endorsed both by Polly Toynbee and The Economist it can safely be said you have assembled a broad church – but it has been disappointing for those, like me, who have been longing to hear the serious debate about the future direction of public services which should now be gripping our party.

I want to make it clear that I am not picking on Chris here. Ming’s campaign has been far too defensive on the domestic front, and James Graham has taken a typically trenchant, but by no means wholly unjustified, view of this over at Quaequam. And the early promise of Simon’s campaign - that he would reach out to all parts of the Lib Dems - has become just a distant memory as he attempts to shore up his base.

Yet Chris’s campaign could have set the tone. He has, after all, plastered Peter Preston’s paean - "Britain's most formidable one-man think-tank" – across his literature and website. Perhaps I’m being unfair. The nature of a Lib Dem leadership contest is that the candidates have to press the flesh of as many of our party’s 73,000 members as possible in a highly compressed period of time. The hyper-kinetic nature of the contest does not allow that much opportunity for policy reflection. But I wanted Chris’s campaign to be different: I had high expectations of him, and thought his campaign would raise the bar for the other two candidates. That just hasn’t happened.

So I’ve voted for Ming – not because I agree with him 100% on domestic policy, but because he has articulated for me most clearly of the three candidates his liberal values. If we’re not going to do wonkery, we can at least have some passion.

February 19, 2006

The roll-call of Blingers

Martin Tod, the techno-wizard behind the excellent Ming Campbell website, wisely rejected my suggestion he should nick-name those of us who are blogging for Ming 'Blingers'. (It would have chimed so nicely with Ming's site's gold colour-theme too.) I suspect he thought it might have conflicted somewhat with Ming's "gravitas" (TM).

However, Peter over at the splendidly prolific Pigeon-Post has rounded-up the postings of the 16 Lib Dem 'Blingers' who have so far outed themselves. The post he credits to me is quite a weak endorsement of Ming: a more convinced outpouring can be read here.

When Government Goes Bad

In the week when the US Vice-President shot the face off a fellow quail-hunter, it is all-too-tempting to view American politics as, well, a little strange. Certainly Dick Cheney’s hard-core, scatter-gun approach knocks into a cocked-hat John Prescott’s girly-man ‘Two Jabs’ in the 2001 election campaign.

It suits our perception of a violent American ‘Wild West’ way of life which contrasts with our rather more demure and restrained Britsh culture. But, before we buff our Anglo-superiority halo, let’s take a look in its tarnished reflection at how wholesome has been the British response to the terrorist threat posed by al’Qaeda.

This second-term Bush/Cheney administration has so far failed to find its raison d’etre, and is busy occupied fire-fighting its first-term cock-ups (Iraq), or its second-term cock-ups (Katrina). Neither Mr Bush nor Mr Cheney will be candidates for elected office again, and there is no evidence of any succession planning in the White House. Drift is the inevitable result.

The current favourite to be the Republican Party’s nominee for the 2008 Presidential election is the Arizonan senator, John McCain, whose vigorous candidacy almost skewered Mr Bush in 2000. Senator McCain has shrewdly distanced himself from Mr Bush’s neo-con agenda, for instance sponsoring an amendment – reluctantly accepted in December by Mr Bush – outlawing the “cruel, inhuman and degrading” treatment of enemy captives anywhere in the world.

Senator McCain’s championing of decent treatment of enemy combatants is rooted not only in his experience as a victim of the Vietcong’s torture techniques – he rightly points out that information disclosed in such circumstances is often unreliable – but also in recognition that many American citizens are as horrified by their government’s extremism as we Brits are.

Let’s take illegal wiretapping, one of the plethora of issues which has left Mr Bush’s government looking tardy and drained.

Last year, the New York Times revealed that the National Security Agency had carried out hundreds of wiretaps within the US without court orders. This caused uproar in America much to the bewilderment of many in Britain and the rest of Europe, who, it seems, take such government interference in individuals’ private lives for granted. A recent WNBC/Marist poll revealed that a slim majority – 50% to 48% - of Americans were very or fairly concerned by the Bush/Cheney administration’s approval of wiretapping without warrant.

It is not hard to imagine the contempt with which Mr Blair would dismiss such questioning were he in Mr Bush’s ranch boots. For our Prime Minister views the anti-terrorism agenda as his own personal bailiwick. And anyone who opposes what he deems necessary to safeguard this nation’s security is a lily-livered, pussy-footing, yellow-backed traitor. Which is why this week witnessed a craven Labour Party transforming itself, with little thought or compunction, into a state-sponsored welcome mat on which this Prime Minister, and any future office-holder, can wipe his or her feet.

This shouldn’t surprise anyone: the Labour Party has a rather touching conviction that ‘Government Knows Best’ – so long as it’s a Labour Government.

If the Conservative Party were to propose the introduction of a compulsory ID card holding biometric data linked to a government database expected to cost over £10 billion in the next decade you can predict what the Labour Party would say in response. If the Conservative Party were to propose introducing the unworkably neologistic concept of ‘glorification’ on a law-making whim to send a message to terrorists you can predict what the Labour Party would say in response.

Yet Mr Blair says “Boo!”, his Cabinet jumps, and Labour MPs demand to know, “How high?”

Mr Blair long since sacrificed effective law-making for cheap politicking. At Prime Minister’s Questions last Wednesday, Sir Ming Campbell asked of Mr Blair why “Rather than creating ambiguous and controversial offences such as the glorification of terrorism, should not the Government introduce the effective and practical measure of permitting the use of telephone intercept evidence in our courts, so that we may bring suspected terrorists to trial?” (It says much about the meretricious quality of political reporting in the UK that this question was ignored, and Sir Ming’s performance dismissed, seemingly on the grounds that opposition MPs barracked him.) The UK is the only country in the West not to allow intercept evidence to be admitted into the court-room, a bizarre legislative Achilles Heel for a Prime Minister who is determined to restrict free speech at every opportunity.

In the US, the Bush administration long ago relinquished any moral claim they might have been able to make that their intervention would light a beacon for Western democracy in the Middle East. The revelations contained in this week’s United Nations’ report into human rights abuses at Guantanamo Bay are just the latest evidence to have shattered that pretence. The charge-sheet is excruciating: the use of ‘special restraint chairs’, inmates force-fed through their noses, and menstrual blood smeared on detainees’ faces.

That Donald Rumsfeld continues to occupy his position as US Defense Secretary – despite the botched occupation of Iraq, the abuses documented at Guantanamo, and those unforgettable images from Abu Ghraib – is a disgrace for which no adequate, compensating excuse can be made.

Yet we Brits, thanks to our Prime Minister and his pliant party, are complicit in these outrages. Mr Blair’s strongest condemnation of Guantanamo is that it is an “anomaly”. The footage of British troops beating Iraqi demonstrators in the town of Amara provoked a going-through-the-motions response from our Government, the media, and the public. Were any of us really that surprised by what we saw? Today’s Independent on Sunday carries news of the first official acknowledgement that “CIA jets suspected of flying terrorist suspects to secret prisons for torture have landed at commercial British airports and received help from UK air traffic control”. You may have missed the story: it was buried on page 23. But would it have attracted any more attention if it had been on the front page?

We in Britain can and should condemn American abuses of human rights whenever and wherever they occur. But we should be equally scrupulous at holding to account our own Government. We may have nothing on the scale of Guantanamo to shame us; but nor do we have much cause for pride.

It is precisely because national governments too willingly trample on individuals’ rights – believing the ends justify the means – that we must resist Labour’s ever more intrusive state-grabs of power. The vision of ever more authoritarian governments perpetrating ever more dubious practices is the surest way of undermining those in the Middle East who aspire to the democratic ideal in their own nation-states.

February 15, 2006

No smoke without ire

As the chance may not occur again, I am going to take this opportunity to quote with unreserved approval from this morning’s Torygraph leader:

Last night's decision by the House of Commons to ban smoking on all licensed premises and in private members' clubs in England is perhaps the most Draconian infringement of personal liberty yet imposed by this Government, and it is depressing that so many Conservatives and Liberal Democrats joined forces on so illiberal a measure.
(My more considered thoughts on this issue can be read here.)

February 14, 2006

That was the week that was

Kudos must go to Peter Oborne, the right-wing political commentator, who gracefully introduced the most recent edition of BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster by issuing a Private Eye-style apology to the Liberal Democrats:

Over recent weeks, we political reporters have given the impression that it was all up with the Liberal Democrats. We indicated that recent events in Lib Dem high command had converted the party into a national laughing stock; and that, as a consequence, the era of three-party politics was over. The Lib Dems were doomed. If we did give that impression, (and I’m afraid we did), it was deeply regrettable. It emerges that, far from being doomed, the Lib Dems have never been in ruder health.

The Dunfermline by-election win must certainly be set alongside its Orpington (1962) and Eastbourne (1990) predecessors as among the most famous in the Liberal Democrats’ history. On each occasion, the last rites were being delivered to my party; on each occasion, we have put the celebrations of Lazarus in the shade. Reports of our demise have been very much exaggerated.

Do by-elections matter? Did the Lib Dems’ campaigning guru, Lord Rennard, spend £80,000 of the party’s money well? Look at the press coverage in recent days, and you have your answer. (And I suspect the victor, the tenacious Willie Rennie, will stick around for many
years to come.)

For, in one bound, we were free.

Suddenly the political commentariat has had to stop, stunned, in its tracks. Taking cheap pot-shots at the Lib Dems isn’t so much fun when you discover that the folks out there don’t seem to be listening to you. You could almost hear the hurt in reporters’ voices, as they grappled to grasp how voters could possibly have ignored all the abuse press and broadcasters have hurled in the party’s general direction in the last six weeks.

And, let’s be honest, the Dunfermline result came as a surprise to most Lib Dems too. Most of us assumed this by-election had “Labour win with much reduced majority on a low turn-out” written all over it. In fact, all these assumptions were wrong. Labour lost. The Lib Dem majority was beyond the shadow of a recount doubt. And the turn-out, though down on the general election, was a relatively high 49%.

We can, at last (and touch wood) draw a line under the party’s recent turmoils. Though I suspect the media were in any case tiring of their hyper-hyped “Lib Dems in freefall” guff, they now have little choice but to move on, and affix their bloodied jaws to the next antelope limping vulnerably across the political plains.

Which brings me to David Cameron.

Today, I imagine, his mind is rightly settled on matters closer to home; and that politics will not intrude into the celebrations of his third child’s birth. But the political climate will be a lot less benign for Mr Cameron on his return to work: the storm clouds are gathering.

For a start, one of the accidental consequences of the Lib Dems’ unconsciously determined efforts to dominate the front pages of this nation’s scandal-sheets, has been to de-rail the new Tory leader’s first 100 days in office. Under normal circumstances, the Lib Dems would be getting next to no publicity in the media. We would be safely ignored by the producers of news and current affairs shows, who can cheerfully ignore the legal conventions that operate in election campaigns which demand balanced and impartial coverage of all parties. Instead, it is the Lib Dems who have provided the major political news this year.

A leader’s first three months are vital: it sets the tone for the message to follow in the years ahead. Iain Duncan Smith’s tenure appeared jinxed once the announcement of his leadership election victory had to be postponed owing to the intervention of Osama bin Laden on September 11th. Any new Tory leader would have struggled to make much impact in the aftermath of that story: the Quiet Man was easily drowned out.

Mr Cameron is that most attractively curious of ideas: a novelty. As a still unknown quantity to most voters, they are willing to give him a chance. But they have absolutely no idea what he stands for, what are his values, what kind of Prime Minister he would be. The first 100 days was Mr Cameron’s big chance to make that impression, and it’s an opportunity he has yet to grab.

Commentators have been swift to pair Messrs Cameron and Blair as political innamorati. This is to do Mr Blair a serious injustice, for he quickly took Labour by the scruff of its neck. Within his first 100 days he had announced the abolition of Clause IV from the Labour Party manifesto – let no-one under-estimate or forget how brave and bold a decision that was. It could have backfired. Had Mr Blair been defeated, his leadership - and perhaps even Labour’s election hopes - might have been holed below the waterline. But, instead, he triumphed, proving his capacity for strong leadership, and his party’s preparedness to change.

Somehow, Dave, appointing Zac Goldsmith and Bob Geldof to head up policy commissions doesn’t quite compare.

That is why Mr Cameron’s ‘flip-flop’ gaffe at last week’s Prime Minister’s Questions was so important. I can still, six days later, just about remember that he and Mr Blair were trading ‘yah-boo-sucks’ blows about education. Even that – in the Westminster goldfish bowl of goldfish memories – will soon be forgotten. But what I remember with pitch-perfect recall is that Mr Cameron was accused of flip-flopping.

Does it matter? On one level, no: PMQs is Parliament at its theatrical worst, and is rightly regarded with contempt by the public. Besides, didn’t Ming Campbell slip-up on his first outing as Lib Dem acting leader, and that was soon forgotten?

Does it matter? On another level, yes: absolutely. Why? Because it boxes Mr Cameron into a corner. He desperately needs to reform the Conservative Party. In spite of a deeply unpopular Government, and Mr Cameron’s media honeymoon, Her Majesty’s Opposition is level-pegging with Labour in the polls, and that is bad news for the Tories. Mr Cameron appears truly to believe the Tory Party needs to change, that it must convince people it is no longer “the Nasty Party”, that it understands their aspirations and can deliver them.

But there has been no defining Clause IV moment, nothing to symbolise the closing of one chapter, and the opening of a new one. Mr Cameron has not challenged his party, and his policy reviews are simply deferring decisions until a less newsworthy day. Unlike Mr Blair, therefore, he has not proven himself a strong leader, nor clearly demonstrated that his party is willing to change.

Each policy U-turn now will be accompanied by cries of ‘flip-flop’. The Tories cannot deny it, since they want the public to believe that they’re different. But the electorate is unlikely to trust a political chameleon who changes his colours simply in order to gain power. They trusted Mr Blair because, though he had reversed many of his policy positions since he was first elected an MP in 1983 – showing he does indeed have a reverse gear – they also saw that he had risked his leadership to prove this change was genuine. And they respected that. If you’re going to ‘flip-flop’ make sure you’re wearing sturdy boots.

Of course, the dream for both Labour and the Lib Dems is that Mr Cameron will retreat from his resolve to camp his troops in the over-crowded centre-ground of British politics; that, true to form of previous Tory leaders, he will counter the ‘flip-flop’ allegations by sticking to the party’s current unelectable policy programme. I think Mr Cameron too astute to make those dreams come true.

But then I also thought he was astute enough to recognise that transforming his party’s fortunes would require more than just a make-over.

February 13, 2006

Markets, public services and social justice

Sorry, I keep doing this - replying to people's comments in articles at such great length that I then feel compelled to publish them as new posts. Both Joe Otten and Neil Fawcett asked me some very good questions in response to my What is an Orange Booker? article. As I have said in my reply, but edited out below, I don't have definitive answers: this is thinking in progress, and offered up to those who want to read it very much in that spirit...
I think a lot turns on our answer to 'what is a market?' When I use the term I don't mean a purely cash transactional economy. I mean a market in its most basic sense: the most efficient mechanism for allocating scarce reources.

As it happens, I therefore think markets are not only wholly appropriate for (eg) health and education - but that they are absolutely essential. 'Need' (however defined) in the NHS will always exceed the resources society has available. So how these scarce resources are allocated most efficiently - ie, how a finite pot of cash can help the most people - is crucial.

Markets give us the tools to make the tough choices we know need to be made. Those choices will need to be made, whether power is held at local or national level (though the more local the better, as far as I'm concerned).

The currency in a market does not always have to be cash. I'm interested in how we can get beyond the idea that markets are simply about fitting a number to anything that moves - because if you measure quality, it comes out as quantity.

I would also accept the point that various parts of all public services are natural monopolies, not least because of imperfect knowledge (eg, a doctor will know far more about overian cancer and how to treat it than will the patient). But, even there, we accept that there has to be a form of market - we might want a team of specialist cancer units in every major town in the country, but know we can't as a society afford it or staff it.

The decision as to how many specialists, and where they are based, has to be taken by managers / politicians somewhere. To make that choice of how to allocate those scarce resources they need to work out how they can spend money to best effect.

Perhaps they can develop a specialist unit in one area of cancer treatment because the next-door town specialises in another form? In which case the two hospitals will, through healthy competition, become greater than the sum of their parts.

Ultimately my belief (I'd try not be as theological as to term it faith) in markets is based on my conviction that healthy competition raises standards. I don't mean dog-eat-dog competition. But competition in which each service provider works out what can be its point of competitive advantage; how it can best serve the wider public good.

That is what I mean by liberal market delivery of public policy goals, and why I think those markets are the engine of social justice.

February 12, 2006

What is an Orange Booker?

That was the fair question asked of my by James Graham in his comment to my posting below criticising the leadership contest for treading water. My reply was too long for a comment box, so I thought I'd give it an airing here:

You're right of course the 'Orange Book' is a mixed bag - I was using the term as a commonly understood short-hand to refer to an emphasis on using market-based economics to deliver liberal public policy goals. ...

My point here was not to complain that any one candidate has not been pro-OB. The point is that the party is ignoring this debate, which denies the opportunity both to those who are OB-ers and those who are not, to make their respective case to the party's membership. A leadership contest should enable such a debate, not ignore it.

Ming, Chris and Simon have all (rightly) emphasised the fact that good quality public services require local accountability anddecent funding.

But none of them have addressed the bigger issue, which is more awkward: what to do when a bad decision is made locally, and what to do when the funding is insufficient (as it inevitably will be)? This is where markets are essential because they give you a robust evidential basis to make your decisions, and enable you to prioritise scarce resources to best effect.

So how can we as liberals establish markets? How can we correct the market failures there will inevitably be? And how can we make these markets work to deliver real social justice?

Those are the kind of questions a leadership debate should open up. We can all sign up to localism and decent funding. Let's also have the courage to debate what we disagree on as well. This contest hasn't provided that debate. That's why it's disappointed me.

My vote is cast

Notwithstanding my reservations, below, I have today sent off my completed ballot paper:

Ming 1, Chris 2, Simon 3.

Each has considerable strengths, and some weaknesses; I can see any one of them serving this party with great distinction.

Leaders are, of course, important - for much of the public they embody the party. But liberals should not get so hung up about who is our primus inter pares. True liberals believe leaders should be team-builders: conductors not coxes. That was Charles's great strength, at least until the dying embers of his leadership when he placed his ego ahead of the good of the party.

I hope whoever wins the party will unite behind them. In the main, this leadership contest has avoided too much personal enmity between the supporters from respective camps. But there has been some pettiness and sniping, and it ain't pretty. It should never have started - but I know when it should end: March 2nd.

The Liberal Democrats should never be deferential; but I hope we can remain polite.

February 11, 2006

The Lib Dem leadership contest and the elephant in the room

The three Lib Dem leadership candidates hot-footed it over from Slough to Oxford this afternoon to speak at St Anne's College (big up to my employer here, which offered the venue free). Pictures as below. The lecture theatre was packed despite the unavoidably short notice we were able to give for the event, with well over 150 members eager to be persuaded, or to have their preconceptions confirmed.

Each of the candidates spoke very well - clearly their speeches have been honed over the last few weeks - in their very different styles: Ming, the Grimond-ite gut liberal, spoke with passion about his internationalist values; Chris, the self-professed Green Horse of the contest, expounded his detailed policy vision; and Simon, the radical progressive, issued a crie de coeur to the party to take the fight to Labour.

Of the non-activist members I spoke to afterwards, the hust seemed to have done little to help them make up their minds: their second preference appeared to be as good as their favourite. (Though, interestingly, many had a very decided third preference, spread evenly between the three candidates.) Oxford is Chris's old stomping ground - he was the candidate here in 1992 - and he certainly has picked up support. My sense remains that Ming still leads, and that Simon and Chris will both do very well.

There was a real sense of purpose and enthusiasm following on from the stunning Dunfermline by-election result. And perhaps most of all of relief that the demoralising turmoil of recent weeks is now behind us.

The candidates are being trailed by John Harris - author of the excellent The Last Party and So Now Who Do We Vote For? - who is writing a major piece for The Guardian's G2 supplement: a sort of Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail, though a bit less gonzo.

He's an engaging and perceptive guy, and we had an interesting chat outside the hall during the Q&A session (when he, as a non-member, was banished from the room). He described the party as being torn between voting with its head (Chris) or its heart (Simon), dismissing Ming as the "Trojan Horse of the Orange Bookers" - which I think more than a little unfair, though it doubtless has a grain of truth.

Like me (and many others) he thought the Lib Dems had missed a trick by not having had a more open debate about the Orange Book, and that one of its leading proponents should have stood in order to push forward its arguments within the party. Harris himself, though not a Lib Dem, is very much on the side of the social liberals, and feels the big debate the party needs is largely being ignored; he noted that very few activists had any real clue what was in the Orange Book.

This is, it seems to me, a fair criticism of the leadership contest so far. Both Ming and Chris have, for their own slightly different reasons, retreated from pushing the Orange Book's economically liberal agenda (recognising that it remains still a minority view within the Lib Dems).

Ming has, I suspect, feared becoming too tarred by the Trojan Horse allegation; while Chris is anxious to keep high his stock among the activist base, which tends to be suspicious of the Orange Book and its proponents. And Simon (who is by no means the left-winger he's sometimes portrayed as) has nonetheless done little to reassure those like me who have huge respect for him personally that he has a robust or coherent view about the future direction of our public services.

The leadership contest has, therefore, become slightly paradoxical. Each of the candidates has made clear their view that the Lib Dem mistake in the last election was to fight with a shopping list of policies, but not to give the electorate a real sense of our values. I agree. All liberals can unite around core values of internationalism, civil liberties and constitutional reform. But that's just too easy. We need also to talk about how our shared values lead many of us to different conclusions; and to resolve what are those conclusions.

The big issues about public service reform have largely been dodged - or at least elegantly side-stepped - by all the candidates. It is good, but not sufficient, for us to talk about localism and fairness. We need to work out not only what are our values, but how they can be put into practice in a tough, competitive world. And that means how scarce resources, earned through a strong economy, can best be put to good use to ensure we have health and education systems that are among the best in the world.

None of the candidates has yet convinced me they know how to achieve this. And, though I think the contest has been in many ways interesting, I'm disappointed we have ignored this elephant in the room.

The Oxford hustings in pictures

Top 50 Lib Dem target seats

The splendid Anthony Wells at UK Polling Report has undertaken a painstaking analysis of the boundary changes and their implications for the next general election. His report can be found here.

All his notional majority figures are based on how the parties polled at the last general election:

Labour = 36%, Tory = 33%, Lib Dem = 23%

If those figures were repeated, Labour would lose a net 10 seats, the Tories would gain 14 seats, and the Lib Dems would gain 1 seat.

Anthony has also calculated the Lib Dems' top 50 target seats: 22 of them are currently Labour-held, and 28 of them are Tory-held. They are as follows:

Target No., Constituency, Incumbent Party, Notional majority, Swing required

1. Solihull, Conservative [currently Lib Dem held], 17, 0.02%
2. Guildford, Conservative, 77, 0.08%

3. Oxford East, Labour, 399, 0.45%
4. Edinburgh South, Labour, 405, 0.47%
5. Islington South & Finsbury, Labour, 484, 0.78%
6. Oldham East & Saddleworth, Labour, 546, 0.78%
7. Eastbourne, Conservative, 755, 0.80%
8. Watford, Labour, 1148, 1.16%
9. Hampstead & Kilburn, Labour, 1095, 1.28%

10. Ealing Acton, Conservative, 55, 1.51%
11. Aberdeen South, Labour, 1348, 1.62%
12. Torridge & West Devon, Conservative, 1677, 1.69%
13. Meon Valley, Conservative, 1949, 2.04%
14. Weston-Super-Mare, Conservative, 2079, 2.12%
15. Ludlow, Conservative, 2027, 2.18%

16. Dorset West, Conservative, 2461, 2.31%
17. Edinburgh North and Leith, Labour, 2153, 2.52%
18. Devon Central, Conservative, 2534, 2.67%
19. Wells, Conservative, 3040, 2.87%
20. Totnes, Conservative, 2739, 3.00%
21. Newbury, Conservative, 3418, 3.18%
22. Worcestershire West, Conservative, 3597, 3.61%
23. Bournemouth West, Conservative, 2608, 3.66%

24. City of Durham, Labour, 3274, 3.69%
25. Norwich South, Labour, 3129, 3.85%
26. Chelmsford, Conservative, 3745, 3.99%
27. North Dorset, Conservative, 3910, 4.14%
28. Filton & Bradley Stoke, Conservative, 1201, 4.23%

29. Liverpool Wavertree, Labour, 3038, 4.37%
30. Leicester South, Labour, 3725, 4.39%
31. Derby North, Labour, 3552, 4.43%

32. Harborough, Conservative, 4369, 4.46%
33. Birmingham Hall Green, Labour, 4375, 5.04%
34. Orpington, Conservative, 5156, 5.24%
35. Broadland, Conservative, 5121, 5.28%
36. Haltemprice & Howden, Conservative, 5085, 5.32%
37. St Albans, Conservative, 1421, 5.35%
38. Surrey South West, Conservative, 5981, 5.62%

39. Reading East, Conservative, 850, 5.69%
40. Colne Valley, Labour, 1430, 5.70%
41. Somerset North, Conservative, 6016, 5.83%
42. Aberconwy, Labour, 243, 5.84%
43. Glasgow North, Labour, 3338, 5.98%

44. Mid Sussex, Conservative, 6261, 6.02%
45. Bristol North West, Labour, 1075, 6.11%
46. Northampton North, Labour, 3483, 6.22%
47. Bradford East, Labour, 4679, 6.40%
48. Swansea West, Labour, 4269, 6.45%
49. Blaydon, Labour, 5634, 6.72%

50. Wantage, Conservative, 7335, 6.75%

February 08, 2006

That Cameron 'flip-flop' gaffe

Three months ago, following Mr Blair’s Commons defeat on 90 days’ detention, the Prime Minister’s authority was said to be non-existent. Here’s what I wrote then:

This defeat is part of politics natural rhythm, its ebb and flow. … Today, [Mr Blair] 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?
Now read

February 05, 2006

The Sun, Michael Barrymore and the new code of morality

If The Sun were a politician, its breathtaking hypocrisy would have seen it chucked out of office long ago.

When Michael Barrymore walked into the Celebrity Big Brother house just three weeks ago, the tabloid gleefully jeered: 'Shamed Michael Barrymore's entrance was described as "repulsive" last night. The ex-TV presenter wept as he spent several minutes lapping up the attention, cheering and clapping at photographers.'

Last week, though The Sun shone on Mr Barrymore, as the paper tenderly reported the star's tearful reconciliation with Terry Lubbock, whose son drowned at his mansion five years ago: 'I don't blame you, Michael' proclaimed the headline. So what wrought this transformation in fortune?

It's quite simple really: The Sun listened to its readers, most of whom proved to be a good sight more forgiving than their paper of choice. "I hope people give Barrymore a chance" - so said Kerry Daniels on The Sun's online 'Have Your Say', and her views were echoed by many other Currant Bun readers: Amica Puri ("I'm loving Barrymore and so thrilled he got a good response from the crowd. Stop giving him a hard time."), Emma Shaw ("You're only saying that Michael's entrance was repulsive because of the warm reception he got.") and Ricky-Lee Brennan ("Barrymore's a very good entertainer. Leave him alone. BARRYMORE to WIN.").

Why does any of this matter? It's not as if I'm breaking some earth-shattering news: downmarket tabloid displays double-standards - a nation yawns, "And…?" Well, there are two reasons why I think this item of emetic journalese is significant; and they reflect both positively and negatively on we, the British public, whose purchases pay for this country's media.

Let's start with the positive: the media is not as powerful as it sometimes likes to think itself because the customer is always right. It's almost 13 years since Rupert Murdoch's red-top rag declared 'It's The Sun Wot Won It', following John Major's unexpected victory over Neil Kinnock in the 1992 general election. Serious academic analyses have been undertaken in order to verify the truth, or otherwise, of this triumphalist claim.

Most conclude that its famous election morning front page ('If Kinnock wins today, will the last person to leave Britain please turn out the lights') was irrelevant, but that the constantly negative drip-drip of anti-Kinnock stories in The Sun might, perhaps, have swung a handful of votes. Yet the Tories polled 42% of the vote to Labour's 34%: in short, any effect the paper might have had was at the margins - and the scale of Labour's defeat was well outside that margin.

What might have been a more accurate summary is: 'It's The Sun's Readers Wot Won It'. These were the floating voters - not tied to political ideology but looking for the party which spoke their language - whose loyalties switched to the Tories in 1979 thanks to the double-whammy of Old Labour's implosion and the New Tories' resurgence. Mrs Thatcher's offer to sell them their council houses, her defence of the Falkland Islands, and her no-nonsense 'Grantham housewife' economics had turned their heads, shown them how Conservatism could appeal to ordinary people. Though, chances are, by 1992 they were Daily Mail readers anyway.

So, having patted ourselves on the back, and assured ourselves that we, the public, are more grown-up than the media sometimes credits us with being, allow me to set out why Mr Barrymore's very public resurrection also shines a distinctly unflattering light on us all.
What has actually changed in the five years since the tragic death of Stuart Lubbock in Mr Barrymore's pool? Nothing. An accident that was unexplained then remains unexplained now. There has never been any serious suggestion of foul play by Mr Barrymore; he was never charged by the police with any criminal offence; and they did not attempt to stop him leaving the country to pursue a new life in New Zealand.

Yet the cloud of suspicion has hovered over his head ever since. His supposedly dissolute lifestyle - the gay sex, the drink, the drugs - was blamed: surely, the press and public appeared to say, this kind of thing is just inevitable if you indulge in those kind of dirty practices? The truth was no longer the issue. Public and press sat in judgment over Mr Barrymore, and pronounced him guilty as not charged.

But now - after three weeks in Big Brother - we have absolved him of this guilt: he has purged and abased himself in front of our eyes for our viewing pleasure. Now we are content, satisfied that we have punished him enough, pleased that we have the power to rehabilitate a man's life and career, and smug with our broad-minded embrace of a formerly debauched gay back into showbiz. The man we judged a sinner has repented: this is our doing, and it is marvellous in our eyes.

This, it seems, is the new code of morality in this country. To pinpoint an individual's weakness; to find some pretext to pass judgment; to leave their life in ruins; to assess how they handle their humbling; and then to consider if this merits their restoration.

And if you're wondering if I have in mind the recent 'scandals' involving Mark Oaten and Simon Hughes you're damn right I do. In neither case was there any evidence that either man had been at all hypocritical in their public life. Mr Oaten had advocated reform of the prostitution laws to recognise that prohibition cannot and will not work. Mr Hughes has always been an advocate of equality of treatment before the law of all minorities. So what exactly was the public interest in either story - beyond a normal (let's not call it healthy) curiosity in other people's private lives? There was none.

We all know this really. We all know that we have absolutely no right to ask of another person, whether they're a 'celebrity' or an 'ordinary person', what they get up to in their private lives. We all know how we would react with understandable outrage if our employers demanded to know of us what we get up to in our spare time. We all know this. And yet…

… And yet there is something so irresistible about a good sex scandal. The issues are simple, they've been so well-rehearsed so often, and we can define our morality to our friends via an enjoyable gossip. We can prove ourselves to be liberal-minded ("to be honest, I don't even read the papers these days. Why would I be interested?") or gloatingly reactionary ("I think it's disgusting. They're all in it for themselves, these people").

In either case, we can feel superior, not only to the poor unfortunate on the receiving end of the press's big stick, but also to those fellow-gossipers who take a different view, be it liberal or authoritarian. Scandal is schadenfreude writ large, and we love it.

The media understands how symbiotic is its relationship with the public. They know they must throw us a bit of raw meat from time to time so long as it can be justified by some flimsy reference to public interest. And we lap it up, joyfully wallowing in our moralising cant. Mr Barrymore is, for the moment at least, back in public favour. We have, ever so graciously, forgiven him his flaws, and decided to celebrate them instead. The media and the public are utterly complicit in this unpleasant hypocrisy.

Which is why next week it'll be someone else's turn.

February 01, 2006

Coherent and united (no, really)

“A national residents’ association” and “An electoral dustbin for protest votes” are two of the major jibes that have been levelled against the Liberal Democrats down the years. (It’s possible a few more have been added in recent weeks.)

This has often struck me as a massive over-simplification, so it was good to see it exposed as such by today’s Guardian
, which offers a sneak preview by Patrick Seyd and Paul Whiteley of their forthcoming book, Third Force Politics: Liberal Democrats at the Grassroots.

The Guardian article comprehensively demolishes the idea that most Lib Dem members see pot-holes as more important than rendition. (Indeed I remember once having to defend to one stalwart member that the front page of my Focus newsletter should lead on a new pedestrian crossing; he felt, not without good cause, that we should splash on New Labour’s disregard for the principle of habeas corpus.)

… the members share a coherent set of Liberal principles which go beyond local concerns. As the party's name suggests, contemporary liberal democracy encompasses both liberalism and social democracy. The former emphasises individual freedom and market solutions, while the latter emphasises equality and redistribution. In relation to the former, our survey found that 58% of members thought that "individuals should take responsibility for providing for themselves" and only 28% thought that "it is the government's responsibility to provide a job for everyone who wants one".
This backs up similar research undertaken last year for The Times, which showed that “More voters think the Lib Dems share their values; understand the way people live their lives; are honest and principled; are united (by a huge margin); and have clear ideas for the most important issues facing Britain, than take that view about either the Conservatives or Labour.” (Though I concede we may have slipped back some on a couple of those measures recently.)

As for picking up protest votes... well, as I posted
back in September:

Political views are often as much defined by what we are against as what we are for. On the canvassing trail, I have met many, many voters who view British party politics as an essentially binary process. They vote Labour because they hated what "that bloody woman did to the country"; or they vote Tory because they "remember rubbish and unburied bodies piling up in the streets". And sometimes they vote Lib Dem because "the other two have had their chance". Such are the negative faute de mieux choices by which this country's political classes are elected. To assume that this works solely to the benefit of the Lib Dems is fallacious.
Interestingly, though not surprisingly, the scepticism with which many Lib Dems regard ‘the market’ is also noted by Seyd and Whiteley:
only 19% agreed that it "would be a good thing for schools to be made to compete with each other for students", the same percentage who also thought that "the government should encourage the growth of private medicine".
This is not an article when I bang on yet again that creating decent public services requires the creation of vibrant markets offering real choice. (For those who want that article, it’s here
.) But it did echo with the concluding paragraph of this week’s Economist leader offering a lukewarm welcome to Mr Blair’s education reforms:

Even if Mr Blair does get his reforms through, the argument over them has revealed a deeply depressing aspect of modern Britain. Passionate argument has raged over marginal changes. Genuine radicalism, of a sort that might really improve public services, is impossible. Until Britain opens its mind about how it might run itself, its schools and hospitals are doomed to be second-rate.
* Peter
at The Apollo Project uses the same Guardian article as a springboard to discuss liberal approaches to environmental taxation and incentives. Well worth a read.