What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

March 31, 2006

Up for a gong

I'm not sure I've ever been nominated for an award before (unless you count school prize-giving, which wasn't really a nomination kinda thing), but today I learned that my other gaff - www.stephentall.org.uk - is up for a New Statesman 2006 New Media Award in the “Elected representative” category.

The full list of nominations for all catregories is here. And you can nominate your own preferred sites here. (Deadline is 31st May.)

The standard prize at my school was a £3 book token. Actually, I'd be quite happy with that.

March 30, 2006

Nice one, Vince

The existence of this post says much about me...

I touched down in New York three hours ago, it's currently 4.30 am BST (as both my body and computer clocks are telling me), and I'm writing about the result of the Liberal Democrat deputy leadership election.

So I'm going to confine myself to three quick points:

1. Well done, Vince. He deserves to win for this article alone - one of the best analyses yet of the Cameroon phenomenon.

2. Though I readily concede having two balding blokes in their 60s as our Leader and Deputy does not perhaps present the degree of plurality we might wish, I'm relieved we have someone of Vince's stature as back-up. (Though, for the record, I still think it's a real shame Susan Kramer didn't go for it.)

3. Whither Matthew Taylor? An excellent result to run Vince so close; and now what?

March 27, 2006

As seen on PoliticalBetting.com

Today marks the second anniversary of the political geeks' website par excellence, Political Betting. You can read my 'Monday Guest Slot' article by clicking here (or just scrolling down)...

Dealing with the new politics

It’s 80 days since Charles Kennedy quit as Liberal Democrat leader, plunging the party into its January mensis horribilis.

Opinion poll ratings dipped as low as 13%, the Daily Telegraph splashed its front page with a report that the party was in ‘freefall’, and several over-hyped and under-sourced rumours alleged three Lib Dem MPs were poised to defect to David Cameron’s shiny new Tories.

Then came the party’s shock by-election victory in Dunfermline (Gordon Brown’s own stamping ground), and in one bound the Lib Dems were free. The emphatic leadership contest result, a canny front-bench reshuffle, and healthier poll ratings, has ushered in a Menzies mirabilis.

How long will this fresh sense of optimism last?

Ming Campbell’s first electoral test as leader will come with this May’s local elections, and the party’s expectations – which just a couple of months ago might have extended no further than bare survival – are once again fixed firmly on reaching dizzier heights. To work out if this is the triumph of hope over experience, let’s have a look at the form-book.

The figures below show the projected national share of the parties’ votes in that year’s local elections compared with the ICM poll rating (in brackets) immediately prior to those elections:

1998: Con 33% (31%), Lab 37% (48%), Lib Dem 25% (16%)
2000: Con 38% (32%), Lab 30% (45%), Lib Dem 26% (15%)
2002: Con 34% (29%), Lab 33% (45%), Lib Dem 25% (18%)
2004: Con 38% (33%), Lab 26% (38%), Lib Dem 29% (22%)

The Tories have added between 2-6% to their ICM national rating in recent local elections; Labour have dropped 9-15%; and the Lib Dems have increased 4-11%.

If this pattern were to repeat itself in 2006 – using the most recent ICM poll (18th March), with the Tories on 34%, Labour 37% and the Lib Dems 21%, as our bench-mark – we might extrapolate the following shares of the vote this May:

Con 39%, Lab 25%, Lib Dem 29%.

The Tories would be content, though perhaps not ecstatic, with such a performance. It would certainly represent progress on 2002, when most of these seats were last fought, but would indicate that Mr Cameron’s pyrotechnics have yet to set alight the world outside the Westminster village.

Such a dire performance from Labour would create huge pressure on Mr Blair to announce his departure from Downing Street, so hastening Mr Brown’s translation from the Last Word of the Treasury to its First Lord.

For Sir Menzies and the Lib Dems, beating Labour and recording a high-20s percentage, would seem like an Olympic gold, Ashes triumph and World Cup glory rolled into one after what has been a truly torrid time. But, then, you have to go back to 1990, the Lib Dems’ nadir, to find a local election result (not combined with a general election) in which the party scored less than 20%.

The stubborn refusal of the third party to lie down and quietly die points to a wider trend: what has been termed the de-alignment of British politics.

If we look at the combined, average general election vote shares of the two big beasts of post-1945 politics, the Tories and Labour, and compare them with the combined, average vote shares of the Lib Dems and other parties for each of the last five decades, the fragmentation of voter loyalties is clear:

1950s: Con/Lab 92%, Lib Dem/Other 8%
1960s: Con/Lab 89%, Lib Dem/Other 11%
1970s: Con/Lab 80%, Lib Dem/Other 20%
1980s: Con/Lab 72%, Lib Dem/Other 28%
1990s: Con/Lab 75%, Lib Dem/Other 25%
2000s: Con/Lab 70%, Lib Dem/Other 30%

Voters no longer identify tribally with one political party based on their self-perception of class or religious interest (or their parents’ views). In 1964, according to the British Election Study, 48% of Tory voters identified strongly with their chosen party, compared with 51% for Labour. By 2001, the figures were 14% and 16% respectively.

As voter turn-out has declined, transforming the electorate into a selectorate, the remorseless march of the de-alignment process has continued apace. The cosy Tory/Labour duopoly is coming to an end.

And, however much Messrs Brown and Cameron might prefer to ignore such a reality, this is the new politics with which all parties are going to have to deal.

March 21, 2006

No (sort of) to state funding of political parties

The Labour Party appears hell-bent on carelessly tossing banana skins into its own path.

The latest incident is, of course, their not-quite-illegal-but-pretty-damn-dodgy ruse of soliciting £14 million in commercial loans from individual donors whose anonymity they protected by re-naming them Lord [insert title here], and offering these benefactors refuge in the Upper Chamber. Think of it as an Establishment witness protection scheme – but rather more grand, ermine-clad and corrupt.

This scandal – in which the Tories are as up to their necks in merde as Labour - has prompted calls for state funding of political parties. It’s a concept with which I have huge difficulties. It does not seem right to me that tax-payers should be expected to bail out political parties on the grounds that those who seek to govern the country cannot be trusted to obey the most basic principles of accountability and transparency.

Secondly, political parties are voluntary organisations, not agents of the state. I believe that the government of the day is accountable for ensuring public organisations are delivering value-for-money services to the tax-payers who have elected them. Government is not there to hand out tax-payers' cash to private organisations to use as they see fit.

If we, as tax-payers, do not believe a political party is spending our cash wisely, how would we protest; how would we alter a party's priorities; how would we measure the efficiency or productivity of its propaganda?

However, I do think that true citizenship depends upon an informed public making intelligent choices, and that the state has a responsibility to nurture a culture in which such free expression can thrive. Proper debate, open to challenge, resulting in balanced conclusions: that’s my democratic ideal.

So here's my Third Way suggestion for enabling political parties to communicate their views and beliefs to the public, while ensuring state funding of political parties is kept at arm's length.

At general elections, all candidates are allowed an election communication, often called a 'freepost' - that is, one leaflet which is delivered free of charge to every elector in the constituency in which the candidate is standing. Why not extend this system? Perhaps allow up to three freeposts in any election campaign (local or general) to any candidate from any party? And maybe throw in a couple of paid-for party election broadcasts too.

Let's help political parties to communicate with those they hope to represent. But let's not give them free money, provided by the tax-payer, to do with as they wish.

March 19, 2006

I turned 29 today

This means I have just 12 months to get done what I can still legitimately ascribe to the irresponsibilities of youth. I googled "things to do before you're 30", and it hasn't been helpful: I've only done two from the list I found, and most of them sound too stag-weekend-kerrazy to be any real fun.

It's a worry that my current personal c.v. is just too dull for me ever to be able to mount a serious-but-flawed Lib Dem leadership challenge. The clock is ticking...

(Today also marks a far more significant anniversary.)

March 17, 2006

Vitriol ain't what it used to be

Both thegrauniad and PoliticalBetting.com have got rather excited by this week's Economist leader, which they interpret as calling on Tony Blair to quit now. I've read the piece, and have to confess to not quite seeing it myself:
... Perhaps the most persistent problem for Mr Blair, however, is the growing perception that he is a lame-duck leader. He made it clear some time ago that he would not lead Labour into the next general election, which is due by mid-2010. Instead he is expected to hand over to his finance minister, Gordon Brown, at some point in the next four years. As time passes and Mr Blair suffers more setbacks — small or large — more MPs are calculating that his stock is falling while Mr Brown’s rises. Some will now look to local elections in May, when Labour is likely to suffer some painful losses, as a moment for Mr Blair to go. But would even that put an end to the government’s difficulties? Mr Brown, too, would face a dilemma over whether to push ahead with more public-service reform or appease Labour’s rebels.
All fair enough comment, for sure, but hardly a clarion resignation call - and a pale, pale shadow of Leo Amery's ringing, Cromwellian injunction to Neville Chamberlain in 1940:
You have sat too long here for any good you have been doing. Depart, I say, and let us have done with you. In the name of God, go.
But perhaps we can leave that kind of sentiment and vernacular to the almost contemporary Bob Marshall Andrews.

March 16, 2006

A bloke named Ken

I like Ken Clarke - how can you not like someone with that much bonhomie, good cheer and hail-fellow-well-metness? But one thing does confuse me... when journos attempt to present him as utterly unspun, a good bloke devoid of any artifice. This cliched thumbnail-portrait is happily trotted out again by Fraser Nelson in his interview with Ken for this week's Spectator.

His I-shoot-straight-from-the-hip-and-tell-it-like-it-is reputation gives him the freedom to slur his opponents, and very often his own side, by virtue of his seemingly undiscriminating blunt nature. (A trait shared with another anti-politician called Ken.)

Ken Clarke of course is canny enough to understand this, and to play on it. So when he proclaims "Ming is an old Tory!", and alleges the Cable-Laws-Clegg triumvirate "ought to be Tories", we can be sure the attack is a premeditated one carefully designed to undermine. But, because this is Ken Unplugged - rather than some pager-fed Tory apparatchik spouting press release platitudes - his remarks are accorded Status.

It's telling that the Spectator prays in aid Ken's view that the new Lib Dem leader is a covert Tory infiltrator by wheeling out the hoary old tale (bizarrely termed "remarkable" by Mr Nelson) that Ming was twice offered a cabinet post in John Major's Government. If true, and it may very well be, subsequent events seem to suggest that Ming must also have twice refused to join the Tories. Which suggests to me he's not actually an 'old Tory'.

But all this is merely an appetiser for Ken's main course: to promote the notion that the Lib Dems have no choice but to throw in their lot with the Tories in the event of a hung Parliament:
"... people will expect the Conservatives and Liberals to form a working government." Should Sir Menzies decline Cameron’s hand, he says, Lib Dem voters would despair. "The Liberals really would look as if they’d ignored the public’s message, either refusing to play ball with anybody or helping a defeated Labour party back into office."
Now I have no fixed view on the subject of coalitions. The Lib Dems have long campaigned for proportional representation which, if enacted, would make arrangements between parties a commonplace. To say that any such partnership must always be with the Labour Party, and never the Tories, seems to me to be an extraordinarily naive negotiating position to adopt.

But, for that very same reason, Ken's view does not persuade me. If Labour loses its majority, but the Tories fail to win one, will the public really expect the Lib Dems automatically to throw in their lot with the Tories? I don't think so.

But the imponderables are legion, the permutations various, and the futility of such speculation ceaseless. Which is why Ming is quite right to say in public that he deprecates any talk of hung Parliaments, and that the Lib Dems will campaign simply for maximum votes, and maximum seats. (And why in private it will be the subject that most occupies his campaign team between now and the next election.)

March 13, 2006

Read all about it

You can observe two inverse trends in newspapers today.

First, newspaper circulation is down: 13 million daily papers were sold in February 2003, compared with 12 million last month. And, secondly, as fewer and fewer newspapers are sold, so each and every newspaper will onanistically proclaim how many more copies they are now selling (usually by comparing the sales of the latest DVD freebie issue with a slow-news August bank-holiday edition) – and how much they welcome all readers, new and old.

So it’s intriguing to cast our eyes down the figures provided by the National Readership Survey, and reported in today’s Media Guardian

Readership figures (how many people each day read a particular paper) of course differ from circulation figures (how many copies are sold each day). Circulation is what is normally quoted, slightly bizarrely: after all, you would not judge the popularity of a TV show by the number of sets which are switched on, but by the number of viewers who watch.

We can assume the survey is reliable for two reasons. First, the NRS is a continuous survey based on interviews with a large, representative sample of 36,000 adults – which means a small margin of error. And, secondly, the figures are used by the media industry as the basis for negotiations to buy and sell advertising space: they simply cannot afford to get it wrong.

Below are the readership figures for the daily newspapers (Mon-Sat), followed by the Sundays. The year on year increase/decrease is given in brackets.


Sun = 8,140,000 (-8%)
Mail = 5,640,000 (-2%)
Mirror = 4,150,000 (-11%)
Torygraph = 2,160,000 (-1%)
Express = 1,980,000 (-7%)

Times = 1,810,000 (+9%)
Star = 1,780,000 (-9%)
Grauniad = 1,220,000 (+14%)
Indy = 705,000 (+10%)
FT = 391,000 (-10%)


News/World = 8,630,000 (-9%)
Mail = 6,310,000 (=)
Mirror = 4,570,000 (-6%)
Times = 3,550,000 (+9%)
Express = 2,230,000 (+1%)
Torygraph = 2,040,000 (=)

People = 1,980,000 (-11%)
Observer = 1,290,000 (+11%)

Star = 1,020,000 (-16%)
Indy = 788,000 (+18%)

Newspaper figures are rarely compared in this way. Most tables you will see in newspaper media supplements divide the ‘broadsheet’ (as was) and ‘tabloid’ markets, occasionally adding a third ‘mid-market’ category to cope with the Mail and Express. Increasingly, this seems to me an artificial division, as the red-top Sun and Mirror attempt to become more middle-brow to ward off the all-conquering Mail, while the qualities ‘dumb down’ in order to take on the Mail’s icy grip on middle England.

In any case, fusing the figures into one table, ranked in descending order of readership, points up some curiosities. First, of the 28 million adults who read a national daily newspaper (roughly 70% of the adult population in the UK) some 30% of them read The Sun. Indeed, more people read The Sun than read the Telegraph, Express, Times, Guardian and Independent combined. It’s an astonishing achievement (whatever you think of it).

Conversely, it’s pretty impressive how the Guardian continues to punch above its weight, considering it finishes eighth out of ten in this readership league table, with less than 5% of the daily newspaper readership. (Its far-sighted investment in its hugely popular website is probably the main explanation, rather than any intrinsic leftist bias among the commentariat.)

Secondly, that the popular newspapers are not necessarily those which are often termed the 'popular press': the Daily Star Sunday languishes between the Independent and Observer on the sabbath, and its daily sister paper fares little better the rest of the week. And the mid-market Mail has long since usurped the red-top Mirror as the UK’s chief rival to The Sun (though many might think the Mail a good deal more titillating and socially destructive than either).

Thirdly, that the only daily newspapers to record increases are those which have downsized in the last year: the Indy, Times and Guardian are up between 9-14% on the back of their re-designs. Which prompts two questions. First, will that growth be sustained, or will these prove to be short-lived spikes, delaying, but not halting, their inexorable decline? And, secondly, if they do continue to buck the trend, how long will the Telegraph be able to hold out against the ‘compact’ momentum?

Finally – while it’s debatable whether newspapers’ endorsements of political parties in reality has much effect (as opposed to the constant drip-drip of positive/negative news, which demonstrably does) – it’s interesting to tot up the numbers.

The Labour Party was supported by five daily newspapers at the 2005 general election (Sun, Mirror, Times, Guardian and FT), with a combined readership of 15,711,000 (56% of total readership). The Tories could count on just three (Mail, Telegraph and Express), with readerships of 9,780,000 (35%).

Rather quirkily, the Star and Independent have this much in common: both declined to endorse any one party (one out of utter disinterest, the other out of split loyalties). The Sundays, far less influential, were slightly more even (51% to 44%), owing to the Sunday Times’s tepid support for the Tories.

But these figures illustrate how important is Rupert Murdoch – whose 75th birthday it was last week-end – to Gordon Brown and David Cameron. (I suspect Ming Campbell has probably written off the chances of gaining this senior citizen’s vote.) The 56:35 split in daily newspaper readership figures in favour of Labour could easily be reversed if Mr Murdoch were to decide the Sun (and Times) should switch sides next time, and back the Tories.

Would it, or should it, matter? Perhaps not. But Mr Brown’s big problem in 2009, or whenever, will be to prove that he can renew a wounded and tired Labour Party, make it fit and fresh for government, and seize the national momentum. What he will not want is for it to appear that time is running out on him. Which is why The Sun backing Dave is Gordon’s worst nightmare.

March 12, 2006

What the story of ITV tells us about telly

Is ITV on the up, transforming itself into a tough, multi-platform market-leader? Or is it on the slide, dying a slow, lingering, undignified death? The answer largely depends on what you think ITV is for.

This week, for instance, ITV’s chief executive, Charles Allen, announced that profits for 2005 were up 37% to £425m. Shareholders saw their final dividends boosted, while the company’s pension deficit has been halved. On any objective analysis this was a good, solid performance, reflected by ITV’s share-price mini-spike.

Now let’s have a look at the subjective side. And you don’t get much more subjective than Jimmy McGovern
, creator-writer of one of ITV’s drama gems, Cracker: "If I see anything on at ITV at 9pm, I don't turn on because I know it is going to be crap. It wouldn't be on ITV at that time if it was any good. I might watch something at 11pm but at that time it's crap and every writer I know agrees."

Of course there is no dichotomy between a financially healthy ITV, and a culturally parlous ITV: both reflect the reality. A glance at Trinity Mirror, owner of the Daily Mirror, reveals a symmetrical picture. Its chairman, Sir Victor Blank, reported profits this year of £221m, achieved principally by slashing costs, under-investing in its core journalism.

The legendary TV producer and executive, Sir Jeremy Isaacs, has just published his memoirs, Look Me In The Eye, which was reviewed by Tim Gardam in yesterday’s Guardian. It speaks of a wholly different telly age:

As Thames's director of programmes, [Isaacs’] achievement - Bill Brand, Rock Follies, Rumpole, Edward and Mrs Simpson, The Sweeney and The Naked Civil Servant - outshone the BBC's programmes of the same era. … In 1968, he was asked [by the BBC] if he would produce a history of the second world war. Isaacs was enthused, only to find out that, behind his back, the BBC had made others the same offer, and then decided it did not have the money. So he took the idea to his bosses at Thames and went on to make a history series [The World at War] that the BBC has never emulated.
Telly has changed, and it’s pointless to lament the passing of this ‘golden age’. (An age which also produced, lest we forget, The Black & White Minstrels Show and Mind Your Language.) But Messrs McGovern’s, Isaacs’ and Gardam’s essential point remains: would any bright young thing who feels they have something important to say now dream of making programmes for ITV? To ask the question is to answer it.

For those of us who think television can and should matter – that its mass potentiality to challenge and entertain the public is crucial to a sentient, liberal democracy – the decline of ITV into a pile ‘em high, sell ‘em low blob of undistinguished, indistinguishable pap is a deeply sad one. And it is a vital lesson to successful brands everywhere – from Marks & Spencer to Oxford University – of the importance of constant renewal if past success is to be sustained.

It is also crucial that policy-makers grasp the market changes which are transforming television, and, by extension, our wider culture. ITV’s ad revenues have fallen 10% in the first quarter of 2006. Between 2000 and 2005, ITV’s audience share slumped from 29% to 21%; its advertising revenues from £2bn to £1.5bn. This is an inevitable consequence of the growth of multi-channel TV, and the explosion in alternative entertainment portals (whether the Internet or games consoles). ITV will simply not have the cash now, or in the future, to invest in good-quality programmes. It will never again commission a documentary as ambitious as The World at War.

Channel 4, Isaacs’ brilliant creation, finds itself in many ways in a similar situation to ITV. The decline of ad revenues has increased its reliance on US imports and domestic schlock-umentaries. However, 25 years’ diligent branding and canny positioning has left it in a much stronger condition than ITV, having captured the brand loyalty of the cash-rich, upwardly mobile, consumer-intelligentsia demographic.

Which leaves us with the BBC as monopoly-supplier of public service broadcasting. Its programming budgets are protected from market vicissitudes and commercial competition by the BBC licence fee. For those who watch the BBC the licence fee is a fantastic deal – indeed, it is why the liberal, middle-classes love it. For those who do not want to watch the BBC, the licence fee is a regressive poll tax.

The history of cultural decline at ITV is a portent of the direction in which television is moving. For some, this decline is the very reason why the BBC licence fee must remain enshrined as the guarantor of quality telly. What worries me is the way the licence fee now so skews the market that the BBC has established a state-sponsored monopoly of what constitutes public service broadcasting. Its financial muscle threatens to strangle at birth any potential rival to its superiority.

There is no reason why television should be regarded as a natural monopoly. It is the licence fee which is making it so, and the viewing public are the poorer for it.

Profumo: a modern-day morality tale

The death of John Profumo has prompted the re-telling in today’s papers of the scandal to which his name is conjoined. (He was fortunate, perhaps, in one regard: that the addition of the suffix ‘gate’ to the name of whoever was up to their necks in it was not then compulsory.)

Profumo’s ‘Keeler interlude’ truly is a morality tale of its time, a wicked potion of sordid glamour and fallen glory: call-girls, a sexed-up Cliveden set, society osteopaths, the Minister of War, Russian spies, Hollywood actresses – it had it all. One man’s brief infatuation came to epitomise an age, and defined his life.

If a similar combination of circumstances occurred today, the scandal would be just as big, perhaps bigger, as Matthew Parris notes in today’s
Imagine that John Reid, the Secretary of State for Defence, was caught in bed with a prostitute who included among her clients an Arab agent with the ear of the al-Qaeda high command. He would be out of his job as fast as Tony Blair could say “John has my complete confidence”.
But one aspect, above all, intrigues me: that John Profumo never uttered a single comment in public about the episode, preferring instead to devote the rest of his life to charity work in London’s East End. He rejected the idea of a knighthood in 1995, fearing the attendant publicity would scratch at painful wounds. He sought his redemption through quiet observance of his personal code of honour.

Such silence is unthinkable today. Within a couple of years of their downfalls, latter-day Profumos are being interviewed for tear-jerking telly confessionals, or volunteering for I’m A Celebrity, in order to rebuild their esteem in public eyes.

This modern response to public disgrace reveals a certain lack of confidence and self-worth in contemporary society. Profumo was content to let his private actions make amends for his earlier indiscretions, justified by the forgiveness of his wife and family and friends. Today’s Profumos seem to find inner peace only through a very public acceptance of their frailties, the popular embrace of their weaknesses.

If John Profumo’s downfall exposed much of what was rotten about Establishment England, his dignified, chivalrous and gentle response to this personal tragedy displayed some of what was best.

March 10, 2006

Why, oh why, oh why...

... do I put myself through the weekly torment that is This Week? I remember when its quirky, jaunty take on the last 7 days at Westminster struck a deft balance between the serious and the light. Now it's just wall-to-wall vapid, humourless inanities.

I actually quite like and respect Andrew Neil as a political interviewer (at least when he's not trying too hard to be funny).

But Diane Abbot and Michael Portillo are utterly pointless. Semi-detached from their own parties, they represent only their own views - which seem to have drifted far away from any intellectual moorings. Neither has any pointful political existence beyond the programme, which means they think only as far ahead as the next edition. It makes for painfully shallow telly.

Watching it tonight - like some kind of sick puppy returning to its own vomit - I was struck by the antiquated futility of the Abbot/Portillo left-right oppositional schtick. It reminded me of the sublime Jon Stewart's eloquent tirade against the US equivalent of This Week, CNN's Crossfire. His Exocet lament - that the show's theatrical, bipolar sniping was "hurting America" - was so devastating that Crossfire was cancelled soon after.

Now I don't think the Beeb need go that far. There have been some memorable editions of This Week - usually when one or other of Abbot and Portillo has been absent. Ken Clarke, Robin Cook and Shirley Williams have all been stellar guests in their time: because they think/thought hard, and have/had something they want/wanted to say - and which was therefore worth hearing. (Inserting those past tenses still makes me sad.)

So let the BBC bring down the curtains on the Abbot and Portillo show, and try instead a new cast of three permanent guests. How about this trio of independent and intelligent MPs: Peter Kilfoyle (Labour), Ed Vaizey (Tory) and Lynne Featherstone (Lib Dem)?

March 09, 2006

The NHS: how £5.4bn = £0.6bn

A sobering analysis from Reform today notes how the £5.4 billion of extra tax-payers' money being poured into the NHS next year, 2006-07, will dwindle to £0.6bn available to spend on patient care.

£3.8bn (70%) of it will be swallowed by inflation, while a further £1bn (19%) will be needed to plug this year's anticipated NHS deficit. Which means just 11% of that whacking great increase will be spent on front-line services.

Mind, all that seems a picnic compared with the £7bn deficit they are predicting for 2010.

March 08, 2006

As one contest closes...

... another opens. The Tories have a new leader; so do we (yay!). Next one up is Labour. (Unless the Tories get bored with Dave first.) But who should they choose? Poll now open over at my Other Gaff.

Why Tessa should stay

To be honest, I'm bored now. No-one's yet told me what Tessa Jowell has done wrong. (Beyond a greater degree of credulity about her personal finances than is prudent for her own good. And which is her own business.)

I don't care that she and her husband are richer than Croesus. And I don't care much for Dave Spart columnists parading their class consciousness in articles which will earn them more in an hour than a cleaner takes home in a month.

Tessa is one of the few (and getting fewer) Labour ministers who can conduct an interview without making me wanting to scream at the telly or radio. For that alone she deserves a reprieve.

Well, for that, and for not being Patricia Hewitt.

Out of the shadows...

So the Lib Dem Shadow Cabinet has been unveiled. I’ve copied my ‘Dream Team’ listing below to compare it with the real thing (names in brackets). I see I got almost everything wrong. The one exception was my tip for Jo Swinson to become our Shadow Scottish Secretary.

Generally, though, it’s a pretty good mix. I’m delighted Michael Moore and Nick Clegg have been given prominent roles: both have star quality, and are more than matches for their opposite numbers.

I’m sorry Ed Davey hasn’t been given more time to prove himself at Education – I can’t say he’d overwhelmed me in the role, but it’s a damn tricky brief to get your head around, let alone unite the party around. Still - as he proved with the ‘Penny on income tax for education’ policy, his victory in Kingston, and ‘Axe The Tax’ – he’s a formidable campaigner, and that will be his main focus now (given we’re committed to scrapping the DTI anyway).

Three MPs I’m very sorry have not been included (maybe of their own volition for all I know) are Lynne Featherstone, Evan Harris and Jeremy Browne. The former two were highly effective champions for their preferred leadership candidates (Chris and Simon respectively), and are among our best media performers, while Jeremy is simply too bright not to be in the front line.

And only four women out of a Shadow Cabinet of 25 is (obviously) just not good enough. So I really hope Susan Kramer will throw her hat into the ring as Deputy.

Leader: Ming Campbell (Ming Campbell – an easy one to get right, I admit)
Deputy Leader: Susan Kramer (elected position)
Shadow Chancellor: Chris Huhne (Vince Cable)
Foreign Affairs: Nick Clegg (Michael Moore)
Home Affairs: David Laws (Nick Clegg)
Party President: Simon Hughes (Simon Hughes – I refer you to the Ming answer above)
Policy Co-ordination: Vince Cable (Norman Lamb as Chief-of-Staff)
Education: Ed Davey (Sarah Teather)
Health: Sarah Teather (Steve Webb)
Work & Pensions: Steve Webb (David Laws)
ODPM: Evan Harris (Andrew Stunnell)
Environment: Susan Kramer (Chris Huhne)
Transport: Jeremy Browne (Alistair Carmichael)
Defence: Michael Moore (Nick Harvey)
International Development: Lynne Featherstone (Susan Kramer)
DTI: Norman Lamb (Ed Davey)
Culture & Media: Julia Goldsworthy (Don Foster)
Scotland: Jo Swinson (Jo Swinson)
Wales: Jenny Willott (Lembit Opik)
N. Ireland: Lembit Opik (Lembit Opik)
Leader in Lords: Lord Ashdown (Lord McNally)
PLDP Chair: Paul Holmes (Paul Holmes - I refer you to the Simon answer above)
Chief Whip: Andrew Stunnell (elected position)
Chief Secretary to the Treasury: Forgot this one (Julia Goldsworthy)

Leader of the House: …and this one (David Heath)
Attorney General & Constitutional Affairs: …ahem, ditto (Simon Hughes)

March 07, 2006

When The Times speaks, the World winces

"Lib Dems' spending is in hands of 27-year-old woman MP".

Is anyone able to provide evidence of a more sexist or patronising headline from what was once a respected national newspaper?

March 03, 2006

The limits of power are great

Bagehot in this week's Economist hits the nail on the head: yes, we should make our democratic institutions more, erm, democratic. That means fair votes, an elected second chamber, local government with real budgets, and caps on donations to political parties. But we're kidding ourselves if we think this will lead to a surge in election turn-outs:
The real problem, which the commission recognises but shies away from, lies not with the political system at all, but with changes in society itself. As it observes, two contrasting groups have emerged to whom conventional politics has little appeal.

On one hand there are the relatively well-educated, relatively well-informed, relatively young who expect to make their own decisions, find self-expression in buying what they want when they want it, and see themselves as individuals free of geographic, institutional or social bonds.

On the other are the casualties of de-industrialisation who suffer from persistent poverty and social exclusion. The former are cynical about political leaders and irritated that voting is not more like shopping, while the latter feel bullied and let down by the institutions they rely on for their survival.

Constitutional reform of the kind advocated by the Power inquiry is well worth doing for its own sake. But whether it will make much difference to people who are already profoundly detached from the habits and modes of representative democracy is another matter.

Which may well be right, but is a rather gloomy way to end.

So I dug out the more upbeat conclusion to an earlier piece I wrote in another place arguing that fair votes is simply the start of the process of transforming politics - and not an end in itself:

I think it is naïve and disingenuous to believe that PR will arrest the decline in turn-out in and of itself. But what I do believe it can do is incentivise the political parties to develop a suite of policies which have wide, encompassing appeal: which speak to everyone. It is possible for the three mainstream parties each to achieve this.

But they will have to do so within an electoral system which enables fringe, extremist or single-issue parties to achieve representation; and within a pluralist political system which will reveal the polyglot nature of our political parties.

The challenge all of us who are involved in party politics face is alarming, but exciting: how to articulate a coherent, relevant Big Idea into which an ever more savvy and choosy electorate can buy.

March 02, 2006

Who’s in your Ming Dream Team?

First: many congratulations to Ming Campbell on a convincing victory: he has a clear mandate to lead. Secondly, well done to both Chris Huhne and Simon Hughes for fighting such energetic campaigns.

When I saw Ming interviewed this afternoon, he was asked what would be his first task. To assemble his Liberal Democrat shadow cabinet, he replied. So I thought I would give him a helping hand, and have drawn up my Dream Team, listed below.

(You can compare it with the current crop here.)

Leader: Ming Campbell
Deputy Leader: Susan Kramer

Shadow Chancellor: Chris Huhne
Foreign Affairs: Nick Clegg

Home Affairs: David Laws
Party President: Simon Hughes
Policy Co-ordination: Vince Cable
Education: Ed Davey
Health: Sarah Teather
Work & Pensions: Steve Webb
ODPM: Evan Harris
Environment: Susan Kramer
Transport: Jeremy Browne
Defence: Michael Moore
International Development: Lynne Featherstone

DTI: Norman Lamb
Culture & Media: Julia Goldsworthy
Scotland: Jo Swinson
Wales: Jenny Willott
N. Ireland: Lembit Opik
Leader in Lords: Lord Ashdown

PLDP Chair: Paul Holmes
Chief Whip: Andrew Stunnell

Have I got the balance right? Have some been over-promoted and others over-looked? I’d be interested to know what folk think…