What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

April 30, 2006

What's a few trillion between friends anyway?

The Indy on Sunday today reports that when, last November, the Home Office’s accounts were audited

although the books balanced, when the auditors added up the figures they totalled £26 trillion. This, the report notes dryly, is "almost 2,000 times higher than the Home Office's gross expenditure for 2004-05 and approximately one and a half times higher than the estimated GDP of the entire planet. This suggests that something has gone seriously awry with Adelphi processing during 2004-05. We have yet to receive an explanation for what has happened."
Such robust accounting procedures perhaps help explain why Charles Clarke can describe as “very few” the 288 prisoners released without being considered for deportation after he became aware of his department’s failure to carry out basic checks.

It’s also reassuring to learn that the former permanent secretary to the Home Office, Sir John Gieve, is now the deputy governor of the Bank of England.

We can all rest easy, happily assured this country's governance is in safe hands.

April 29, 2006

If I'd been John Prescott's mistress...

... I'd be keeping pretty damn quiet about it. But, once again, the question has to be asked: what is it about the British nudge-nudge obsession with sex?

We have a home secretary presiding over a chaotic government department incapable of undertaking the most straightforward checks on released foreign prisoners, some of whom have gone onto commit further serious offences, and what does most of the national press lead on... bloody John Prescott, and his bedroom shenanigans.

And I'm not blaming the newspapers: our esteemed Deputy Prime Minister's sexploits have been mentioned more on the doorstep when canvassing than has Charles Clarke's ill-advised attempts to cling onto power.

I imagine tomorrow's Mail on Sunday, which has bagged an exclusive interview with Tracey Temple - "the other woman he wronged" - will be a sell-out. (Though I must question how anyone, no matter what depth of prurience they can usually find it in themselves to plumb, can possibly stomach reading about Mr Prescott's lustings.)

Somehow, I can't help feeling our collective sense of proportion is all whack.

Most impressive new Lib Dem MP - poll update

A week into voting, and the poll over at m'other gaff - to discover the most impressive Lib Dem MP of the 2005 intake - shows Lynne Featherstone in a commanding lead, on 30%, well ahead of her nearest challengers, Chris Huhne and Nick Clegg.

But the other seven shouldn't feel too disheartened - what with the elections and everything, I haven't time to put up another poll just now. So there's at least another week for it all to change.

(And, c'mon fans of Jeremy Browne and John Hemming... don't be shy.)

When chameleons attack!

I try not to do cheap politics, but, hey, there's an election on, and this story from Sky News is irresistible:

Conservative leader David Cameron asked for Sky News footage to be withdrawn from screen after a disagreement with one of the channel's senior reporters. ...

Sky correspondent Joey Jones was trailing Mr Cameron, with the agreement of his team, and took footage of him pressing the flesh in Kingston Upon Thames and Newcastle, before concluding his feature with a face-to-face interview.

But it was then, the Tory leader became uncomfortable with questions about why he wanted to change the party - and he broke away from the interview, becoming increasingly flustered, gesticulating and dismissive.

Mr Cameron admitted the day before that he woke up "every morning thinking what more can we do to change the Conservative party". But when Jones asked him if that meant he disliked the current party, the interview disintegrated. ...

[Three attempts later, DC replies] "The problem is...." He sighs. "I mean where is this interview going? We are going round and round and round. What are we doing here?" replied Mr Cameron. "Sorry, I thought we were doing a short interview. It's now turning into a half hour thing.....I thought it was a few pictures in different locations and...."

In less than 10 minutes the interview is brought to an end. Mr Cameron and his media team then ask that the footage where he stumbles, is not shown.

Jones said it was a "sour end" to their time together. "The likelihood is that despite his (David Cameron's) best efforts, the Tory showing next Thursday will be less than spectacular. If that's the case, the question as to whether he was wise to try and transform the Conservative party will reoccur with greater insistence and he will be well advised to get used to it."

It's not been a good 48 hours for Young Master Cameron. This tale of grumpiness follows hot on the heels of the revelations that Dave - that cheery eco-scamp - retains a chauffeur to deliver his shoes and a pressed shirt to work each day. Well, which of us doesn't?

As for today's bust-up... I imagine it had been a long day, and that young Dave was feeling over-tired. Nothing a good night's sleep can't put right.

Cruising for votes

Sometimes, y'know, canvassing can be fun:

Young lady: So how old are you, then?
Me: 29.
YL: Well, you're a sexy, young-looking 29.

I mean, that's good, isn't it? (Shallow, moi?)

April 27, 2006

What's so good about being independent anyway?

There was a silly article by Alice Miles in yesterday’s Times, but I got a bit distracted by Labour’s implosions. The title gives the gist of her argument: National parties are a waste of time. Let's hear it for the independents.

In fact, that’s about all she has to say, but she strings it out over the requisite thousand words by having a general moan about her local council, and a new roundabout. (Which was rather reminiscent of Julie Burchill’s tediously repetitive rants about Brighton City Council in thegrauniad’s Weekend magazine.)

For the rest, it is a typically lazy piece of emetic journalism, involving such tedious clichés as

  • Political parties “do not really develop policy”;
  • “Anyway, they broadly agree on everything”;
  • MPs only listen to focus groups, not their constituents; and
  • Only independents are capable of listening to, and fighting for, their residents.

It is fashionable and easy to knock political parties, and to laud independents for their free spirits. Now I’m sure there are many honourable examples of non-aligned politicians who are paragons of virtue.

But most of the ‘independents’ I’ve met are not in political parties because they are incapable of getting along with other people; or because their views are so madcap that there’s no political party which would have them; or because they’ve become obsessive conspiracy theorists, convinced the council/MP/universe is plotting against them.

Just because a candidate calls themself independent does not make it so. They will have views, perhaps even prejudices, just as many of us do. The difference is that an independent, by declining to stand under any label, conceals from the public what their political philosophy is.

It’s the ultimate spin: “no-one can be against independence of mind, therefore I shall be an Independent!” Yet it leaves the public none the wiser what that individual’s views might be on a range of issues, now or in the future: what are they for or against?

More importantly, even I - as a liberal committed to devolution of power to the most local viable level - recognise some issues have to be decided at a national level; that there will have to be trade-offs, compromises, negotiations. A national party enables these tough choices to be democratically made among friends who share core values. You debate, you argue, you learn.

If political parties did not exist, they would soon be invented.

When less is more

From this week's Economist leader on Labour's 'Black April':
Mr Blair and his team have sought to do too much, often too fast, without thinking through the implications of the reforms they advocate. Their apparently uncontrollable urge to meddle in everything, constantly seeking to occupy the visionary high ground, saps morale in public services and makes it almost impossible to manage in the here and now.

Interestingly, one bit of government works rather well, thanks to one of Labour's earliest reforms. Monetary policy may have done for Mr Major's government but in the hands of the independent Bank of England it has been trouble-free. That is because the Bank has been given a clear remit — the inflation target — and left to get on with meeting it.

The lesson is to do more by doing less. It seems unlikely that Labour can stomach such a self-denying ordinance, but the danger of its Black April is clear. As the Conservatives know to their cost, once a reputation for competence has been lost, it is virtually impossible to regain.

Mr Blair’s Black Wednesday

When do governments reach a tipping point? That moment when it all simultaneously implodes, slumps, disintegrates, splinters and collapses. Today's news could scarcely be any worse for Tony Blair:

  • Charles Clarke is in serious trouble because of the foreign prisoners’ deportation debacle;
  • Patricia Hewitt opens herself up to ridicule for claiming the NHS is experiencing its "best ever year", which doubtless provoked today’s heckling by health workers; and
  • John Prescott occupies the front page of the Daily Mirror with lusty tales that will bring a blush of anger to the cheeks of Pauline.

Until now, I’ve felt Mr Blair was an asset to the Labour Party, in spite of everything: he has been, without doubt, the most talented politician of his generation. A gifted communicator. An exceptional strategist. A political zeitgeist.

Of course, it all went wrong with Iraq: that is his legacy, and I think he now accepts that the catastrophically mistaken decision to invade on a false prospectus and without UN authorisation is what he will be remembered for. It is a tragic testament to the Prime Minister’s doomed talents.

But in the last few weeks, there’s been something indefinably stale in the air, sour to the taste, prickly to the touch. The ‘cash for peerages’ row was the start. It was not so much that what Mr Blair (or those who act in his name) has done is wrong or illegal - though it may turn out to be both - but that he just didn’t seem to care, couldn’t see what all the fuss was about, was exasperated by the need to explain such piddling facts of life to the press or public.

He shrugged his shoulders, stuck up two fingers, and turned his back on the problem. The political funding laws, he said, needed tightening; neglecting to note that they needed tightening because he couldn’t be trusted to observe their spirit, let alone their letter.

Today's performance at Prime Minister's Questions in defence of Charles Clarke was one of Mr Blair's weakest to date. He looked beleaguered and bewildered, defending Mr Clarke not because he felt he should, but because it was a virility test he must pass. And yet when it was his Home Secretary 's turn to explain his department's muddles to the House of Commons, Mr Blair deserted him. Giving out mixed signals is not what the old Tony Blair would have done.

(Here, by the way, is what Mr Clarke should have done: announced he would quit in two months' time, once he had done all he could to institute reforms in the Home Office. Imagine the statement:

"I accept personal responsibility for what happened on my watch as Home Secretary. This was a huge cock-up, and it is only right that the buck should stop with me. But it would be deeply irresponsible to leave the department immediately. I am setting myself two months to oversee the reforms which are necessary, so I can ensure my successor can hit the ground running. I will then retire to the back-benches knowing I have acted with honour, and left no-one in the lurch."

That would have rescued his reputation, and boosted his popularity. Oh, and been the right thing to do.)

That New Labour should be vulnerable to attack on the NHS would once have been unthinkable. Almost everyone recognises the health service has had a massive cash injection, that it is - for the first time in a generation - well-funded. Yet still there are huge deficits threatening hospital closures and likely job losses. Unsurprisingly the public concludes their money is being wasted.

The Prime Minister is right to point out that it is the Government's reforms which have brought this to light; that this waste is not new, but that health managers are now accountable for it. The old Mr Blair would have won that argument. (The old Mr Blair would also have had the sense not to put Patricia Hewitt - perhaps the least empathetic, most patronising minister in the cabinet - in such a sensitive role.)

The last two days' polls have suggested support for New Labour is crumbling: it is hovering at 30%, a figure not seen since the days when Neil Kinnock and Margaret Thatcher were slugging it out across the despatch box. Doubtless to the distress of many Conservatives, it is not Mr Cameron's shiny new Tory Party which seems to be benefiting, but the Liberal Democrats, up to 24-25%, unthinkable even two months ago.

The Tories are still coming to terms with quite how damaged their brand is. I have noted before that there is a certain symmetry between the optimism with which Michael Howard's ascension as Tory leader was greeted, and the paroxysms of ecstasy which Mr Cameron's election has induced.

Two years ago, the Tory Party was riding high in the polls, fully expecting triumphant local and European election results. Then something happened: they were out-flanked. Mr Blair pledged a referendum on the European constitution - a central plank of the Tories' election campaigns - and Ukip mopped up the "gadfly, fruitcake and closet racist" vote. Mr Howard never recovered.

How will Mr Cameron react to his Party's failure to make progress against a Government whose unpopularity must now trough alongside John Major's abysmal efforts in the mid-1990s? Will he continue to stick determinedly to a middle course which appears to be attracting few floating voters, but atrophying his base; or will he revert to type, and seek to plough the lonely right-wing rut his predecessors perfected?

Mr Blair is now finished, of that I am certain. He may limp along for months, perhaps years - after all, John Major held out long enough - but he is damaged beyond repair. His staying can no longer serve any useful purpose, either for his Party or the country. He is tired. He deserves a rest. And so do we.

April 26, 2006

There's no such thing as a free Luntz

The execrable Frank Luntz’s meretricious contributions to BBC’s Newsnight has prompted a flurry of comment...

Liberal Review has been investigating Mr Luntz’s checkered/chequered past, as well as
observing the similarities between Mr Luntz’s advice to US Republicans and the public profferings of Mr Cameron.

This has prompted LR’s editor, Rob Knight, to fire off an e-mail to Newsnight’s editor, Peter Barron, suggesting he dispense with Mr Luntz’s services if Newsnight is to maintain its reputation for credible impartiality.

But the last word must go to the Millennium Elephant, for his seriously funny take on Mr Luntz’s dark, political arts.

April 24, 2006

Gigging with Dave 'n' Chris

Explaining why he bought a Lexus ‘hybrid’, a less environmentally sound car than the Toyota Prius ‘hybrid’:

Mr Cameron argued that the official hybrid might not be big enough. "My problem is that often when I go on tour, I have a lot of people in the car with me and I found when I used a Prius it meant we had to have two cars rather than one, so I don't think it would be very good for the environment."

I was then quite tickled to read Chris Huhne's statement:
"To suggest that a Prius is not adequate for a senior politician is utter nonsense. Sir Menzies Campbell received a tour around my constituency in my Prius only this morning. If it is good enough for Menzies Campbell, then it is good enough for David Cameron."
I'm sure Ming is touched by the generous comparison, Chris.

April 22, 2006

Many happy returns of the (yester)day

A quick post, both to commemorate HM The Queen’s 80th birthday (belatedly), and also to test the human condition:

  • Here’s a link to some scandalous, unsourced Royal gossip; or
  • There’s this link to the BBC’s official ‘The Queen at 80’ site.

Your choice…

April 21, 2006

The Worst President in History

Back in May 2004, Matthew Parris wrote a brilliant article, Why I will be rooting for a George Bush election victory:

What the President and his advisers are trying to do will be a colossal failure. But failure takes time to show itself beyond contradiction. The theory that liberal values and a capitalist economic system can be spread across the world by force of arms, and that the United States of America is competent to undertake this task, is the first big idea of the 21st Century. It should be tested to destruction. The opening American presidency of the new millennium — George W. Bush, 2001-2009 — should serve as an object lesson to the world for the decades to come. There must be no room left for argument. The President and his neoconservative court should be offered all the rope they need to hang themselves. When they do, when they fail, when America's dream of becoming the new Rome dies, there should be no possible excuse, no straw at which Republican apologists can clutch.

Throughout history, failed ideologues have protested that they were never really given the chance to put their ideas into practice. Their disciples remain, still believing, still evangelising for the next attempt. Let the former President George W. Bush find no such cult to puff his memory. Give him the chance to see this thing through to the end, so that nobody will be able to claim that it was the American people who let him down; that the voters’ nerve failed before he could finish the job. Let him finish the job. Then the failure can be pinned to him and to his project, not to any infirmity of the people’s purpose.
It was a piece which stuck in my memory, and came to mind again today when I read historian Sean Wilentz’s article in Rolling Stone, The Worst President in History:

George W. Bush's presidency appears headed for colossal historical disgrace. Barring a cataclysmic event on the order of the terrorist attacks of September 11th, after which the public might rally around the White House once again, there seems to be little the administration can do to avoid being ranked on the lowest tier of U.S. presidents. And that may be the best-case scenario. Many historians are now wondering whether Bush, in fact, will be remembered as the very worst president in all of American history.

Who do you think is the most impressive new Lib Dem MP?

In an homage to (otherwise known as blatantly ripping off) Iain Dale and Mike Ion - both of whom are running polls to find out the most impressive MPs from the 2005 intake among the Tories and Labour respectively - I'm conducting a similar exercise over at my other gaff for the new Lib Dem MPs.

The shortlisted 10, chosen pretty arbitrarily, but displayed alphabetically, are:
  • Jeremy Browne
  • Nick Clegg
  • Lynne Featherstone
  • Julia Goldsworthy
  • John Hemming
  • David Howarth
  • Chris Huhne
  • Susan Kramer
  • Jo Swinson
  • Jenny Willott
Seems like a sure-fire way to lose friends, but anyway...

Chris Huhne has clearly got quickest off the mark, coming from 'nowhere' to 2nd place in the leadership contest in under a year. Lynne Featherstone, Julia Goldsworthy and Susan Kramer are all stars, from whom we'll be hearing much more. Jeremy Browne is the MP I'm probably closest to ideologically.

But it's hard not to plump for Nick Clegg as the one to watch - he's got a tough, but high-profile, job as our Shadow Home Secretary, and it'll make or break his reputation as Leader-in-waiting.

So anyway, get over there, and remember to vote early, vote often. (Actually, you can only vote once, unless you do weird stuff to your cookies. Apparently.)

April 19, 2006

Out to Luntz

Here's a quickie: does anyone know why the hell BBC2's Newsnight continue to retain the American pollster, Frank Luntz?

He was at it again tonight, apparently "looking at how the British party leaders are doing". Or as I might less tendentiously phrase it, peddling his meretricious circus-act of orchestrated group-think.

It was his usual schtick... Play a few (carefully selected) telly clips of Blair, Cameron, Campbell and Brown. Out of context. Prefaced with leading questions. Whip up a whirligig of cliched generalities among 'swing' voters. Then watch Newsnight treat his conclusions with talismanic reverence.

Luntz may know sod-all about political science, but he's clearly very well versed in the political arts.

UPDATE: Martin Tod suggests some possible explanations.

Another Cameron flip-flop

You may remember that, a few months ago, the Lib Dems were in the doldrums and Mr Cameron was in the ascendant.

At that time, Dave thought it would be an awfully good wheeze to generate some easy publicity by urging Liberal Democrat voters, councillors and MPs to “come and join the new Conservative Party”. After all, he said, we basically pretty much agree sorta thing:
Issues that once divided Conservatives from Liberal Democrats are now issues where we both agree. Our attitude to devolution and the localisation of power. Iraq. The environment. I’m a liberal Conservative.
Mr Cameron’s attempt to pretend the Tories and Lib Dems were singing from the same hymn sheet on Iraq resulted in his embarrassing ‘flip-flop’ gaffe at Prime Minister’s Questions back in February.

Which is, perhaps, why now the LibDems4Cameron website has been amended somewhat… See if you can spot the seamless touch of nip ‘n’ tuck editing:
Issues that once divided Conservatives from Liberal Democrats are now issues where we both agree. Though we were on different sides of the argument over Iraq, we all want to see democracy established, security guaranteed and our troops home.
Better never than late, Dave.

April 18, 2006

Karma Cameron

I'm a man without conviction
I'm a man who doesn't know
How to sell a contradiction

So sang Boy George and Culture Club on tonight’s Labour Party local election broadcast.

I think it’s safe to say Labour are pretty pleased with their ‘Dave the Chameleon’ campaign: it has spawned not only tonight’s show, but also a website, a blog (that’s an ‘internet diary’, if you’re a Telegraph reader), a podcast and mobile ring-tones. It’s a real multi-media, cross-platform political sledging.

Some have likened this to the Tories’ (failed) attempt to taint Tony Blair with the infamous ‘Demon Eyes’ poster – indeed, the Torygraph portrays it as a major bitch-slap: ‘Labour labels Cameron a reptile’

I think it’s more canny than that. Depicting ‘Dave’ as an ineffectual, inexperienced, wishy-washy, crowd-pleaser will, Labour hopes, make a negative of the very attributes Mr Cameron is aiming to present: that he is a young, fresh-faced, moderate pragmatist. Translating Mr Cameron into a benign cartoon character feeds the nice-but-dim Tory Boy image that is the Conservative leader’s weak flank. (By contrast, the Tories’ ‘satanic’ attacks on Mr Blair were ludicrously OTT, and pointlessly vindictive.)

Will it work? Who knows? Mr Cameron’s real success so far is that the voters still do not know what to make of him. Messrs Hague, Duncan Smith and Howard all recorded small positive ratings in the early months of their leadership of the Conservatives – primarily because most voters suspended their judgments until they had seen them in action. The more known they became, the more voters disliked them.

Here’s the average of the Mori satisfaction ratings for the last four Tory leaders in their first three months:

William Hague: 18% (Satisfied), 22% (Dissatisfied) = -4% (Net satisfaction)
Iain Duncan Smith: 20%, 17% = +3%
Michael Howard
: 26%, 20% = +6%
David Cameron
: 31%, 17% = +14%

And here’s their final net satisfaction ratings as leaders:

William Hague = -22%
Iain Duncan Smith = -27%
Michael Howard = -20%

Mr Cameron has made a better start than his three predecessors: the question is, can he maintain it? His pre-Christmas honeymoon was accidentally interrupted by the Lib Dems’ leadership travails, which rather stole Mr Cameron’s thunder. By the time the media turned its attention away from Sir Menzies and co., Mr Cameron was no longer the novelty he once had been.

The combination of his notorious ‘flip-flop’ gaffe at Prime Minister’s Questions – followed by an under-whelmingly over-shrill Budget reply, a hesitant response to the ‘Cash for Peerages’ row, and stuttering opinion poll ratings – has served only to increase the pressure. Having risen without trace, the expectations of Mr Cameron among his party colleagues and the commentariat has been commensurately higher.

Mr Cameron’s conundrum is this…

To woo back moderate, centrist voters – who either remain loyal to New Labour, or else have moved to the Lib Dems – he must show that he is a caring, sharing sensitive kinda guy: hence the risibly inane injunction to Tories to show their ‘green’ credentials by picking up a piece of litter every day.

But to prove that the Tories have changed – and that he is not the only nice guy in the Tory village – he must take on his party and win, just as Neil Kinnock faced down Militant, and Mr Blair junked Clause IV. So far, though, Mr Cameron has shied away from confronting his party in anything more than the vaguest, voguest terms.

If he continues down this path of least resistance, he will become vulnerable to a pincer attack from Labour and the Lib Dems: that he is a weak and opportunistic leader controlled by his unchanged, unpleasant party.

Mr Cameron has to work out how to sell that contradiction, and fast.

April 11, 2006

These Italian elections, right... (updated)

... Anybody any idea what's going on? It's 9.57 pm, and looks like a dead-heat, except that everyone* thinks Berlusconi has pulled a rabbit out of the hat.

I'm scarcely wowed by Prodi, but how anyone can countenance voting Forza Italia is as beyond my comprehension as understanding those who supported Dubya.

(* except the punters on the Betfair markets. I laid Romano at 1.6, and backed Silvio at 3.45.)

UPDATE 11.47 pm: no closer to knowing. I still want Berlusconi to lose, but now feel conflicted by the profit I make if he wins (it's best to bet against your heart).

UPDATE 2.03 am: Prodi claiming victory. I'm happy to forfeit my (grubby) Berlusconi profits.

April 09, 2006

Labour adopts localism

From today's Observer:
Rebel Labour candidates, including the brother-in-law of a senior cabinet minister, are publicly distancing themselves from their own government in a frantic bid to salvage votes in next month's crucial local elections.

In some areas the party has also resorted to 'stealth' leaflets that do not appear to come from the party - including a letter to voters in north London purporting to come from a man living near by, urging them to vote for his 'old friend', the Labour candidate, despite reservations over the war on Iraq. Electoral register searches reveal nobody of that name listed at his supposed address.

This, a Downing Street source informs us, is because the Labour Party is a 'broad church' - 'We said we are fighting the campaign on a local basis, and we have been as good as our word'.

This strategy should not be in any way confused with Labour's tedious accusation that Lib Dems say one thing in one part of the country, and another in a different part (or 'localism', as it is often termed).

I've no problems with Labour adopting a localist agenda. It's just that it would be nice if it emerged from some form of ideology, rather than as an opportunistic band-aid to keep the party together.

A bad case of the sulks

Those who doubt Gordon Brown has the right temperament to become Prime Minister, will not have had their fears confounded by Andrew Rawnsley's account of what happened following Labour's ludicrously stage-managed media launch on Thursday:
More revealing about [Blair and Brown's] tortured relationship is what actually happened when the two men were forced into each other's company on the back seat of the limo. The Prime Minister tried to engage the Chancellor in conversation. I'm told that Mr Brown responded by taking out some papers and burying himself behind them, refusing to reply to every overture until Mr Blair finally gave up trying to make conversation. The journey passed in a bitter silence.

Y'know, it would be nice if our next Prime Minister could behave like a grown-up.

April 08, 2006

No to ‘superbosses’ (Yes to elected mayors)

It’s a very Tarzan proposal: showy, populist and silly.

Lord Heseltine, head of the Tories’ cities task force, has urged his party to shake-up local government by merging the twin council positions of chief executive and leader. Superficially, it’s a clever and attractive notion.

All politicians everywhere – especially in the lead-up to elections – pledge to cut red tape, wage a war on waste, and cast aside the dead hand of Town Hall bureaucracy (and many other clichés) in order to keep taxes low, spend more on services, and let a thousand flowers bloom.

So what could be better than to halve the salary bill right at the top? To scythe out one of those unpopular, superannuated busybodies who do little more than dream up new ways to increase your council tax or the cost of parking. Instead of two people oppressing local residents, we can give just one ‘superboss’ – Hezza’s buzzword – free reign (sic) to do as they wish, and save a salary. Isn’t life grand?

Of course, it’s not as simple as that.

For a start, it’s the chief execs who earn the big bucks, with six-figure salaries the norm; council leaders earn far less – last year, Oxford City’s Alex Hollingsworth received £10,733, Oxfordshire County Council’s Keith Mitchell £34,353. Now imagine if there were just one ‘superboss’: which salary do you think they would be paid – the big one or the small one? I think so too.

So milord Heseltine will excuse my scepticism that this reform will save ‘hard-working taxpaying families’ (another of those clichés) much of their hard-earned, taxed cash.

The jobs of chief executive and council leader are, in any case, quite different: the former is responsible for day-to-day management, the latter for setting policy objectives. To expect one ‘superboss’ to be able to balance both skills-sets is to demand the impossible. I can think of very few chief execs who would want to be put themselves through a gruelling electoral process; and I can think of even fewer council leaders I would trust with the minutiae of financial, personnel, and legal issues with which they would be expected to grapple.

What is perhaps more suprising is that this proposal has emanated from Lord Heseltine, an experienced businessman, whose wealth is estimated at £240 million. He will well recall the corporate governance reforms initiated by the 1992 Cadbury Report in the wake of the Polly Peck and Robert Maxwell scandals; and that one of the key recommendations was the separation of the roles of chief executive and chairman. (Indeed, Baron Heseltine of Thenford is the Chairman of Haymarket Group Limited, but not its CEO or Managing Director.)

It is quite true that Councils are not businesses; but they should still be run in a business-like fashion. Certainly their governance arrangements must be at least as robust.

It seems pretty clear that Hezza is preparing the Tories to become the new champions of elected mayors in our towns and cities: “I believe great cities should elect great leaders and hold them to account,” he says. It’s four years since Oxford held its referendum on whether to elect a mayor to run the city: the idea was rejected by 57% to 43%. I was one of those actively involved in the ‘No’ campaign, arguing (in a letter to the local paper) that an elected mayor would be

“a recipe for behind-closed-doors decision making – for less open government in which genuine debate can safely be ignored. A paid mayor could become a local dictator, able to use their steam-rollering powers to ignore the local councillors the public elects to represent their area.”

Here comes the mea culpa… I’ve changed my mind in the intervening four years. For sure, the system is no panacea, and there are potential perils in electing a local, corrupt big-shot (I’ve already name-checked Robert Maxwell).

But it’s become clear to me that what Oxford needs is a full-time political leader, able to devote him or herself fully to taking the organisation by the scruff of its neck, and who can be held directly accountable for their success or failure at the end of their term of office.

With city council elections held every other year, there is too often an unwillingness for our political groups to make the tough choices needed to ensure this city’s future success for fear there might be short-term electoral difficulties. A mayor would possess both the confidence inherent in having secured a democratic mandate, and also the time to be able to implement their manifesto, and in which residents could judge their achievements.

For too long, city council politics have been in the hands of amateur part-time leaders: some have been very good, some not so good. But all have been ham-strung by a political system that grants them responsibility without power, allows them to be in office but not in government.

The notion of ‘superbosses’ is a flimsy wheeze, an ill-considered distraction. But I think there might just be something in this elected mayor idea.

A few gallons short of a full tank

If you belonged to a political party that had just been accused by the Leader of HM Official Opposition of being peopled by "fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists, mostly", what might be your response to show up these remarks for the travesty you believe them to be?

Issue a rebuttal, sure. Perhaps threaten a libel suit. And then park an armoured personnel carrier outside the Tories' Spring conference... an wholly proportionate reponse which will, of course, dispel any suspicion that your party is a few euros short of a kilo.

Nigel Farage looks happy as a sandboy in his tank: a small boy sitting astride a big gun. Whisper it gently, but I think he might be over-compensating.

April 05, 2006

The next MP for Oxford East...

Congratulations to Steve Goddard, who was last night chosen to be Oxford East's prospective Parliamentary candidate - and therefore next MP - at the forthcoming general election.

The seat is one of the Lib Dems' top targets, with Labour clinging on by just 963 votes in 2005, having suffered a 20% swing to to the Lib Dems since 1997.

Steve was up against tough competition: both Julian Huppert and Liz Leffman proved excellent, worthy rivals. Talking with fellow party members at the hustings, we were all agreed what a tribute it was to the local party's progress in the last decade that such high quality hopefuls were submitting themselves for the seat. I hope all three become MPs - they certainly deserve to be.

Two party election hustings in two months... the next two months are going to seem quite tame in comparison. Oh, except for the minor matter of trying to gain control of Oxford City Council in a month's time.

Where are the Tories in Oxford East?

So much for the revival of Cameron's Conservatives...

Nominations for candidates contesting the City Council elections on Thursday, 4th May, closed last Monday, 3rd April. Liberal Democrats, Labour and Greens are all fielding a full slate of candidates across the city – the big surprise is the Conservative Party’s failure to field candidates in SEVEN of the 17 wards in the Oxford East constituency.

So, if you live in (in alphabetical order):

* Blackbird Leys;
* Cowley;
* Iffley Fields;
* Lye Valley;
* Marston;
* Northfield Brook; or
* St Mary’s (as I do)

then tough luck if you want to show your support for Cameron’s Conservatives.

This is bizarre because it’s not that hard to ensure you put up candidates across the city: you need only 24 people willing to submit themselves for election, and 240 electors willing to nominate them.

If you are at all serious about being an active political force in Oxford, then that’s surely not so difficult? After all, even the Greens manage it, as a much smaller party with far fewer local or national resources.

Now, of course, there’s a part of me which is pleased by this. That the Tories are in meltdown in Oxford East is likely to help the Lib Dem cause, as it means we are the only effective opposition to Labour across the city.

But I don’t believe it is good for democracy. Though I have never voted Tory in my life, and cannot conceive of ever doing so, it is clear there are people out there who have, and would like to. Simply depriving them of a candidate to enable them to express that view at the ballot box will not change their minds one iota.

It is for this exact same reason I am also in favour of proportional representation for elections, both local and national. In 2004, 18% of the residents in Oxford East voted Tory: not a single Tory councillor was elected. Such a democratic deficit is an utter disgrace, however convenient it might be for we non-Tories in Oxford.

April 03, 2006

Postcard from New York

What shapes a nation’s cultural and political values? I’m currently in New York, and trying to work out quite how the USA has grown up to be the same, and yet so different.

Of course, this city is a bastion of liberal, Democratic values. Though its mayor, Michael Bloomberg, might represent the same party as George W. Bush, he is an Eisenhower Republican, governing from the liberal centre; for instance, arguing in favour of gun control limits.

And it tends to be these proudly progressive places which we foreign interlopers see at close quarters, and extrapolate from – whether it’s Manhattan, Florida or California. But there is another America, one in which the deeply conservative Right is well entrenched, and which identifies so closely with President Bush.

On the flight over here, I read a chunk of ‘The Right Nation: why America is different’ by John Micklethwaite – the new editor of the Economist – and Adrian Wooldridge. They trace the growth of conservative values, from its early beginnings as a disregarded minority viewpoint, championed by a handful of right-wing zealots in the American Enterprise Institute think-tank, the National Review magazine, and the economic writings of Friedrich von Hayek.

Its nadir was 1964, when Barry Goldwater – John the Baptist to Dubya’s Jesus – was trounced by the widest margin ever recorded in a US Presidential election. His conqueror, Lyndon Johnson, that paragon of ‘big government’ liberalism – he famously declared in his election campaign, “We’re in favour of a lot of things, and against a mighty few” – signed his name to a raft of civil rights legislation, and lost the Dixiecrat South to the Democrat Party for the next 50 years.

Since the ascendancy of LBJ, liberalism has been on the permanent retreat in the US. Though Nixon, Ford and Bush pere are often regarded as under-reaching, pussy-footing ‘wets’, when placed side-by-side with the right-wing duumvirate of Reagan and Bush fils, they form a pretty impenetrable continuum of conservatism - interrupted only by Clinton, who was himself forced to tack right after the disastrous over-reach of his first two Presidential years. (Though the pathological passion of neo-cons to cut taxes and increase defence spending – resulting in huge budget deficits – has considerably undermined both Reagan’s and Bush 43’s claims to the mantle of fiscal responsibility which all Republicans would wish to claim.)

But this conservatism extends well beyond the acceptance of free markets which has, to one degree or another, pervaded all industrialized democracies. What has distinguished the USA’s rightward shift – perhaps bizarrely in a nation which has taken to its heart Will & Grace and Queer Eye – has been its growing social regression: the intolerance of gays (whether in the army, or as ‘married’ couples), compulsory school prayer, the teaching of creationism, the guerilla tactics of anti-abortion campaigners, the fetishisation of guns, fervent belief in the death penalty.

This is wholly counter-cultural to western Europe, with which after all the US shares so much common ground: a majority religion, Christianity; an economic market system; the English language; elections and representative democracy; and popular culture, whether films, music, art or literature. Yet the trend in Europe since the 1960s has been towards a slackening of socially conservative standards, which has gone hand-in-hand with a mounting secularization (though prompted rather more these days by passivity than the bloody anti-clericalism of the French revolution).

This divergence – the polarization of these two continents – might be possible to explain away if we look at Britain. We’re a densely populated island, increasingly urbanized, in which our public space is shared closely with our neighbours: the natural, sensible response is to be become more socialized, more tolerant, to maintain harmonious relationships.

In the more sprawling, more spacious US, it is perfectly possible for each and every individual to aspire to acquire their own private plot of land – the dream therefore is to become separate from your neighbours, to live more atomized lives in which society can be marginal, divorced from people, away from the complicated messiness which pervades the fabric of other people’s lives, and nurtures within us the understanding and empathy necessary for the creation of enlightened, civilized society.

Yet the argument does not hold fast for some nations in mainland Europe, for example France and Spain – large countries in which their respective citizens might be expected to harbour a desire for a life of individual self-assertion and arms-length society. They are, though, two countries which continue to cling to the era of big government which America jettisoned with the passing of LBJ.

Are our two continents going to drift further apart? Is the conservative, evangelical American way of life irreconcilable to the liberal, enlightenment European way of life? I hope and believe not. It’s interesting to observe the esteem in which Reagan continues to be held – an easygoing divorcé president who served his conservatism sunny side up. As Micklethwaite and Wooldridge comment: he “was an optimist in a party that had acquired a habit of pessimism”.

It was this trait the Americans took to their hearts, and which they felt they might find again with President Bush. It was a hope that has been dashed. As Clinton warned his fellow Americans in the run-up to the 2004 Bush-Kerry election: “If one candidate is trying to scare you, and the other’s trying to get you to think; if one is appealing to your fears, and the other is appealing to your hopes — it seems to me you ought to vote for the person who wants you to think and hope.” It was a line which might have worked but for the lacklustre and lugubrious candidature of John Kerry.

But it was a shrewd, calculating appeal to all that is best in the American psyche: a self-confidence in the abilities of the individual to carve out for him or herself a successful life. It is those progressive, optimistic virtues which I think best reflect the character of the America I know; and they are virtues with which every European, every continent, can identify.