What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

May 31, 2006

Getting the old basics right

An interesting article in today's Financial Times from Derek Wood, Tony Blair's former economic adviser, analysing Britain's private and public sector productivity.

Addressing the question of what governments can do to improve productivity, he pinpoints the three key aims that should be Gordon Brown's if and when he's promoted to the Premiership:

Gordon Brown can take credit for setting up a robust framework for monetary policy and a sensible competition regime. Beyond that, the government should stop trying to micromanage the economy and concentrate on three things. The first is to put in place a modern transport infrastructure. Second, it must ensure that those in schools and higher education are properly educated – literate, numerate, articulate and with reasoning ability. Finally, it must raise productivity in the public services to get better value for money and keep the overall level of spending under control.

Labour’s record on the first is mixed: they were given a poor hand but have not played it too well either. More depressing has been the watering down of already-modest educational reforms that will not only restrict the opportunities for children but undermine assets vital for Britain’s economic future. Also dispiriting has been the attempt to ascribe the problems of the National Health Service to government reforms rather than their timidity.

Mr Brown has talked about “renewal” and “new challenges” as though the old ones had been resolved. There is no need for a new agenda until the old one is complete: pushing ahead with reform and raising productivity in the public sector is vital for the prosperity of Britain.

This is an agenda the Liberal Democrats cannot afford to ignore.

I read in today's thegrauniad that Ming Campbell is due to make a keynote speech next week, setting out the domestic ambitions for his leadership of the Party. Transport, education and public service reform (and we should add the environment) will all, I hope, feature up top.

May 30, 2006

Better Finances for Oxford: the uncut version

I try not to make this blog about local politics - in many ways, this is my escape from my half-life as a councillor, an attempt to make sure I'm still keeping my mind alert to the bigger picture. But exceptions prove rules, so here's a bit of rule-proving...

Back in December, I sat down to write some material which could be the basis for the Liberal Democrat finance section of our manifesto for the coming Oxford City Council elections, based on my two-year experience of chairing the Finance Scrutiny Committee. Not all of what I wrote made the final cut. (For reasons of space, rather than because I had taken leave of my senses.)

However, I felt it deserved an airing, so posted it over at m'other gaff, where my regular reader can enjoy seeing some of what it is I will be aiming to achieve as the ludicrously-titled 'Portfolio Holder for Better Finances' (actually, I came up with the name).

But then I realised that, as most of this blog's readers are Lib Dems (I guess), and will have wide experience of councils across the UK and beyond, you might have some helpful feedback. If so, either post it below, or ping me an e-mail via the link on the right.


Oxford Liberal Democrats' programme for better finances

We believe in Value For Money, delivering the best possible public services for the lowest possible cost.

We will therefore:

* Work to transform Oxford City Council from being a ‘weak’ Council into a ‘good’ Council.

In 2003, the Audit Commission rated Oxford as ‘weak’ in comparison to other councils across the country. Neighbouring Vale of White Horse, run by the Lib Dems, was ranked a ‘Good’ Council, and we intend to ensure this city improves on its current poor standing, the legacy of 24 years of Labour control.

* Spend only what the City Council can afford.

Labour has failed to get a grip on Oxford’s finances, which means tax-payers’ money is being wasted. In 2005, the Labour Council failed to make £540,000 of planned savings – that’s the equivalent of a 5% Council Tax increase!

* Ensure the City Council is delivering Value For Money.

The Lib Dems will establish a rolling programme of zero-based budget reviews of the Council’s services which get to the bottom of how tax-payers’ money is spent, and demand to know if it could be spent better.

* Put in place robust budgets which ensure the Council maintains the buildings it owns.

The Labour City Council has failed to invest in the buildings it owns on behalf of the residents of Oxford. There is now a massive £9.25m backlog of repairs. The Lib Dems will ensure the City Council gives proper regard to the duty of care it has for Oxford’s public realm.

We believe local people are best placed to decide how the City Council spends tax-payers’ money.

We will therefore:

* Devolve budgetary control to the City’s six local Area Committees so that local people are actively involved in deciding how their money is best spent.

In 2001, the Lib Dem-run City Council introduced area committees to give residents a greater say in the running of our city. Now is the time to give the Area Committees the freedom to deliver services according to the priorities of local people.

We believe the City Council must be accountable to the public for the money it spends.

We will therefore:

* Set the City Council clear targets to improve public services, and hold Council officers accountable for delivering these.

The Labour-run City Council has an appalling record of missing its own targets, with increases in (for example) staff sickness and unanswered letters. The Council’s managers must be held directly to account for delivering service improvements.

* Publish an easy-to-understand annual audit, assessed independently either of the Council or Government, which states clearly whether the City Council has met its own Value For Money targets.

There is too much jargon in local government. The Lib Dems will ensure a plain language statement, which sets out for everyone how well (or badly) the Council is doing, is published in the Council’s newsletter and on its website every year.

We believe in Fair Local Taxation, and will campaign to abolish the Council Tax and replace it with a tax based on ability to pay.

We will therefore:

* Keep Council Tax as low as we can.

In 2004-05, Labour voted to increase Council Tax by 4%, but the Council is so inefficient it failed to spend any of this increase! Lib Dems will only vote for increased taxes if we believe they will improve public services, and not to mask the Council’s incompetence.

* Improve the collection of Council Tax so that everybody pays their fair share.

Under Labour, Oxford has one of the worst Council Tax collection rates in the country, and this is unfair on the law-abiding majority.


(I feel obliged, though, to add a small disclaimer - none of this supersedes our manifesto, Putting People First, which was our official contract with the residents of Oxford. You can read it for yourself by clicking here.)

Welcome to viewers joining us from...

... the BBC2 website, where a line from my posting two weeks ago about the channel's adaptation of The Line of Beauty has been transiently appearing-disappearing-reappearing throughout the day.

A lovely lady from the BBC e-mailed last week saying they would link to me, and suggesting I might like to correct my implausibly wrong spelling of Tim McInnerny's name - which seemed a fair swap.

So far, though, not a single miserable sod has clicked through... I always thought the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator has a bigger reach than BBC.co.uk. This simply confirms it.

(PS: other Lib dem bloggers have been less complimentary than me about TLOB. They are wrong, of course, but still good reads.)

May 29, 2006

Beware the cult of leadership

Our three major political parties have each had their own big media stories in the last few days.

For Labour, John Prescott has, once again, become the easy butt of easy jokes, having been paparazzied playing croquet last Thursday afternoon. For the Tories, David Cameron has garnered a good few column inches for his list of favourite tracks on BBC Radio 4’s Desert Island Discs. And, for the Lib Dems, Ming Campbell’s speech setting out the party’s law and order principles and policies has attracted some attention in the more serious-minded press. Each has something to say to us about how we view political leadership in this country.

Let’s take Prezza first. I hold no brief for Mr Prescott - I find his ‘attack dog’ brand of partisan politics deeply unattractive, while his efforts as a cabinet minister have been woefully inadequate.

But there is an undoubtedly snobbish delight with which his latest sporting antics have been reported… not simply that he was wrong to be playing croquet in the afternoon - I imagine if war had broken out, an official would somehow have alerted him - but that it was wrong for a chippy, northern, working-class lad even to have dared to don a mallet. Mr Prescott would have been well-advised to pray in aid that Great Briton, Sir Francis Drake, a fellow sea-farer, whose finest hour combined lawn sports and defending his nation.

The furore is odd for two reasons. First, the myth that politicians must be at work 24x7x365 if we are to be successful governed is surely one that - after nine years of a bossy ‘nanny-state knows best’ Labour Government - can now be safely laid to rest? This country does not currently suffer from being under-governed; rather the opposite. We should cut our MPs a little slack if it means they interfere a little less.

Secondly, there has been some talk recently of a concept touted as ‘general well-being’ - a recognition that there is more to life than money (which is doubtless true for those, like Mr Cameron, with enough money not to worry about it). Well, a work-life balance is not just for Christmas; Mr Prescott is simply proving it applies to long Bank Holiday week-ends too, and fair enough. I shall look forward to the Mail on Sunday splashing future front pages with ‘Deputy PM still working at 11pm’ - as he no doubt sometimes does - to redress the balance.

Which brings me to the leader of the Conservative Party (or Opus Dave, as some satirical websites have re-christened it), Young Mr Cameron. I contrived to miss his encounter with Sue Lawley yesterday, but thanks to wall-to-wall plugging I think I can now recite his top eight tunes. A friend texted me yesterday, clearly a little freaked: “You know you’re getting old when… the leader of the Tory Party chooses lots of records you know & like on Desert Island Discs… Brrr!” Which sort of sums it up for me.

And, finally, to Sir Menzies. His speech last Friday - ‘Crime is a liberal issue’ - got the least coverage of the three exempla of leadership covered here. This might simply be because the Liberal Democrats are the third party; though I suspect it has more to with the media viewing public policy as simply too tedious to mention.

Perhaps the most unkind reception to Ming’s speech was from those self-styled bastions of centre-left liberalism, theguardian and The Independent. The former remarked that it “spluttered on to the news on the back of a promise to cut parole for serious criminals and some cod-rightwingery about denying sex offenders the vote” - as if the marks of true liberalism are that serious criminals should be let out early regardless of their likelihood to re-offend, or that rapists denied the freedom of movement and association by society have an inalienable right to a postal vote.

Both newspapers missed the point: Ming wants to make the Party credible, a real contender for national office. His speech was a serious attempt to forge a liberal consensus, one that will attract mainstream support, and be the foundation for a justice system which commands respect among the public.

The Grauniad and Indy would, it seems, much prefer the Lib Dems to stay an über-liberal pressure-group, one on the fringes of power: pure, untainted - and impotent. Such single-issue groups are, as The Economist recently noted, “about protest, emotion and the pleasures of self-righteous solidarity. As an activity, it is far removed from the compromises and negotiations that are the stuff of full-blown politics.” In other words, get real.

At one level, nothing links these three glimpses into leadership. The first is an amusing bit of knockabout teasing; the second, a piece of frothy, human interest entertainment; the last illustrates the high-wire act of retaining your principles while seeking to advance them by attaining power.

In another sense, each is cut from the same cloth. What both intrigues and disturbs me is how, increasingly, we view politics through the prism of our politicians’ personalities. This cult of leadership, a benign form of Führerprinzip, suffuses both how public life is reported, and how we, the public, look at it.

For years, John Prescott was running his Office of the Deputy Prime Minister with little regard for local democracy or environmental sustainability. Yet what has finished his career, even if he continues to cling to office awhile, is an affair with his secretary (which is no concern of ours).

No wonder Mr Cameron will have spent more time focus-grouping his list of Desert Island Discs than coming up with anything resembling a policy - he could guess which would get more column inches, so Benny Hill wins every time.

And Ming Campbell’s endeavours to focus on what a liberal British justice system might look like was portrayed as a ‘re-launch’ or an attempt to ‘lurch right’ - or whatever other tired cliché enabled political hacks to focus on his standing as leader, rather than examine what he said.

The Führerprinzip achieved infamy, of course, when invoked by Adolf Eichmann in his Nuremberg Trial: he sought to evade all responsibility for his actions, claiming he had merely been doing his job.

It has always been a coward’s defence. Politics is an act of collective will, not something we can pin on a willing fall guy. By focusing all our attention on a leader - one person, an individual - we merely seek to distance ourselves from the actions taken in our names. The cult of leadership has become an invisibility cloak of deniability: we put it on when it suits us to pretend we’re not there. And when we invest too much capital in this cult we reveal the bankruptcy of our own self-confidence.

May 27, 2006

A right Cameron cock-up

Hat-tip: BBC Radio 4’s The Now Show

[At his speech to Google Zeitgeist Europe 2006,] David Cameron was singing the praises of the Internet, and, notably, “the most exciting new businesses, the ones that capture the spirit of the age.”

Fair enough. He then went on: “Look at
craigslist, which talks about restoring the human voice to the Internet in a humane, non-commercial environment.”

So we had a look, and the first thing
craigslist said was:

‘You could be having casual sex with a strange within hours. Just follow the four easy steps below, and get yourself shagging today.’
(I’ve not provided the link, ‘cos this blog has some standards. But type into your browser craigslist.co.uk if you don’t believe me.)

Still, it could have been more embarassing: Mr Cameron might accidentally have let slip a policy in his speech.

Big up to Sir Ming

Ming Campbell's been copping a fair bit of flak in the last fortnight, so it was good to see and hear him in fighting form today, launching a major speech on the liberal approach to crime and justice.

I put off reading the speech tonight, slightly concerned Ming might have conceded liberal ground to the brain-dead right-wing press. No need to worry. It strikes an highly effective balance between what Ming terms the twin pillars of a liberal society: the rule of law and respect for human rights.

I try not to make this blog a party press release machine. (It would bore me to do it, so God knows what it would be like for you to read it.) But his speech is actually well worth reading in full here.

(And the Lib Dem website is probably the only place you will read it: our Cameron-fellating media would much rather report the froth of leadership mutterings than have to get to grips with boring shit, like public policy.)

10am UPDATE: there's a rather tired leader in today's Indy berating Ming for his speech. Rather oddly, it's titled, 'What is the point of a liberal who fails to stand up for individual liberties'. So perhaps I dreamed this part of Ming's speech: "Today my message is simple. Crime is a liberal issue. Britain is an instinctively liberal country. We believe in personal freedom and individual liberty. But we also believe that everyone should play by the rules and by the same rules." What is the point of a liberal newspaper which fails to research its subject?

May 26, 2006

Dave the Chameleon strikes again

ConservativeHome informs us that Dave Cameron has, rather touchingly, written to all Tory members asking them to dig deep to help he and his colleagues get rid of Labour.

Nothing wrong with that, of course: all political parties fund-raise. What is interesting is the content of Dave’s letter. After the usual preamble - “We can win the next election, but we need your help” - he sets out the key Labour failures which he as Conservative leader wants to have the power to change. They are, in order:

  1. Europe - “Labour have given new powers to the European Union”;
  2. Regional assemblies - “They have created regional assemblies which no-one wants”;
  3. Taxes - “They have also imposed the highest tax burden in British history”;
  4. Law and order - “shocking revelations about foreign criminals”;
  5. Health service - “the deepening financial crisis in the NHS”.

All of which looks a little, well, old school - a list which could have been written by William Hague, IDS or Michael Howard. Or, of course, by Mr Cameron, back when he wrote the last Tory manifesto. Indeed, only in the sixth paragraph is environmental sustainability awarded so much as a passing mention, despite the Tories woolly ‘Vote Blue, Go Green’ sloganeering at last month's local elections.

Mr Cameron is riding high at the moment, buoyed by a decent enough showing in the polls, and by Labour’s daily attempts to commit hara-kiri.

But his approach is deeply flawed: he is seeking to forge a big tent, one which can encompass the Tory Party base, as well as those former Tory voters who have switched to New Labour or the Lib Dems.

To the Tory base, he is striking the traditional right-wing notes: Europe, taxes and law and order. To the centre ground, he is preaching emptily emetic feel-good concepts, like ‘green growth’ and ‘general well-being’.

At the moment, Mr Cameron can get away with it. He’s fresh and fluent, bright and breezy - to a media bored with Labour’s dominance, he’s manna from heaven. Which is why currently the Tory leader need only mouth a platitudinous Hallmark greeting, and it’s treated as a mind-blowing philosophical insight which will define the post-Blair political zeitgeist.

But his honeymoon will not last for ever. Mr Cameron should be using this precious time - that very small window of opportunity when he is new enough not to have made (m)any enemies - to challenge his party, not to tickle its tummy.

Mr Blair, for all his post-9/11 faults, was a brilliant opposition leader, who understood quite how much the Labour Party needed transforming. Ditching Clause IV was an act of startling bravery and élan. Putting Adam Rickett on the A-list does not compare.

Political fortunes ebb and flow at remarkable pace. Today, Mr Blair is all washed up, while Mr Cameron is surfing the crest of a wave. Now, therefore, is the time to try swimming against the tide before he ends up swimming with the sharks.

May 24, 2006

< Your policy here >

I see that according to an ICM poll in thegrauniad the Tories' policies are, apparently, more trusted than Labour's on health, education, and law and order.

Perhaps this has something to do with Mr Cameron's detailed policy platform as exemplified by the Tories' website?

'Send us your thoughts' will only work for so long - at some point, Dave will have to give us the beef.

In the Line of pleasure

A week ago I expressed a doubt that BBC2's superb adaptation of The Line of Beauty would be able to summon up the atmosphere of my favourite scene - when a coked-up Nick Guest dares to ask Mrs Thatcher to dance.

I'm delighted to say my scepticism was misplaced: Nick and Mrs T. rocked, along with the rest of the show. If you missed it, you can catch some snippets here.

Renew For Freedom - pass it on

Congratulations to the cunning folks at NO2ID for alerting us all to a loop-hole in NuLabour’s proposed Identity Cards Act - if you renew your passport before 31st May you will avoid being entered on the National Identity Database for 10 years.

(And well done, too, to Lib Dem MPs Nick Clegg, Lynne Featherstone, Mark Hunter, Roger Williams and Simon Hughes for taking their passports to Passport Office in Victoria, London, to highlight the campaign. Too much to hope, I guess, that the Party might have mentioned it on the Lib Dem website. Sigh.)

It’ll cost you £51, but that’s a small price to pay to avoid:

  • Having to attend an official interview and agree to be fingerprinted and give a wide range of personal information for the National Identity Register database.
  • Being required to update any details about yourself that change for the official record - or be fined.
  • Having that information available to be seen by the police, as well as tax, housing, and benefits officials, and thousands of other Government agencies. Or it being available to be checked by private companies.

(And anyway, it’ll cost you at least £93 to buy your NuLabour-enhanced ID card/passport when you do eventually have to renew.)

So if you object to having to prove that you exist to the Government, here’s how to renew your freedom until 2016:

Just send in a completed application form with two identical passport photos, your old passport and the appropriate fee. If you want your new passport back in less than the standard 4 to 6 weeks, you will need to apply in person at one of the Passport Offices, using either the ‘Fast Track’ (one week) or ‘Premium’ (one day) service. This will cost extra.

For more details, or to download an application form, you can visit the UK Passport website:
www.passport.gov.uk/passport_online.asp. Or call the Passport adviceline on 0870 521 0410, or pick up a form in your local Post Office.

May 23, 2006

The biggest media show in town

I watched my first episode of Big Brother last night, having put it off as long as I was able. I was, as I knew I would be, instantly hooked. (I've analysed my reasons in as much depth as I intend ever to do here.)

Tonight's breaking news is that Shahbaz ("a huge fan of Kylie Minogue and knitting") has walked. Which is, I suspect, a relief for all concerned: for him (because he's proven to himself, once again, his own exceptionalism); for his housemates (who were being driven up the wall); and for Channel 4 (who have the double whammy of early controversy and being rid of someone a tad high maintenance).

Oh, and for we viewers, because Shahbaz's behaviour was uniting the house in a boring way.

What did suprise me (though not that much) was the intervention of Dr Andrew McCulloch, the chief executive of Mental Health Foundation, who has written to Channel 4's director of television, Kevin Lygo, commenting:
"Whilst I can only guess at Shahbaz's clinical condition, we are concerned that vulnerable people apparently continue to be allowed into such a high-pressured environment. This kind of programming can make individuals who are distressed a laughing stock and this will only seek to feed the discrimination that already impacts heavily on people suffering from mental illness."
This kind of language makes me uncomfortable. First, Dr McCulloch speculates about an individual's clinical condition without the benefit of any examination. (I'm not an expert, but isn't that a bad thing?)

Secondly, he chooses to release this letter to the press - so gaining his organisation some publicity - while bandying terms such as 'vulnerable', 'distressed' and 'mental illness', dignoses he's clearly in no position to make.

And, thirdly, having made his snap judgment, he concludes:
"It is disappointing that Channel 4 seems to have little regard for vulnerable contestants in the Big Brother house. I should be interested to know what screening and welfare measures are in place to protect contestants."
Those sentences read, to me, as non-sequiturs: Dr McCulloch asserts Channel 4 has "little regard", but has clearly made no effort to discover what regard it has. If Dr McCulloch cares as much as he says he does, he could have sought to establish the facts first, and without seeking publicity for it.

Big Brother is the biggest media show in town, and everyone, it seems, wants a piece of the action.

Cosmopolitans v Chauvinists

David Aaronovitch makes the point in today's Times that the bipolar left/right divide in British politics no longer applies:
For years, of course, these allegiances have been breaking up, but the essential divide has been thought to remain. It’s there in the common-place that Tony Blair is right-wing for a Labour man, or that David Cameron is left-wing for a Tory. But the truth has been dawning on many of us for some time now that this way of dividing the political world is an anachronism. It no longer fits the facts. When I look at the candidates for Parliament in my own constituency, the Labourness, Libdemness or Toryness of them no longer seems to be the main question. What I want to know is whether they are a progressive or a reactionary.
So far, so obvious - the argument has been put many times before, most elegantly by Robin Cook in his superb diary/memoir, The Point of Departure, in which he coined the new divide, cosmopolitans v chauvinists. (And about which I eulogised here.)

Still, I hope the fact that mainstream commentators are now beginning to understand that left/right is just so last millennium, Lib Dems who make the self same point will be given longer shrift than usual by tedious media commentators who prefer to deal in binary partisan politics. (Take a bow, thegrauniad's Jackie Ashley and BBC1's This Week.)

May 22, 2006

Four top tips for the Lib Dems...

... from Tim Hames in today's Times. (Treasure the moment like the retinal imprint of a shooting star.)

First, the idea Ming is about to fall victim to another internal party coup is bollocks:

Many [Lib Dem MPs] speak warmly of the way he chairs meetings and contrast this favourably with what is belatedly conceded as the chaos of the Kennedy era. There is a sense that Ming will allow his Shadow Cabinet the space to think creatively, even if this upsets party activists. While the local elections were underwhelming for the Liberal Democrats, the results were often more impressive in areas where the party has a presence at Westminster. So the notion of Ming being “on probation”, or simply keeping the seat warm for a younger man, is nonsense.
Secondly, let's not freak out about his below-par performances at Prime Minster's Questions:

For a start, neither Charles Kennedy nor Paddy Ashdown enjoyed this strange political blood sport either and one struggles to recall them ever saying anything memorable in the chamber. There are solid reasons why Prime Minister’s Questions has never been the natural terrain of Liberal Democrat leaders. It is very difficult to engage in a serious skirmish with the Prime Minister when you have just two questions to work with. By the time he gets to you he is pretty pumped up from his exchanges with David Cameron. It’s rather like being asked to burst out of the blocks against an opponent who is already comfortably in his stride. It is also hard for a Liberal Democrat leader who normally wants to present an image of reasoned moderation to manufacture the synthetic anger required for this occasion.
Thirdly, a suggestion to Ming (a la Paddy and the Balkans):

So if I were Ming I would not bother trying to duplicate the same strategy as the Leader of the Opposition. Rather than attempting to be topical each week, he might be better persisting with a couple of issues over several months and stablishing his credentials on, for example, the state of the NHS and what to do about Iran.
Fourthly, don't let's be backward about moving economically forward:

While their leader is physically too thin, the Liberal Democrats are lightweight on new tax policy — though they don’t need to be. Vince Cable, their very capable Treasury spokesman and deputy leader, is more than ready to advance an economic agenda that would carry weight in financial circles. Mr Cable should be encouraged to do so. The best way of liberating him is for the existing commitment to raise the top rate of income tax to 50 per cent to be dropped and for the Liberal Democrats to dedicate themselves to a fairer and simpler tax system that would be neutral in its revenue implications. This would be resisted by some of them, but a short, sharp struggle on tax and a stark victory at the party conference this year would be in the interests of the leadership.
Much more helpful advice than some I've recently heard.

Song for Dave

A tribute to Mr Cameron's gatecrashing of the Beckhams' bash, courtesy Adam and the Ants:

I'm a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend
I'm a friend of a friend but you don't know me
I'm a friend of a friend of a friend of a friend
And if I come on the night
Can I get in free?

Adam and the Ants, Friends

BREAKING NEWS: this just in...

Such searing analysis... I look forward to future such robust BBC reports:
  • Fancy a nice cuppa?, asks Dave
  • Let's all make nice, says Dave
  • Ain't life grand, declares Dave
First, Frank Luntz, then Nick Robinson - is there room for any other BBC journos up Mr Cameron's central office?

May 21, 2006

Old jokes revisited

Heard (sleepily) on BBC Radio 4's Broadcasting House this morning:

Q: How many Home Office officials does it take to change a lightbulb?
A: I haven't the faintest idea.

May 20, 2006

Saturday night's alright

Though I'm sorry Daz's splendid paedo-pop homage, Teenage Life, couldn't triumph tonight - another misfortune we can lay at the door of Mr Blair's obsession with Dubya - I'm delighted that the Finns rocked Eurovision.

Three hours seemed a little too long to indulge post-ironically, though, so I've enjoyed a Tales of the City evening instead: reading volume 3, and watching volume 1. It's got all of Eurovision's high camp, but none of the rigged voting.

Martin Kettle: let's nationalise fun

I’ve spent some part of this week thinking about Martin Kettle, assistant editor and regular columnist for thegrauniad, following a conversation I had with a colleague about who is currently the best British political journalist.

I said
Philip Stephens of the Financial Times and Andrew Rawnsley of The Observer. He said Matthew D’Ancona of The Sunday Telegraph (with which I half agree) and Mr Kettle.

It was this latter name which surprised me - not because I bear him any ill-will, but because I’ve never really noticed him. Essential columnists either stimulate, through impartial and acute analysis; or provoke, through trenchant and sparky writing. Martin Kettle rarely gets either my intellectual juices flowing, or my gander up.

Until today.

Because I made an extra effort to read his column to attempt to discern what it was my interlocutor
found so compelling about Mr Kettle’s scribblings. And today was the day he issued an impassioned appeal for more government funding of the arts, including this descent into grotesque Dave Spart-esque over-simplification:
The few millions of pounds that shape the difference between arts misery and arts happiness is minuscule when set alongside the billions lost each year in defence project overruns or the tax credit shambles. But ministers are more afraid of spending money on a theatre than a missile.
Risible though this comparison is, let’s do it the justice of rebuttal.

First - though I’m no neo-con hawk - even I accept that spending on defence will be seen by the vast majority of people as more important than funding the next Legs Akimbo theatre performance.

Secondly, the idea that only missile production wastes public money, while the Arts Council always and everywhere invests in first-rate ideas which become rip-roaring successes, is just a tad flawed.

Thirdly, most of us would accept that government must be a monopoly provider of national defence in preference to competing private militias. I’m not sure that argument can be sustained for the arts.

But Mr Kettle doesn’t stop there. Instead, he makes explicit the proposition that individual enjoyment of the arts can only be realised through government action:

A new Demos pamphlet by John Holden … identifies three ways of arguing for the value of the arts: instrumental, institutional and intrinsic. New Labour is most at home with the instrumental argument, that the arts are worth subsidising because they have useful social consequences; and to a lesser extent with the institutional one, that the arts expand the public realm. The argument that arts have an intrinsic value to the individual has too little part in Labour's worldview. Yet this is overwhelmingly the argument that matters most to people in the arts themselves, and to the arts public.
Let’s follow his logical sequence: art is good; many individuals like art; those individuals who like art are better than those who don’t; therefore government should fund art to make all individuals into better people.

And this is where my liberal alarm bells begin to peel shrilly in my ears. Because I do not want this government, or any other government, picking out for preferential treatment those particular aspects of the arts world they believe will make people into better citizens. Only an ex-Marxist NuLabour convert like Mr Kettle would see the merit in nationalising fun.

I am well aware that in the world of Lib Demmery, I am on something of a free market limb when it comes to arts policy. I strongly advocate scrapping the BBC licence fee because I think it is creating a monopolistic media megalith which threatens to crush all other rivals. That liberals across all parties defend a regressive poll tax which subsidises the entertainment pleasure of the middle classes at the expense of the poorest groups in society is something which continues to baffle me.

there are many who share my suspicion of governmental creep into the world of the arts, who question why quite so much public money is spent on things which are deemed by others to be “good for us”.

I agree wholeheartedly with Mr Kettle that art has “intrinsic value to the individual”. That’s precisely why government should leave it alone.

May 19, 2006

Lib Dems take minority 'control' of Oxford

Two weeks ago, I wrote:
The Liberal Democrats are now the single largest party in Oxford - for the first time ever... Oxford continues to be a hung Council, which will doubtless make for some interesting times ahead... I plan to sleep on it.
Well, I've woken up now.

At yesterday's annual meeting of Full Council, the Lib Dems were elected to form a minority administration, with an Executive Board of seven portfolio holders. (The 'Magnificent Seven', as the local rag, surprisingly generously, labelled us.)

I drew the short straw, and have ended up responsible for 'Better Finances' in Oxford (Mr Council Tax to my friends). More details here.

This will be the first time in 26 years that a single party other than Labour has run the city. We don't underestimate the challenge that awaits us. Not only is Oxford rated a 'Weak' Council, putting it in the bottom 15% of councils across the country, but, with 18 Lib Dem councillors out of 48 seats, there are going to be some interesting Council debates in the year (or two?) ahead.

Still, where's the fun in an easy ride?

May 17, 2006

The Line Of ...

Tonight’s first episode of BBC2’s The Line Of Beauty was as good as the previews had promised, even if it did take me a few moments to re-adjust to Blackadder alumnus Tim McInnerny playing Tory MP Gerald Fedden.

(At any moment I expected him to look amazed, turn to Lord Kessler, and exclaim “can it be true, my lord, that I hold in my mortal hands a nugget of purest GREEN?” I can’t imagine why actors worry about becoming typecast…)

I shall especially look forward to the scene in which the book’s young gay hero, Nick Guest, a doctoral student who establishes himself as a permanent tenant at the Feddens’, asks Margaret Thatcher to dance while coked up to the eyeballs. The novel’s author, Alan Hollinghurst, deserved his Booker Prize for this brilliantly constructed and electrically insightful passage alone:
It was the simplest thing to do - Nick came forward and sat, half-kneeling, on the sofa’s edge, like someone proposing in a play. He gazed delightedly at the Prime Minister’s face, at her whole head, beaked and crowned, which he saw was a fine if improbable fusion of the Vorticist and the Baroque. She smiled back with a certain animal quickness, a bright blue challenge. There was the soft glare of the flash - twice - three times - a gleaming sense of occasion, the gleam floating in the eye as a blot of shadow, his heart running fast with no particular need of courage as he grinned and said, ‘Prime Minister, would you like to dance?’

‘You know, I’d like that
very much,’ said the PM, in her chest tones, the contralto of conviction. Around her the men sniggered and recoiled at an audacity that had been beyond them. Nick heard the episode already accruing its commentary, its history, as he went out with her among twitches of surprise, the sudden shifting of the centre of gravity, an effect that none of them could have caused and none could resist. He himself smiled down at an angle, ignoring them all, intimately held in what the PM was saying and the brilliant boldness of his replies. Others followed them down the stone stairs and through the lantern-lit passage, to watch, and to play their subsidiary parts. ‘One’s not often asked to dance,’ said the PM, ‘by a don.’ And Nick saw that Gerald hadn’t got it quite right: she moved in her own accelerated element, her own garlanded perspective, she didn’t give a damn about squares on the wallpaper or blue front doors - she noticed nothing, and yet she remembered everything.

If they capture even half of that on the small screen I'll be mighty impressed.

May 14, 2006

Where’s the beef?

Patience Wheatcroft, the new editor of The Sunday Telegraph, has today fired a warning shot across David Cameron’s bows:

while the polls show just how much David Cameron and his team have benefited from Mr Blair's discomfiture, they may not be able to spend too long gloating. For very soon, much sooner than they had hoped, they look likely to have to stop concentrating on image and start revealing a few policies.
And that, notes Ms Wheatcroft, is when the problems might just kick in again:
It is easy to see why the Conservative leader is loath to commit the party to particular policies for, in so many areas, he runs the risk of dividing his potential electorate. With Afghani hijackers continuing to enjoy our hospitality and proven killers let loose to kill again rather than be deported, being prepared to ditch the Human Rights Act seems eminently sensible. But the mere suggestion that the Tories might contemplate such a move brings shrieks that they are indeed "the nasty party". …

Looking like a modern Conservative is relatively easy: smile, wear fashionable trainers and try to ensure that the chauffeur keeps out of camera range. Devising the policies to go with the look is very much harder.

This will, of course, be the only true test of whether Mr Cameron has got what it takes. So far, he has enjoyed a remarkably easy ride, both from the press - bored in equal measure by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown; and from his own party - who are now just about hungry enough for power, at least enough to realise they must pretend to like modern Britain.

But, some time, a crunch will come, when Mr Cameron will have to face down the reactionary
majority in his party to prove to the public that their image transformation is more than just cosmetic.

Will he have the grit and determination necessary? And, if so, will his party swallow its emasculation?

If he doesn’t, Mr Cameron is surely smart enough to know he will follow his three predecessors into the scrap-yard marked ‘Failed Tory leaders’?

Censorship ain’t what it used to be

The Sunday Telegraph today reports on the decline in cuts made by the British Board of Film Classification (BBFC) in the last 30 years.

Apparently, in the 1970s - the decade of Straw Dogs, A Clockwork Orange, Last Tango, and, of course, countless dreary British sex comedies starring Robin Askwith - 27% of films required cuts. In the last decade, “less than three per cent of the 4,951 films released into cinemas have had to lose footage in order to get their preferred certificate.”

I’m relieved to say the Torygraph lived up to the right-wing stereotype of banging the hypocritical drum for proper censorship, lamenting wistfully the good ole' days when films such as Snow White and National Velvet had to be snipped, and quoting approvingly that swivel-eyed bastion of authoritarianism, MediaWatch UK - “It’s a free for all.”

None of which, of course, prevented them - nor me - illustrating how disgusting this new spirit of libertarianism is with a still from Michael Winterbottom’s explicit, art-house pornathon, 9 Songs.

Being a liberal sort of a chap, I oppose all external censorship: every responsible adult should be their own censor.

Of course, there is a need for regulatory bodies such as the BBFC to enable us to make informed choices. We should all be grateful for the ratings system: knowing in advance a film is rated ‘U: suitable for all’ helps me to avoid accidentally sitting through something at the cinema in a room full of noisy kids toked up on Sunny Delight. And the TV Times used to have (maybe still does?) a very helpful graphic, showing two adults, which indicated a film containing unsuitable scenes - a very useful filtering device for a curious adolescent.

Andreas Whittam Smith, the BBFC’s erstwhile director, makes the key point in the article: that classification has to reflect the moral climate of the time. "The board [of the BBFC] should be guided by what the public wants. We shouldn't have a situation where the board tells the public what it wants."

This is pretty self-evident. I remember Jeremy Hardy commenting how the Sex Pistols’ God Save The Queen caused genuine national outrage back in 1977 - and that now it seems odd it wasn’t our Eurovision entry. My parents used to switch off The Two Ronnies because they didn’t like the risqué innuendo; guess which programme united us all last Christmas Day?

In any case, censorship and convention will always have its place - if only to provide risk-taking artistes with something to kick against. As well as to enable we libertines to feel justly indignant the next time some repressed, over-compensating dullard decides to stick their finger in the dyke of freedom.

May 13, 2006

There we go again

Can I echo the thoughts of my fellow Lib Dem blogger (and, since last week, fellow Lib Dem councillor here in Oxford), Richard Huzzey, who has urged our MPs to give Ming Campbell a chance?

Though I don't set much store by the journalistic standards of the Torygraph, anonymous quotes attributed to Lib Dem MPs, such as those reported yesterday, are crassly moronic: "Ming will be gone within a year," "I just think he is not physically up to it."

I can only assume these people can't keep their mouths shut because they're too full of feet.

And while I'm on one, can someone please gaffer tape Simon Hughes' mouth shut until he's learned how not to fan the flames of a non-story? He must have known that saying "we need to judge [Ming] when it comes to conference after six months rather than after a few weeks," would provoke the inevitable headline in today's Indy, Hughes tells Campbell: 'You must do better by Lib-Dem conference'.

And Norman Lamb, Ming's chief-of-staff, may care to choose his words a little more carefully too... explaining away our leader's below-par performances at Prime Minister's Questions (which, by the way, are by no means the disasters they're portrayed by Labour/Tory politicians and media alike, but do require sharpening up some) on the grounds that his gravitas and sagacity have accustomed him over the years to being listened to in "reverantial silence" does not exactly help establish Sir Menzies as a caring, sharing, modest or engaged politician.

I know dealing with the meedja is tough, and that they are quite happy to twist, distort and lie in order to get their story - but, really, do we have to make it so easy for them?

Unless our MPs can learn how to comport themselves when speaking to the press in a way which can make us all proud, they could do worse than heed Clement Attlee's terse advice to Harold Laski: "A period of silence from you would be welcome."

New poll: when should Tony Blair resign?

I've started a new poll over at m'other gaff - www.stephentall.org.uk - to find out when folks think Tony Blair should step down as Prime Minister. I've given six options:
  • Now
  • Later in 2006
  • Mid-2007
  • Mid-2008
  • Mid-2009
  • He should go on and on and on
My view, for what it's worth... Tony Blair has been the most talented, successful and formidable politician of his generation. Had it not been for his monumentally stupid decision to hitch his fortunes to George Bush’s decision to invade Iraq, I have no doubt Mr Blair would still be dominating the British political scene.

But he has passed the point when his leadership of the Labour Party or this country can do anyone any good. Whether he goes tomorrow, or in six months time, is in one sense irrelevant: he no longer wields any effective power.

The only thing his continuing residence of No 10 can achieve is to keep Gordon Brown hanging around. But it is time his Chancellor was given the opportunity to prove his mettle, to demonstrate whether he has the all-round political skills to be Prime Minister.

Your choice of most impressive new Lib Dem MP...

The poll has closed, and your votes been counted... the result is that Lynne Featherstone has pipped Chris Huhne to the post as the most impressive Lib Dem MP from the 2005 intake, 23% to 21%, with Nick Clegg (on 15%) just a few votes behind.

Julia Goldsworthy, Jo Swinson and Jenny Willott - three of the youngest MPs in the Commons - followed on 12%, 10% and 6% respectively. Jeremy Browne and David Howarth, on 4% each, finished joint 7th; with John Hemming and Susan Kramer trailing on this occasion with just 3% of the vote.

Congratulations to Lynne, whose sparky, no-nonsense style has earned her much kudos in the last year; to Chris for his formidable achievement in coming second in the Lib Dems' recent leadership contest; and to Nick for cooly getting on with his job in spite of the constant leader-in-waiting speculation.

May 10, 2006

Modern life is alright

Three surreal, unconnected events co-incided today:

Adam Rickitt, former star of Corrie, and the guy on the receiving end of the soap's first gay snog, has elbowed his way on to the Tory Party's A-list of top-draw Parliamentary candidates. Who needs meritocracy when there's celebrity?

I watched the absolutely brilliant video for Daz Sampson's Teenage Life, the UK entry for the Eurovision song contest, and it is wee-out-loud funny. Think Daphne and Celeste meets Goldie Lookin' Chain meets Pink Floyd meets B*Witched. No, really. Hope it wins.

And Siralan made the right choice of potty-mouthed lovely Michelle Dewberry to be his Apprentice, edging the scarily good - and sometimes just scary - Ruth Badger into second place. It's interesting how some people become their surnames.

There ought to be a clever way of weaving these occurrences into a seamless tapestry, but all I can offer is loose threads.

May 09, 2006

Setting our universities free

The liberal think-tank, Centre Forum, today publishes a thoughtful report I hope all Liberal Democrats will take the time to read. It argues for an end to a party touchstone: our popular (but wholly wrong) opposition to student tuition and top-up fees.

My day job is as an educational fund-raiser, has been for eight years now. I spend my professional life surrounded by students, many of whom come from poor backgrounds and whose lives will be utterly transformed - in ways they cannot possibly predict - by their university experience. I am a passionate advocate for the value of higher education, both in its own terms, and as a route to a better life: ‘through learning one learns to live well’.

It is because university education is so important that I believe it deserves proper funding: enough money not only to ensure that students from poorer backgrounds can continue to access its opportunities, but also to enable universities to invest in their human and physical capital. It is only through that meritocracy and that investment that we can ensure those opportunities in a century’s time will be far, far greater than they are today.

That investment can only come through the lifting of the fee cap on universities, and the ability for our universities to charge market tuition fees. There is simply no way this Government, or a future government (regardless of its political complexion), will be able to levy sufficient new taxation to fund our universities’ aspirations if they are to be able to continue to compete with the world's best. The billions of pounds of new money needed each year would prove politically unacceptable.

This leaves higher education institutions trapped in a vice. They are not sexy enough to compete with schools or hospitals for serious cash from the Treasury; yet they are prevented by the Government from charging those students who can afford it the true cost of the education they provide.

We have a simple choice in the UK.

We can provide a just-about-functioning higher education system, free for all, in which universities are stifled by government interference, tutors are under-paid and over-worked, and our currently respected institutions decline relative to their peers in North America (and, increasingly, the Far East).

Or we can set universities free, allow them to charge variable fees, provide generous bursaries to the least well-off so that means-blind admissions are guaranteed, pay tutors a living wage and reward them for their research, and ensure our universities continue to rank among the world’s best.

I know which future I prefer.

The first article I wrote for my stephentall.org.uk website urged the introduction of market tuition fees for higher education. I concluded saying:

The Liberal Democrats can, and (I am sure) will, continue to campaign to scrap tuition and 'top-up' fees; and will gain popular support for doing so. But it is a policy which fails to address how British universities can remain world class institutions. Market tuition fees are the only way to generate enough cash to ensure the retention of this country's teaching talent, and the continuation of popular but uneconomic subjects. The longer we pretend the government alone can pull the rabbit out of the hat, the more likely it is we will one day find the lady has been sawn in half while we were looking the other way.

Lawson on euthanasia

Dominic Lawson, somewhat to my surprise, has turned out to be a seriously good signing for The Independent. Today his must-read column scrutinises Lord Joffe’s bill to legalise a form of euthanasia (‘physician-assisted suicide’), which returns to the House of Lords this Friday for its second reading.

Lawson argues, with restrained passion, that the bill should be put out of its misery. The article is well worth reading in full (though sadly it’s behind the Indy’s subscription firewall), but here’s the devastatingly brilliant conclusion:
When last year the British Medical Journal published a leading article advocating physician-assisted suicide, the journal’s rapid-response website almost went into meltdown: “If I was prepared to kill my patients then with 15 per cent of my patients above 85 I would have lost all trust,” said one practitioner. “As one who spends every working day caring for the terminally ill I am acutely aware of the damage such a change would cause to vulnerable patients,” said another: “Call me a coward, but I didn’t go into medicine to kill people. Those advocating ‘assisted suicide’ expect us to include this in our professional duties - they can count me out.”

It’s clear that if Lord Joffe’s Bill were to pass into law, the British medical profession would refuse to implement it. There is, however, a solution which should appeal to its advocates, who say they dislike what they claim is the hypocrisy of the law as it stands. A new profession will need to be created - let us call its practitioners ‘terminators’. (Thanatologists would sound more impressive, but I don’t think the medical profession would want to lose its monopoly on Ancient Greek derivatives.) There will be a terminator at every hospital. He or she should wear a black gown so as to be distinguished from the doctors and nurses. Obviously we would wonder what sort of people would want this sort of job. But that’s exactly the point - isn’t it?

May 08, 2006

Oxford's Tories: how low can you go (and still say no to PR)?

I’ve now had chance to do a little bit of number crunching on last week’s election results in Oxford. Here comes the science…

In Oxford East, there will be 19 city wards at the next general election (the two central, mainly student, wards come in owing to boundary changes). Here are the scores on the doors, with figures for 2004 in brackets:

Labour = 35.1% (33.3%) + 1.8%
Lib Dem = 28.0% (26.3%) +1.7%
Green = 19.1% (17.4%) +1.7%
Tory = 10.5% (16.5%) -6%
IWCA = 5.5% (5.4%) +0.1%
Others = 2.3% (1.0%) +1.3%

It’s clear the big losers from last Thursday in Oxford East was the Tory Party, their vote slumping by 6% compared to two years ago, when these exact same seats were last contested. Interestingly, their vote seems to have been pretty equally shared out between the three largest parties here: Labour, Lib Dems and Greens all recorded rises of a little less than 2%.

The Tories will maintain this drop in support is because they failed to put up candidates in seven of the 19 wards, inevitably depressing their vote - a highly self-fulfilling prophesy.

And, in fairness, I’ve done the math: their average vote share in those seats where they could be bothered to field a candidate was 16.8%, very marginally up on 2004’s 16.5%. (Though you would expect this figure to be higher if you decline to fight seats where you don’t have a chance; I don’t suppose contesting the two Blackbird Leys seats would have done much for that average.)

For a fairer comparison of the ‘Cameron bounce’ in Oxford, his back-yard, let’s look across to the west of the city - which was represented by a Conservative MP as recently as nine years ago.

There will be 5 city wards in Oxford West & Abingdon, the seat of Evan Harris, at the next general election. Here’s what happened last week, again compared with 2004 in brackets:

Lib Dem = 42.8% (41.2%) +1.6%
Green = 22.7% (23.2%) -0.5%
Labour = 17.7% (14.4%) +3.3%
Tory = 16.8% (20.5%) -3.7%

Not only did the Tories vote slump in Oxford West by almost 4%, but they were overtaken by the Labour Party - on the day of one of its worst ever election performances! - to become the fourth party on both sides of the City. A truly wretched performance.

Finally - just for a bit of fun - let’s have a look at what happens if we merge the East and West, and form a single Oxford City, and elect the 48-seat Council according to proportional representation.

The figures, below, show the parties’ respective cross-city shares of the vote, what number of seats this would entitle them to, and the difference compared with what last Thursday’s first-past-the-post election produced:

Lib Dem = 32% (15 seats) -4
Labour = 31% (15) -2
Green = 20% (10) +2
Tory = 12% (6) +6
IWCA = 5% (2) -2
Other = 1% (0) no change

The big losers under a fairer system in Oxford would be the Lib Dems, down four seats on the 19 we currently have, and putting us level with Labour. The Greens would edge up a little, some reward for their evenly spread popularity in Oxford West; while the real winners would be the Tories, who would have become a party group on the Council for the first time in a decade.

The worry, if such an outcome were to come to pass, would be that the City would end up paralysed. In reality, I don’t think this would happen: the parties would have to compromise, negotiate and trade, given that none of them had won a plurality of votes, and since none of them would wish to kop the blame for failing the people of Oxford through their obstinacy. With the greater stability that proportional representation fosters, the parties would be more willing to make a go of a ‘ministry of all the talents’.

And, of course - even better in my view - if there were an elected mayor able to make sense of it all, and take ultimate responsibility for the strategic direction of the city, the voters would not only have enhanced democracy, but better, more transparent accountability as well.

May 07, 2006

My top 10 newspaper front pages

The British Library is hosting an exhibition, Front Page: Celebrating 100 Years of the British Newspaper 1906-2006, opening on 25th May, and running through until October.

No matter that the internet now provides many of us with our primary source of news, newspaper front pages can, at their best, provide a memorably unrivalled expression of a national mood. Or, at their worst, they can encapsulate all that you might disdain in their political attitude. Or, at their most embarrassing, they can get it wrong big-time.

Here’s my top 10:

10: The Economist

The Economist, which for historical reasons I don’t pretend to understand still classifies itself as a newspaper, has one of the strongest marketing brands in the industry. It’s partly based on its savvy, sassy advertising, and partly on its pointed, pithy front covers - a trademark almost as valuable as Private Eye’s speech bubbles.

This example, from last year’s post-general election issue, captured perfectly - both in its headline and choice of picture - the winding Mr Blair was dealt by the British electorate.

9: Daily Mail

There’s something wonderfully old school about this Daily Mail cover, which, though it dates from 1918, seems somehow a timeless, aspic-preserved emblem of the paper’s xenophobic weltenschaung.

8: Bristol Evening Post

I loved the knowing under-statedness of the Bristol Evening Post’s announcement of Charles and Camilla’s decision to tie the knot - this is chief-subbing of the very best kind.

7: Daily Star

Bit of a cheat this one, as it’s not a front page - but it’s just too good not to include. The context...

Back in 2001, Chris Morris’s sublimely satirical Brass Eye paedophile special (one of the finest ever achievements of British television) caused a storm of outrage, with the tabloid press condemning Channel 4’s “unspeakably sick” exploitation of minors.

The rank hypocrisy and cant of the tabloids was graphically illustrated by this Daily Star juxtaposition: a nudge-nudge-phwoar-corr story about the then 15 year-old Charlotte Church, opposite some fake moral outrage railing against Brass Eye.

6: Daily Mirror

I went to bed about 3 am on 3rd November, 2004, utterly depressed. My early hopes that Senator Kerry would edge President Bush - infamously shared by top pollster, Mori’s Bob Worcester: “I'm Bob Worcester, it's 2am, and I am calling it: it's President Kerry!” - were soon dashed, as the exit polls were overtaken by the real results.

The Mirror’s front page is grossly unfair in it’s anti-Americanism, but somehow it got to the nub of the incredulity many of us felt that Dubya could have won his first election and second term.

5: The Guardian

You can taste the jubilant, bitter relief which inspired this headline.

When Jonathan Aitken armed himself with the “simple sword of truth and trusty shield of British fair play” to take the fight to The Guardian - and its allegations that he had enjoyed, and not declared, the hospitality of an Arab businessman while the UK’s defence procurement minister - he perhaps did not anticipate it would end his career in public life.

This was a front page that came to symbolise the fall of John Major’s limping, drowning, dismal government.

4: Chicago Daily Tribune

One of the most infamous newspaper cock-ups of all time - the Chicago Daily Tribune anticipated Bob Worcester’s red face by half a century, calling (along with most other media pundits) the 1948 US presidential election for Thomas Dewey. Governor Dewey lost to President Harry S Truman by over two million votes.

The New York Post had its own mini-Dewey moment a couple of years back, when it confidently proclaimed Senator Kerry had chosen Dick Gephardt as his Veep running mate for the 2004 election. That same day, John Edwards’ selection was announced.

3: Daily Express

When I first saw this Daily Express front page, I assumed someone had photo-shopped it as a satirical piss-take; or, alternatively, that it had been accidentally generated by the Daily Mail-o-matic website.

But no, this is the genuine article, and symbolises the luridly shameful and racist depths to which this once decent newspaper is happy to sink. Truly sickening.

2: The Sun

To choose just one Sun front-page is actually quite tricky. Whatever else might be said about it as a newspaper, it’s sensationally cheeky headlines have proved extremely effective: from ‘Freddie Starr ate my hamster’, to ‘Gotcha!’ (the sinking of the Belgrano), to ‘Zip me up before you go go’ (George Michael’s arrest), to ‘Up yours! Delores’.

But this is perhaps the one that came to symbolise, not only the Currant Bun’s finger-on-the-zeitgeist, but also the political power it could wield (or at least be perceived to wield, which can sometimes amount to the same thing).

1: The Independent

My winner, though, is The Independent’s response to the publication of The Hutton Report in January, 2004. Clearing its entire broadsheet front page of text and images, it simply read, in small font, ‘Whitewash?’ (One of their readers wrote in to congratulate them on their boldness, but expressed surprise they had felt the need to qualify the headline with a question mark.)

These days, we are used to the Indy’s screaming, pleading front pages, which are too often at risk of becoming self-parodies. But this was among the first trenchant front pages it had run, at a time when its rivals were much more reluctant to brandish their opinions so visibly. Not only did it establish the Indy as Britain’s first quality ‘viewspaper’, but it provoked its competitors to retaliate in kind; an unfortunate development I think, yet its success cannot be ignored.

May 05, 2006

At the end of the day...

I hate to resort to cliché to describe the Lib Dems’ local election results, but I’ve had 6 hours sleep over the past two days, so cliché it will have to be: it’s a bit of a curate’s egg.

(Of course, the joy of local election results is that they are so variegated, such a patch-work quilt, that party activists can read whatever they like into them. But this is my take…)

One the positive side, we have achieved (so far) our aim of winning more councils (1) and more councillors (25). We took Richmond-upon-Thames from the Tories, and gained St Albans and South Lakeland from no overall control.

The BBC is projecting the Lib Dem share of the vote to be 27% - which would match our second highest ever local election performance, and would repeat our 2004 feat of relegating Labour to third place in the popularity stakes.

But we lost control of two councils - Islington and Milton Keynes - and sadly failed to make as much progress as we had hoped in a number of Councils where we were hoping to take control.

There will be many lessons we can learn from all this, but I suspect it’s better done after a good night’s sleep.

It is clear the Tories have had a good night; but it’s no more than that. Their projected share of the national vote is 40%, which compares to the 38% they achieved in 2000 and 2004 - which were swiftly followed by resounding general election defeats. (And it trails well behind the 47% that Tony Blair won in his first election as Labour leader, in 1995.)

Their London results are impressive, but they have largely failed in their efforts to break out of their southern comfort zone. Most big cities remain Tory-free zones, despite huge efforts from Tory central office to score a couple of beacon results.

It’ll take a lot more than this for the Tories to be likely contenders even to become the single largest party - let alone get anything near approaching a workable Commons majority.

For Labour, the results are poor, very poor: but they had largely factored this in, and will take some crumbs of comfort that it has not been worse. Many of their northern ‘heartlands’ did keep the faith; and, indeed, there are some local results which have bucked the national trend, and shown swings to Labour.

PS: back in March, I wrote a guest column for PoliticalBetting.com - a website that helps keep political geeks away from normal people - 'guesstimating' notional national shares (on the basis of ICM polling) of Conservative 39%, Lib Dem 29%, Labour 25%. (I said at the time I thought Labour and Lib Dems would be a little closer together than that.) The BBC reckons it will be Con 40%, Lib Dem 27% and Lab 26%.

PPS: there's a very good and fair summary of the results by London Tory activist Sean Fear over at the ConservativeHome website.

The view from Oxford

The Liberal Democrats are now the single largest party in Oxford - for the first time ever - after making two net gains from Labour in last night's City Council elections.

The make-up of the Council, compared with the pre-election standing of the parties (in brackets), is:

Lib Dem 19 (17) +2
Labour 17 (21) -4
Green 8 (7) +1
IWCA 4 (3) +1

So, Oxford continues to be a hung Council, which will doubtless make for some interesting times ahead... I plan to sleep on it.

The Lib Dems made three gains from Labour, in Barton & Sandhills (the seat of the outgoing Labour leader), Cowley, and Headington Hill & Northway (from third place, defeating a long-standing Labour councillor, and holding off a strong Tory challenge - very satisfying).

And, finally, I should mention my own ward, Headington, where my Lib Dem colleague, David Rundle, was re-elected with the largest majority (663) in Oxford, winning 59% of the vote.

May 02, 2006

'Black Wednesday': do you remember the first time?

Over at PoliticalBetting.com, Mike Smithson makes a fair point about the Tories’ ‘Black Wednesday’ on 16th September, 1992 - when the British Government withdrew sterling from the ERM, and the date from which most commentators mark the Party’s collapse in popularity.

As he notes, though the Tories took a hit, they were by no means holed below the waterline. In the following six months, the Tories averaged 37% in ICM’s monthly tracking polls, trailing Labour by just 2%.

Though the effective devaluation of the pound was held to be a disaster for the Government, it did not necessarily seem so at the time. For a start, the Tories did not kop all the blame - the Germans were regarded by many as the villains of the piece for refusing to lower their high interest rates.

(There is a parallel here with the ordure that Tony Blair attempted to heap on the French in March 2003, when Chirac threatened to veto a second UN resolution authorising the invasion of Iraq. All British governments, seemingly regardless of hue, will at some point in their time in office attempt to blame Johnny Foreigner for this country’s policy disasters.)

More importantly, sterling’s departure from the ERM enabled interest rates to find their natural level, and helped kick-start the sluggish recovery of the British economy which might have been the Tories’ salvation.

Much of the summer of 1993 was dominated by the obsession the Tories’ Europhobic MPs developed with the Maastricht Treaty, aided and abetted by an opportunistic Labour Party, happy to support the Social Chapter in public, but vote against it in Parliament.

Yet even this did not scupper the Tories’ hopes entirely. A year after ‘Black Wednesday’, in October and November 1993, John Major’s party could still muster 34-36% of the public, compared with Labour’s 38-39%. There was no evidence yet of the landslide victory which was just 3½ years away.

Over the next few months, the Tories drifted down to 30%, Labour picked up to 42%, and the Lib Dems - riding high on the back of stunning by-election victories from the Tories at Newbury and Christchurch - were polling 20-27%.

What undoubtedly transformed the face of British politics was the arrival of Tony Blair as Labour leader, in July 1994, following John Smith’s premature death.

Over the next six months, the Tories averaged 31%, soon-to-be-New Labour 48%, and the Lib Dems back down to their (then) more usual 17%. That pretty much remained the story for the next 2½ years, though Labour lost a little of their popular support to the Lib Dems and Others during the election campaign itself.

What does this all mean? Well, I’m certainly not suggesting Black Wednesday was irrelevant - far from it. Polling evidence suggests it seriously undermined the Tories’ strongest election-winning card: that though they might be bastards, they were competent bastards.

When Norman Lamont and Ken Clarke subsequently presided over the beginning of this country’s longest sustained period of economic growth, their party felt no electoral benefits - because the country reasoned the upturn resulted from policies stumbled upon by the Tory Party only once their main economic strategy, British membership of the ERM, had failed.

But what I am arguing is that ‘Black Wednesday’ - though perhaps guaranteeing the Tories would lose the next election - was certainly not sufficient in and of itself for Labour to win it. What undoubtedly won the 1997 election for Labour was the Tony Blair phenomenon.

But, like all bubbles, it was doomed to burst. Now that it has, it will be fascinating to see what becomes of (New) Labour. Though the party will certainly be better off without Mr Blair as leader, it’s hard to see they will be much better off with anyone else in his place. And that’s a conundrum which should trouble Labour’s high command.