What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

September 30, 2006

Barrett's Home*

So I've been on a bit of a nostalgia-felch courtesy of YouTube tonight... one of the clips I came across was the first pop video I remember: Shakin' Stevens' 1981 hit, This Ole House.

I cannot tell you with what innocent wide-eyed amazement I watched Shakey jump off a roof and land with cushioned adroitness. To be honest, nothing that's happened to me since has ever quite lived up to that moment, aged four.

His new album, Now Listen, is due out on 23rd October. I may just have to.

Vaguely interesting fact: Shakey was the biggest-selling UK singles artist of the 1980s.

* Kudos to anyone who gets the link.

The original Webcameron

Today saw the launch of Webcameron. Next stop MySpace, I guess.* I'm not going to knock it - how can I? Some of us were doing it months ago...

Whatever, it gives me all the excuse I need to wheel out the sublime Time Trumpet clip comparing those NewToryLabour icons, Mr Tony and Mr Dave. If you've seen it before, enjoy it again.

* well, waddya know...

Denial doesn't just run through Egypt

A couple of years ago, Bob Woodward’s book, Plan of Attack, was listed as recommended reading on the Bush/Cheney04 campaign website. Perhaps not surprisingly, given that Amazon.com observed that it “demonstrates the tremendous conviction and dedication of the people who decided to carry [the invasion of Iraq] out”.

Mr Woodward has now published a follow-up, State of Denial. It’s not merely an unflattering depiction of the neo-cons in power: it’s a searing indictment.

Here’s what John Dickerson has to say about it on Slate.com:

The disclosures so far have been devastating. The book paints the administration as clueless, dishonest, and dysfunctional. … State of Denial is a significant blow to the president both politically and strategically. …[Woodward] charges the president has not been straight with the American people about how bad things are in Iraq and how much worse it's going to get. But his most damning claim—screaming at you right there in the title—is not that Bush is deceitful; it's that he's clueless. People many not care if Bush admits reality to the public, but they hope he's admitting reality to himself. …

… the problem the Woodward book presents for the Bush administration is not that his anecdotes of mismanagement seem shocking or unexpected, but that they don't. Woodward isn't going to change minds, but he'll do something more dangerous: He will confirm the doubts about Bush that a majority of Americans already have.

September 29, 2006

Spot the difference

Ex-Blue Peter presenter Richard Bacon is well-known as a former cocaine user, who is now proud to proclaim himself a substance-free zone.

Whereas Mr Cameron...

Because policies are boring

The Tory leader has, it seems, been stung by accusations that he's a bit policy-lite. Or as Ming Campbell put it last week:
When it comes to policy, Cameron’s Tories are a substance free zone. Their idea of political principle is to say, tell us what you don’t like and we’ll abandon it.

They have learned all the wrong lessons from Mr Blair - the spin, the photo opportunity, the endless sound bites signifying nothing. Political parties shouldn’t be glorified advertising agencies.
The BBC today tells us:
Conservative leader David Cameron is to tackle "head-on" claims that he is all style and no substance.

He will use his party's annual conference, which starts in Bournemouth on Sunday, to stress his commitment to developing serious policy ideas.
Fair enough, you might think... 'til the next sentence:
There will be no specific policy announcements at the four-day rally, a Tory spokesman confirmed.
Ah well.

September 28, 2006

Liveblogging Question Time

Okay, so I've not tried it before (and I may never again) but check back here at 10:40 pm, and I'll be commenting on BBC1's Question Time as it happens. Think of it as a bit like the Grauniad's Over-By-Over cricket commentary... but without the cricket. Or the jokes.

According to the online Radio Times (pronounced: Raddy-Ot-Immys) the panel includes:
Jack Straw MP, Leader of the House of Commons; Ken Clarke QC MP, Former Home Secretary; Baroness Tonge, Liberal Democrat; Piers Morgan, broadcaster and writer; and Jane Horrocks, actress.
But, according to Iain Dale, Jane Horrocks has been replaced by Lance Price, Alastair Campbell's former deputy.

It's an oddly unbalanced panel for QT, given that Messrs Straw, Morgan and Price have all, at one stage or another, been vocal advocates for the Labour Party. Like most Lib Dems, I shall await Jenny Tonge's pronouncements with trepidation. I get a mite nervous when it seems likely I'm going to spend more time agreeing with the Tory on QT than my own party's representative.

10.37 pm - the panel is introduced. Piers Morgan is apparently now "a writer and broadcaster". Former News of the Screws showbiz writer turned failed, sacked Mirror editor might be a discourteous introduction, I guess.

Ken Clarke tips John Reid for the Labour leadership. My telly's widescreen: Ken looks scarily stretched. (Though not as scary as the first time I saw Vanessa Feltz in widescreen.)

10:41 pm - Piers Morgan praises Gordon Brown as the most serious candidate. He's probably got a fake photo somewhere which proves it. Lance Price suggests it might have been Tony Blair (and not Alastair Campbell) who referred to Gordon Brown as 'psycholigically flawed'.

10:44 pm - ALERT ** audience member plant ** ALERT Reels off string of stats to prove how dire the economy is. Jack Straw doing his "I'm a reasonable kinda guy" schtick.
Quite quietly effectively. Supports Gordon for the leadership, dodges the deputy question.

10:48 pm - apparently you can text QT your comments to 83981, then follow them on Ceefax page 155. I'd forgotten Ceefax existed. Jenny Tonge praises Gordon, buries Tony - "most untrustworthy Prime Minister ever... he has betrayed us all, especially on foreign policy". Brands John Reid a "pygmy", then jokily apologises in case she's been racist. (She was going well until then.)

10:52 pm - member of the public condemns politicians for talking personalities, not policies. Then lays into everybody on the panel with a stream of personal abuse. A sense of irony is apparently beyond her.

10:55 pm - still on the Labour leadership. Q: "Should there be a general election when Tony Blair steps down?" Of course not. Bored now.

Switches over... ITV News tells us that Kate Moss has briefly appeared alongside Pete Doherty at a Babyshambles concert. For all of 5 seconds. Newspaper review: Richard Hammond's 'road to recovery' pic dominates all the front pages.

11:00 pm - Back to QT: Mr Straw predicts the Conservatives "will give us a good run for their money". Just as well, as the Labour Party doesn't have any of its own money any more.

Jenny Tonge makes the point that general elections are about manifestos not leaders. Says David Cameron will be a "busted flush" by the next election. I agree.

11:04 pm - Q: "Should political spouses be seen and not heard?" Jack Straw denies Cherie Blair ever said "Well that's a lie" during Gordon Brown's speech. Not convinced. If she didn't she sure as hell thought it (I have that on good authority).

11:08 pm - Piers Morgan: "If your mouth's as big as Cherie Blair's no wonder you drop a clanger." He's a class act, isn't he?

Jenny Tonge and Ken Clarke both agree Cherie wouldn't have been too upset she torpedoed Gordon's speech.

11:12 pm - just back from the bathroom... what are they talking about?

Ahh, Mr Blair's catastrophically failed foreign policy.

Ken Clarke's verdict: "This was the worst foreign policy decision of the twentieth century." Seems fair comment. Mr Blair, he argues, was in a pivotal position, and could have checked President Bush's rush to war.

11:15 pm - Jack Straw: Mr Blair was highly successful, persuading Mr Bush to seek UN authority. (Before he then flouted it, of course.)

Damn - Piers Morgan intervenes to point out Mr Straw's air-brushing of history. Piers annoys me even more when I agree with him.

Jack Straw continues - mistakes made after the invasion. Translation: don't blame the mess on me, Guv.

11:20 pm - Jenny Tonge: "In 20 years' time the only memory of Tony Blair will be the grin and Iraq... the whole thing has been a travesty."

Piers decries Mr Blair's speech: says he watched it with tears - of laughter - rolling down his face. Trying too hard now, Piers, stop going for the populist round of applause. (What am I talking about. This is Piers Morgan.)

11:24 pm - David Dimbleby to Jack Straw: "Is there anything to apologise for?" Jack has a few regrets, too many to mention. But refuses to apologise. Apparently there were weapons of mass destruction, and Dr Blix said so. Until there weren't. (That must have been Dr Blix's mistake. Lucky it wasn't Mr Straw's.)

Ken Clarke - to invoke Dr Blix is a travesty: he wanted the weapons inspections to continue. This was ignored by the US and Britain.

[Rant] 42 months later: the arguments still rage, passions still run high. And yet 39% of the population didn't vote at the last election. Still baffles me. Don't tell me politics doesn't matter, that "we're all the same". Bollocks to that. [/Rant]

11:32 pm - Nathaniel notes in the comments that Iraq wasn't the worst foreign policy mistake of the twentieth century (see above). We are, after all, in a new millennium. Fair point. Can we settle for "worst mistake in a hundred years"?

11: 35 pm - It's over, thank God. It seems to go on far longer when you're concentrating.

Piers Morgan - you either hate him or you hate him. There's no middle ground. Jenny Tonge - I'm breathing a sigh of relief. I mainly agreed with her. Jack Straw - he does "reasonable" very well. I could warm to him, but for that nagging little issue of helping mislead this country into war. Ken Clarke - he's good, y'know. I mean really good. Lance Price - who?

PS: Nathaniel has liveblogged my liveblogging at Pastichio Nuts. All very meta. (Be warned: some adult content.)

September 27, 2006

New poll: who would be the best Labour leader for the Lib Dems?

In less than a year’s time there will be a new leader of the Labour Party, and (for that matter) a new Prime Minister.

There will be plenty of polls asking Labour members, and the general public, who they/we think will prove most effective. This poll isn’t asking that. I want to know who you think would be the best Labour leader from a Liberal Democrat perspective.

Put bluntly, I guess: who we selfishly think would make the worst Labour leader?

Your choices are: Gordon Brown, Alan Johnson, David Miliband, John Hutton, and John Reid. (I’ve ignored John McDonnell for what I think are obvious reasons.)

You should, of course, feel free to vote tactically in order to try and convince Labour members not to elect someone you think would actually be a good leader.

Result of last poll:

Chris Huhne was your choice (just) as the Lib Dem MP who impressed most at last week’s party conference. His 40% squeaked past Nick Clegg’s 36%. Ming Campbell followed on 15%, followed by Vince Cable (5%), Julia Goldsworthy (4%) and Evan Harris (1%).

The Man Who Would Be vs The Man Who Is

I understand there’s a rumour that Tony Blair will, within the next few months, announce his intention to quit as leader of the Labour Party. (Don’t ask me where I glean this kind of gold-dust gossip: some of us are just incredibly well networked).

As a result, Labour is beginning to consider who would be best positioned to lead them to an historic fourth election victory. So let’s look at The Man Who Would Be, Gordon Brown.

For despite the ructions of the last month, he remains the near-certainty to be next Labour leader: he is not about to ‘do a David Davis’, and self-implode. Though his speech on Monday was drubbed by the force of Mr Blair’s majeure, it was by no means bad. And at least (unlike Mr Davis’s effort last year) the audience knew when he had finished.

The more apt comparison (I suspect) is with Ming Campbell, who started off the favourite to win the Lib Dem leadership and finished the winner - but who emerged from the campaign a little battered, a little bruised, and with less authority than he went into it. Ming had been the party’s deputy leader prior to becoming acting leader; just as Mr Brown has been deputy prime minister in all but name. But there is no substitute for actually doing the job, for being exposed to the cruel, swirling vicissitudes as the captain.

Mr Brown is a forceful, articulate, substantial advocate, with a firm sense of his own ‘moral compass’, though this appears to contrast sharply with his thin-skinned insecurities. As with any double-act, there is an unequal distribution of popularity - that the Blair-Brown partnership is no exception baffles and incenses Mr Brown in equal measure. (Perhaps it helps explain his preference for equality of outcome over equality of opportunity.) To look at Mr Brown’s face during Mr Blair’s sublime speech was to see writ large the eviscerating line, “Doesn’t he look tired?”

What their speeches brutally exposed was that Mr Blair understands and exploits narrative (to pitch-perfection) in a way Mr Brown - the ultimate policy wonk - does not and cannot. The Chancellor thinks, writes and speaks in bullet-pointed, carefully sequenced paragraphs: they link, but do not flow. The Prime Minister speaks in staccato, often non-sequitur, sentences: they gush, with an irresistible force.

The case against Mr Brown is simply stated. First, that he is not Mr Blair. But then neither is anyone else. (Indeed, Mr Blair is not always Mr Blair.)

Secondly, that he is dour, unbearably Presbyterian, and dull. None of these strike me as unduly bad things - if (and when) the wheels come off Mr Cameron’s bandwagon, I suspect the public might appreciate the contrast with a credible, experienced grown-up. That is, after all, why I voted for Ming.

Thirdly, that he is ‘psychologically flawed’, a man who makes enemies needlessly, and bears grudges shamelessly. Had he spent more time befriending the current Cabinet, Mr Blair would long since have been forced to stand aside in Mr Brown’s favour. If anything will prove Mr Brown’s undoing, it is this aloof non-collegiality.

Fourthly, that he is ‘yesterday’s man’. The public, and therefore politics, has a short attention span. Mr Brown has been Shadow Chancellor and then Chancellor since 1992: a full 14 years under the spot-light (so no wonder he looks frazzled). There comes a point when the electorate says quite simply, “What’s next?”

However, I do not under-estimate Mr Brown, whose leadership will present the Lib Dems with a real electoral test.

It has already been widely trailed that when he moves from the Treasury to become its First Lord, Mr Brown will proclaim ‘a new contract with the British people’: a written constitution, a commitment to a Parliamentary vote before declaration of war, an elected second chamber, perhaps even limited electoral reform. His passion for international aid is strong, and he will be keen to demonstrate this as prime minister. (Indeed, part of his antipathy towards the EU is based on its disgracefully illiberal protectionism, which keeps the developing world in poverty.)

All are policies which have long been championed by the Lib Dems, and would be supported regardless of which party wants to introduce them. But clearly it erodes the party’s USP when others begin to implement what we have pledged to do.

However, Mr Brown is not infallible. He will almost certainly have to stick by the ill-founded, ill-considered, and perhaps ill-fated plans to introduce national ID cards - if only to prove Labour’s increasingly authoritarian credentials to the right-wing press.

Nor is it possible to imagine circumstances in which Mr Brown will undergo a Damascene conversion, and understand what it means to decentralise power from Whitehall to democratically accountable local bodies.

And he will - because he cannot help himself - persist with ensuring all tax and welfare policies are as Byzantinely complex as possible to ensure that only he understands them (along with the wealthy accountants of even wealthier people, who will know full well how to exploit the loopholes created by Mr Brown’s ever-expanding tangle of red tape).

So what about the others…?

Well, the Lib Dems would welcome the election of John Reid, whose rampant ego and brittle toughness would be exposed not just as desperately unattractive, but depressingly ineffectual. He would, however, be a real threat to the Tories, some of whose voters would prefer a hard-nut Glaswegian to a metrosexual Etonian.

Alan Johnson is the wild-card of the pack. He has a neat turn of relaxed phrasing - witness today’s reflection on Mr Blair’s speech: “Old blue eyes will be back. He's got gigs in Downing Street and in the Palace of Westminster” - and a down-to-earth CV most Labour politicians would kill for (ie, he once had a real job). The spiv-Brylcreamed, ‘I’m All Right Jack’ union-hack stereotype belies a politician who has proved he can walk the New Labour talk, steering the controversial ‘top-up’ tuition fees bill through the House of Commons. But he has yet to prove he can either sparkle (like Mr Blair), or tub-thump (like Mr Brown), or scare the living bejeesus out of anyone with a soul (like Dr Reid).

And as for David Miliband… “Breathes there the man with soul so dead”? Neither the Tories nor Lib Dems could be that lucky.

So Gordon it will be. But, y’know, life’s unfair. If Mr Blair had never been prime minister, Mr Brown’s job would be so much easier. The trouble is that Mr Blair, the consummate politician of his generation, has raised the bar higher than Mr Brown can hope to clear. Even if Mr Brown can out-vault his political opponents he will never be able to beat his greatest ever political rival, The Man Who Is.

Make up your minds

Clearly posting that 'Cleggy's off to a flier' on Sunday inspired a few Huhne-iacs to get in on the act - as a result Nick and Chris have swapped places in the poll to decide who you think emerged from the Lib Dem conference with most credit.

Indeed, I think it's fair now to say that it's a two-horse race - and one which may just be a foretaste of the leadership battle to come in a few years' time.

This poll is going to be open for just a few more hours, before I open up a new one - which will be along the lines of who you think would be the best Labour leader from a Lib Dem perspective.

September 26, 2006

It won't get any better than this

Three weeks ago, I wrote:
Mr Blair is formidably impressive, and without doubt the most articulate, clear-sighted and instinctual politician of his generation.
Today's speech proved that: it was utterly masterful, truly mesmerising. It's what Mr Blair does best.

Which is why he should go now - he can achieve no more in that time which is left to him. Better to leave when the encomia are still ringing in your ears, than to hang around for your own wake.

Tax cuts popular with Labour voters - shock, horror

At last week's Lib Dem conference - during the debate about whether or not the party should ditch its commitment to increasing the top rate of tax for the very wealthiest to 50% - the argument was made that the exisiting policy was simple to explain, and would prove crucial in helping to sway centre-left voters in key Labour marginals, where many of the Lib Dems' best electoral hopes lie.

I was intrigued, therefore, by this finding from the BBC's Daily Politics 'perception panel', which measured the public's response to Ming's conference speech (and with which I have only just caught up):
Unsurprisingly, taxation was a key theme, and we were interested in your responses to the following passage.

We Liberal Democrats are different. Here is exactly what we'll do.

We will cut national income tax for 28 million working people.

We'll abolish the
10 pence starting rate.

We'll cut the basic rate from 22 pence to 20.

We'll raise
the top rate threshold from £38,000 to £50,000.

We'll take over two million of our lowest earners out of income tax altogether. More than two million people.

Think about it. Money back in the pockets of the poorest working families.

Sir Menzies' proposed reforms of the tax system got broad support from the Lib Dem voters among you - but got even greater approval from the Labour voters.

September 25, 2006

That's your mum, that is

I'm one of the 100,000 or so who are signed-up to YouGov, the internet pollster. I've not often been stumped by a question, but I have to confess this one took me aback:

Of course I chose Fern Britton... Who wouldn't?

Though I could swear I heard Gordon Brown refer today to Cherie Blair as a total "mother-figure". But maybe I mis-heard.

Not so much, Prime Minister

Something about Gordon Brown’s speech today rang a bell with me… See if you agree. Here’s an extract from Mr Brown’s cliché-ridden opus:
So as a Party and a Government we have climbed a huge mountain. But we must now climb many more and even more challenging mountains ahead. The next ten years will be even more demanding.

And because the challenges are quite different, the programme for governing will be different. And as the tasks of government change the way we govern must change, not just new policies but a new politics too. A new politics founded on responsibilities as well as rights. And our starting point must be the concerns, the struggles and the hopes and ambitions of families in every part of our country. …

And as we listen to and seek to answer their concerns we the Labour Party do so from and must apply an enduring set of values that put the needs and concerns of the British people first.
And here’s an extract from the Yes, Prime Minister diaries, when Jim Hacker is preparing the script for his first ministerial broadcast:
… they slipped in an optimistic bit about me and the future… this is an improvement on saying negative things about the past:

We want to build a bright future for our children. We want to build a peaceful and prosperous Britain. A Britain that can hold her head high in the fellowship of nations.

I thought it was rather good. I asked them where they had got it. It turned out they’d taken it from the last Party Political by the Leader of the Opposition. We’ll have to paraphrase it.

(Yes, Prime Minister (Vol. 1), p.99)

September 24, 2006

Cleggy's off to a flier

Nick Clegg is off to a flying start in my new poll asking which Lib Dem MP had the best party conference.

Over 40% of you have so far chosen the Sheffield Hallam sex-bomb Home Affairs spokesman as your star turn, followed by Chris Huhne (25%) and Ming Campbell (22%) who are currently vying for the runners-up spot.

But there is still, of course, all to play for - which may come as some consolation to Julia Goldsworthy, who is currently languishing in last place with nul points.

If you’ve not yet voted - and especially if you're from Cornwall - it’s not too late…

There’s something about Dave

Anticipating the Tory Party conference in a week’s time, Iain Martin has rather an odd thing to say in today’s Torygraph:
So where is the beef, and will any of it be served up in Bournemouth? [Mr Cameron’s] determination not to commit himself to a specific programme is undimmed and understandable this far from a general election. So many outside the Westminster village, after all, are still only beginning to form an opinion on his personality.
So let me get this straight - love the man, love his policies?

Is he trying to win a reality telly show, or become our next Prime Minister? I think we’ve just been told…

The perils of live telly

So I wasn’t going to blog about this…

Last Monday was my first time on live telly, on BBC News 24, where I was asked to give my reflections on the opening day of the Lib Dem conference, alongside a political correspondent for the Financial Times.

The interviewer, James Landale, asked her a question; then he asked me a question (a different question to the one he’d said he would ask, but what the heck). And then he reverted to my fellow interviewee - who looked queasy, staggered slightly, and then fainted. Live on air.

It’s fair to say I was caught off-guard (as you can see from this still). Together with Mr Landale, we (sort of) caught her mid-fall, and then there was a split second when we both thought the same thing - do we carry on?

Quite rightly, the channel’s editors intervened, and cut straight back to the News 24 studio in some confusion.

As I say, I wasn’t going to mention any of this here (it just didn’t seem fair). But two things prompt me to do so.

First, I see the BBC has seen fit to broadcast the moment on its Storyfix download, which you can watch here (it’s about a third of the way in).

To my embarrassment and shame, I emerge from the incident looking utterly heartless, rather than serenely gallant (as I had hoped, and mis-remembered) - like the kind of cheap politician who would step over his own grandmother’s corpse if she lay between him and a photo-op. My only defence is that it happened very quickly, and that I was acutely conscious this was being broadcast in real-time.

The second reason I'm now telling all is that the journalist who fainted wrote a lovely e-mail to me last week, which I
d like to share:
I don't know if you remember me, but I was the falling body that interrupted your moment of glory on BBC News 24 on Monday evening in the Metropole Bar.

This is just a short note to say sorry that my unexpectedly crashing blood pressure came between you and Mr Landale's penetrating questions - I told James later that he should have just stepped over me and carried on asking you what you thought about things. Sky would have done, I reckon!

And several of Ming's aides said I'd introduced a great way of avoiding the difficult questions on policy.

Anyway, I've heard you on just about every broadcast outlet since then, so well done, and I clearly haven't killed off a burgeoning career.

Regards, and please feel free to use the video clip and this letter on your site if you feel like it - I'm absolutely fine and won't be offended at all. It was apparently a television first, and James said (I can't remember any of it) that you did at least get to answer one question before I did the drama queen bit.
'Nuff respect.

PS: Rob Fenwick has oh-so-kindly uploaded my moment of un-glory to YouTube here.

September 23, 2006

Gordon Brown: the quiz

thegrauniad asks nine questions to test how much any of us really know about our current Chancellor, and next Prime Minister.

I didn’t do too badly - 8/9 - though whether knowing where Gordon Brown holidays is something I’m that proud of I’m not too sure.

(The one I slipped up on: which of Mr Brown’s five tests for British entry into the Eurozone was met in 2003? Me neither.)

NuLabour, NuTory

First, they elected a Blair-lite leader, David Cameron. Then they disowned (sort of) their previous extremist manifestos. Now they’re about to move into Millbank.

Is there nothing the Tories won’t do to emulate New Labour?

New poll: who had the best conference?

Right, now we’ve all had 24 hours to catch up on lost sleep, and gain some perspective, it’s time to choose which Lib Dem MP you think emerged with most credit from this year’s party conference.

The new poll is open now at my other gaff, and the six runners and riders are (in alphabetical order):

Vince Cable - steered through the Lib Dems’ new tax plans, and delivered an economics masterclass in his speech.

Ming Campbell - led from the front on the tax debate, gave a solid conference speech, and emerged much the stronger.

Nick Clegg - wowed delegates with an absolutely barnstorming speech, and a terrific new gimmick policy proposal: the Great Repeal Act.

Julia Goldsworthy - her cool, calm and assured performance in the lead-up to the tax debate proved her determination and mettle.

Evan Harris - though he lost the vote, his speech (well, mainly his jokes) in favour of the rebel amendment was the talk of the town.

Chris Huhne - his sober and weighty concluding remarks helped swing the tax vote in the leadership’s favour, entrenching his position as the activists’ darling.

** The presidential poll is now closed. Here’s the final score, after 180 votes: **

Paddy Ashdown (42 votes) - 23%
Lynne Featherstone (34) - 19%
Jo Swinson (21) - 12%
Simon Hughes (19) - 11%
Lembit Öpik (14 ) - 8%
Jenny Willott (14 ) - 8%
Susan Kramer (13) - 7%
Matthew Taylor (12) - 7%
Shirley Williams (11) - 6%

(Incidentally, I saw Simon very briefly on Thursday lunch-time, and he congratulated me on my blogging prize. He added that he was delighted to have been able to contribute, by providing the inspiration for the poll on his presidency. For once, I was tongue-tied, with a mixture of embarrassment (that he might have taken it personally) and surprise (that he’d heard about it at all).)

September 22, 2006

New vidcast: celebrating 'Car Free Day'

And now for something completely different...

After a week in Brighton, it was back to work with a vengeance today. Today was (for those of you who failed to notice) ‘Car Free Day’. Or, as it has been rather less snappily entitled this year - ‘In Town Without My Car Day’.

To mark the occasion, some of my Headington residents had organised their own street party. And it seemed only fitting for me to record the occasion, together with some vox pops from local residents, and a couple of contributions from my County Council colleague, Gail Bones, and myself.

Happy viewing...

September 21, 2006

Praise be

There seems to be a worrying degree of consensus in the Lib Dem blogosphere tonight that the Brighton conference was not only a success, it was enjoyable too.

Fellow bloggers - do try and remember we are liberals, and therefore natural dissenters. And that we are Lib Dems - and therefore won’t be able to keep such dissent to ourselves. I hope to see a proper post slating the whole shebang on the Aggregator by nightfall.

Anyway, it seems we are not alone. Bagehot in this week’s Economist is also grudgingly impressed, albeit back-handedly. Here's a taster:
Is the Liberal Democrats' glass half full or half empty? … that the question can even be put, after the turbulent past nine months, is testimony to the resilience of Britain's third party. By rights the Lib Dems should be on their knees. …

Despite everything, the Lib Dem vote has held fairly steady in opinion polls at just under 20%. In last May's local-government elections the party won a higher share of the vote than Labour. And it has lost none of its ability to achieve spectacular results in by-elections, winning the Dunfermline seat where Gordon Brown has his home and coming within an ace of claiming Bromley, the 17th-safest Conservative seat in the country. …

To his credit, Mr Kennedy's successor, Sir Menzies Campbell, is doing his best to wean his party from its customary frivolity. … he is both braver and more serious than Mr Kennedy.

These qualities were in evidence during the conference's set-piece event, a debate on whether to adopt a package of tax reforms put together by Vince Cable, the shadow chancellor, and the environment spokesman, Chris Huhne. The package was controversial, not so much because it embodied a radical switch from taxing earnings to taxing pollution as because it dropped the party's commitment to raise the top rate of income tax from 40% to 50%. To Mr Cable and his allies, it was important to show that the Lib Dems did not want to penalise work and ambition.

But for many in the party, the 50% rate identified the Lib Dems as the party of social justice. Never mind that Mr Cable's package was already strongly, indeed riskily, redistributive. And never mind that at the last election the revenue supposedly gained by soaking the rich would have been frittered away on middle-class subsidies such as abolishing university-tuition fees rather than used to fight poverty. The 50% rate was a badge of honour that distinguished the Lib Dems from pusillanimous Labour and wicked Tories.

Had Mr Kennedy, with his hands-off style, still been leader, there is little doubt that the tax package would have been voted down. But when it was pointed out to Sir Ming what effect defeat would have on his authority, he chose to lead from the front. In other ways too, he is a marked improvement on his predecessor. There is a new feeling of professionalism in the party. Meetings start on time and are effectively chaired. Out-campaigned by the Tories last year, the Lib Dems have learned the lesson and next time will have better technology and more money.
Compare that with the scathing assessment delivered last year:
Never mind that theirs was the only party to increase its share of the vote at the last election; the mood of the Liberal Democrats who met in Blackpool this week is sombre. Despite having returned 62 MPs to Westminster—the party's best result since the 1920s—the Lib Dems are haunted by an overwhelming sense of opportunities missed and fear for the future.
As one of Brighton’s most famous sons, Fatboy Slim, might note:
We've come a long long way together,
Through the hard times and the good.

Ming's speech: the (belated) verdict

Blimey, the pressures of blogging. Ros Taylor’s conference newsblog for GuardianUnlimited noted
Stephen Tall, the winner of the Lib Dems' blogging competition, hasn't yet delivered his verdict on the speech
… at 2.50 pm, two hours after Ming finished speaking. I had a couple of good reasons.

By that time I had spoken with Ross Grauniad colleague, Hélène Mulholland, for her ‘What the delegates thought’ focus group, which has been running all week. Heres her transcription of my phoned-through insta-verdict:
It was a leadership speech. I don't think Menzies is ever going to be the most comfortable frontman and I think it was important he gave us a direction. When people were cheering they were cheering him but also cheering themselves as well. When you look back to January I do not think anyone expected us to be where we are today. I don't think he enjoyed giving it but most people left here feeling united and energised. He is getting more relaxed as he goes on.
I had also appeared alongside Matthew Parris on BBC Radio 4’s World at One, which you can listen again to here (about 20 minutes in).

To conclude (or to ‘summate’, as I have now learned after four days of Lib Dem debates a conclusion should apparently be termed): a good speech - solid, not spectacular - but a great conference.

I think most of us would pretty happily have settled for that six days ago.

Ad liberalling (Or: Eternal Sunshine of the Liberal Mind)

In an hour’s time, and next door to where I’m typing this, Ming Campbell will get to his feet for the first time to address the Lib Dems’ autumn conference as leader. He will receive a rousing reception which will leave the media scratching their heads.

For the assembled troops of journos and commentators, this week has not followed their script.

If we’d followed their agenda, the party would have spent this week scrapping and fighting over the Tax Commission proposals, exposing a chasmic rift in liberal ideology.

If we’d followed their agenda, the party would have greeted Ming with chilly reproof, and there would have been loud cries of ‘Come back, Charlie’ when Mr Kennedy addressed conference.

None of it was to be: give liberals a script, and you can guarantee they will junk it. It’s not exactly ad-libbing. Let’s call it ad-liberalling.

The ‘Green Tax Switch’ was comfortably approved, unamended. And though Charles was welcomed back with warmth, any suggestion that he will again be leader is a media myth. This conference has been about the ‘next generation’ - Nick Clegg, Chris Huhne and Julia Goldsworthy - and it is they who are its future.

I’m almost embarrassed to end with a meteorological analogy… but it’s been a long week with too little sleep, so what the hell…

The sun was shining last Saturday when I arrived in Brighton. And, despite the media’s attempts to rain on our parade, it’s shining even more brightly today.

Tough on flip-flops, tough on the causes of flip-flops

It was on 15th February, this year, when Ming Campbell asked Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions:
Rather than creating ambiguous and controversial offences such as the glorification of terrorism, should not the Government introduce the effective and practical measure of permitting the use of telephone intercept evidence in our courts, so that we may bring suspected terrorists to trial?
The Prime Minister replied:
… that allowing intercept evidence would damage our ability to prosecute terrorists or those involved in organised crime. That is the reason for it; it has nothing to do with civil liberties or a desire not to take action.
Today, the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, told the BBC:
We do have a need to use intercept in court if we're going to give ourselves the chance of convicting some of the most dangerous and prolific criminals in the country. It is a vital tool therefore for organised serious crime - this is what I've been told particularly by colleagues in the United States - and for terrorism.
I hope this flip-flop will be pointed out next time Labour talks about being tough on terrorism.

September 20, 2006

Simon says he's up for it... Is anyone else?

I've just emerged from the conference hall, where Simon Hughes has announced he will be seeking a mandate from Lib Dem members for a second term as party president.

(Though - for my taste - publicly saying he will be "cross" if he doesn't win was an unnecessarily gauche way of asking us for a second chance.)

Anyway, the gauntlet has been thrown down. The question now is whether anyone will pick it up.

To the best of my knowledge, no forms soliciting signatures for any other potential presidential candidate have been circulating. And time is running out for anyone interested.

The issue for many of us, I guess, is this - is it worth the hassle (and expense) of a contested election, especially if it's seen as putting the boot into a fundamentally decent man who has endured a torrid year personally, and a disappointing year politically?

My view (for what it's worth)? Better for Simon to regain some confidence by winning re-election properly, than to hang on by default.

(The current result of the poll on my main website - asking who you think would make the best Lib Dem president - is shown above. Simon is currently in 4th place. But there's no doubt that the faves of those who've voted are Lynne and Paddy.)

Why I like Vince

I don’t believe in the concept of ‘heroes’ - all folk are flawed, and to elevate any one person above the common herd seems a sure-fire way of embracing deferred disillusion.

But if I have a Lib Dem un-hero, it is our shadow chancellor, Dr Vince Cable: genial, sharp,
magnanimous, dry, serious, courteous and formidable. Even to mention ‘Uncle Vince’ and his Tory counterpart ‘Boy George Osbourne’ in the same sentence is to compare mahogany with MDF.

Today he took to the Lib Dem podium to deliver his speech to conference.

Vince pulled off a neat trick. He delivered the perfect economics lecture, giving us a brisk tour de horizon on the state of the British economy, together with a slide-show of capsuled diagrams (as per the pic) - all of which graphically illustrated why one of Charles Kennedy’s best decisions as leader was to make Vince our Treasury spokesman.

It wasn’t all Open University. There were some enjoyably acerbic digs at our rivals too:
  • “[The Tories have] fallen into the hands of a couple of overgrown adolescents with a flair for publicity stunts who are still trying to work out the difference between managing a sophisticated modern economy and a school tuck shop.”
  • “No one could accuse Gordon Brown of false modesty - proclaiming Britain has enjoyed the best economic fortunes not just since the Tories, but since the Hanoverians.”
And it is of course one of the delightful charms of a Lib Dem conference that he could earn one of his warmest rounds of applause for the declaration that “we have to make the statisticians genuinely independent of government”. True. (But perhaps not Focus leaflet fodder.)

Vince reserved some genuinely stinging passion for a resounding condemnation of the collapse of the Doha trade round:

We saw an unholy alliance between the corruption and cynicism of the Bush administration and the inward looking protectionist instincts of a European Union dominated by the grain barons and orchestrated by Blair's favourite spin doctor. At worst, their stupid selfishness could lead to the collapse of the trading system as it did in the 1930s when multilateral rules and solidarity were disregarded. At best it will become much more difficult to manage peacefully and co-operatively the transition to a world economy in which the new powers of Asia reassert the dominance they lost over a century ago.
In his speech yesterday, Charles Kennedy asserted the Lib Dems’ principled pro-Europeanism. Which is all well and good - but it should not stop liberals punching home the message that the EU’s unjust trade policies are deliberately and disgracefully condemning the developing world to continuing poverty.

Yes, we should make the ‘case for Europe’ - let us never forget, however, that the Lib Dems are, above all, an internationalist party committed to free and fair trade.

September 19, 2006

Still media tarting

If you just can't get enough of my thoughts, there's a few gobbets of mine over at Guardian Unlimited - reflecting, with other Lib Dems, on today's events.

I'm also due on Sky News tonight (some time after 8pm, I think). And if anyone wants an insight into the absence of control-freakery in the Lib Dems, I proffer this example.

When the party press office called me to ask if I would be free, I enquired what issues Sky would be asking about. (If anyone wants details about Vehicle Excise Duties, I'm not your guy. I embraced the principles of the Tax Commission. I haven't memorised its details.)

I was told they wanted someone to provide general impressions, and who wasn't 'official'. "So it's up to you what you say to them. We're certainly not giving you a line." And she didn't.

Reflecting on Charles's reflections

As expected, Charles Kennedy received a generous reception for what was going to be one of the most difficult speeches of his life: a high-wire act on stilts.

He knew every dot and comma - every crossed ‘t’ and dotted ‘i’ - would be parsed, scrutinised, and analysed by commentators desperate to put a fag paper between him and the new leadership.

(Not least because the resounding acceptance of the Tax Commission proposals had robbed the commentariat of their much-desired “Lib Dems in disarray” headlines.)

So how did Charles do?

He did just fine. It was a surprisingly understated speech, ranging widely (and lengthily) across the spectrum of political issues. It covered all the ground you would expect of a leader’s speech - but it certainly didn’t sound like a pitch for the leadership, or even the front bench.

Rather, his
deliberate invoking of the spirit of Robin Cook suggested he was looking forward to a period of quiet reflection, punctuated by occasional forays into battle on those issues about which he cares most - from Lords reform, to PR for Westminster, to Europe.

Of one thing I’m pretty sure - the hoarse delivery suggested he hasn’t kicked his smoking habit.

Phew! (Breathes more easily)

Mark the time well... The party just came of age.

All kudos to the Lib Dem Tax Commission for a hard job well done - and to the party leadership for putting their necks on the line.

Today's tax debate was what party conferences should be about. It was passionate, tense, good humoured, important and well argued.

And, most importantly - the right result.

PS: I see Mr Cameron's anaemic 'Built to Last' document has been endorsed by 60,000 Tory members (with 5,000 rejecting it - I assume they'd vote against motherhood and apple pie as well, if given the choice).

Some 175,000 Tory members failed to vote at all, suggesting there may be a slight lack of enthusiasm for Mr Cameron's brand of "inoffensive Conservatism".

I'll leave it to you to judge which of today's two results demonstrates real leadership.

Sticking it to us on paper

As David Penhaligon famously said: "If you have something to say, write it on a piece of paper and stick it through a letterbox."

Well, the Brighton Centre doesn't do letterboxes. But it does have queues stetching round the block, as Lib Dem members patiently await lengthy security checks. (Who knows what terrorist devices might be concealed within our organic, wheat-free, vegetarian packed lunches?)

And into our clammy palms are pressed all manner of fliers, leaflets, and magazines. The Tax Commision supporters have (I'm glad to say) been out in force throughout conference getting their message out. Here's just a couple of the ones I picked up today.

And, with that, I'm signing out. The debate is calling me... I can hear applause, I can hear laughter... but which side is clapping hardest, smiling loudest? We'll know in 90 minutes' time.

Of course it’s about the leadership (which is why we can’t say it’s about the leadership)

There are times when the truth has to be officially denied by those on opposite sides of the argument. Today’s tax debate is one such occasion.

The ‘50p question’ has become a totemic one for the Lib Dems.

The Tax Commission is proposing the party abandon its commitment to income tax increases for the richest in favour of income tax cuts for the poorest - to be funded by raising taxes on pollution and wealth. “Tax pollution, not people” is the slogan - and it’s a good ‘un.

The so-called ‘rebel amendments’ that is being debated 50 yards from me seeks to tack-on a symbolic hike in income tax for the rich - a marginal rate of 50% for those earning more than £150k. Its proponents argue that this is complementary to the Tax Commission proposals, that the party can have its cake and eat it. “Tax pollution, and people” seems to be their slogan. I’m unconvinced.

The party leadership has thrown its weight behind the plans. But, this being the Liberal Democrat party, they cannot say it’s about the leadership. “It’s not High Noon,” declares Ming Campbell.

Politically this is the only smart option. Because Lib Dem members are an ornery bunch of contrarian individuals, and anything that smacks of an establishment attempt to corral or whip us into line will be rejected on principle. To state the bleedin’ obvious: this is both the party's strength and its weakness.

Those rebels leading the charge to retain the 50p commitment are equally careful to avoid confrontation. “I am strongly supportive of [Ming’s] leadership but he recognises … that the party conference makes policy,” says rebelMP Evan Harris.

Again, this is sensible. Because if there’s one thing the Lib Dems dislike more than the leadership seeking to struts its stuff, it’s attacks on the leadership (in whatever guise) which give succour only to our opponents.

So both sides are doing the Right Thing. It’s just that the Right Thing sometimes exists only in a parallel universe.

I am in no doubt, and nor is anyone else I’ve spoken to today, that a defeat for the Tax Commission proposals will be a damaging defeat for the leadership, and personally undermining of Ming’s authority.

But that’s not why I’ll be voting with the leadership. The Lib Dems have the chance today to show we’re not fighting yesterday’s battles. There’s no need: we’ve won them already. Everyone now agrees that well-funded and locally-accountable public services are vital.

Let’s now devote our energies to winning tomorrow’s arguments: that we need new ‘green taxes’ to tackle climate change, taxes on the wealth of the very richest - so that we can cut the taxes of the poorest, and make real our commitment to social justice.

September 18, 2006

Clegg ups the ante

A great speech, a great idea - Nick Clegg stormed the Lib Dem conference today, with his promise of a Great Repeal Act "to roll back a generation of illiberal legislation and illiberal regulations; a single act to dismantle the apparatus of authoritarianism that has been forced on the nation".

New Labour has introduced well over 3,000 new criminal offences since it came to office in 1997. The Lib Dems have identified the top 10 we think are right for axing, and are inviting the public to suggest others which should be put up for the chop.

Nick had a good day. All it needs now is for people to stop hanging the millstone of 'our next leader' round his neck, and his cup will runneth over.

Media tarting

Okay, let's just be clear. This is not about bigging-up myself - it's for the benefit of my mum (who got a bit of a shock when she woke up this morning hearing me on the radio).

Last night's Lib Dem Blog of the Year awards are being reported here (BBC.co.uk: 'Lib Dems award "blog of the year"'), and here (Guardian Online: 'Liberally applied').

And I'm booked for BBC News 24 (7.30 pm-ish) and (maybe) More4 News (after 8 pm).

Keeps repeating to self: I am not Iain Dale.

Fisking Jackie Ashley

‘The Lib Dems must be bold or they’ll become irrelevant’ - so says Jackie Ashley in today’s Grauniad. She’s right, of course. She’s also out-of-date.

Tempting as it is to ‘fisk’ the whole article, I’m going to shrink from the pleasure. I’ll let today's Grauniad do it instead.

Jackie reckons:
Current Lib Dem strategy is so hazily general that the party appears to have no direction of travel.
thegrauniad reports:
Sir Menzies said the [Lib Dems’ tax] plans would take 2 million of the lowest paid out of tax; would cut the basic rate from 22p to 20p, benefiting 25 million middle-income earners;’ and would raise the top-rate threshold, helping another 1 million workers.
Jackie reckons:
They don’t want to raise taxes overall, or to cut them overall, or to stop squeezing the rich, or to start squeezing the rich.
thegrauniad reports:
The changes are also more redistributive than the existing policy, and mark a switch from income to wealth and pollution taxes. … Robert Chote, director of the Institute of Fiscal Studies, told BBC Radio 4 the top 10% of earners would pay around 4% a year more in tax.
Jackie reckons:
… their destiny is surely to be the most boldly and aggressively green of all the parties and to take a left-liberal approach on tax and civil liberties.
thegrauniad reports:
[Ming Campbell] urged members … to back ‘the most comprehensive, green and progressive tax reform presented by a political party in decades’.
Hope that helps clear things up, Jackie. All party of the blogging service, dontcha know.

Keeping it real. Honest

Last post about winning that little competition. (I hope.)

First, you can listen to me being interviewed after the awards ceremony:
  • On the BBC Today programme, being interviewed with Iain Dale. You can listen again here. (Apparently it’s about 17 minutes into the 6.30-7.00 am section.) I’m the one speaking far too quickly. If only I could write that fast.
  • On the Channel 4 News Morning Report podcast here, being interviewed by Iain Dale. I’m with fellow Lib Dem bloggers, Alex Foster and Rob Fenwick. I’m sure I was funnier and more incisive at the time.
Secondly, an answer to a question I was asked a lot last night - does winning a prize from the party risk neutering this blog? Will I feel any subtle pressure not to be critical of the party when (not if) I disagree with policies?

Short answer: no. This blog is my space, to speak the stuff that’s in my head in the hope that someone out there will find it interesting. I’m a liberal first, a Lib Dem second - fortunately, though, there’s a fair Venn Diagram relationship.

And anyway - no one ever got involved in the Lib Dems because they have personal political ambitions. I sent off for the form to apply to be a Lib Dem MP about six years ago. I still haven’t filled it in.

And I’m aware I’ve written loads on my blog which my political opponents could drag up at a later date, and use against me - but so what? Life’s too short to try and plan what might come next.

So I’m going to keep blogging, keep keeping it real. And if I don’t - I know you guys will stop reading.

Can I stop now?

Can I be the last person to post that I won Lib Dem Blog of the Year last night?

The highlights? Meeting Lynne Featherstone, all the Lib Dem bloggers and Iain Dale. (In that order.)

After Lynne had handed me my award (and I’d dropped it - yes, really), I made a brief speech, the remnants of which I’m trying to dredge up - actually the advantage of writing it down now is that I can vastly improve on what I really said:
I want to say two thank yous.

First, to the judges (and not just for picking me) - for selecting such an excellent short-list. In fact, they could have picked two or three short-lists, and still only have scratched the surface of talent out there.

But then these things are highly subjective - as anyone who’s read Iain Dale’s list of Top 100 Lib Dem blogs will know.

My second thank you is to my fellow Lib Dem bloggers, whether they were on the short-list or not.

First, because I enjoy reading what you post.

Secondly, because we keep each other on our toes.

And, thirdly, for showing what a lively bunch of folk we liberals can be. For those of the media who tediously insist on trying to pigeonhole the Lib Dems as either right-wing or left-wing, the Lib Dem blogs are an insistent, daily reminder that we are neither.

We’re liberals.

And I’m delighted our voice is so well represented on the Internet.

Immigration: "open door = revolving door"

My first fringe meeting*, and it’s a crunch issue: ‘Building a liberal consensus on immigration’.
First up was former Tory MP Keith Best - these days chief executive of the Immigration Advisory Service - who swiftly won over the Lib Dem audience by making an impassioned plea for a sensible and serious debate, in stark contrast to the ‘pub prejudice’ sponsored by the more sensationalist right-wing press.

Three steps are crucial, he argued, to enabling this debate to take place. First, the public must have confidence in the statistics which are used - which means government butting out, and an independent body analysing the figures. Secondly, this country relies on economic migration, but we have to deal seriously with abuse of migrant labour. And, thirdly, this nation should take seriously its historic links to Commonwealth countries.

Above all, Mr Best said, immigration policy should be centred around how we can best enhance the cause of human dignity.

Next up was Philippe Legrain, former Economist journalist, who castigated New Labour’s immigration policies, branding them “unfair, unworkable and economically harmful”. Instead, he advocated an ‘open door’ policy on the grounds that immigration is inevitable - whether legal or not - so we might as well make a virtue out of it. He noted that the debate often blurs the distinction between temporary and permanent migration - though hundreds and thousands of EU migrants have entered the UK, many have subsequently returned. In 2004, net migration was 48,000, and, in 2005, it was 75,000. In other words, “an open door policy is a revolving door policy”.

Finally, Lib Dem Shadow Home Secretary, Nick Clegg (speaking, left), delivered a characteristically thoughtful but punchy speech.

Though New Labour talked tough across the whole spectrum of crime issues, he argued, they had proved incapable of delivering - instead Messrs Straw, Blunkett, Clarke and Reid had presided over a “cumulative crisis of utter incompetence”. To public fear, they had added legislative chaos.

He recalled canvassing a voter in Chesterfield in 2001, who had raised (and blurred) the issue of immigration and asylum-seeking, arguing there were too many of ‘them’ around. Nick, as the area’s then MEP, happened to know there was then not a single asylum seeker in Chesterfield. He put this fact to the guy, who retorted, “I haven’t seen them, but they’re everywhere.”

Nick said he didn’t have a blueprint or panacea to what is a complex and nuanced argument. But three steps would make a start. First, we have to “suck the politics out” of the debate - or in other words stop the grandstanding by those politicians eager to drag the debate into the gutters. Secondly, if we are to retain any semblance of public confidence in the immigration system, then it has to be well managed. And, thirdly, the UK has to work closely with our European partners to ensure that all countries are signed up for enlightened migration policies.

I’ve said it before: this is a debate the Lib Dems should lead. We have a clear direction - that an enlightened immigration policy is not only possible, it will benefit both immigrants and the host country - and it’s one behind which the whole of the party can unite. Both Labour and the Tories are increasingly regressing into embarrassed isolationism. The liberal voice deserves to be heard loud and clear.

* (Written yesterday, Sunday, then my Internet connection disappeared...)

September 17, 2006

Yay! Ming IS being Ming...

Okay, so I know I’m biased. Not only am I a Lib Dem, but I’m one of the (relatively few) bloggers who supported Ming Campbell for the leadership.

But I was by no means uncritical. And one of the chief concerns I had was how Ming could deal with the demands of front-line leadership in the 'telly age'. I remember in particular on interview he gave to BBC1's On The Record during the leadership campaign: he looked stiff, awkward, and uncertain.

Yet his performance on Andrew Marr's Sunday AM today was top-notch, best telly interview I’ve seen him give: calm, relaxed, and authoritative. At last, he looked sublimely comfortable as leader.

True, Mr Marr is not the fiercest of interrogators - to be fair, 9 am on the Lord’s Day is no time to do a Paxman - but his questions were perceptive and to-the-point. Ming urbanely answered them all, highlighting the key themes he wants this conference to address: the environmental agenda, fairness in taxation, and rolling back the layers of New Labour over-centralisation.

If you think I’m just brown-nosing, you can watch the interview by clicking on this link, and judge for yourselves.

No Liberal is an island

Well there’s surreal for you…

Grazing on Lib Dem Blogs yesterday evening, I noticed Will Howells had posted that he was “sitting on the beach, reading some blogs and taking in the sea air. Lovely.”

Which sounded appealing, so I logged out of my computer in the Brighton Centre, and strolled over the road.

Where I bumped into the charming Will… who’d just read my first conference blog posting…

September 16, 2006

A request to the media: challenge yourselves

“Lib Dem conference will be dominated by leadership questions”. So says the BBC’s political correspondent Nick Assinder. He continues:
It may not be the biggest question the party wants to address when it gathers in Brighton. But it is the one that is already hanging over the event.
I travelled down by train to conference today, together with three fellow Lib Dems. The issues we discussed ranged widely: the 50p debate, land value tax v local income tax, replacing Trident, the size of school sixth forms, compulsory voting, waste recycling. Ming’s leadership wasn’t mentioned once.

Mr Assinder is in one sense right. The issue of leadership is hanging over the conference – but that’s because it’s the only issue the media can be bothered to pay any attention to. Personality politics is easy to report; any fool can do it.

Perhaps our news journalists could try raising the bar during conference season, instead of just propping it up?

What no queues?

So far, so good. Despite all the warnings that my first taste of a Lib Dem conference would be an interminable queue to register I was in and out within 10 minutes.

(In fact the only reason it took even that long was that Royal Mail failed to deliver half the conference packs to delegates, and I was one of the victims – the party (understandably) wanted to make a note of whose hasn’t arrived so they can bill Royal Mail.
More grist to my mill.)

What’s more I’ve managed to blag myself into the Brighton Centre early – one advantage of being a blogger with credentials – to post this quick entry.

Conference revs up a gear tomorrow. Not only am I awaiting a call from Vince Cable - who’s offered to phone me and a few others to talk us through the Tax Commission proposals (I think he’d be wiser spending the time having a 1-to-1 with Evan Harris) - but the first fringe meetings get under way, and then there’s the party’s ‘Green Tax Switch’ rally in the evening. (In the Oxford Suite, appropriately enough.)

Wishing you were here...

September 15, 2006

Brighton vox

Quick vidcast of me relishing the prospect of my first ever Lib Dem conference.

(Sorry about the 'plane flying overhead near the end. If it distracts you just think what it did to me. But I didn't have time for a re-take.)

September 14, 2006

Mori, Iraq and the Lib Dems

The latest Ipsos-Mori poll has dribbled out via the blogs. It shows, in stark contrast to recent polls, that Labour (36%) leads the Tories (35%), with the Lib Dems on 19%.

But I was more intrigued by the finding shown here: that the proportion of people naming
Iraq as an important issue has more than doubled, from 18% in April 2005 - a month before the general election - to 32% today.

However, that leap in political salience, has been matched by a seeming dilution of public support for the Lib Dems’ stance. Eighteen months ago, the party was rated the party best able to deal with Iraq by 52% of the public, compared with 13% and 11% for the two pro-war parties, the Tories and Labour.

Today, just 14% (down 38%) of the public rate the Lib Dems as having the best policy on Iraq. Labour, perhaps perversely, is regarded as the safest pair of hands - 18% (up 7%) of the public believe they will be most effective, while the Tories are still stuck at 13%.

This could be taken as unalloyed bad news for the Lib Dems - more people think an issue matters, yet fewer are confident the party would do a better job. But I think the reality is more complicated than that.

The first, statistical, point to note is obvious enough. The fact that more people are naming Iraq as an important issue is likely to mean that, proportionately, fewer of them are likely to be Lib Dem supporters.

The more prosaic point is this. When the question was asked, back in 2005, just 9% of the public was undecided who would handle Iraq best. At that stage, the question could have been taken (and I suspect was taken) as a proxy for - “Do you believe the invasion of Iraq was justified” - with those saying “No” opting for the Lib Dems to demonstrate their opposition.

Today 43% of the public are unsure which political party would handle Iraq best. You can read into that what you like - so here’s my attempt. The situation there is now so messy that it is almost impossible to imagine how any politician, let alone how any nation or even alliance, can hope to halt the continuing slide into bloody civil conflict.

It may seem scant reward for all those Lib Dem MPs who, with great courage, voted against the US-British invasion of Iraq - but, if public opinion really is saying, “I wouldn’t start from here”, that strikes me as the only possible rational response to this intractable crisis.

September 13, 2006


I feel I ought to acknowledge - in a suitably jovial, self-deprecating and belated tone - that this blog has, unworthily, been short-listed by four supremely attractive and wise judges for the Lib Dem Blog of the Year award. (Or the 'BotY', as I like to think of it.) Too kind.

My deadly rivals (I mean, friendly competitors) blog here, here, here, here and here. Though you probably knew that already.

Samuel Brittan on the Lib Dem tax proposals

Here's what liberalism's latter-day eminence grise thinks, as recorded in today's FT:
While [the Liberal Democrat] party’s main attraction still lies in its greater commitment to personal freedom and due process than the Labour or Conservative megaliths, there is now at least a chance one might be able to vote for the party because of, rather than despite, its economic policies.

The part likely to attract the odium of the Lib Dem left at next week’s party conference is withdrawal of the earlier flagship proposal to raise the higher rate of income tax from 40 to 50 per cent. Nevertheless, Robert Chote, IFS director, regards the new proposals as more redistributive. The core idea is to abolish the 10p lower band and raise the standard and upper rate threshold. The basic rate would be cut by 2 percentage points and corporation tax by one point. The package would be financed partly by tightening up capital gains tax relief and pension contribution reliefs and by raising the anomalously low upper earnings limit of employee national insurance contributions. More interesting are the environmental taxes, expected to raise more than £8bn. Most of the measures would make for a healthier and cleaner environment even without bringing global warming into the reckoning.
He goes on to note - rightly - that this the party's proposals are inconsistent with our still-favoured Local Income Tax, and that site value tax "would be a far better way of providing local government with its own source of revenue".

Mr Brittan concludes:
Taken as a whole, the Lib Dem package is not Gladstone or John Stuart Mill. But it does mark an advance on anything the two major parties have suggested.