What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

November 30, 2006

There is such a thing as a free launch

The New Statesman e-mailed me t’other day to ask me to blog-up their re-launched website, www.newstatesman.com.

Which I am perfectly happy to do not least because they have adopted a permissive browsing policy, with all articles available free - and, more interestingly, an eight-year archive that can now be plundered by any casual visitor with no subscription required.

A trend is emerging: last week, the Independent website withdrew its annoying firewall (I can’t really believe people ever paid £1 to access each ‘blocked’ Indy article).

This is contrary to the New York Times’s policy. It’s over a year since the USA’s paper of record launched TimesSelect, which placed many op-ed articles beyond the reach of those not willing to fork out US$50 a year. The result? Their online presence is now turning a profit, but at the cost of the public conversation that universal reach allows.

It’s also a U-turn for the Indy. It was only last March that its chief executive, Ivan Fallon, commented to thegrauniad that the Indy ‘had no desire to give content away for free, and said the industry would need to embrace online charging.’ So why the change of heart?

Emily Bell, Grauniad Unlimited’s editor-in-chief , explained why back in October:
On our education site, a story earlier this year gloried in the headline "Necrophilia among ducks ruffles research feathers". Like the dolphin, it became our most popular story for days on end. This may demonstrate the effect Google has on any story carrying a word with sexual connotations in the headline, or indeed popular interest in animals doing strange things. But it also illustrates a key principle of web distribution - the value of a "long tail".

If you publish all your material continuously, although the top story of the day will still attract a high degree of interest, other stories being talked about elsewhere on the web can draw an equivalent or even bigger audience over time. A third of our traffic on Guardian Unlimited comes from stories more than a month old. Hardly surprising as we have 3m items in the archive, all of which attract fractional traffic on an individual basis, but collectively make a considerable impact. So when people ask me why we don't charge for the archive or at least put it behind a registration wall, this is a powerful reason why not.
This seems to be the conclusion that has now been reached by both the Indy and the Staggers.

Yet it’s not a universal truth. Pearson, which has controlling stakes in both the Financial Times and Economist, continues to firewall much of its comment and analysis, as well as its archive, with little sign of any change. It is perhaps part of these newspapers’ reassuringly expensive branding that they are premium products which subscribers will be attracted to precisely because of their exclusivity.

November 28, 2006

Oxford clutches to the past

For those who’ve been following the ‘Oxford governance reforms’ story, today was the day of the crunch vote.

I trooped along to the Sheldonian Theatre this afternoon late enough to avoid much of the debate - which fell a long way short of any Socratic ideals - to mark my ‘X’ backing the Vice-Chancellor’s attempts to drag my alma mater and employer-at-one-remove kicking and screaming into the modern world. (About which I posted in more detail here.)

He, we, lost. Which is the problem with democracy, really - it throws up some bloody silly decisions. Not sure what happens next…

But if the Vice-Chancellor, Dr John Hood, is considering his options (and I wouldn’t blame him for a moment) he should remember there’s now a vacancy at the BBC.

Here’s some footage of the moment the vote was announced. Unfortunately I got the zoom and on/off buttons confused when the result was read out. Still, it gives a flavour of proceedings.

Who missed a trick?

Journalism is an ephemeral trade, and the passing of time can sometimes be cruel to even the most acute of commentators. It might seem harsh to point out an exemplum… but it’s also quite amusing.

So take a bow, James Harding, business editor of The Times, who took delight two weeks ago in chiding ITV’s headhunters, The Zygos Partnership:
The Zygos Partnership, ITV’s headhunters, seems to have its own head in the sand. The commercial broadcaster hired Zygos months ago to draw up a list of candidates after Charles Allen’s belated departure. But Zygos has not deigned to contact almost any of the potential leading candidates. Now, there are some excuses for this. Perhaps Zygos is looking to wow investors with a surprise choice. Quite understandably, ITV wants to conduct the recruitment process behind closed doors.

Nonetheless, ITV and Zygos have been humiliated. The perceived inactivity has left the company vulnerable to a takeover: NTL, the cable operator, has leapt on a leaderless company. More than that, NTL has embarrassed Zygos by showing it how to do its own job: Sir Richard Branson and Bill Huff, two of NTL’s leading shareholders, as well as Jim Mooney, the chairman, have in a few short weeks lined up a potential new chief executive in Michael Jackson, the former chief executive of Channel 4. …

There are a couple of lessons for headhunters. One is that recruitment may need to be secretive, but sometimes the process has to be explained in public. The other is that executive search can provide an opportunity to canvass for ideas as well as people. ITV and Zygos have seemed so intent on pulling a rabbit from the hat that they seem to be missing that trick.
Ain’t hindsight grand?

November 27, 2006

ITV makes the Grade

Michael Grade’s shock transfer from BBC to ITV is (pace the Norfolk Blogger) good news for television. The main commercial channel desperately needs a big hitter, a guy who understands budget lines - but, just as importantly, understands programming.

As I’ve argued before, good television is not determined by having one public service broadcaster funded by a licence fee, but by having a plurality of channels competing to drive up standards.

Before my boss, Tim Gardam, became my boss, he was a senior TV executive. A couple of months ago, he delivered a lecture in honour of Donald Baverstock, a legendary controller of BBC television.

It’s well worth reading in full, but this section will suffice for now. Not least for its devolutionary vigour, and spooky prescience:
If you look at the sad plight of ITV today, and recall its confident beginnings, its
seems to me that ITV’s mistake, around 2000, when faced with the tidal wave of digital competition, was to misunderstand where its residual power lay. Its sense of its public self, equal in stature to that of the BBC, was in fact its greatest asset.

As late as the 1990s, News at Ten was better than BBC News, ITV drama more adventurous, ITV Arts scheduled earlier in the evening than the Arts on BBC 1, ITV ran authored documentaries with equal impact. But, in facing the frightening competition of multi channel television, ITV chose deliberately to disavow its public inheritance, not to modernise it. In doing so, it diminished itself in the public’s imagination and in public esteem.

ITV did need to create a single brand, but I think it made a strategic mistake in seeing its regional identities across Britain as a problem not an opportunity. Think now what an unrivalled asset those old ITV local loyalties would have been in the online world where success depends on building up a close identity with one’s users. The ITV regional brands would have created extraordinarily powerful portals driving viewers through the TV screen to online networks targeting different communities of interest in Yorkshire, Granadaland, Tyne Tees, and across England. Local advertising revenues online would have replaced lost television advertising. …

Is it too late for ITV as a whole to recover its public stature? I don’t think it need be but I don’t think it wants to. Its public impact, as authentic as the BBC’s, used always to be its greatest asset, and one no new rival can hope to supplant. The modernisation of those values is a task which Lew Grade and Sidney Bernstein would once have relished to take on.
Okay, so ITV has landed Michael, not Lew, Grade - but close, and a cigar.

What Harriet Harman’s poll shows: Labour should elect Hilary Benn deputy leader

‘Harman would be most popular deputy PM, says poll’, according to today’s thegrauniad. Here’s what the headline should have read:

‘Harman most dis-liked deputy PM candidate, and would not help Labour’s re-election chances, says poll’.

(I accept I’ll never make it as a sub-editor.)

Here’s why…

The YouGov poll begins by asking those surveyed how ‘warmly’ they feel towards each of the candidates on a scale of 0-10.

I’ve aggregated the scores, assuming that a 0-5 rating indicates a candidate is either not liked, or else the public is neutral towards them. A rating of 6-10 suggests a generally positive impression.

It’s a simple way of working out who’s hot and who’s not. So let’s look at how the six short-listed candidates line up:
  • Hilary Benn: 36% (0-5), 17% (6-10) = -19% (net likeability)
  • Hazel Blears: 42%, 6% = -36%
  • Harriet Harman: 52%, 17% = -35%
  • Peter Hain: 44%, 13% = -31%
  • Alan Johnson: 37%, 13% = -24%
  • Jon Cruddas: 23%, 4% = -19%
What the figures clearly show is that Harriet Harman is the most polarizing of the deputy leadership candidates. She ties with Hilary Benn as the most liked, with 17% of the public regarding each of them warmly. However, Hilary Benn is the least disliked (apart from Jon Cruddas, who no-one’s ever heard of), with 36%.

Contrast this with Harriet Harman, whom a whopping 52% view negatively - she is, by some way, the most disliked of the deputy leadership candidates. Her net likeability rating, at -35%, avoids being the lowest only because Hazel Blears’ Panglossian chirpiness appears to have got on too many people’s nerves.

It’s clear from these figures that the most liked - or, at any rate, least disliked - of the candidates is Hilary Benn.

The second question asks ‘which potential deputy leader you think would be best alongside Gordon Brown’.

There are a number of choices, which again I’ve aggregated, according to which of the candidates would make the public ‘more likely’ or ‘less likely’ to vote Labour at the next election. I’ve also recorded the aggregate numbers of those who said it would make no difference - either because they definitely would or definitely would not vote Labour anyway, or because they didn’t know.

  • GB & Hilary Benn: 12% (more likely), 12% (less likely), 76% (no difference, don’t know)
  • GB & Hazel Blears: 8%, 16%, 76%
  • GB & Harriet Harman: 15%, 15%, 70%
  • GB & Peter Hain: 9%, 15%, 75%
  • GB & Alan Johnson: 8%, 17%, 75%
  • GB & Jon Cruddas: 6%, 14%, 80%
My overwhelming sense from these figures is that Labour’s chances at the next election are not going to hinge on their choice of deputy leader - the vast majority of the public are entirely indifferent. And though we can expect more people to become interested once the prospective race becomes a reality, it still seems highly unlikely to sway folk one way or t’other.

Interestingly, thegrauniad’s report - which I imagine borrows largely from Team Harman’s press release - says:
The survey, commissioned from independent pollsters YouGov by the constitutional affairs minister herself, found that 15% of voters would be more inclined to vote Labour if she succeeded John Prescott.
Well, true enough. Strangely omitted from this paragraph is the balancing fact that 15% of voters would be less inclined to vote Labour if Harriet Harman were to succeed John Prescott. You’d have thought thegrauniad might have felt that merited reporting. Because what it shows is that electing Harriet Harman as deputy leader would make absolutely no difference to Labour’s prospects at the next election.

In fairness to Ms Harman, her rivals are all vote-losers, whereas she is at least vote-neutral. All her rivals, that is, except that man Hilary Benn again.

The last two questions are the most loaded ones - ‘do you agree that:
  • … a men-only leadership team would show that Labour is old-fashioned?’, and
  • … it’s important to me that the next Deputy Prime Minister is someone I already know, not someone I’ve never heard of.’
Well, I think we can guess what answers Team Harman were hoping to garner. And, lo, so it came to pass. It appears the public don’t like to appear old-fashioned, but (perhaps a tad ironically) are comforted by the idea of someone familiar.

Fortunately, the Labour Party has before it the perfect choice. Hilary Benn: generally well-regarded, with one of the most famous surnames in British politics. And he’s got a girl’s first-name, which assures Labour of a balanced ticket.

And what’s even better is that there is an opinion poll showing him to be the most likeable of the candidates, and someone who won’t harm Labour’s electoral chances. It’s really awfully nice of Team Harman to fork out a few thousand quid to show why Labour should elect Hilary Benn as their next deputy leader.

November 26, 2006

Mr Alan Watkins on Sir Walter Menzies Campbell

Alan Watkins is one of my favourite political commentators. Always a pleasure to read, he is steeped in political history, and has an artfully judicious sense of perspective.

I’ve rarely quoted him here owing to the Independent’s absurd firewall policy, behind which his cadenced words of wisdom slumbered happily, undisturbed by potential readers damned if they were willing to fork out a quid an article.

So, to celebrate the Indy’s finally waking up and smelling the Internet coffee and letting their journalistic talent be widely read, here’s an extract plucked from today’s Watkins’ tour de force. Purely by chance, it’s a bit where he’s singing the praises of the Lib Dem leader:
Whose footsteps trip light these early winter mornings? Step forward, Walter Menzies Campbell. Why is Ming so pleased with himself? I will tell you. It is because he has come through a dark tunnel and emerged safe and sound on the other side. ...

Sir Menzies and his Liberal Democrats have held together remarkably well. This was not, to be sure, the wisdom of the wise even six months ago. In those days, the sad fall of Mr Charles Kennedy was seen as a blow to the party's prospects; Sir Menzies was hesitant in the House and was, above all, "too old".

In reality, the Lib Dems were doing quite well in the opinion polls and even better in the by-elections that came up. If the Parliamentary sketch writers had been in a position to decide the 2001 election, Mr William Hague would have become prime minister. Today, Sir Menzies can perform at Questions as impressively as Mr David Cameron or Mr Tony Blair; more so, if his questioning of Mr Blair over Trident last week is any guide.

Likewise with Iraq. Mr Blair is shifty, and Mr Cameron is distinctly uneasy. We need not become too carried away by Sir Menzies' recent interventions, any more than there was any need to depreciate him after he had just become leader. We have to preserve a sense of proportion, that is all.

What if...? How would we react to Diana's death today?

Here’s an interesting counterfactual to conjure with - how might the media coverage of Princess Diana’s death have been different in today’s ultra-connected world?

The question is prompted in my mind by a story in today’s Telegraph, ‘BBC had regrets over Diana coverage’:

Confidential BBC documents show that nearly half the population (44 per cent) felt alienated by the blanket media coverage of the Princess's death and funeral, which they thought was excessive and over-emotional. …

A BBC debriefing paper on the coverage of the death of Diana, dated January 1998, stated: "One of the things that became clear about the death, and the immediate aftermath, was that there was a range of public reactions to the death. The BBC, perhaps, did not pick up quite quickly enough on these differences in reactions. We were not always precise enough in our use of language, especially when we started to use phrases such as 'the mood of the nation', 'the grief of the public'. There was no single public mood, rather there was a variety of moods."

The conclusions were based on audience research carried out in the months following the Princess's death on August 31, 1997 and funeral service at Westminster Abbey.
I was one of those who felt utterly disenfranchised by the mawkish response of media coverage, and repulsed by the moralising mob-rule of those hell-bent on dictating to the Windsors what should be their emotional response to this family tragedy.

Pundits commenting with hindsight often seek to separate the ‘public mood’ into two distinct phases: first, in the immediate aftermath, stunned, grief-stricken hysteria; and, then, in retrospect, a certain shared embarrassment at our collective national breakdown. (A breakdown from which the execrable Express has yet to recover.)

The BBC’s research shows quite how inaccurate such glib, hand-sweeping generalisations can be.

No sentient being could have been unmoved by the cruel despatch of a glamorous young woman in her prime; nor by the sad prospect of two young boys destined to grow up with ever-fading memories of a loving mother.

And those of us with any empathetic sensibilities will have also appreciated quite what a mixture of conflicted emotions must have intermingled in the hearts and minds of Prince Charles, the Queen and Prince Phillip. To lose someone you love is hard enough; to lose someone you used to love can be even harder.

At such times, you need space and privacy for your family to try and make sense of it all. What you absolutely do not need is a baying press demanding you expose your guilty grief to the masses to satisfy some mediaeval pain-lust which has momentarily taken grip of a minority, and been projected in real-time onto the soul of the nation.

In the claustrophobic week which smothered us all between Diana’s death and her funeral there was scant space for such reflections. Media coverage was driven not by those, like me, who spared a thought or prayer for her and her family, and then moved on; but by those who queued to exhibit their ersatz anguish in full view, to assert their über-humanity, and show the rest of us how grief ought to be done.

Back to my question: how might media coverage of such a momentous news story differ in today’s Internet world?

Well, the 44 per cent of us who had no voice, and began to wonder if we were the only ones with any sense of perspective, would have soon realised how widely shared was our reaction. Blogs, Internet forums, newspaper websites - all would have reflected the spectrum of public opinion.

That, in turn, might have prompted the media to take a step back, to look with rather more cool analytical detachment at the varied response of the public, rather than assume an entire nation had lapsed into a self-absorbed stasis of group-think emotional incontinence.

The job of journalism is to make that which is complex accessible to the public: to simplify, but not over-simplify, recognising that society is rarely so obliging as to supply easy answers.

Update: Iain Dale has posted an alternative take here.

November 25, 2006

Footlights highlight

Ahh… the days when revues had funny songs and everything:

First person to say, “Don’t they all look so young”, must shut their ears in the oven.

A racing cert

Coming up tonight on UKTV Gold at 10pm: Only Fools and Horses Greatest Moments - “To celebrate 25 years of Britain’s most beloved sitcom, its creator, John Sullivan, has selected 40 moments from the show. Viewers are encouraged to vote for their favourite, which will be revealed in a Top 40 rundown in December.”

Hmmm, well I don’t want to spoil the moment, but I think we all know Del Boy falling through the bar will be number one.

November 24, 2006

Rival virals arrival

Today's thegrauniad has produced its first viral video chart, which I heartily commend to you.

(Though with it comes the graphic realisation that liberals need worry no longer about the invasiveness of CCTV into our everyday lives - YouTube and MySpace are way ahead of the state.)

I could hardly bring myself to watch Seinfeld's Michael 'Kramer' Richards' truly bizarre racist rant. He has, single-handedly, made George 'Macaca' Allen look like the very model of a race relations guru.

And, regrettably, my favouorite video de jour is absent from the list - Gwen Stefani's Wind It Up. I love a good yodelling hip-hop mash-up:

Incidentally, I could instead of typing this be watching the Ashes' highlights on BBC2.

But I
think it might be more comforting to put on one of my favourite DVDs instead...

November 23, 2006

Let's campaign for choice

Alan Milburn has always impressed me, not so much for his narcissist’s demeanour, but because he has never been afraid to state his argument even when he knows it’s the very opposite of what his party wants to hear.

He’s at it again in today’s Grauniad, pointing out the appalling educational inequalities in this country which are all too often tolerated in the name of educational equality:
At present, any parent can state which school they would prefer their child to attend. To break the cycle of educational disadvantage we need to give parents in the most disadvantaged areas more than preference. They should have choice. Many better-off parents already exercise such choice through indirect market mechanisms - most notably the buying of homes near good schools. Poor parents need a more direct mechanism. Countries as diverse as Denmark, Sweden and the USA have all in recent years pioneered different forms of parental choice. The evidence suggests both that choice programmes helped raise standards across all schools and that the most disadvantaged pupils benefited most. …

It is simply not right - and we should no longer tolerate the fact - that too many working class children are still let down by the schools system. Correcting that injustice means shifting the balance of power to put more choice in the hands of parents who the system currently disempowers. Those parents and their children need a direct route of the educational ghetto.
He is right: both in the problems he cites, and that a market mechanism will be the best way to empower those who are currently disempowered. (Though I’m unpersuaded by the specific measure he recommends: an educational credit available only to those in ‘failing schools’. Sounds like a nut to crack a sledgehammer.)

If one definition of liberalism is ‘equality of opportunity’ - a level playing field in which all are free to make of their lives what they will - then ensuring access for all to the best possible schooling isn’t merely an aspiration: it’s a fundamental pre-requisite.

Giving parents and their kids meaningful choice between schools with different specialisms is crucial to achieving that.
What we desperately, urgently need to get beyond is the pat soundbite that “All parents want is a good local school.”

Though that may well be true, at least in part, it’s an argument that ignores how we achieve such a goal. Policies pursued by successive governments to date have signally failed.

And it is, in any case, misleading. Because while I have no doubt that parents would like to know there is one good local school, they would be still more delighted to have the choice between two or more good local schools.

Good public services depend on three factors:
  • Decent funding;
  • Local autonomy;
  • Competition between providers.
Lib Dems have long campaigned for the first two. We need now to have the guts to address the third, to campaign for choice.

Uphill, done Dale

Who can refuse once tagged by Iain Dale? Okay, let’s leave that question hanging... in the meantime here’s my list of:

Top 10 things I would never do

10. listen to the weather forecast and remember anything about it 5 minutes later;
9. wear white socks;
8. return a library book on time;
7. watch any programme involving Robert Kilroy-Slick (unless he’s being mocked);
6. look forward to turning 30;
5. I would never do without my wi-fi broadband;
4. listen to Quote Unquote;
3. eat an olive (despite friends’ insistence that I must like them really);
2. swear in front of my parents;
1. speak ill of a fellow liberal.

Number 11 of course is: inflict this meme on anyone else. But if you’re feeling short of blogging inspiration - or, like Iain, haven’t fulfilled your statutory five blog posts before lunchtime - then go the heck for it.

PS: was just tooo hectic to blog on Monday, partly ‘cos I dashed down to London to guest again on Iain’s Vox Politix show on 18 Doughty Street, alongside Devil’s Kitchen (Chris Mounsey), Ross Clark and Ashley Crossley.

If you missed it because you were otherwise occupied - as if - you can Watch Again by clicking here, and choosing the show labelled ‘Local Government Finance (20/11/2006)’. Even if I have been credited as Stephen Toole… (I’ve been called worse.)

November 22, 2006

Petitions what I’ve signed

Credit where it’s due. Number 10’s e-petition website - Tony Blair’s new millennium answer to President Andrew Jackson’s ‘Big Block of Cheese Day’ - is a damn fine innovation.

No one really expects the Government to take any action as a result, but democracy is about letting off steam as well as changing things for the better.

Of course, one side-effect is that we can all expect to be petitioned by friends, colleagues (and random correspondents) to add our names to the petitions, and stake our positions publicly on a range of controversial issues.

Fortunately, the two I’ve so far been directly asked to sign I’ve been more than happy to support:

Jock Coats calls on the Prime Minister:
to Abolish the Department of Communities and Local Government and allow local people to decide in consultation with the local representatives they elect to do the job how best to run their localities.
No surprise I’m happy to lend my name to that one. If you’d like to as well then sign here.

Graham Marsden calls on the Prime Minister:
to abandon plans to make it a criminal offence to possess "violent pornography".
I hope those who believe in the liberal concept of free speech will agree that we should not legislate against ‘thought crime’ - about which I’ve written here and here.

If you agree, you know what to do.

Give it a rest, guys

The determination of The Times to stick one on the Lib Dems for accepting that donation from Michael Brown knows no bounds.

Despite repeated smear and innuendo - craftily spun to try and make the Lib Dems look as guilty as the debt-ridden, peerage-touting Labour and Tory parties - no one has yet been able to gainsay the Electoral Commission’s findings that the party followed proper procedures and acted in good faith.

Maybe we were naïve, maybe even a bit stupid, to accept his largesse. That’s a long, long way from being corrupt.

But, bless ‘em, The Times isn’t going to let it lie - to which end their journalists, in this case their chief political correspondent Anthony Browne, are quite happy to stoop to white lies. Here’s the opening paragraph of his piece in today’s Times:
The Liberal Democrats are facing a new threat of financial meltdown after the Government’s Asset Recovery Agency was called on to investigate the £2.4 million donated by the jailed millionaire Michael Brown.
To which my reaction on first reading was: gulp. It looks like I and others should get ready to write the party a cheque to make good the shortfall.

But then I read on to the final paragraph:

Sources at the agency suggest that it is unlikely to begin an immediate investigation. It would try to recover the money itself only if the police fail to secure a prosecution. Even if the agency does act to confiscate the money, it would try to reclaim the gift from Mr Brown himself.
So there you have it… The Tories have complained about the Lib Dems to a government agency, and their complaint has been swatted aside as irrelevant.

A total non-story.

Just a Tory party press release that found house-room in a sensationalist Daily Mail-style rag which once dared to call itself a paper of record.

November 21, 2006

Why the Dems won't impeach President Bush

“Two words; Dick Cheney.”
Incoming Senate Majority leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

The old and new media: blog-scratch my back...

Matthew Taylor's ill-considered denunciation of "shrill" blogs last week provoked an angry reaction from many bloggers, myself included. (And I accept that has its own irony.)

I don't imagine he'll listen to those of us citizens who "behave like teenagers", and are "not yet capable of self-government", but he might care to reflect on these words of Leonard Downie Jr, executive editor of the Washington Post, who was speaking yesterday at the launch of a new research institute in Oxford*:
I am not one of those old media journalists who fears or looks down on bloggers. I believe they have achieved a mutually beneficial relationship with the old media.

Most bloggers link to and comment on journalism elsewhere on the Internet, especially old media journalism, whose content many bloggers depend on and respect. They drive a large amount of reader traffic to newspaper Web sites. The blogger Matt Drudge, for example, is one of the largest drivers of reader traffic to washingtonpost.com.

Many newspaper Web sites, like ours, name the blogs who most often link to our journalism. This increases reader traffic for those blogger sites, and, in turn, they are more likely to link again to our site.

Some bloggers do original reporting, which, while often incomplete or overly opinionated, provides tips that newspaper reporters turn into solid stories, sometimes major stories. Bloggers also push old media journalists into covering issues they may otherwise ignore.

In the United States, many bloggers also serve as watchdogs for the old media, pouncing on our every mistake. This has made American journalists more accountable and responsible. It is now much more difficult to get away with plagiarism or journalism not firmly rooted in fact.
* declaration of interest... the launch event was at St Anne's College, where I work. You can read his speech in full here.

November 19, 2006

Pimp your wheelie bin

Here in Oxford the Lib Dem ‘recycling revolution’ is being rolled-out with the aim of doubling the city’s recycling rate. Good news for the environment and all that jazz… What I hadn’t appreciated was the limitless opportunities for self-expression that arming every citizen who wants one with a wheelie bin would provide.

It was my ward colleague, David Rundle, who first alerted me to the infinite creative possibilities of which Oxford’s denizens can now avail themselves by directing me to the website of the Wheelie Bin Cover Company. Tasteful, I’m sure you’ll agree.

(Reminded me of the brilliant Linda Smith’s description of her Brummie grandmother’s house: “everything that could possibly have a cover had a cover” - the Radio Times, toilet roll holder, etc.)

But Oxford residents, quite rightly, don’t want their creative juices staunched by corporate designs imposed upon them from above - they relish the freedom to explore the artistic side of their personalities, and good on them say I.

So I was delighted to be e-mailed this exemplum of the species
(right) by one of my local residents, who runs the exemplary www.headington.org.uk.

She conveys - with admirably subversive pith, I feel - her sentiments a
bout the proposed new ‘recycling revolution’, while at the same time promoting one of Oxford’s most famous landmarks, Bill Heine’s Headington Shark.

(She is wrong about the wheelie bins, by the way. But such differences of opinion over matters this weighty is just the kind of thing I imagine Voltaire had in mind when coining his famous aphorism.)

If you now feel inspired to personalise your wheelie bin, here’s the site you need: www.pimpmybin.co.uk. I imagine this one (left) might appeal to many in the Lib Dem blogging fraternity.

But for added meta-subversion, why not decorate your wheelie bin with a picture of… a wheelie bin?
If that doesnt freak out your neighbours nothing will.

November 18, 2006

Tom Cruises into lifelong marital bliss

It would be churlish not to congratulate Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes on their celebrity-studded wedding in Italy today.

It would be equally remiss not to use the opportunity to give this clip from South Park another richly deserved airing:

I understand the fact that it rained is a good sign - apparently there is an Italian saying, "The wet bride is the fortunate bride." To which there really is no answer.

New film: one way to revive local democracy

How do you make local government, and, specifically, reform of local government finance interesting? To be honest, I don’t know.

But saying it to camera might help liven it up a little, I guess. Decide for yourselves:

Text-only version here.

November 17, 2006

Why the Labour Party cannot grow up

Oh, for goodness’ sake… Everything I most dislike about the Labour Party, and which prompted me to quit its ranks seven years ago, are encapsulated in these words of Matthew Taylor, the Prime Minister’s ‘chief strategy advisor’:
"We have a citizenry which can be caricatured as being increasingly unwilling to be governed but not yet capable of self-government," Mr Taylor told the audience [at an e-democracy conference in London]. Like "teenagers", people were demanding, but "conflicted" about what they actually wanted, he argued.
The reason I left Labour was not that I had abandoned the cause of social justice - that is as important to me as it always was - but the realisation that ‘the left’ view social justice as something which government does to people, rather than something government enables people to achieve for themselves. The state will give power to the people, but only once they accept that it is on loan, and that it can be called-in by the government if it feels the people are abusing their freedom.

“Not yet capable of self-government” - perhaps the most astonishingly brazen (yet remarkably honest) descriptions of Labour’s core attitude towards us, the citizenry. Perhaps Mr Taylor would like to advance his frankness, and define what steps the public must take in order to come up to the mark, to show ourselves to this Labour Government to be worthy of being entrusted with the power to rule ourselves?

I suspect it would mean agreeing with what the Labour Party says and does. Only at that stage would we have proved ourselves to be sufficiently mature.

Mr Taylor’s argument continues:
"The internet has immense potential but we face a real problem if the main way in which that potential expresses itself is through allowing citizens to participate in a shrill discourse of demands. If you look at the way in which citizens are using technology and the way that is growing up, there are worrying signs that that is the case."
I love the patronising tone - “the internet has immense potential”… well, yes, it does. It also has an immense presence in the here and now. What really bothers Mr Taylor, I suspect, is that his government doesn’t have the ability to mould it, to tame it, to control it.

I imagine Mr Taylor and the Labour Party would prefer to see the Internet resemble a canal system, with varying water levels carefully regulated by ever-watchful lock-keepers. They believe themselves to be the true gateways to equality, enabling easy navigation, and that without them no journey is possible. Sadly - for them, but not for us - the Internet is a torrent, incapable of being dammed (although frequently damned) by over-officious patriarchs who consider they know better.

It’s true the medium veers towards the shrill, though most of the blogs I read - and those which are most widely read - present rational arguments, albeit with an earthy vocab, and from an unabashed vantage. Guido Fawkes is perhaps an exception, but to criticise his glibly partisan coverage is to miss the point - you might as well bemoan the lack of fair-minded balance in Private Eye’s HP Sauce column.

Besides, the readership of blogs pales into insignificance compared with the numbers who listen to radio phone-ins, which are - wholly, universally, and without exception - vacuous, vicious, and vomitous.

And finally:
"What is the big breakthrough, in terms of politics, on the web in the last few years? It's basically blogs which are, generally speaking, hostile and, generally speaking, basically see their job as every day exposing how venal, stupid, mendacious politicians are. [Can anyone point me to a more egregious example of poor sentence construction? “Basically”, “generally speaking” - both repeated twice… FFS.] The internet is being used as a tool of mobilisation, which is fantastic, but it only adds to the growing, incommensurate nature of the demands being made on government." … Part of the problem, he added, was the "net-head" culture itself, which was rooted in libertarianism and "anti-establishment" attitudes.
I’m unconvinced that blogs are “the big breakthrough” for politics on the web. They remain a minority interest, albeit punching well above their weight. As for being “hostile” (I assume he means to Labour), what was he expecting? Rank upon rank of virtual cheerleaders for one of the most authoritarian governments on record?

Blogs are often, by their very nature, obsessively monotonal. So what? Readers are sufficiently clued-up to decide for themselves both what to read, and what to believe of what they read. I offer opinions, tempered by facts. In that order. This blog does not exist to inform (though it may do), but to stimulate, and (occasionally) to persuade.

Mr Taylor may regard political blogs’ indulgence in ‘fisking’ as a destructive force (especially if he happens upon this article). But surely it is just that kind of robust, detailed, line-by-line deconstruction which shows the Internet at its best? Whatever your viewpoint, it’s hard to see how it detracts from the sum of human knowledge.

Indeed, Mr Taylor’s argument is a little muddled. If the ‘net-head’ culture is ‘rooted in libertarianism’, it’s hard to see how this “adds to the growing, incommensurate nature of the demands being made on government”. Unless Mr Taylor is complaining about that rare breed of libertarians which demands more government intervention.

What I think Mr Taylor’s argument is really about - though he’d deny this - is the resentment of those who’ve been accustomed to being at the centre of political debate, intrigue and gossip finding their club is no longer as exclusive as it once was.

Labour politics is ironically circular: in order to continue fighting the class war, the class war must never end. As a result, Labour politicians are imbued with an impregnable aura of self-righteousness: because it is their job to save the lower classes from themselves. It is the ultimate in infantilisation. That they do not, cannot, trust the public is why the public increasingly distrusts them.

The rest of us are growing-up. Perhaps the Labour Party might care to join us?

November 16, 2006

"This is a party political, so I'll give you 5 seconds to switch over."

As I’m working late tomorrow night, it’s awfully thoughtful of the Lib Dems to upload the latest party political broadcast to YouTube. Saves me setting the video…

Best bit: using the strongest section from Ming Campbell’s conference speech:
And now Mr Cameron expresses his reservations about Britain’s foreign policy. Well I say to that – Where were you? Where were you when what was needed was not reservation but votes? I’ll tell you where you were. You, Mr Cameron, were in the government lobby backing military action against Iraq.
Quibble: just as Ming is determined to banish the words, ‘coalition’ and ‘hung Parliament’ from the Lib Dem lexicon, perhaps the party can take a self-denying ordinance in return? Please let us never again use the hackneyed phrase, ‘hard-working families’, when talking about how our policies will benefit the whole nation. I’m not a hard-working family; I’m a hard-working individual. And there are many more like me in Britain.

Anyway, for those of you who hark back to the good old days of PPBs, here’s one for the SDP/Liberal Alliance in 1987, fronted by John Cleese. Something of a period piece, it’s well worth watching for at least three reasons:
  • As a reminder of quite how much once separated the Tory and Labour parties (and therefore the need for the Alliance to act as a moderating influence);
  • To remember quite how long PPBs used to be - 10 minutes! Even the Queen’s Speech was shorter; and
  • To witness perhaps the last occasion when the Lib Dems banged on about proportional representation when given some free air-time.

November 15, 2006

New poll: What should happen to the House of Lords?

Pop over to my other gaff, and you can register your view on the following question:
The Government has said (again) it will bring forward proposals to reform the House of Lords (again). What do you think should happen with the second chamber? Should it be…?
  • Wholly elected
  • 80% elected, 20% appointed
  • 50% elected, 50% appointed
  • 20% elected, 80% appointed
  • Wholly appointed
My view... Those who make laws should be accountable to those who have to live by those laws. It is a nonsense that a reformed second chamber should be anything other than wholly elected if it is to have any democratic legitimacy.

There is no reason why this should pose a threat to the primacy of the House of Commons - its powers can be carefully defined, just as local councils’ powers are subject to national government.

That the Labour Party has still not legislated for an elected House of Lords after 10 years of government is an indictment of its decade of wasted opportunity.

If you agree the second chamber should be wholly elected, don't forget to visit Elect The Lords, and sign-up to show your support.

Result of last poll: only 25% of you predicted the Democrats would control both the House of Representatives and Senate (and some of those votes were cast after the results were known, which was slightly cheating). The vast majority wrongly guessed - like me - that the Dems would win the House but fail to take the Senate.

November 14, 2006

How hard are our MPs working for us?

Lib Dems, especially those actively involved in community politics, tend to be quite suspicious of league tables.

To an extent understandably: local councils, schools and health authorities (for example) have all had to collect and publish data according to nationally-set criteria. And sometimes its a pointless waste of time.

But, as long as the limitations of the data on which such league tables are based are recognised, league tables are a helpful ready-reckoner which allow you to ask the right questions to drill-down, and better understand performance within an organisation.

It’s very much in that spirit that I present the following league table of Lib Dem Parliamentarians ranked according to the number of press releases issued during November. The list is in descending order of frequency, and alphabetically by surname where tied:

Lib Dem shadow cabinet:

Nick Clegg (Shadow Home Secretary) = 11
Chris Huhne (Shadow Environment Secretary) = 7
Menzies Campbell (Leader) = 6
Michael Moore (Shadow Foreign Secretary) = 6
Steve Webb (Shadow Health Secretary) = 6
Andrew Stunnell (Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government) = 5
David Laws (Shadow Secretary for Work and Pensions) = 4
Sarah Teather (Shadow Education and Skills Secretary) = 4
Vince Cable (Shadow Chancellor and Deputy Leader) = 3
Alistair Carmichael (Shadow Transport Secretary) = 2
Ed Davey (Shadow Trade and Industry Secretary) = 2
Don Foster (Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary) = 2
Nick Harvey (Shadow Defence Secretary) = 2
Norman Lamb (Leader's Chief of Staff) = 2
David Heath (Shadow Leader of the House of Commons) = 1
Simon Hughes (Constitutional Affairs & Shadow Attorney General) = 1

Lib Dem spokespersons:

Sandra Gidley (Shadow Health spokesperson) = 2
Evan Harris (Spokesperson for Science) = 2
Susan Kramer (Shadow International Development Secretary) = 2
Danny Alexander (shadow spokesperson, Dept for Work & Pensions and spokesperson for disability-related issues) = 1
Tom Brake (Shadow Minister for Local Government and Community Cohesion) = 1
Lorely Burt (spokesperson for Women and Equality and spokesperson for DTI (Small Business)) = 1
Lord Garden (Peer) = 1
John Pugh (Shadow Health spokesperson) = 1

All the usual criticisms of this table can be made. It measures quantity not quality. It covers only a two-week period. Some shadow cabinet portfolios lend themselves more easily to press releases than others. Press releases are by no means the only measure of how well our Parliamentarians are performing.

All true enough. I am drawing no inferences by collating and publishing this table, simply reporting what I was interested enough to try and find out for myself.

But I will make one point. There are 24 Lib Dem shadow cabinet members, including the Leader, and sixteen of them feature in this table. That means one-third did not file a press release in the last two weeks.

The party website is one medium by which the party can communicate directly both with voters and with our members. I hope all our shadow cabinet can find something worthwhile saying about what they’re doing in their role at least once a fortnight - to prove we really are working hard all year round.

The final Countdown

I guess it's possible I mis-heard... But is it true that Desert Orchid has just been named the new host of Channel 4's Countdown?

(Could have been more implausible, I s'pose.)

November 13, 2006

Can Oxford decide how best to decide?

I don’t often write about my day job. Partly that’s because politics, and this blog, is a refuge from my work. Partly because it wouldn’t often be appropriate. Mainly because it would be dull for you to read, and for me to type. (All or some of which may apply to this post, too.)

I work as development director for St Anne’s College in the University of Oxford, responsible for fundraising, alumni relations and communications. I’m not an academic - I know my limits - but, as a fellow of the College who serves on its governing body, I am a member of the University’s Congregation, the ‘parliament of dons’ as it is usually referred to in the press. It’s not that exclusive a club - over 3,000 members - and I’ve never yet had cause to attend one of its meetings, as Congregation is a democratic ‘back-stop’, with most decisions delegated to the University’s Council.

But tomorrow afternoon I will be there, along with hundreds of other members of Congregation - many bussed in from the medical research facilities in and around my Council ward of Headington - to vote on proposed reforms to the University’s governance. To which your response might very well be, ‘So what?’

If so, I’d sympathise with you. I’m not sure quite why the internal rumblings of Oxford are of national interest. But if you read the papers today, and over the week-end, you’d be forgiven for thinking there is no bigger issue in higher education today. (And it can’t all be put down to the usual Oxbridge stranglehold on the media. Cambridge doesn’t score anything like the column inches Oxford does when it comes to negative publicity.)

The Financial Times carried no fewer than three articles today, analysing the issues at stake: here, here and here. The Times a mere two; though The Sunday Times also covered the story. And The Sunday Telegraph and Economist couldn’t resist tossing in gobbets of their own.

Why the fuss? Well, partly it’s an old-fashioned bust-up, and I guess everyone loves one of those no matter what the institution. That it’s an ancient university like Oxford allows journalists to indulge their love of stories laced with plummy vocab like ‘cloisters’, ‘dreaming spires’ and ‘Sheldonian’.

On the one side you have the Vice-Chancellor, John Hood - a tough, taciturn outsider, who has taken the University by the scruff of its neck, and told a few home truths - and on the other side you have traditionalists pithily characterised by one of my colleagues (a proper academic) as ‘joylessly conservative’. Which side of the debate am I on? Go figure.

The dispute - and let no-one kid you it’s been anything other than a daggers-drawn, deeply personalised duel - centres on whether the University’s Council should comprise a bare majority of external lay members.

To the ‘Hoodies’ - as those of us who support the Vice-Chancellor are casually referred - this is, in part, about the public accountability of a private institution in receipt of public funding, and now accountable to the Charity Commission. Oxford has to demonstrate, unabashedly and transparently, that it is acting in the public interest. Ensuring there are lay members with ‘disinterested’ objectivity able to vouch for this is important to the University’s confidence in itself, as well as to public confidence.

More importantly, it is about ensuring the University has the appropriate skills to govern itself. Oxford has an annual turnover of £500m and an endowment of £3bn, employing 15,000 staff, and with 25,000 students. It is a complex and international institution. The idea that academics - who devote their lives to teaching and research - have the time, inclination or expertise to master the intricacies of (for example) its investments, risk management or IT strategies is unrealistic. Yet the University needs to ensure it can call on the advice of highly competent people who do understand these issues, and who are able to hold to account the Vice-Chancellor and his executive team.

For those ‘joyless conservatives’ worried this smacks of a takeover by outsiders insensitive to Oxford or to academia there are two very deliberate safeguards in place.

First, the external lay members of Council will be alumni of the University, some of them distinguished academics from other institutions. They will be elected by, and accountable to, Congregation, and their role will be to act as ‘critical friends’.

Secondly, Council cannot itself initiate any proposals – it can only respond to proposals made by the Academic Board, which is entirely comprised of internal members, 35 of them, representing the various parts of the University: the colleges, academic faculties, and university administrators. This body will be the key to the success (or not) of these reforms.

The central tension at Oxford is exemplified by tutorial fellows who are employed by both their college and their department, and often find themselves pulled, simultaneously, in different directions. The Academic Board is the place where a truly Collegiate University must come together to determine its academic strategy and priorities. That such a body doesn
t already exist can be seen either as an amusing quirk of history, or a gaping void in the University's structures.

I should declare, of course, that there is a fundraising angle to this: donors will not give to an institution they do not believe is well run. I think the governance reforms set out how the University can be better run, and therefore will spend its scarce resources more wisely. That makes my job, of soliciting gifts from St Anne’s alumni and friends, a little bit easier.

Oxford is, in domestic terms, a wealthy university; internationally it is dwarfed by Harvard, which commands a £13bn endowment. And as in Premiership football, so in premiership academia: the talent follows the money.

Oxford, like any other university which wants to succeed in the international market-place of higher education, needs to generate more cash in order to offer bursaries to the best students regardless of background; to be able to recruit and retain the best staff from all over the world; and to provide all who work here with first-class facilities. Anything less is failure.

Oxford is not a business, nor should it be run like one. But it needs to be business-like in its attitude. And that means knowing when to make its bloody mind up. Tomorrow would be a start.

PS: for the record, wearing academic gowns to Congregation is voluntary, and I shan’t be wearing mine. Though not on this occasion because of quibbles that it re-inforces a ‘them and us’ symbolism - all members are entitled to wear an academic gown, after all. It’s just that it’s pretty uncomfortable, gets caught in doors, and looks damn silly when riding a bike.

November 12, 2006

To robe, or not to robe?

I don’t go to many civic ceremonies as a councillor - most are held during the working day - but the one I make every effort to attend is the Remembrance Sunday service held at the war memorial on St Giles, in the centre of Oxford.

(Incidentally, the one year I was absent, like so many of my colleagues, earned some little local notoriety in the Oxford Mail. Since when, attendance has much improved…)

It is, of course, important to honour those who lost or risked their lives defending the liberties that we too often take for granted today. One of the warmest rounds of applause during each year’s procession is reserved for the surviving veterans of the last world war.

In the last couple of years, there has been the added poignancy also of realising quite how many of our troops are currently in operational service - 22,700 of them are, as of now, located in:
  • Afghanistan (5,800);
  • Bosnia and Kosovo (900);
  • Iraq (7,200);
  • UN missions (300); and
  • Northern Ireland (8,500);
with a further 27,390 on non-operational service in Germany, Cyprus, the South Atlantic Islands, Gibraltar and Diego Garcia.

It seems only right and proper that, one day each year, I should think how lucky have been the post-war generations not to be conscripted into military service; and all the more appreciative of those who voluntarily sign up so that I don’t have to.

There is one decision I consciously make each year, though - and that is to dispense with the robe which, as a councillor, I am entitled to wear on such civic occasions. This is an entirely personal decision, but one I have stuck to since I was first elected, back in May 2000.

I dislike such ostentatious ceremony, the point of which appears to be to show that councillors are separate from (perhaps grander than) those we represent. For sure, it is part of the city’s tradition, and maybe the spectacle of civic dignitaries in funny clothes is what the public wants, what they expect. But I am uncomfortable with outward displays of hierarchy which appear to exist for their own sake, and which symbolise the ‘them and us’ perception of politics among the public.

So I dress smartly and appropriately, as this photo from today’s service demonstrates (I’m fourth from the right). But I shall continue to eschew my robe.

And of course I stay silent during the singing of the National Anthem - I have no problems with God saving the Queen (though others are probably in greater need), but have no wish to lie through my teeth in His name by asking that she is ‘Long to reign over us’.

As every thinking schoolboy should, I became a socialist and a republican aged 16. I soon realised my juvenile mistake, allowing my socialism to lapse, then be converted into liberalism. However, my republicanism remains entrenched (albeit pretty dormant).

The pity of war, the pity war distilled

Strange meeting

It seemed that out of the battle I escaped
Down some profound dull tunnel, long since scooped

Through granites which Titanic wars had groined.
Yet also there encumbered sleepers groaned,
Too fast in thought or death to be bestirred.
Then, as I probed them, one sprang up, and stared
With piteous recognition in fixed eyes,
Lifting distressful hands as if to bless.
And by his smile, I knew that sullen hall;
With a thousand fears that vision's face was grained;
Yet no blood reached there from the upper ground,
And no guns thumped, or down the flues made moan.
"Strange, friend," I said, "Here is no cause to mourn."
"None," said the other, "Save the undone years,
The hopelessness. Whatever hope is yours,
Was my life also; I went hunting wild
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something has been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled.
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled.
They will be swift with swiftness of the tigress,
None will break ranks, though nations trek from progress.
Courage was mine, and I had mystery;
Wisdom was mine, and I had mastery;
To miss the march of this retreating world
Into vain citadels that are not walled.
Then, when much blood had clogged their chariot-wheels
I would go up and wash them from sweet wells,
Even with truths that lie too deep for taint.
I would have poured my spirit without stint
But not through wounds; not on the cess of war.
Foreheads of men have bled where no wounds were.
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark; for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now ..."

Wilfred Owen (1893-1918)

November 10, 2006

Doctored Johnson, I presume

It’s no surprise that Alan Johnson has ruled himself out as a Labour leadership contender, opting instead to run for the No. 2 post. What is surprising is his definition of the deputy leader’s role, according to the BBC:
The deputy must be "subordinate to and supportive of the leader, (carrying) out whatever duties the leader sees as being essential to securing a fourth term in office".
“Subordinate to”? What kind of freakin’ pussy-whipped cop-out is that?

I know the Labour Party is now a million miles from being a fraternity of comrades, and eagerly embraces reactionary authoritarianism in all its forms.

But Mr Johnson could at least keep up some pretence that Gordon Brown is not a control-freak convinced he’s more equal than others.

And not a wardrobe malfunction in sight...

Y'know, you can tell a lot about a man from his clothes... as ITV News observed of David Cameron:

It's good the Tory leader was focused on what really matters during his party's conference - after all, still no policies to worry about.

Bush's jibe talking

You've lost the Senate, you've lost the House, you're a lame duck President with plunging approval ratings - chances are you're a bit miffed. You gotta blame someone, and that person obviously can't be you. Here's your 'to do' list:

1. Take full responsibility, then
2. Sack the defense secretary
you said was unsackable, and
3. Make a barbed joke at your chief political strategist's expense:

If Mr Bush does try to pin any of the blame on Karl Rove, it seems he'll get short shrift from his party, according to today's FT:
Republican analysts on Thursday said the jibe was unfair. The election was an indictment of Mr Bush’s Iraq policy, not political tactics. “Nobody thinks that Karl is in charge of the occupation of Iraq,” said Grover Norquist, head of Americans for Tax Reform, who has close ties to Mr Rove. “I haven’t heard any complaints about him. In a conference call with conservative groups no one faulted the turnout effort.”
Mr Norquist is an exemplar of the Republican right, as is clear from his penetrating analysis of the GOP's defeat in the key swing state of Pennsylvania:
“Bob Sherwood’s seat would have been overwhelmingly ours, if his mistress hadn’t whined about being throttled,” said Mr Norquist. Any lessons from the campaign? “Yes. The lesson should be, don’t throttle mistresses.”

November 09, 2006

Seems harsh

It's the juxtaposition that bothers me: my mugshot next to the headline, 'Poor value'.

(The full story, if you're interested, is here.)

November 08, 2006

The clock has now tocked

It's interesting, sometimes, to look back at old blog postings. On the day of George W. Bush's second inauguration, 20th Jan, 2005, I wrote an article, After Inauguration - will it get better from here on in?:
... a mandate is about power, and power is a slippery, fluid, elusive commodity. ... There are other factors, too, which might mean Dubya's victory is as good as it gets for the Republicans. ...

Dubya's first term may well come back to haunt him in his second.
Most obviously - let's hope not inevitably - Iraq could slip off the precipice on which its teetering, and descend into civil war. The US and its Allies would not be able simply to wash their hands of the bloodshed they've fomented. Active military re-involvement, not the disengagement for which even the neo-cons are now hoping (if only so they can flaunt their hawkish menace further afield), would be an unavoidable, and humiliating, outcome. ... thirdly, the domestic agenda is by no means assured. Dubya has, somehow, to attempt to curb his reckless spending habits, and to staunch the spiralling budget deficit.

Control of the White House, Congress and Senate present Dubya with immense leverage, a generational opportunity to carve the political landscape in his ideological image as clearly as Mount Rushmore. He remains the most polarising of politicians, squeaking both his presidential victories, governing as if they were landslides. His approval rating continues to hover at 50%, remarkably low for a freshly re-elected second term President. Most of his Party are already looking towards the 2006 mid-term elections. He has three years until he becomes a lame-duck President. He's enjoyed his day of glory. But the clock is now ticking.

Instability + gridlock = stability + good government

It’s an odd equation, and yet one which seems to explain the response of the American money markets to yesterday’s political upheaval in the US. This from CNNMoney.com:
"I think the market had basically factored in that there was going to be a change in the political landscape," said Ted Weisberg, a New York Stock Exchange floor trader at Seaport Securities.

"Whether you have the Democrats controlling the House or controlling both houses, you still have a Republican leader in the White House and that still means
gridlock," he added.

Gridlock would limit the power of either party to push through legislation perceived as partisan, an environment acceptable to the markets.
This table from the current Economist helps explain why the markets think like that. To translate it into another equation: unified government = high federal spending = big government. And markets (unsurprisingly) don’t like big government - it sucks labour and capital away from entrepreneurial wealth creation.

Of course, the likes and dislikes of the money markets should not dictate political judgement (though it would be a foolish politician who completely ignored them). But they may well be right to divine that divided government is, generally, good government.

For example... Under a Democrat President, Bill Clinton, and a Republican Congress, the US budget deficit was brought under control. Yet under a Republican President, George W. Bush, and a Republican Congress it has escalated, in part thanks to pork-barrel projects like the $223m Alaskan ‘bridge to nowhere’.

This shouldn
t surprise us. After all, the Founding Fathers intentionally built extensive checks and balances into the US constitution in recognition that ‘power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely’.

One of the greatest problems in the UK is that power is over-concentrated and over-centralised in the executive - and, de facto, in the office of the Prime Minister. There is almost no limit on his authority, as our legislature is weak. The Prime Minister has a built-in, whipped majority in the House of Commons, while the second chamber, the House of Lords, is deliberately left to moulder as an emasculated body with no democratic accountability, and little remaining hereditary droit de seigneur.

Those who argue against proportional representation on the grounds that it produces ‘weak government’ are missing the fundamental point. A coalition government which embraces majority opinion is far more likely to produce good, stable government than one-party rule based on the consent of little more than one-third of the voting public.

The art of good politics is all about dialogue: a constructive dialectic leading to a workable synthesis. The tribally confrontational British political system is designed to make such dialogue as rare and unnatural an event as possible. If we’re lucky our Prime Ministers speak in monologues; more usually it’s a soliloquy.