What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

March 30, 2007

Words cannot express

It’s Friday night, which means it’s time for a YouTube clip.

Everyone has, I’m sure, by now seen the excruciating clip of Karl Rove rapping at the annual White House correspondents’ dinner. Please look away now if easily distressed by the sight of white, middle-aged guys in black tie getting down (as I believe the young people’s argot has it): it’s HERE. And they said satire died when Henry Kissinger was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize…

Fortunately our generation has Jon Stewart’s Daily Show to ease the pain:

Of course, if you want quality rapping comedy, there’s only one candidate: Chris Morris’s Fur Q. Enjoy. (Warning: strong language.)

Top Lib Dem media-tarts

Which Lib Dem MPs receive the most media mentions? If you’ve ever wondered (or even if you haven’t ‘til now) then this is the list for you.

The methodology is simple. I’ve trawled Lexis-Nexiss online database of all UK national newspapers (and a huge number of regional ones), feeding in the names of each of our MPs in turn, and seeing how many returns are generated. I have even - get this for über-geekness - combined figures for those who have variations on their name: eg, Vincent Cable and Vince Cable.

The figures below cover the last six months, September 2006 to March 2007. To qualify, the MP must have been mentioned either as a Liberal Democrat or Lib Dem. Those marked with an asterisk (*) are members of the Lib Dem shadow cabinet. It seemed only fair to highlight them, as they will (generally) find it easier to get quoted in the press. (Though, to be fair, that doesn’t apply to the position of chief whip, held by Paul Burstow.)

Unsurprisingly, party leader Ming Campbell tops the list, though I can’t tell you exactly how often he’s been mentioned, as he exceeded the maximum 1,000 returns Lexis-Nexis can cope with. For the record, he has been mentioned 856 times in the last three months.

Anyway, here’s the list in descending order of media mentions:

1. Ming Campbell* - 1,000+
2. Nick Clegg* - 528
3. Lembit Öpik* - 461
4. Charles Kennedy - 367
5. Vince Cable* - 289
6. Chris Huhne* - 270
7. Norman Baker - 264
8. Norman Lamb* - 237
9. Don Foster* - 218
10. David Laws* - 197
11. Sarah Teather* - 193
12. Evan Harris - 179
13. Simon Hughes* - 175
14. Nick Harvey* - 160
15. Alistair Carmichael* - 152
16. Matthew Taylor - 146
17. Julia Goldsworthy* - 146
18. Ed Davey* - 146
19. Danny Alexander* - 140
20. Andrew George - 138
21. Malcolm Bruce - 138
22. Adrian Sanders - 131
23. Steve Webb* - 130
24. Mark Oaten - 122
25. Dan Rogerson - 120
26. John Hemming - 112
27. Richard Younger-Ross - 92
28. Lorely Burt - 87
29. Colin Breed - 79
30. Alan Beith - 79
31. Michael Moore* - 69
32. John Barrett - 66
33. Jenny Willott - 60
34. Robert Smith - 60
35. Phil Willis - 58
36. Stephen Williams - 50
37. Martin Horwood - 50
38. David Heath* - 49
39. Greg Mulholland - 48
40. Roger Williams - 47
41. Lynne Featherstone* - 41
42. Mark Williams - 40
43. Bob Russell - 39
44. Jo Swinson* - 38
45. Andrew Stunell* - 38
46. Sandra Gidley - 38
47. Susan Kramer* - 37
48. Alan Reid - 36
49. John Thurso - 35
50. John Pugh - 35
51. Mike Hancock - 35
52. Jeremy Browne - 32
53. Willie Rennie - 29
54. Tom Brake - 27
55. Annette Brooke - 25
56. Tim Farron - 23
57. Paul Burstow* - 23
58. Paul Keetch - 20
59. Paul Holmes - 20
60. John Leech - 19
61. David Howarth - 10
62. Paul Rowen - 8
63. Mark Hunter - 8

Of course, it goes without saying (almost) that mentions can be both positive and negative… as the MP who’s third on this list might attest.

Nonetheless, particular congratulations are due to Norman Baker, Evan Harris and Matthew Taylor as the top three backbench MPs. (I’m not including Charles Kennedy, who has an inbuilt advantage.)

Congratulations also to Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and Chris Huhne for being the most-mentioned shadow cabinet members. (I’m not including Mr Öpik, who is… erm… a special case.)

I should confess I have my doubts about the reliability of my figure for Lib Dem shadow foreign secretary, Michael Moore, as I suspect stories mentioning his Oscar®-winning film-maker namesake might have slipped through the net. After all, the filters ‘liberal’ and ‘Democrat’ aren’t fool-proof.

March 29, 2007

Budget, fudget

After Gordon Brown’s botched budget last week, many Labour MPs and activists were mustard-keen to point out that poorer people - those earning less than £18.5k - would be better off in the round, once tax credits were taken into account.*

So I was interested to read this snippet in today’s Financial Times, reporting the evidence given by Treasury officials to MPs on the Treasury committee examining the 2007 budget:
Officials were also willing to concede … that 5.3m families would lose from the budget changes; that government spending plans did not forsee the take-up rate of working tax credit rising from its current dismal 25 per cent; and that there would be no money in the autumn comprehensive spending review dedicated to fighting child poverty.
* There were two small problems with this argument: (i) it isn’t true, and (ii) not everyone is eligible for tax credits, as pointed out by Ming Campbell at PMQs yesterday.

Compare and contrast

The Electoral Commission on the Lib Dems and that £2.4m donation from Michael Brown:
“The Electoral Commission has previously made clear its view that it was reasonable for the Liberal Democrats - based on the information available to them at the time - to regard the donations they received from 5th Avenue Partners Ltd in 2005, totalling just over £2.4m, as permissible.

“It remains the Commission’s view that the Liberal Democrats acted in good faith at that time, and the Commission is not re-opening the question of whether the party or its officers failed to carry out sufficient checks into the permissibility of the donations.”
The House of Commons Committee on Standards and Privileges on David Cameron’s use of his taxpayer-funded Commons office for Tory Party fundraising:
33. The lack of a specific rule saying that Members' offices, provided at public expense for Parliamentary purposes, cannot be used for party political fundraising needs to be seen in the context of the overarching principle that offices and facilities on the Parliamentary estate are provided to enable Members to carry out their Parliamentary duties, that is, to facilitate the discharge by them of the duties and functions of the office of Member of Parliament. This principle is, I submit, clear…

39. […] The fundraising purpose of [David Cameron’s] Leader's Group is clear from the promotional literature circulated at the Conservative City Circle, and the incentives offered to prospective members specifically include the opportunity to meet the Leader "in his office after Prime Minister's Questions". Furthermore, it is clear that this benefit has been taken up by Group members on a number of occasions. In my submission the Parliamentary estate is not provided out of the public purse to be used as part of a device to attract party fundraising and the suggestion that it is so being used is not one likely to enhance the public reputation of the House.

42. While there is no reason in principle, I submit, why Mr Cameron cannot meet, in his office or elsewhere in the Parliamentary estate, those who donate to his party, what neither he nor his Party (nor indeed any other Member or party) can properly do is employ their Parliamentary office as part of a party fundraising stratagem. In my view, that is, on the facts, precisely what happened in this case. I therefore recommend that [Lib Dem MP] Mr Baker's complaint be upheld.
It’s only fair to point these things out…

Not voting for Christmas to come early

Yesterday, the House of Commons debated the ‘Communications Allowance’, a £10,000 a year public subsidy to be given to MPs to help them hold on to their seats improve their dialogue with their constituents.

Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson summed the arguments against the measure succinctly and well:
As a Member of Parliament, I believe that communication is incredibly important. As a former marketing manager, perhaps I know more than many the benefits of good communication. Those of us who oppose the allowance do not say that ensuring that we are in touch with our constituents, reporting back and making sure that people in our constituencies are engaged in politics are not important parts of a Member of Parliament’s job. Far from it. My problem is the cost that the taxpayer will incur. Through interventions, I have already expressed my disappointment that the communications allowance will cost an extra £6 million, with a perhaps an additional £1 million in increased postage costs. That means that the taxpayer must bear the brunt of an additional £7 million. … Some hon. Members may suggest that a forthcoming general election is a factor. I urge hon. Members to oppose the allowance.
Here’s the full roll-call of honour of those Lib Dem MPs who did oppose the allowance:

Baker, Norman; Barrett, John; Brooke, Annette; Bruce, rh Malcolm; Carmichael, Mr. Alistair; Clegg, Mr. Nick; Farron, Tim; Goldsworthy, Julia; Harris, Dr. Evan; Heath, Mr. David; Holmes, Paul; Horwood, Martin; Howarth, David; Hughes, Simon; Huhne, Chris; Laws, Mr. David; Leech, Mr. John; Öpik, Lembit; Rennie, Willie; Sanders, Mr. Adrian; Stunell, Andrew; Swinson, Jo; Taylor, Matthew; Webb, Steve.

The full list from the division lobby of ayes and noes is available here.

I've had better offers

Amazon.co.uk keep offering me an intriguing product promotion:
“Save £0.02 when you spend £100,000.00 or more on Qualifying Items offered by Amazon.co.uk.”
It hasn’t tempted me… yet.

March 28, 2007

You pays your money, you takes your choice

Two headlines from today's papers:
  • The Times: ‘Budget failed to sway voters, Times poll shows’
  • The Independent: ‘Tory lead slips as voters welcome Budget’
Of course opinion polls matter. But let’s recognize there’s as much art as science involved.

March 27, 2007

Detritus: 18 Doughty Street, liberal blogging and David Cameron

Let’s get the plugs out of the way straight off - if you want to watch last night’s Blogger TV on 18 Doughty Street, in which I appeared alongside fellow Lib Dem blogger Andy Mayer, click here.

To my left, geographically and politically, was Chris Ames, author of the excellent Iraq Dossier website, which “is dedicated to telling the truth about the British government's September 2002 dossier Iraq's Weapons of Mass Destruction - that it was, after all, "sexed-up" by the government's spin doctors.” Do visit it.

Slightly to my surprise we spent a good chunk of the early part of the programme discussing the state of the Lib Dem ‘blogosphere’ with über-blogging presenter Iain Dale.

And here I must issue a mea culpa - when asked to name a new blogger who had caught my attention I correctly named Tom Papworth at Liberal Polemic. I then incorrectly suggested he was the Lib Dem candidate in Folkestone. The T.P. who hopes to take over Michael Howard’s constituency is of course Toby Philpott at Liberal Legend - who also has a very good blog. Apologies to them both.

There are also lots of other good new blogs which I didn’t have chance to mention, though I’m trying to highlight the best postings via the ‘Golden Dozen’ round-ups on Lib Dem Voice. [That’s enough grovelling. - Ed.]

A question which occurred to me (pretty much as I was speaking) is how the Lib Dems can fit blogging into our traditional community politics and engagement. The Internet is a highly paradoxical force. In one sense it atomises us, as we each bury our heads behind our own individual computer screens, reading or writing our transient e-phemera.

And yet there is a virtual blogging community. We get to know each other through our articles - begin to understand what motivates, angers, delights or interests us - and probably reveal far more about ourselves than we ever do in person to fellow Lib Dems in our local constituency parties.

How can we combine pavement politics with virtual politics? Flock Together has begun the process, together with the ever-growing number of Liberal Drinks around the country. And Facebook is connecting party members at a frighteningly exponential rate. (Though I still don’t really understand what it’s for - if ever there were a sign I’m getting old…)

Websites such as Neighbourhood Fix-It perhaps point the most powerful way ahead - why phone or e-mail your local councillor to report a pot-hole or faulty street-light if you can alert the local council directly? If it takes off, this site has the potential to transform the relationship between residents and councils, as each problem is logged and residents track how long it takes the council to respond.

Perhaps councillors will become less of a glorified Yellow Pages for those with a gripe, and take more responsibility for ensuring local government systems are geared-up to cope with residents-as-consumers?

PS: last night’s BloggerTV also had an interesting discussion of David Cameron in which Iain Dale accepts that ConservativeHome’s traditional right-wing agenda is more in tune with most Tory members than Mr Cameron’s Blair-lite direction of travel.

Iain reckons this won’t matter for as long as Mr Cameron is seen to be a winner. For the record, I half-agree - the Tory Party is desperately hungry to beat Labour, which is why Tory traditionalists are currently biting their tongues... at least for as long as Mr Cameron is in the ascendant.

However, at some point the party’s hunger to beat Labour must give way to a hunger to form a Conservative government. And I cannot see Mr Cameron rousing the Tory faithful with (eg) a pledge to increase taxes on air travel. How he squares this circle is the great unknown of the current Tory mini-revival.

Oxford city's unitary bid fails

Bad news here in Oxford, following the Government’s announcement today that the City Council has failed in its bid for unitary status, which would have seen it become responsible for all local government services.

Sixteen local authorities have been successful in being short-listed, including two cities: Norwich and Exeter. But not us.

There’s a tendency among politicians to get obsessed with structures and institutions - there’s a danger we forget the public doesn’t really care about who delivers the services, only that they are delivered well. However, there is no doubt that two-tier local government in Oxford hampers accountability.

My residents - quite understandably - do not see the distinction between the City and County. To them, we are simply ‘the Council’, and arguments about which local authority is responsible for which services is seen as buck-passing (which it sometimes is).

Oxford, with some 140,000 residents, is large but compact enough to have made a success of being a unitary authority (which can have populations as small as 30,000). It has a distinctive, vibrant culture. Only in a centralised state like the UK would this city be considered ‘unsustainable’. But local government is the victim of central government’s mantra that big is - if not beautiful - then at least economic.

It is becoming clear that Labour now wants district councils to wither on the vine. That is the thrust behind the Government’s jargon-heavy imperative in today’s press release:
In remaining two-tier areas Government expects all councils to pursue new working arrangements to achieve the same level of improvement and efficiency gains as we expect the new unitaries will be achieving.
‘New working arrangements’ is of course code for increasing absorption of the five Oxfordshire district councils into the super-fiefdom that is the County Council, dominated by Tories who are entirely without representation in the city.

And I am bound to say it says little for the lobbying skills of Oxford East’s Labour MP, Andrew Smith, that the city has not made it onto the Government’s little list. Local Labour activists had been increasingly confident in recent weeks that Mr Smith would go to Whitehall and deliver. Alas not.

Today, then, is a day of disappointment. Tomorrow, we must all pick ourselves up, and start working on making a success of the poor hand dealt to us by the Government.

Which is an experience those of us who’ve spent a few years on local councils are getting increasingly accustomed to.

March 26, 2007

Be careful what you wish for

The best reality show on telly, The Apprentice, returns tonight on prime-time BBC1.

The winner of the top slot can look forward to working alongside Siralan Sugar for one year for a not-to-be-sniffed-at retainer of £100k.

But, if the trend of the previous two series continues, one of the losers will wind up elected a London Tory councillor:
(Hat-tip: The Sun, improbably enough.)

Seems a harsh punishment.

But, then, it's pretty harsh on BBC2 as well, who have had yet another ratings banker poached by BBC1, with The Apprentice following in the footsteps of Have I Got News For You and Trinny & Susannah.

PS: of course, its ratings are likely to suffer a down-turn this week, owing to a scheduling clash with 18 Doughty Street. Andy Mayer, Christopher Ames and me are the rival attraction at 9pm on Iain Dale’s Blogger TV.

March 25, 2007

Noun: An object, such as a cork or a wad of cloth, used to fill a hole tightly.

Not read your fill of Lib Dem blogs this week? Then pop over to Lib Dem Voice for this week's essential reads.

The answer is: plug.

'Want liberalism? Vote Lib Dem.'

‘Cheer Churchill, vote Labour’ has always struck me as one of the great political advertising slogans, perfectly capturing the 1945 mood with cunning generosity of spirit.

It’s ripe for re-interpretation in today’s triangulated political times, as David Cameron silkily steals the liberal vocabulary to shore up his touchy-feely brand. Mr Cameron has successfully mesmerised the media into believing the Tories are changing, and his own party into believing they already have.

The wider public is rather more sceptical of this Tory about-turn than the media portrays, and a little more interestedly curious than I as a Lib Dem would like.

Ming Campbell’s latest attack on the Tories seems to me, therefore, to be rather well-judged because, like all the best attacks, it is rooted in reality:
Political parties are more than their leaders and if the Conservative Party aspires to liberalism, Mr Cameron must convince his members of it. He must ensure that they are ready to leave behind the baggage of Europhobia, homophobia, and xenophobia. Not just in policy, but in language and instinct too. The evidence suggests that he has some way to go to achieve that.
Sir Menzies is allowing for the possibility that Mr Cameron is, as he claims when wooing Lib Dems, a liberal conservative. As a party which believes in rehabilitation we must allow for damascene conversions, accept that the author of the Tory Party’s 2005 manifesto, who is and always has been a Conservative to the core of his being, is now ready to walk the liberal talk.

The question must be, therefore: is his party up for the challenge? It is one thing to laud Mr Cameron when he’s riding relatively high in the polls; quite another to stick with him when the going gets tough, as it surely will once the Labour leadership has - eventually - sorted itself out.

Most Tory members and activists are, undoubtedly, quite content with Mr Cameron’s presentational leadership. They understand he’s doing what had to be done to detoxify the Tory Party. But do they believe in, let alone like, his Blair-lite policy platform?

Let’s take a look at the evidence.

First, the membership: ConservativeHome may not be wholly representative of the views of all Tory members, but it is (I suspect) much closer to the membership’s centre of gravity than Mr Cameron’s utterings would have you believe. And it is not for no reason it has earned the nickname, ContinuityIDS.

Secondly, the elected representatives: and here - whether it is Patrick Mercer sounding off about ethnic minorities in the armed forces, or Tory peers defying the party line on Lord reform and sexual orientation discrimination - the lesson is clear: “when the Conservative Parliamentary Party doesn’t agree with Cameron, it simply ignores him”, as James Graham pithily puts it.

So what slogan should the Lib Dems adopt to encapsulate this distinction between Mr Cameron’s avowed liberalism, and the Tory Party’s disavowal of liberalism? I’m not sure we should go so far as to cheer Mr Cameron on. After all, at least Mr Churchill had once been a Liberal. Perhaps, then, we can settle for something wholly positive:
‘Want liberalism? Vote Lib Dem.’
And in so doing, we should recognise not only the challenge it poses to Mr Cameron, but also to our own party.

March 23, 2007

Never go back

It was on this day, 30 years ago, that James Callaghan’s Labour Government survived a vote of no confidence, with a majority of 24, thanks to the votes of the 13 Liberal Party MPs.

The dying embers of a Labour Government, led by a Chancellor-turned-Prime-Minister with no mandate from the British people, propped up by the third party in return for a few meaningless concessions… it could never happen again, could it?

Incidentally, Gordon Brown could do worse than try and learn a trick or two from Mr Callaghan's easy, relaxed, honest interview style.

How Mr Brown flunked his big moment

For a little while now, I’ve felt Gordon Brown has been maligned. That’s not to say I agree with him - don’t be silly - merely to suggest he’s been under-estimated by armchair pundits. Mr Brown has been a formidable Chancellor, one of the two dominant politicians of his generation. To think that he might be bested by the smart glibness of David Cameron was, I felt, wishful thinking on behalf of his opponents.

Today, I’m less sure.

I still think it’s a rash commentator who writes off Mr Brown. The fairest assessment of the budget - stripped of all spin and counter-spin - is Hamish McRae’s verdict in the Indy. It deserves to be read in full, but here’s the conclusion:

... the fact remains that the British economy has performed remarkably well in the past decade. There are of course concerns, including the fact that it has become even more of a two-tier economy, with the super-competitive London, the South-east and East Anglia, and the rest. You could argue that he inherited this competitive advantage, that it had very little to do with him. You could argue that at the margin the additional complexity he has loaded on to the system has undermined some of that competitiveness. But he has understood intellectually how competitive advantage in the present global economy is achieved and sustained. I don't think the next 10 years will be as easy as the past 10 but meanwhile he has a right to take some of the credit for what, in economic terms, has undoubtedly been a successful decade.
It’s an assessment most of us could sign up to, though perhaps lets Mr Brown off the hook a little too easily when it comes to public service investment: having starved the public sector in his early years, he then glutted it in his later years with scant regard to value-for-money. Billions have been wasted in the time it’s taken New Labour to understand that resources and reform go hand-in-hand. And still they try and control everything from the centre.

But still - Mr Brown has, by any objective standard, avoided disaster and achieved modest success. Few Chancellors can boast such a claim, let alone one who’s served a decade in the post, however impatiently.

To imagine that, having waited so long to ascend the premiership, Mr Brown won’t have a programme for government carefully devised - one which will be consciously and cleverly designed to take the wind out of puffed-out Tory sails - is to ignore the evidence of his past behaviour, from making the Bank of England independent to this week’s 2p basic rate income tax cut.

However, however, however.

Mr Brown screwed up his budget big time. He made a hash of it in a way which should disturb his fellow Labour MPs, and which gives those, like me, who have defended his tactical shrewdness, real pause for thought.

Let’s ignore the rights or wrongs of doubling the starting rate of income tax, while cutting the basic rate - a move which will leave many of the poorest in society poorer still. I think he made the wrong choice; but I’m a political opponent so I would say that, wouldn’t I. No, the worrying thing for Labour was how badly Mr Brown presented his budget coup de théâtre.

Simon Carr, again in the Indy, brilliantly contrasts Messrs Blair and Brown’s rhetoric and what their styles say about their respective personalities:
Blair's personal style is a search for the best consensus he can make on his own terms. Thus his reaction to a hostile question is: "Where I agree with you is this." This instinct has mutated in the aftermath of Iraq: "There are those who disagree with me and I don't disrespect them for that," he is inclined to say. It's one of his attractive traits. His speeches, likewise, assume the presence of an intelligent interlocutor who disagrees with what is being said, and with whom Blair argues. You can sense the respect by the fact that the interlocutor isn't presented as ridiculous or vicious. Why would he alienate half of the voting population?

Gordon Brown's speeches reveal a very different internal process. There is no real interlocutor in his speeches. His view of the enemy (he views the Tories as enemies) reduces them to caricatures motivated by malice, cruelty and greed. No reasonable person would characterise half of the British electorate in those terms. But then, everything in the speech is Gordon: every portrait is a self portrait.

Yes, this sort of speech-making seems to be the direct result of his personal relations in professional life. Successful, argumentative, engaging speeches need more than one hand. They are a collaboration. They require that the speechmaker has the substance to hear his work criticised and chopped about. To have his ideas challenged and to accept the validity of other points of view. This is not the way the Chancellor operates, if recent reports be true. It is, as they say in the Civil Service, "outwith his grasp".
Imagine how Mr Blair would have presented this week’s budget.

He would not have tried to sneak past the abolition of the 10% starting rate of income tax by hurriedly muttering it, sotto voce, so that only David Laws for the Lib Dems spotted its significance. He would not have left his 2p tax cut to his final line, producing it like a rabbit out of the hat, hoping to distract and astonish in equal measure.

No, our current Prime Minister would have been open and upfront, something like…

“Seven years ago, Mr Deputy Speaker, I announced to this House that I was introducing a starting rate of income tax of 10p in the pound. The reason was quite simple: to cut taxes for the poorest in our society. This, for me, was a realisation of what New Labour thinking is all about. Putting money back in the pockets of those who have least, giving a helping hand to those who need it most.

“I do not under-estimate what a difference this reform has made to those with lower than average incomes. But, equally, I recognise that our tax system is open to criticism from those who say it has grown too complex. So the challenge today for our party is this: how can we simplify the tax system, and ensure that low- and middle-income households pay less tax?

“Today, I am delighted to inform the House how we shall meet that challenge. We will scrap the 10p starting rate, and use the proceeds to cut the basic rate of income tax by 2p in the pound. We will increase tax credits for the poorest. As a direct result of this measure, the whole country will be better off, and perpetually bathed in the sunshine of my bountiful iridescence.”
Okay, okay, so I made the last bit up: the whole country won’t actually be better off. But you get the idea. Mr Blair is actually rather more transparent, rather less spun, than the Chancellor.

The concept of ‘narrative’ has perhaps been over-sold in recent years. But all it means is that you should be able to distinguish a beginning and end to an argument, recognise its ideological sweep, perceive an underpinning philosophy.

Mr Blair’s speeches have a compelling narrative: they take you on a journey, even if you want to wind the window down half-way there because you feel sick. Mr Brown’s speeches take you hostage: gagged and bound in the boot of the car, he lets you out, disorientated and resentful, only once you’ve arrived at his pre-arranged destination.

Mr Blair’s the kind of politician who, if he were actually a magician, would tell you how he did the trick. Mr Brown takes pleasure in secrets, in concealing from us what he knows and we do not.

Mr Blair has an instinctual, simpatico sixth sense. Mr Brown an analytical, brooding tone deafness.

The budget was Mr Brown’s career-defining opportunity to show he could match, even surpass, Mr Blair’s sureness of touch. He flunked it.

March 21, 2007

Labour, party of social justice: RIP

Talk about a double whammy.

First, Labour’s Lyons Review flunks the prospect of wholesale reform of Council Tax, instead opting to tinker round the edges with bands that will make no difference to the vast majority of income-poor residents who suffer under the current system.

Then, Gordon Brown decides to double the starting rate of income tax, ensuring anyone who earns under £15,000 pa will be worse off. As Will Howells notes, this is some U-turn from the Chancellor who once proclaimed the importance of the 10p rate for the poorest in our society.

Badly done, Gordon, badly done.

March 19, 2007

Local papers for local people

The Oxford Mail can rarely compete with the Shropshire Star for bathos. But it has its own moments of splendour:
'Arsonists suspected of starting fire'
(Hat-tip: m'colleague, Richard Huzzey.)

30 years ago today.

From that:

To this:

So much for the concept of progress.

For the record, I’m not actually 30 until 9.50 pm, this evening. Believe me, I’m going to eke this out for all it’s worth.

March 18, 2007

Sunday best

The latest best-of-the-Lib-Dem-blogosphere's 'Golden Dozen' is now up and ready for your viewing pleasure here at Lib Dem Voice.

Meanwhile, I'm touched to have been tagged by Iain Dale for the latest meme, the so-called 'Thogger Awards' (Thinking Bloggers). Unfortunately, this means I must now nominate the five bloggers who make me think most.

Hang on, this needs some careful thought. Try me again tomorrow.

PS: I am, of course, open to bribes.

March 17, 2007

Oxford's blaze of glory

For the last three nights, Oxford’s Broad Street has been ablaze thanks to a spectacular fire installation known as Luminox, part of the celebrations of 1,000 years of Oxfordshire.

My photos do it scant justice: it was a magical, elemental event which attracted thousands, becoming the talk of the town. Beyond its ethereal beauty, two aspects struck home.

On the first evening, everywhere I went the same question was being asked: ‘What about Health & Safety?’

We were able to wander where we wanted, within touching distance of burning
braziers, and in between molten lanterns.

Everyone was amazed and delighted to be treated like adults (especially the children); to be trusted to realise that scorching hot things are dangerous. To the best of my
knowledge, no-one decided to hurl themselves into harm’s way.

Instead, there was a visceral sense of liberation among the crowds at being left alone to enjoy the displays at our own pace in our own way: collective joy emanating from individual freedom.

Secondly, when I visited tonight, there wasn’t a single police officer patrolling, though there were thousands of people milling around.

And there was no need for one. Despite the squash, relaxed good humour abounded, bar the occasional ‘Tsk’ when someone accidentally obstructed a camera.

Folk munched on crepes, sipped coffee sitting outside cafes, browsed in Blackwells bookshop, kept their kids entertained and safe, snapped photos on phones and cameras, filmed videos, cuddled, chatted: enjoyed themselves.

When we started our walk home, we passed the St John’s Ambulance crew. They were sat inside, talking, drinking from a flask, relaxed.

It’s been that kind of event.

PS: there are many fantastic photos well worth a view on Flickr.

March 16, 2007

Frank Luntz on Ming Campbell

I’ve occasionally been known to give US pollster Frank Luntz some stick - though not nearly as much as some others - so it’s with some interest I read his analysis of his focus group on the party’s leaders in today’s Grauniad.

It looks to be a pretty objective summary, with pluses and minuses against all of Messrs Blair, Brown, Cameron and Campbell. Here’s what he has to say about Ming:
[The public’s dislike of spin] should have been good news for Lib Dem leader Menzies Campbell, the oldest of the would-be PMs. No one could accuse him of putting spin ahead of substance. But the comments about him - "yawn", "bland" and "old fart" - are hardly ringing endorsements.

Lessons for Campbell: the fact you were against the Iraq war from the start puts you high up on two attributes that matter most, "a leader who says what he means and means what he says" and "a proven sense of judgment". But serving as a cure for insomnia is not an admirable electoral trait. If the Lib Dems are ever to become more than just a protest vote, you will need to become more than just a talking head.
It’s still the case, though, that neither Newsnight nor the Grauniad acknowledge Mr Luntz’s close connections to the US Republican Party. It may have no influence on the way he goes about his job, but viewers and readers have a right to know his political vantage.

Not in denial. Absolutely not.

Not that it’s been hanging over me at all - and not that I’m remotely bothered by its looming inevitability - but I turn 30 in 3 days' time.

So this week’s Friday YouTube clip is an early birthday present to myself with no purpose other than it makes me laugh. Which I understand helps keep you young. So, with any luck, I may never reach my fourth decade.

March 15, 2007

A Labour and Tory coalition? That sounds grand

There are very good reasons why Lib Dems should not talk about hung Parliaments - as Ming Campbell recently discovered, it produces a lot of unhelpful distraction-chatter. However, I’m happy to make one exception to the rule (in time-honoured tradition): the prospect of a ‘grand coalition’ between Labour and the Tories in the event of no one party having a majority after the next election.

In the past, I’ve tended to be a little dismissive of the notion, regarding it as a too-clever-by-half response which deflects, but does not answer, the question Lib Dems hate: which party would we support? I felt it would lack any real credibility with the public, and so merely bring us a lot of grief as the media fixates on whether we’re ‘left-‘ or ‘right-wing’. (Even though the media would never think of asking Labour or the Tories whether they’re liberal.)

And I’m not the only one wondering whether Britain’s Tories and Labour might ‘do a Germany’, and band together on the mushy centre ground they each seem so keen to occupy - The Times’s Tory-supporting Daniel Finkelstein is also contemplating it:
… on three occasions now, Mr Blair has relied on a differently composed majority to sustain his Government - one that unites the centre against the fringes. Could a minority Government work in a similar way? A cleverly produced Queens Speech could challenge a centrist leader of the Opposition to support the Government or risk being seen as obstructive and opportunist. The Opposition leader might fear the consequences of bringing down the Government on a measure they actually support. The middle against both ends? It could happen.
Credit where it’s due - Chris Huhne was among the first to raise this prospect last year during his bid for the Lib Dem leadership:
We must fight as an independent party. If there is no overall majority after an election, we must look for the best way to advance our cause while maintaining our identity and independence. This may even mean going into opposition while the Conservatives and Labour form a German-style grand coalition.
There are two advantages to this approach from a Lib Dem perspective.

First, it emphasises the degree to which Labour and the Tories are seeking to triangulate their appeal - with Labour trampling all over civil liberties to reach out to voters attracted to authoritarian policies; while the Tories embrace Polly Toynbee and Bob Geldof in an attempt to woo left-liberal voters. It also demonstrates the extent to which the two main parties have collaborated on Iraq, education, and now Trident.

But secondly, it also distinguishes the Lib Dems as the ‘radical centre’ in opposition to the establishment which is the ruling Labour/Tory duopoly. When I voted for Ming Campbell as leader, I did so knowing he was the candidate most easily caricatured as a member of the political aristocracy. As a party which has often struggled to be taken seriously (and that was certainly the case a year ago), this seemed a positive virtue. It still does. But it’s not enough.

We need now to show the public that Britain under the Lib Dems would be a different, brighter, more optimistic and humane place. The choice facing the electorate is more of the same under the leadership of any combination of Tony Blair, Gordon Brown or David Cameron; or a change for the better with the Lib Dems. That’s not such a hard sell.

March 14, 2007

The Flaw of Jenkins' Ire

Simon Jenkins is in good trenchant form in today's Grauniad on Trident, but see if you can spot the logical fallacy in his opening paragraph:
I can hardly believe that a majority of British MPs will tonight vote to renew the British nuclear deterrent. Almost all of them, of all parties, know in their heads that it makes no sense. They lack the guts to say so, Labour MPs because they want jobs under Gordon Brown, Conservatives because they love whizzbangs and want to embarrass Tony Blair by keeping him in power, for reasons that pass comprehension.
He cites, "of all parties", but names and shames only two. I wonder why that might be?

Not because Mr Jenkins cannot find it in himself to agree with (or even mention) the Lib Dem position, is it?

Don't vote for me

It’s rare you get a politician (even a part-timer like myself) asking people not to vote for them, but I like to buck trends. And I see over at UK Daily Pundit I am one of the options in a poll asking the question:
"Which bloggers would you least like to see on the proposed Press Complaints Commission regulatory panel for blogs?"
I’m not sure whether to be outraged, amused or flattered. I’ll mainly settle for baffled. So far, I’ve attracted five votes, and I’m not sure whether that’s good or bad (though it puts me on a par with Daniel Finkelstein for the minute).

This is one of those occasions when, as a good liberal, I’ll borrow Senator William Tecumseh Sherman’s famous words:
“If nominated, I will not accept; if drafted, I will not run; if elected, I will not serve.”
In any case, the idea of such a regulatory panel is a pie-in-the-sky non-starter.

March 13, 2007

If you're not doing anything else on May 3rd...

I’m all for making it easier to vote, and for piloting new and different systems. Sadly, New Labour’s typically authoritarian early experiments have included the abolition of the private ballot - or compulsory postal voting as it was better known.

This too often led to well-documented illegalities - among all parties - as well as countless undocumented abuses where the 'head of the household' cast votes on behalf of his entire family.

This Government’s typically cavalier approach to individual rights, with scant regard for the more vulnerable members of our society, has devalued positive proposals for flexible voting arrangements in the public’s eyes.

So it’s no surprise that such measures - including electronic voting - are met with some degree of scepticism, as evidenced by this e-mail I received today, sent on behalf of www.openrightsgroup.org:

Despite the well known problems with e-voting and e-counting the government is pressing ahead with pilots at the May 2007 local elections. To make sure we all get a true picture of how these pilots are run, the Open Rights Group calls for people on the ground in every local authority where pilots will be held to help with our fully accredited election observer programme. We'll provide full instructions on the activitie expected of you on the day and also supply a factsheet of what to look out for in each of the different pilots. We'll expect you to be travelling around the pilot area during the day, and to turnaround a quick report for us afterwards.

Please help us reach willing volunteers across the country by highlighting the issue and in particular our signup page on pledgebank at http://www.pledgebank.com/electionwatch07

If you or your colleagues want to learn or do more, please take a look at our e-voting mini-site's summaries, extensive briefing pack and suggestions for activism at http://www.openrightsgroup.org/e-voting-main/

Electronic voting will be piloted in: Rushmoor, Sheffield, Shrewsbury & Atcham, South Bucks and Swindon. Electronic counting will be piloted in: Bedford, Breckland, Dover, South Bucks, Stratford-on-Avon District Council and Warwick District Council.

Thanks for your support on this crucial issue.
I imagine many readers may already have plans for election day (telling, knocking up, last minute leaflets, etc) - but, if not, there are worse ways of spending some of May 3rd.

It’s a sad reflection that New Labour has so undermined trust in our democracy that democracy itself has been brought into disrepute.

March 12, 2007

Unfinished sympathy

According to today’s Indy, David Blunkett’s weighty memoirs, The Blunkett Tapes, is one of the top five unfinished reads - books everyone owns, but no-one’s read.

I have to confess, I’m surprised: I didn’t know anybody had bought it.

March 11, 2007

It's the reflex

'Top of the Blogs: the Golden Dozen' - the Lib Dem blogosphere's answer to the Now That's What I Call Music! album compilations - has reached its third volume.

But I'm afraid you won't find any Duran Duran, Nik Kershaw, Sister Sledge or Howard Jones if you click here.

The Oxford skyline

Turning 30 in a week focuses the mind a tad on things not yet achieved. (I envy those able to take simple pleasure in focusing only on those things already achieved.) Today, I started whittling away at the list.

Admittedly, I began with an easy one - climbing the University church tower here in Oxford, which somehow I’ve never got round to doing after 11½ years living in the city. It’s all too easy not to appreciate what’s on your own doorstep. I’m pleased to say today was one of those occasions my adopted hometown took my breath away.

Here’s the panoramic view which did it for me… (Click on the image for the full effect.)

Oh, and on the walk home, a reminder that spring really is here (at last):

March 09, 2007

New film: on Lords reform

My traditional Friday night video clip - except this time it's of me. A very quick film to mark the vote in favour of an elected House of Lords (or whatever it's eventually called).

Happy weekend...

You didn't actually think the Tories had changed, did you?

In April 2006, Tory leader David Cameron launched a fierce assault on Ukip:
“UKIP is sort of a bunch of ... fruitcakes and loonies and closet racists, mostly.”
Patrick Mercer, until 12 hours ago the Tories’ front-bench spokesman on homeland security, said this:
“I came across a lot of ethnic minority soldiers who were idle and useless, but who used racism as cover for their misdemeanours.”
Well, who needs to be in the closet in this day and age anyway?

March 08, 2007

Horrorgate, the aftermath

It’s been an odd seven days for the Lib Dems. This time last week, party activists were focused on the Harrogate spring conference, and the crunch Trident debate.

By last Saturday, the leadership could have been forgiven for breathing a sigh of relief: delegates voted - by a whisker - to support their favoured multilateralist stance, in part thanks to a passionate speech by Ming Campbell. Whichever side we were on, we could all be proud that, alone among the mainstream parties, the Lib Dems freely and openly debate and decide party policy at their conferences on a one-member-one-vote basis.

And then came Black Sunday, Horrorgate, when a ‘senior party source’ briefed the media that the Lib Dems favoured a coalition with Labour in the event of a Hung Parliament, and (as if that were not damaging enough) that we would cheerfully jettison proportional representation as a condition of any such deal. The leadership, in the person of Ed Davey, hastily rebutted this unauthorised briefing. But, by then, it was too late, and it’s a moot point which was more harmful: the original story, or the subsequent reports of chaos at the top of the party.

Of course, PR cock-ups happen in all parties, all organisations, all walks of life. But it’s incumbent on Lib Dems to be ultra-careful - so rarely do we attract the media spotlight outside of elections that, on those few occasions when we do find ourselves in its full glare, we simply cannot afford to be caught blinking and blustering.

Labour and the Tories get into scrapes all the time; but as they always dominate the headlines, by tomorrow the media will have moved on. If the only times the public notice Lib Dems is because we are dissolute or in disarray, it’s unlikely we will be perceived as an opposition-in-waiting. With luck, today’s reported resignation of the Lib Dems’ head of media, Mark Littlewood, may perhaps allow the party to draw a line under this unfortunate episode.

But, tempting as it is to scapegoat a feral press officer, the lessons from the last week need also to be learned by those higher up. It was not Mr Littlewood who first started speculating about the possibility of a Hung Parliament: it was Sir Menzies in his pre-conference interview with The Times’s Peter Riddell.

And it was not Mr Littlewood’s speech which clumsily set out five tests for Labour’s Gordon Brown to prove his prime ministerial worthiness, but scornfully dismissed David Cameron’s Tories in just three words. The media can hardly be blamed for inferring that equidistance is no longer the cri de coueur of the Lib Dems. That this seemed to take the party leadership by surprise is not to their credit.

It is also bad politics: as potential king-makers, it’s extra-important the party should keep, and should appear to be keeping, its options open. Let’s remember that in Saturday’s Trident debate Sir Menzies urged the party not to commit Britain to unilateral disarmament: to do so, delegates were warned, would undermine this country’s negotiating position. I agree. Real brinksmanship requires studied neutrality.

I have largely exculpated the media of blame for the hole the Lib Dems dug ourselves last Sunday. But this debacle highlights how good political reporting has been sacrificed at the altar of fast political reporting. Once upon a time, a politician made a speech, and it was reported verbatim. Thankfully those times are long gone. This gave way to the reporting of speeches accompanied by some contextual analysis. Then, with the pressure of the rolling news agenda, copy was distributed to the media in advance of a speech. And now, not only are speeches distributed in advance, but the media allows itself to be briefed on what are the key passages, and what the speaker really means by this or that sentence.

The result is that the media has given up listening to the content of speeches, or analysing them with detached objectivity: instead, all is viewed through the prism of the briefing. Journalists’ deadlines are more frenetic than ever: anything that isn’t encapsulated within the ‘Breaking News’ ticker-tape is old news. Being first matters more than being right.

Sunday’s debacle was wholly avoidable; that it wasn’t avoided is the Lib Dems’ fault, and our problem. But it also says much about today’s political climate - the interaction of journalists, media officers and politicians - that what controversy there was at conference centred not on the policies passed, but rather on a disputed behind-the-scenes briefing about a speech.

March 06, 2007

Gold star for Boris

It pains me to write it, but Boris Johnson’s ideas for British higher education - outlined in today’s Grauniad - are light years ahead of current Lib Dem policy. Once you get past the usual ‘What-ho!’ flummery, his vision for the value of universities is spot-on:
Call me starry-eyed, but I still think the main point of a university education is to achieve a personal intellectual transformation, and who knows, an emotional and spiritual transformation as well. The evidence seems to be that this transformation is, additionally, of huge economic importance. If Universities UK says our universities contribute £45bn to the economy, I am not going to quibble.

If you ask what is our Conservative vision for the future of these universities, it is that Britain should be the Athens of the global economy, the place any intelligent person might think of going for a civilised and valuable education - just as people across the ancient world would go to study in Athens.
Boris brings out a crucial aspect too frequently ignored by the Lib Dems. Higher education is now a global enterprise - British universities now compete for talent, both among students and academics, on an international basis. Without the resources to compete, our domestic universities will become increasingly marginalised, and increasingly unable to serve the needs of our own population. This would be a tragedy for the British economy. But, as importantly, it would jeopardise the opportunities of future students who need access to educational excellence.

Lib Dems are (rightly) concerned to talk about the value of a free higher education - and tuition ‘fees’ are now, in effect, free at the point of use, repayable only after graduation and once a student is earning a living wage. It’s a point Boris faces head on:
Anyone who has faced an audience of students lately will know that feelings are still running high, and that the increase in applications this year is by no means held to be reassuring ("Why are you introducing this irrelevant statistic?" as one young Dave Spart testily interrupted). We need to crack on with the debate; we need to educate and inform. But any further reform of the fee regime must satisfy some difficult tests. It must encourage the widening of participation, enable needs-blind admission and it must be done in such a way as to avoid a huge increase in public spending.
It’s a debate which needs to be had, and had honestly.

March 05, 2007

Neologisms revisited

As the hunt goes on to discover the identity of the senior party official who issued the unauthorised briefing suggesting Ming Campbell’s spring conference speech was the precursor to coalition talks with Labour, can I be the first person to label this episode ‘Harrogategate’?

Happy reading

A day later than I'd normally hope - due to circumstances entirely within my control - Lib Dem Voice has my second 'Top of the Blogs: the Golden Dozen' round-up here.

With you in spirit

So this is where I was standing during the crucial Trident debate at the Lib Dems’ spring conference in Harrogate… Bruges.

Deliberately out of e-mail and phone contact for a long week-end, I didn’t discover the actual result of the debate til I returned home early Monday morning.

But I knew ‘the leadership’ hadn’t been defeated.

Because Trident was discussed on the BBC's Sunday AM newspaper round-up which I caught a few minutes of on satellite telly - and there was no mention of the Lib Dems. And we know that journos find debates and policies dull, but personalities and splits endlessly, pointlessly fascinating.

On a lighter note, here’s a rather more attractive pic from Belgium. Not too sure what folk would have been up to in Harrogate when I snapped this. But the law of averages suggests the bar was doing a roaring trade.

March 01, 2007

The Economist's end-of-year report on Ming

This week’s Bagehot column in the Economist carries a pretty fair assessment of the Lib Dem position one year into the Ming dynasty:
Nobody can say that Sir Menzies Campbell has had an easy first year as leader of his party. As poisoned chalices go, the leadership of the Liberal Democrats 12 months ago resembled something rustled up by Lucrezia Borgia on one of her more vengeful days. Yet this weekend many of the Lib Dems gathering in Harrogate for their spring conference sense that they may be closer to real power than at any time in living memory.
It notes the well documented difficulties Ming encountered in his first few months:
  • The high-profile so-called scandals which undermined the party’s credibility;
  • His first few jittery performances at Prime Minister’s Questions;
  • A disappointingly mixed set of local election results.
And then it contrasts this turmoil with the progress the party has made in the last six months:
Since late summer, however, things have slowly got better. Helped by the fact that nobody in his right mind could contemplate the purgatory of another leadership contest before the next election, the Lib Dems put on a decent show of unity at their party conference in September. They also managed to win some positive coverage for the “green-tax switch” that allowed them to drop a damaging commitment to raising the upper rate of income tax to 50% in favour of environment-friendly taxes. With parliament's return after the long recess, Sir Menzies no longer looked quite so out of his depth at PMQs.

Over the past few months he has also been lucky. There is now rather less interest in his shortcomings than in those of Gordon Brown, while Tony Blair's long goodbye has been dominated by foreign policy—in particular, by the attempts on both sides of the Atlantic to find a way out of the Iraq morass. That has played to Sir Menzies's strengths and reminded voters that the Lib Dems were the only major party to oppose the war.

In January, egged on by some of his colleagues, Sir Menzies took the risk of calling for British forces to quit Iraq by October. Although he earned some (deserved) criticism for advocating a timetable that owed more to electoral populism than to concern for Britain's responsibilities, it won headlines. When Mr Blair announced last week the first phase of a withdrawal of the army from Basra, Sir Menzies was able to claim, somewhat speciously, that even the government now accepted his argument that there was nothing left for British troops usefully to do in Iraq.

Crucially for Sir Menzies, his party's performance in the opinion polls has been resilient enough to prevent any panic in the ranks. Given Mr Cameron's grab for traditional Lib Dem voters on the environment, civil liberties and localism, the party's poll rating, hovering around 20%, has been impressive. Senior Lib Dems claim to be delighted that Mr Cameron has worked so hard to put climate change on the agenda. They point to polling data that suggests voters still think the Lib Dems are easily the greenest of the mainstream parties. The more salient environmental issues become, they argue, the better the Lib Dems should do. And, vitally, the topic provides an alternative to Iraq, which may well be stale by the next election.
A good write-up, and a nice way to start the Spring conference week-end - from which I, regrettably, will be absent. Hope all attendees have a happy Harrogate…