What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

May 31, 2007

Off at a blogging tangent

As you may have seen over at Lib Dem Voice, I’m one of the team to whom the editorial baton is being passed by LDV’s founder, Rob Fenwick, who has (to mix my metaphors) chosen to let the curtain fall on his time as editor, and leave the stage.

I’m going to take on the somewhat poncy soubriquet of ‘commissioning editor’, trying to ensure that LDV's content reflects the diversity of opinion within the party, and ensuring balanced coverage is maintained.

Rob made a fair point in the comments of his post announcing (prematurely, as it subsequently transpired) LDV’s demise:
A relatively small number of bloggers provide the majority of content in the Lib Dem blogosphere - I’m thinking of the likes of Nich Starling, James Graham, Stephen Tall, Paul Walter, Jonathan Calder, Peter Black and the ever fluffy Millennium Elephant [links to them all in my ‘Gold Top Blogs’ sidebar, right]. If they abandoned their own blogs and instead ran a collaborative effort, I believe they’d not only massively grow their own audiences, but also the audience for debating liberal politics online. Collectively, they could produce a fabulously compelling site.
Liberals are individuals and individualistic, and this is well reflected in the party ‘blogosphere’. But there is a danger that these talents can be fragmented, smaller than the sum of our parts. LDV has been a terrific corrective to this tendency, and I hope can continue as a must-read first-stop for Lib Dems and the liberal-inclined wherever in the world they are.

This site, my blog, will doubtless continue - though in what form and with what frequency we’ll see.

May 30, 2007

What would a Lib Dem reshuffle bring?

In less than a month, there will be a new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, who will re-cast the Cabinet to reflect his ambitions. The posts of chancellor and of home secretary will, we know, become simultaneously vacant.

It seems likely, too, that the current incumbents at the Foreign & Commonwealth Office (Margaret Beckett) and the new Ministry of Justice (Lord Falconer) will be leaving the stage. We are, as yet, in the dark about whether John Prescott’s hole as outgoing deputy PM will be filled.

In sum, it’s a major overhaul of a serving government unparalleled in modern political times. This poses challenges to the opposition parties, and we know (which is to say, I’ve read it in the papers) that David Cameron is currently preparing to re-shuffle the Tory shadow cabinet in readiness for a Brown Government.

What of Ming Campbell and the Lib Dem shadow cabinet?*

To date, speculation about the Lib Dems has centred on the party leader himself. But, despite a few mutterings, there seems little prospect of a forced exit, least of all from the members of the parliamentary party whose jobs are, ultimately, on the line. Most appear content that the much-vaunted-but-little-seen behind-the-scenes organisational changes Ming has instituted will begin to bear fruit - if we can avoid another destructive bout of public panicking.

So will Ming re-shuffle his team?

Or will he choose to leave things be?

After all, the Lib Dems’ problem is the opposite to that of the Government. The key difficulty Mr Brown needs to surmount is that Labour looks so dreadfully tired (as well as appallingly incompetent, but let’s leave that to one side). For us the third party, our key spokespeople are still too-little-known. Where familiarity has bred contempt for Labour, we rely on it breeding contentment for the Lib Dems.

Nor does Ming have much scope to re-shuffle. Vince Cable might make way for fresh blood in the form of Chris Huhne (or David Laws). But Vince has made huge strides in establishing some semblance of credibility for the Lib Dems’ economic policies - no mean job when the party hasn’t been in power for 80 years. Last year, I suggested he could be given a strategic policy co-ordination role, which would have suited both his considerable talents, and his second job as deputy party leader. But, with Steve Webb heading up the writing of the next manifesto, that role is now taken. So Vince, I guess, will be staying put.

Nick Clegg is a prolific shadow home secretary who is regularly sought by the media, while Michael Moore is still trying to get noticed as shadow foreign secretary (a tricky task given the media always makes a beeline for Ming the moment Iran, Korea or the Middle East hit the headlines).

In the chief public service departments - Health, Education, Transport and Environment - the party has yet to score big against Labour or the Tories. (Though at least in Chris Huhne’s environment portfolio this cannot be ascribed to either lack of industry, or the absence of a comprehensive policy agenda.)

We can, of course, blame the media for their disinterest in public policy compared with their febrile who’s-hot-or-not personality obsession. But, truthfully, who among us could give a quick (and accurate) summary of how the Lib Dems would transform for the better our hospitals, schools or railways?

This is not to pin the blame on those shadow spokespeople in those four hot seats. It comes back to that over-used touchstone, ‘narrative’, hotly debated in the Lib Dem blogosphere of late: how do we explain to people, simply and clearly, how the Lib Dems will help them, and improve society.

‘Free, fair and green’ is a good start (and, come to that, a pretty good slogan). But how many of our policies - across the board - actually fulfil those criteria? And if I as an engaged party member am asking that question, is it any wonder that the wider public is uncertain?

I suspect any changes Ming might make to the Lib Dem shadow cabinet in the next few weeks will be marginal. And that’s fine by me - unlike the Tories, we are not a party which looks to the bloke at the top of the party to explain what our long-cherished principles are this week.

But a reshuffle is as good an opportunity as any to ask how far we are translating our liberal principles into liberal policies. And how good a job our shadow cabinet is doing at explaining either or both to the electorate.

* If you’re a Tory about to complain the Lib Dems have no ‘right’ to call their front bench a shadow cabinet, please spare yourself the hassle. The Tories are, de jure, HM The Queen’s Official Opposition. That does not give them exclusive rights to the term ‘shadow cabinet’. Get over it.

May 29, 2007

Sun chance

And, as if to prove Murphy's Law, here's the bright view from my office the day after the Bank Holiday...

May 28, 2007

Rain stopped play

You can tell it’s a Bank Holiday… here’s the grim view from my flat today.

School vouchers revisited

An interesting idea courtesy Kenneth Baker in yesterday’s Torygraph:
We should introduce an education credit equivalent to the amount the state pays for a primary education place, £3,150, and a secondary school place, £4,070, to those parents whose children attend a school that is designated by the Department for Education and Skills as failing, and who are dissatisfied with the education provided for their children. The parents of pupils in such schools would have the cash to purchase better education for their children, either in a local state school or at an independent school. This would achieve greater social mobility than undermining the grammar schools. Education at independent schools costs more than this, but such a change would encourage the start-up of new schools, particularly at the primary level, geared to that level of funding.
I have argued before in favour of school vouchers; with some misgivings, as I’m not sure their introduction would usher in a problem-free panacea. Lord Baker’s proposal does at least side-step the usual first argument against vouchers: that they will simply subsidise those parents who already pay for their kids to have a private education. I suspect, though, that introducing such a partial scheme would simply shift the inequalities between different catchment areas within a locality.

However, it does at least attempt to grapple with the key educational problem facing us today: how to offer equality of opportunity to young people in a society which segregates according to who can afford to buy a house near a good school. Those who oppose school vouchers need to suggest a practical solution to remedy this very real problem.

PS: as an aside, are ‘staff inset training days’ still known as ‘Baker Days’, as they were way back in my day?

ConHome sticks boot in Conway

Tory MP Derek Conway has faced a barrage of criticism for employing his undergraduate son as his parliamentary assistant at a cost to the taxpayer of £981 a month. What surprised me most, though, was where this incident was prominently displayed - as the lead headline on the Conservative Home website.

Admittedly ConHome is fiercely independent of the official party, and is the self-styled voice of the grassroots - but why make this your main story, I wondered? Why not leave that kind of thing to your political opponents?

Then, I remembered that Derek Conway was the first MP to write to the Whips office to trigger a vote of no confidence in the then Tory leader, the hapless Iain Duncan Smith. The editor of ConHome is (the very nice) Tim Montgomerie, who was IDS’s ultra-loyal political secretary in his final two months - hence the site’s sometime nickname, ContinuityIDS.

I guess some enemies are easier to forgive than others…

14 not out

The Golden Dozen outpourings from the Lib Dem blogosphere are available for your reading delight over at Lib Dem Voice.

May 25, 2007

Lessons in liberalism (courtesy The West Wing)

Over at CommentCentral, Daniel Finkelstein invites folks to relax on a Friday evening with a classic West Wing clip courtesy of YouTube. It’s an excerpt from the electric Ritchie-Bartlett presidential debate where Jed shows he’s not going to do an Uncle Fluffy.

But it’s not my favourite… Here’s Bruno Gianelli, the political strategist’s political strategist, demanding a bit of kick-ass liberalism. (Ironically, the actor who played Bruno, Ron Silver, switched from the Democrats to the Republicans in the wake of 9/11.)

And finally… here’s one of the best distillations of the conflicting (and often conflicted) philosophies between ‘big government’ Democrats and ‘small government’ Republicans. Take it away Ainsley Hayes and Sam Seaborn:

May 24, 2007

Henry Campbell-Bannerman - can you help?

An unusual request arrived today in my e-mail inbox:
Do you know where I can find (on-line) copies of photographs of this man's younger years and relatives? Thank you very much.
I'm stumped... If you can assist, please leave a comment, or mail me here.

Channel 4 - what a load of rubbish

This isn’t yet another post about fortnightly alternate weekly waste collections. Honest. However, I accidentally found myself tonight watching Channel 4’s Dispatches programme, ‘Bin Wars’, in which Oxford heavily featured.

Regardless of your views - whether you think 160+ councils have taken leave of their senses, or that increased recycling rates are well worth the extra effort - what struck me most (on today of all days) was the programme’s polemical style. I recall Dispatches being a programme which took an objective and balanced view of the issues it put under the microscope, dealing with them sensibly and soberly.

Not any more. This was shoddy, shoddy journalism - so bad it could almost have been on ITV.

C4 will doubtless defend the show’s balance on the grounds that both sides had their say. True, kind of. But what you in fact got was a handful of residents opposed to the scheme, counterpointed with a Council official (or councillor) putting their perspective.

The C4 agenda was clear: this was a programme about politicians versus the people.

And yet - as the local newspaper, the Oxford Mail, has discovered - knock on people’s doors in this city and the vast majority of residents are quite content with our 'recycling revolution'. But was their view represented by C4? No.

I’m very happy to go round my Headington ward with a Dispatches film crew and talk directly to my residents about the scheme, and let C4 hear it for themselves. But, then, as evidenced by Ofcom today, could I really trust C4 to edit the programme properly?

This once-proud not-for-profit's factual programming is rapidly becoming The Independent of television - fun to flick through, but would you really trust it to present the facts, rather than filter them?

Much more of this, and they’ll have me thinking the BBC poll tax licence fee is a good idea.

Ofcom: interfering busybodies or upholding standards?

Even before Big Brother 8 starts, its shallow spin-off Celebrity Big Brother is again hitting the headlines, following media regulator Ofcom’s decision to order Channel 4 to apologise three times for showing footage of Bollywood star Shilpa Shetty being taunted by fellow contestants Jade Goody, Jack Tweedy and Jo O’Meara.

My first reaction was one of concern - why should a regulator force a channel to apologise for screening individuals showing themselves in their true (and unattractive) colours? Jade telling Shilpa to “Fuck off home” was racist and deeply unpleasant - but that Jade felt this was an acceptable insult to hurl provided an insight into her character and standards, which is surely the point of a reality show like Big Brother.

The public reaction - over-hyped by the media, who typically glorified in lambasting C4 while gleefully repeating the offensive remarks - demonstrated far better than any Ofcom ruling the contempt in which views such as Jade’s are widely regarded by substantial numbers of the liberal, tolerant viewing public.

However, I then read Ofcom’s ruling - and it shows that what they took umbrage with C4 for was not the channel’s decision to show some D-listers proving their tawdry ignorance, but that the shows producers had not seen all the relevant footage when they made the decision to broadcast Jade & co’s remarks.

Specifically, this included untransmitted footage of the racist trio’s doubtless side-splitting attempts to work the word ‘Paki’ into a limerick. In Ofcom’s judgement, C4 needed to be aware of this wider context before broadcasting incidents such as Jade’s “Shilpa poppadom” comment, so that it could be placed in its full context. As Ofcom notes:
The audience’s understanding of the events in the House and, in particular, the alleged racist bullying, was changing as the series developed and therefore comments which may in other circumstances have been interpreted as “borderline” in terms of offence became much more offensive given what was happening in the House, as well as beyond the House, in the outside world.
Seen in this light, Ofcom’s ruling seems to me entirely sensible, even commendable. As viewers, we rely on C4 editing shows - whether entertainment reality like Big Brother, or serious documentaries like Dispatches - in a responsible, fair and balanced way. This requires producers and editors to be in possession of the full facts, so that the highlights package can be properly filtered and contextualised.

This clearly didn’t happen in the case of the latest Celebrity Big Brother, and there was the potential for viewers to be misled - to view Jade’s racist remarks as isolated incidents erupting in the heat of the moment, rather than as exempla of the casual, careless but systematic bullying they in fact were.

May 23, 2007

Lucky, lucky Gordon?

Our current Prime Minister has long revelled in the soubriquet, ‘Lucky Tony’. The BBC’s political editor, Nick Robinson, today suggests that this mantle has now been passed to his successor, Gordon Brown.

His rationale is simple: this week’s latest shambolic performance by the Labour Government could have happened in seven weeks’ time, getting the new Premier’s tenure off to the shakiest of all possible starts.

Well, perhaps. I think Mr Robinson rather underestimates the incapacity of this Cabinet, and their potential for conjuring future folie des grandeurs.

For while it’s a tad tricky to feel sympathetic towards health secretary, Patricia Hewitt - who would happily climb a step-ladder on the peak of Everest all the better to talk down to us - the rather hapless Ruth Kelly is perhaps a little more deserving of pity. Handed the poisoned chalice of making Home Improvement Plans work, she is being forced to sup long and hard no matter the taste is bitter.

Meanwhile, the Government minister actually responsible for the HIPs fiasco, Yvette Cooper, is tipped for a big promotion in Mr Brown’s first cabinet, together with her husband, Ed Balls, a man who manages to make Ms Hewitt seem human.

Lucky Gordon? Really?

He is fortunate in one regard, however - Prime Minister Brown will have an unparalleled opportunity to re-mould his ministerial team as he wishes. Labour party leaders are usually hemmed in by two constraints when assembling their cabinet.

First, the need to reward political rivals in order to show their magnanimity and to unite the party. But Mr Brown has no rivals - enemies, you betcha, but not rivals.

And, secondly, Labour leaders have to construct their first cabinet from those elected by the Parliamentary Party to the shadow cabinet. Look at Team Tony c.1997 - how many of those would have been there from Mr Blair’s personal choice? However, this party rule, rather quaintly, applies only to the first cabinet. After that, the leader can do as she or he wishes.

So Mr Brown has a free hand, made even freer by the voluntary redundancies of those other two clunking fists, the Two Johns, Prescott and Reid.

Of course, this is itself a double-edged sword - his allies will expect their reward, but he cannot possibly avoid disappointing some of the 308 Labour MPs who coronated him.

And yet, as has become painfully obvious these last few months, there are precious few Labour MPs of real standing, who are also cabinet material. That Mr Brown is the sole leadership candidate after 10 years as Chancellor is a very real tribute to his talent and resilience. It is also a damning indictment of the paucity of quality within this Government. The lack of a viable alternative has assisted him in making it to the top of his party; conversely, it might not help him to stay there.

He’s going to need all the luck he can get.

May 22, 2007

A dose of sunshine for Lib Dems everywhere

It’s a sunny day, and I’m nicely rested after a few days’ holiday - so let’s celebrate some positive stories.

First up - Ming Campbell’s challenge to Prime Minister-select Gordon Brown to a televised debate was a cute way of (i) giving the Lib Dems a fresh angle on a stale story at a time when our bipolar media traditionally eschews giving the party any air-time; and (ii) highlighting just how little we know (or expect) of the Labour Party’s newly-minted leader’s views across the whole gamut of national and international issues he will be leading this country on.

It was also a real advance on Ming’s previous attempt to grab a headline, when he rather lamentably called for a snap general election, having apparently confused the UK’s parliamentary system with a presidential system - as noted by Lib Dem blogger Jonny Wright here.

Secondly, it’s good to see the Lib Dems taking a lead in the campaign to stop the Labour/Tory alliance in the House of Commons from watering down Freedom of Information legislation, with a new petition today launched to defend the public’s right to know what our Parliamentarians are up to. James Oates’s Cicero’s Songs blog has the full roll-call of dishonour of those 96 Labour and Tory MPs who are happy to create one law for our legislators and another for the rest of us.

This rather squalid episode has cast a revealing light on the mindsets of those MPs who clearly feel they have something to hide, and that their affairs exist on a higher plane than everyone else’s. It’s times like this we can, and should, feel proud to be members of our party, the only one which truly understands how destructive sectional interests - whether of class, wealth, ethnicity or nationality - are to society.

Finally, last week saw a bit of negative publicity among some sections of the media about Ming Campbell’s leadership of the Lib Dems. Clearly now Gordon Brown has been acclaimed leader by his own party, the media is anxious to have another personality-fuelled tussle to fixate on - anything to avoid actually having to report the dull daily grind of politics. Sorry, but it bores me: it’s Heat-style journalism for Guardian readers.

But I did see some poll figures which did intrigue me. They were by Communicate Research for Newsnight - and clearly they did not fit the programme’s agenda at the time, or else were too complicated for them to feel able to report.

What they show is that the Lib Dems have become a much more credible political force in the eyes of the public since 2002 in virtually every regard. In particular, it is fascinating to see the Lib Dems are apparently the party most people see as being trustworthy on immigration. Which suggests there is a liberal vote out there into which the Lib Dems need to tap more loudly than we have in the past.
It’s only fair to note that the party’s rises are paralleled by the Tories’ recovery - but forgive me for sticking to the good news for the Lib Dems on this blog.

What is also interesting is that the Labour Party’s figures, while dipping, have not collapsed. This appears to back up what has been found in the last few years’ local elections - each time a rout has been predicted for Labour, each time they have (just about) avoided imploding. Their support has proved - in the circumstances - to be pretty resilient.

So, there you have it - a dose of optimism for a Tuesday afternoon.

Mea culpa

An occasional series of blog entries in which my dad takes me to task for what I’ve written. Here, verbatim, is his latest missive to me, subject heading 'Timetable priorities':
Mon 21 May Stephen Tall returns to Britain from Spain.
9.27pm Stephen Tall posts his latest blog saying he's returned to Britain.
10.55pm Stephen Tall phones his parents to let them know he's returned.

12 midnight one of Stephen Tall's parents emails Stephen Tall to say, "Oh, well, it's good to know we figure somewhere on our son's list of things to do on returning."
Mea maxima culpa.

May 21, 2007


I go away for a few days, return to Blighty, only to discover it’s the same old, same old…
  1. Tony Blair is still Prime Minister, despite having announced his resignation three times (and counting… ooh, I can’t wait for the tear-wrenching speech he’s got lined up for us on the 27th June), while Gordon Brown broods testily in the wings having clocked up 13 years as a bitter understudy.
  2. Two of my former Lib Dem city council colleagues in Oxford have, finally - as predicted here, here, here, here and here - decided to place their talents at the disposal of the Tory Party, following their brief sojourns as Independents. Defections are sometimes hailed as signifying political watersheds, even at the parochial level of local government. More usually, they are about clashing personalities and over-hyped egos. As a party member whose time and money has helped give them the platform to become yesterday’s proverbial fish ‘n’ chip wrappers (though I assume H&S legislation nowadays disqualifies the Oxford Mail’s pages from actually being bespoiled in this way), I have scant time for their to-be-short-lived grand-standing. Still, I’m sure they’ll have fun defending the views of the party they have joined to the Oxford residents who rejected those views at the ballot box when last they had the chance.
  3. An unholy alliance of 96 Labour and Tory MPs has ganged up - again - to force anti-Freedom of Information Act legislation through the House of Commons, exempting Parliamentarians from its reach. The words ‘self-serving’ and ‘hypocrites’ spring to mind.
Still - good to be back…

May 15, 2007

Me off the telly

If you would like to watch me on internet telly station 18 Doughty Street’s BloggerTV discussing, inter alia:
  • why journalists blog
  • how independent political blogs can be
  • the Blair legacy
  • the Labour leadership race, and
  • breast-feeding in public
  • (oh, and me becoming Oxford’s deputy Lord Mayor),
then please click here.

My fellow guests were: Charlie Beckett of POLIS, Helen Szamuely from the EU Referendum Blog, and Paul Burgin of the Mars Hill Blog. Iain Dale was, of course, the host.

May 14, 2007

The dozenth Dozen

The twelfth 'Best of the Blogs' round-up of the past week in the Lib Dem blogosphere is now available for your vieing pleasure over at Lib Dem Voice here.

One parade, one flag, one video

I have somehow contrived never to attend the Lord Mayor’s Parade through Oxford during my time on the City Council. This year’s seemed a good one for which to make an exception… at least while it was sunny.

A gaggle of councillors were ferried a couple of hundred yards on an open-top bus into historic Broad Street, where we alighted to process through the central streets in order to bemuse tourists and residents, who had simply popped into town to do a bit of shopping. Inevitably it rained. I was able to carry an umbrella - the instrument-laden Oxford and District Brass Band Association, marching behind, was less fortunate.

Here’s a 3-minute video of the parade to give you a flavour. I clutched onto an EU flag to show my support for Oxfordshire’s European Movement, who were part of the Parade’s platoon of floats. You can also see me very self-consciously greeting the public (shades of a triumphant Hugh Grant entering Downing Street in Love Actually: “I really must work on my wave.”)

May 11, 2007

On becoming dignified

My year in charge of Oxford’s finances is now officially over. A new role beckons: Deputy Lord Mayor for 2007-08. A fair few people have expressed some surprise that I should wish to swap a place on the decision-making executive for a ceremonial post.

Which is understandable - I have confined my attendance of civic events as a councillor to those which have a personal meaning to me, such as Remembrance Sunday, or 2005’s commemoration of the 60th anniversary of VE Day. I have always refused to wear a councillor’s robe, the only point of which (I think) is to separate councillors from the public, and elevate us above those whom we have been elected to serve.

I do not think it is the role of councillors to indulge in pomp and circumstance: we have been elected to do, not to show.
But I have mellowed a little since I was first elected seven years ago. In my callow (more radical?) youth, I suspect I would have cheerfully voted for the abolition of the city’s civic posts. I would have been wrong to do so.

The three civic post-holders in Oxford do have a function and utility which could not easily be replaced by (say) the Leader of the Council, whose job it is to exercise political control. There are a range of events - from visits to schools and hospitals, to charity events, to businesses and voluntary organisations - where it is right the City should be represented, to show the importance we attach to what happens within our boundaries, and beyond.

So, for one year only, I shall don the robes of civic life, and allow a chain of office to be draped round my neck, and see a side of Oxford’s and the Council’s life which, until now, I have pretty much side-stepped.

Political life - like all other working life - should be about kaleidoscopic experiences. After three years scrutinising the City Council’s finances, I feel ready for something new, different and interesting.

One aspect, though, does intrigue me - the effect wearing a chain round your neck exerts on others. For the past year, I have held a responsible job, democratically accountable for Oxford City Council’s £220m budget as Executive Member for Better Finances. Few of my family, friends or colleagues from ‘civilian’ life have much cared. I’ve become Deputy Lord Mayor, and they’re all thrilled for me.

Don’t get me wrong, I like the attention, and I fully intend to do the best job I possibly can in the coming municipal year. But I can’t help feeling the British love of pageant, panem et circenses, can be more than a little overdone.

May 10, 2007

A legacy of regret

This, famously, is what Tony Blair said to Paddy Ashdown, back in 1999:
“Going is the most difficult thing to do in politics. Too many people stay for too long. I would rather stop when people said, ‘Why is he going?’ than when they said, ‘Why isn’t he going?’ Or, even worse, ‘When is he going?’”
(Tony Blair quoted in The Ashdown Diaries, V.II (1997-99), p.385)
Tony Blair’s promise of a surprise departure turned out to be yet one more expectation he disappointed. His last 12 months in government has been torture to watch, and doubtless excruciating to witness. A Labour leader who helped re-build his party has, almost single-handed and quite contentedly, let it go to wrack and ruin because of a misplaced sense of his own indispensability.

A politician with any honour would have resigned four years ago, when it became clear that he had committed his nation to the most disastrous foreign policy in living memory. He took this nation to war on a false prospectus, and with contemptible sophistry. That he has clung on to power regardless is to his shame, and that of his party.

A man blessed with extraordinary powers, he has achieved lamentably little of his potential, and has tossed away a generational opportunity to transform this country’s public policy and political institutions. Such waste is scandalous. It is also to be pitied. He has a long retirement ahead to reflect on the barrenness of his legacy.

Tony Blair to resign

Apparently this is news.
  • Friday, 1st October, 2004: Tony Blair announces he will resign.
  • Thursday, 7th September, 2006: Tony Blair announces he will resign.
  • Thursday, 10th May, 2007: Tony Blair announces he will resign.
  • Wednesday, 27th June, 2007: Tony Blair will resign.
Very New Labour: always re-announcing good news.

May 09, 2007

What is Simon Jenkins for?

Actually, I have a lot of time for him: an excellent and genuinely rounded polemicist, he writes like a dream, and has long championed decentralisation as vital to the restoration of civic life to our communities.

But he has, has always had, a blind spot when it comes to the Liberal Democrats and our predecessor parties - he just does not want us to exist, and today he takes great pleasure in elaborating on this aversion. Why he wants the Lib Dems, and our 26% of the vote, just to vanish is hard to say. After all, anyone who believes in the transformative value of competition should surely welcome a plurality of rival political parties. It’s unlikely any individual will agree wholly with what any one of them says - certainly I don’t agree with all Liberal Democrat policy.

But those of us who believe in the importance of political activism, and the need to engage with our governing institutions, choose a party closest to our views, and recognise we’ll be travelling in the same direction, even if it’s sometimes along parallel lines.

It’s a shame Simon Jenkins hasn’t used his scalpel-sharp intelligence to mount a more interesting critique of the Lib Dems - because there is one to be had, and many of us engage in it, usually behind closed doors, sometimes in public.

As someone on the socially and economically liberal wing of the party, I’d like to see the Lib Dems allow individuals the freedom to lead their own lives. This means putting more trust in the free market, which is usually better than government at reflecting the wishes and needs of individuals. And it means not legislating to outlaw behaviour which offends but does not harm others.

Many in the party will disagree with my prescription. I have no doubt that if we can avoid the temptation to mud-sling (tainting the other side as either ‘Thatcherite’ or ‘Socialist’, according to taste, is never constructive) we can reach an accommodation. That, after all, is the function and value of coming together as a political party.

If the Tories can contain both Edward Leigh and John Bercow, and the Labour Party both Dennis Skinner and David Miliband, I see no reason why the Lib Dems can’t benefit from the talents of both Simon Hughes and David Laws.

Mr Jenkins may feel this compromise results in “a susurration of platitudes”. Certainly that’s the risk, one which applies to all other parties. The alternative is to sit on the sidelines, safely pontificating from the berth of a well-upholstered desk in Faringdon Road or Wapping, and never troubling to get your hands dirty.

And of course it’s not only the Lib Dems who are quite capable of saying different things in different places - that pure-as-the-driven-snow ideologue Mr Jenkins has form.

Oxford: Tory-free for much longer?

Rumours persist, as relayed by my ward colleague, David Rundle - here, then here - that the city of Oxford may shortly find itself with a Tory group, after a gap of 11 years.

The Tories in both Oxford West (MP: Evan Harris, Lib Dem) and East (MP: Andrew Smith, Labour - pro tem) are no more, they have ceased to be, expired, gone to meet their maker, etc. Any hopes they might have had of a Cameron-inspired resurrection have been killed off by the overbearing behaviour of the reactionary County Tories, led by Keith Mitchell, who glories in being the very antithesis of everything Mr Cameron would have us believe his fluffy Tory Party really, truly, honestly now is.

So the Tories have given up on actually winning a council seat in Oxford. Instead they are preparing to make do with two or three ‘hand-me-down’ councillors, and are eagerly wooing those pliant enough to listen to their blandishments.

It’s hard to believe any councillor in Oxford would be willing to accept the suicide mission of representing the Tories in this city, becoming a ‘poor, bloody sacrifice’ to Cllr Mitchell’s rampant grand-standing. But, then, unbelievable just about sums it all up.

Tony Blair's tipping point

David Marquand has written a compelling psycho-analysis of Tony Blair’s premiership in this week’s New Statesman, tracing his tragic descent from vacuous inanity to hubristic zealotry.

No prizes for guessing the tipping point:
Blair's ultimate tragedy … did not get fully under way until after the horror of 11 September 2001. A warning sign was the astonishing mixture of hubris and hysteria that ran through his speech to the Labour party conference immediately after the atrocity. Al-Qaeda's attack on the twin towers, he told his followers, marked "a turning point in history". In the new world that it had brought into being, Labour's mission extended far beyond the British isles. It was to "fight for freedom" right across the globe. And, in a passage echoing Winston Churchill, one whose full significance would not become clear for many months, he promised the American people: "We were with you at the first. We will stay with you to the last."

Though few saw it at the time, those two sentences marked the end of the glory years that had begun when Blair crossed the threshold of No 10 in 1997. Rhetorically and emotionally, he had tied himself to the most reactionary US administration of modern times.

From then on, his doom was as inexorable as Macbeth's after Duncan's murder. Each downward step followed inevitably on the one before. The decision to wage war on Saddam alongside the Americans; the decision to present what was in fact a war for regime change as a war to eliminate Iraq's weapons of mass destruction; the decision to lean on the security services to fit their findings into a politically convenient mould; the decision to defy the United Nations and betray the core principles of the European Union; and the monstrous final decision to commit British troops to battle against the manifest will of the British people formed a seamless web of delusion, illegality and self-immolation. The horror that is post-Saddam Iraq, with its spiral of sectarian violence and its mounting death toll, cannot be laid at Blair's door alone. Britain's contribution to the calamity is far smaller than America's. But morally, even if not numerically, Blair is as guilty as George W Bush.

May 07, 2007

Wither John Reid?

I’m rather surprised at the positive spin the media are giving John Reid’s bombshell announcement that he will quit when Tony Blair resigns the premiership. (It seems Dr Reid is such an ultra-Blairite that he feels compelled to follow his leader, and pre-announce his resignation, too.)

‘Reid’s resignation boosts Brown’ trumpets The Guardian: “Gordon Brown's path to a radical rejuvenation of the cabinet was cleared yesterday when the home secretary, John Reid, his great rival, shocked Labour politics by announcing he was quitting the front bench altogether.”

The BBC’s Nick Robinson is also in eulogising form: “If Gordon Brown wants a Tony Blair-style "new dawn" to usher in his premiership, John Reid's resignation is a symbolic first step - and there may well be more to come.”

Now I’m no fan of Dr Reid, the current holder of New Labour’s ‘Most Authoritarian Home Secretary Since The Last One’ title - a baton originally wielded by Jack Straw, subsequently handed on to David Blunkett, and then Charles Clarke, before it was prised out of his cold dead hands. Dr Reids über-macho, attack-dog style portrays politics at its most tribally, snarlingly, unthinkingly asinine.

And yet… Dr Reid is one of the few heavyweight politicians New Labour has at its disposal, with a wealth of accumulated cabinet experience, and pretty popular with the public (loathe as I am to admit it). For the media to count his loss as a victory for Mr Brown strikes me as a tad peculiar. If anything it reveals the essential truth of one of Mr Brown’s key weaknesses: his inability to work in harmony with enough of his colleagues. Indeed, if he hadn’t antagonised such a substantial proportion of the current cabinet, he would have become Prime Minister long before now.

Dr Reid’s decision to camp outside Mr Brown’s tent reminds me of Kenneth Clarke’s refusal to serve in William Hague’s shadow cabinet way back in 1997, after he was first defeated for his party’s leadership. Many observed then that this would help Mr Hague to remodel the Tories, and to distance his party from the calamities of John Major’s administration. In reality, it denuded his shadow cabinet of a politician of real stature, and diminished Mr Clarke in the eyes of many Tories, who felt he had thrown his rattle out of his pram.

Dr Reid’s decision might be politically (and personally) expedient for Mr Brown in the short-term. But it won’t aid his number one cause: to get New Labour re-elected. That’s a consequence Tony Blair would have seen quite clearly - which is why our current Prime Minister is a proven election winner, and why our next Prime Minister won’t be.

Almost a metric dozen

My latest round-up of the best of the Lib Dem blogoshere has reached its eleventh birthday… which must mean it’s first day at big school.

Which means next week the Golden Dozen achieves its life-long ambition, and hits 12.

How long does it take to count some votes?

I’m just curious… Some 88 hours have passed since the polls closed for the local elections, yet the BBC graphic still says there are two councils yet to declare their results.

Assuming it’s not simply because Auntie can’t be arsed to update, can I ask which two councils have decided to leave their candidates on tenterhooks over an entire Bank Holiday week-end?

May 04, 2007

At the end of the day

Fairs fair - I owe the Tories a semi-apology. They have clearly had a very good set of elections, in England at any rate.

The minimum benchmark for success they needed to clear was 750 net gains. They
ve chalked that up. Yesterday, I suggested 900 net gains would be more of a demonstration of their strength. They’re probably not going to quite manage that, but they’ll be within touching distance. No good pretending that’s not an impressive achievement.

However, it will be interesting to see the more detailed breakdown of results - to what extent have the Tories piled up gains in Parliamentary seats where they already have an MP? (A genuine question: I don’t know.)

In the three councils Prof John Curtice identified in yesterday’s Indy as bellweathers of a Tory comeback, their success was more muted: they gained Gravesham from Labour, winning five seats; but they made little progress in either Ipswich or Bury, both of which remain ‘hung’.

For the Lib Dems, too, we need to see if we have restricted our losses to those areas where we made or retained unexpected gains in 2003, and which hold little strategic importance for the party, at least in the short-term. Clearly there were seats where we plummeted: four councils alone - Waverley, Bournemouth, Torbay and North Somerset - account for almost one-third (80) of our net losses (240 at time of writing). I assume local factors were at play.

However, there are many areas in the south where the Lib Dems have repelled the Tory charge - and, significantly, they are in highly marginal areas which are vital for the Lib Dems, for example:
  • Vale of White Horse (Oxfordshire) - 4 net gains;
  • Winchester - 2 net gains;
  • Salisbury - 10 net gains;
  • Eastleigh - 2 net gains;
  • Eastbourne - 9 net gains;
  • Mendip - 8 net gains;
  • Taunton Deane - 11 net gains;
  • Tewkesbury - 6 net gains.
So the results are by no means one-way traffic. Nor should we forget that our projected 26% share of the vote has only been bettered on three occasions in the last 20 years (and in those years - 1994, 2003 and 2004 - only by 1%).

But political perception, at least as much as reality, depends on momentum. And that’s what is lacking from the Lib Dems’ overall national results, and what the Tories are able to take away from theirs.

The post-match analysis

At the end of a long night, what are the scores on the doors?

Labour: an object lesson in how to manage expectations. So pitifully low has Labour sunk in popularity that the BBC’s projection the party will score 27% is hailed as a relative triumph. There was a sort of doomed inevitability to the excuse-mantra parroted by Labour’s talking heads yesterday: “after 10 years of a government”, “at this stage in a third term Parliament”, “mid-term blues” etc.

What this does show, though, is the resilience of Labour’s core vote in its urban heartlands - even in a bad year, these are not easy pickings either for the Tories or Lib Dems.

Tories: will be happiest of the three main parties, and yet… there will be nagging doubts in their minds that this result isn’t all it could have been. If they score 41%, as the BBC is projecting, it’s satisfactory - but they needed to hit a minimum of 42 or 43% to have real confidence.

There were some stunning victories (eg, Bournemouth and Torbay, which accounted for 37 Lib Dem losses!); but there were also setbacks (eg, Eastbourne and Bury); and still no real progress in cities like Liverpool or Manchester, or in Scotland and Wales. The jury’s still out.

Lib Dems: “a curate’s egg”, “a mixed bag” - which should come as no real surprise, except of course that, as the third party, we often talk up our chances in order to make them come true. Back in 2003, the Lib Dems scored 27% and the IDS-led Tories 35% - a national swing to the Tories was inevitable.

What’s important to look at is where those losses occurred: it’s a shame for the individuals concerned, but the Lib Dems losing three seats in Tunbridge Wells doesn’t matter half as much as our gaining seats from the Tories in key marginals like Eastleigh, Eastbourne and Southport. Indeed, our losses appear to be very heavily concentrated in a handful of areas, suggesting local issues were at play. That's not to ingore them; but, equally, our opponents would be wrong to extrapolate great national significance.

What will have hit us is Labour’s failure to collapse completely to compensate for the gains the Tories have made in a handful of areas. And, if last year is any guide, a leaching of some of the ‘protest vote’ we sometimes attract to the Greens and other fringe parties.

Pundits: political journalists seem to have a huge problem with local elections. They want a neat one-liner to encapsulate how everyone has done: well, sorry guys, but these things are more complex and nuanced than that. As ever, each of the parties can take away from these results what they wish: the ups and downs will be filtered through rose-tinted spectacles, or through a glass darkly, according to taste.

The University of Plymouth’s Local Government Centre’s projections once again proved wholly inaccurate. Their estimate of the vote share (Labour 24%, Conservatives 38%, Lib Dems 29%) looks well off-beam; just as they were last year. My projection, however, is looking good; just as it did last year. Can I have a job, please, Newsnight?

May 03, 2007

Nailing my colours to the mast

Exactly a month ago, I made my prediction for the projected national share of the vote for today’s set of Scottish Parliament, Welsh Assembly and local council elections based on ICM's polling data:
Con 42%, Lab 25%, Lib Dem 25%, Others 8%.
(This would equate to a 6% swing from Labour to the Tories and a 4.5% swing from the Lib Dems to the Tories.)
I have no reason to resile from this guesstimate… at least not yet. How this plays out in terms of seats won and lost is outwith my psephological capacity. A couple of weeks ago, Sean Fear, a Tory activist who writes pretty impartial analyses of local election results for PoliticalBetting.com, estimated the following:
I believe the Conservatives will gain around 750 seats, net, the Liberal Democrats will be broadly unchanged, and Labour will lose around 850 seats. The difference will be made up by gains for minor parties, principally the Greens and BNP.
These seem, to me, to be credible figures. However, three points need to be borne in mind:

1. Much depends on the distribution of the seats won. The Tories do not want to be piling up more Council seats in places where they already have MPs to the exclusion of making significant inroads in areas with key marginal seats. Election guru John Curtice identifies Ipswich, Gravesham and Bury as bellweather councils for the Tories in today’s Indy.

Equally, the Lib Dems may be rather more sanguine about losses to the Tories in the south of England (except in those area where there is an incumbent Lib Dem MP) if they are partially or wholly compensated by gains from Labour in the north, bringing more target Parliamentary seats into realistic focus. This will matter rather more than the precise number of net gains or losses.

2. Looking at any one night’s local election results only ever gives a snapshot. I prefer trends. And there are trends-a-plenty to be garnered from this rather wonderful research paper, Local Elections 2006, published by the House of Commons Library.

The Tories currently have c.8,500 councillors, 39% of the total number. For David Cameron to draw level with Margaret Thatcher at this equivalent stage in the cycle - 43% of all councillors were Tory in 1976 - he will need to add 900 councillors to his party’s tally tonight.

At this stage in the electoral cycle, in 1994, Margaret Beckett was Labour’s leader, and Labour held 38% of all council seats. By the following year, 1995, with Tony Blair in charge, 46% of councillors were affiliated to Labour. Therefore, Mr Cameron will need to help get elected over 1,500 councillors to draw level with where Mr Blair found himself after a year as leader. This illustrates the scale of Mr Cameron’s task, and indicates why 750 net gains today is a minimum requirement to demonstrate a Tory recovery.

Another trend that’s clear is the stability, and gentle increase, of the Lib Dems’ councillor base. Here are the figures for councillors’ party affiliations in the past five years:

2002 - 32% (Con) 37% (Lab) 20% (Lib) 11% (Other)
2003 - 35% (Con) 33% (Lab) 21% (Lib) 12% (Other)
2004 - 37% (Con) 30% (Lab) 21% (Lib) 12% (Other)
2005 - 37% (Con) 29% (Lab) 22% (Lib) 12% (Other)
2006 - 39% (Con) 28% (Lab) 22% (Lib) 12% (Other)

It is interesting to note that, though there’s a perception the Lib Dems have been on a slight downward curve since the dizzy heights of the 2003 post-Iraq War 'bounce', the reverse is in fact true. However much Tory and Labour activists might wish to believe otherwise, the Lib Dems are continuing to grow - which makes it even harder for either of them to win a majority at the next general election.

3. Finally - these are local elections. Results will vary: each party will have something to cheer by the end of the night, each will have something they’d prefer to forget.

Though many of the public will vote according to their perception of national politics, a large proportion will be voting to show displeasure with their local council on a range of parochial issues. Incumbents everywhere are more prone to a kicking which could buck national trends, and will signify absolutely nothing about whether Mr Brown or Mr Cameron will be living in Number 10 after the next election.

That doesn’t, pace Daniel Finkelstein, mean we should ignore today’s results - demoralised local parties do not make for enthusiastic foot soldiers, and all parties rely on the sheer slog that their volunteers are prepared to undertake during general elections. But it does mean we should be cautious in our interpretation of the welter of data which will be presented by all sides in the next 24 hours.

May 02, 2007

Browned off

To sympathise, or not, with Lord Browne, until yesterday Chairman of BP - a real liberal dilemma.

That anyone should be forced to relinquish a job they love, directly or indirectly, as a result of their private life is a personal tragedy. This is a principle which applies equally to the highest-paid company boss, and to their lowest-paid employee.

I have to say I’m rather disturbed by the comments of Lib Dem MP Adrian Sanders in his blog posting, BP - Browne’s Probity. He writes:
It shouldn't be necessary in this day and age for Gays to pretend to be something they are not. Newspapers are perfectly justified in these modern day circumstances to expose such deceit. … unless gay men and women themselves come out and celebrate their sexuality this discrimination and ignorance will continue unchallenged and deceit will remain the default position for people who cannot change the way they are. And that's the real problem for Lord Bowne and other gay men and women in public life whose positions demand total probity.
This seems to me to miss the mark by a long, long way.

First, because (as far as I know from my reading of the case) Lord Browne did not deny he was gay. He has landed himself in hot water by perjuring himself about how he came to meet his former partner, Jeff Chevalier - it was not, as he claimed, while jogging, but via a website. This was, clearly, a stupid lie to tell, especially under oath. But I think anyone with an ounce of empathy can understand the embarrassment under which it was extracted.

Secondly, and far more importantly, because Adrian appears not to understand the liberal rationale for legislation against discrimination which he has voted through. It is not to impose obligations on gay people to parade their private lives against their will; it is to allow them to be free to lead their lives in the way they wish. Some will wish to celebrate their sexuality. Many will prefer to remind Adrian that there is a reason it’s called a private life. And that maintaining some discretion does not in any way call into question their probity - and to suggest otherwise is deeply offensive.

The real liberal dilemma concerns Lord Browne’s use of the courts to protect his privacy. It’s worth bearing in mind the comments of the high court judge who heard Lord Browne’s case, as reported in The Guardian:
Mr Justice Eady said: "I am not prepared to make allowances for a 'white lie' told to the court in circumstances such as these - especially by a man who prays in aid of his reputation and distinction, and refers to the various honours he has received under the present government, when asking the court to prefer his account of what took place."

The judge added that Lord Browne told this lie at a time when he was also making a "wholesale attack" on Mr Chevalier's reliability, showing a "willingness casually to 'trash' the reputation" of his former partner.
Lord Browne’s behaviour seems eerily reminiscent of another powerful man whose private life became public property, Bill Clinton.

Many liberals expressed sympathy with Mr Clinton when his affair with Monica Lewinsky was exposed, and then used by his Republican political opponents for disreputable ends. What many liberals preferred to ignore was that Mr Clinton was quite prepared to pull every official lever he could to have Ms Lewinsky publicly condemned as a man-eating fantasist, instead of - closer to the truth - a naïve intern out of her depth.

The point of liberalism is to ensure a level playing field, to enable the poor and weak to live their lives to the full on the same terms as the rich and powerful. If Lord Browne did indeed use his wealth unfairly to denigrate his former partner in secret legal proceedings, then I have no sympathy about the £15.5m his decision has just cost him.

May 01, 2007

Tuned in and turned on?

I have penned an article on political blogs, published in the current issue of Parliamentary Monitor, apparently “widely regarded and regularly highlighted in independent research as the No 1 monthly read for MPs and Peers”. If you have a subscription, you can read it online here. If, like me, you don’t you can read it online here:


Which definition comes closest to your view of political blogs?
Blog (n.): an online journal written by publicity-hungry politicians and self-opinionated journalist manqués, commenting on current political affairs with scant regard to fact or fairness, and accountable to nobody save their small band of obsessive readers.
Blog (n.): an online journal written and/or read by anyone in the democratic world, providing them with a platform to address issues of concern to them, and which is transforming the relationship between modern citizens and the traditional governing and media elites.
As a self-confessed Liberal Democrat, it will not surprise you to learn that my view lies somewhere in between these two polar opposites. I am not a dewy-eyed idealist who believes that, if a thousand blogs bloom, society’s current political disengagement will vanish in a puff of apathetic smoke.

Equally, blogging cannot be dismissed simply as a new-fangled fad of which we know little. It is to early twenty-first century politics what Caxton’s printing press was to the pamphleteers of the English civil war: a medium ideally suited to quick and simple exchange of ideas.

There are 33.7 million internet users in the UK, and over 50 per cent of adults in the UK now have broadband internet access at home, up from 39 per cent a year ago. The internet is growing, and blogging is here to stay. The question is not, ‘Will it last?’, but ‘What’s its role?’

For most of us - whether fully paid-up members of the political classes (like you), or enthusiastic amateurs (like me) - part of the point of blogging is to attract attention to what we have to say, to ‘get noticed’.

Bloggers tend to be a bit squeamish about ‘fessing up to exactly how many people read them. For the record, my website attracted 24,150 unique visitors between January and mid-April this year. I am a minnow. Westminster gossip-blogger Guido Fawkes attracted 326,897 unique visitors in March. The American liberal, progressive blog, Daily Kos, attracts an average of 540,106 unique visitors daily.

The audience reach that these über-bloggers command demonstrates they are no longer talking only to a clique. But let’s not get carried away. In March, The Sun newspaper had a daily circulation of 3.03 million, and The Daily Telegraph of 896,197. Newspapers are still the big boys.

There is a symbiotic relationship between the ‘old’ and ‘new’ media. Much of the content of blogs is inspired by, and links directly to, news reports or op-ed articles appearing in the press. But nor are newspapers reticent about lifting blog content, either as snippets for diary columns, or as quotes to lend verisimilitude to speculative, single-sourced stories.

So why, if you are an elected or wannabe-elected politician, should you bother writing a blog if (as is likely) few of your constituents will read it, and if (as is certain) journalists will seize on any unguarded remark?

Those MPs who do blog are taking a calculated risk. Lynne Featherstone, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, overturned a Labour majority of 10,216 in 2005 with a huge 14.6 per cent swing. Alongside the usual hard slog of ‘pavement politics’, and a formidably well-organised campaign, her local profile - with the media as well as the public - was boosted by her sparky, feisty blog.

But it doesn’t always work to the good. When Jody Dunn, the Lib Dem candidate in the 2004 Hartlepool by-election, blogged that she had canvassing a street whose residents were “either drunk, flanked by an ugly dog, or undressed”, Labour made the most of her quip, and clung on to the seat.

The internet is a highly paradoxical force. It atomises us, as we each bury our heads behind our individual computer screens, reading or writing our transient e-phemera. Yet it is also developing a visceral power to connect a community spanning geography and generations.

For example, Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell has broken new ground in becoming the first party leader to join the hip social networking website Facebook, racking up well over a thousand ‘friends’, and earning an accolade from the Daily Mirror as the politician with the best online presence.

The first cabinet minister to blog, David Miliband, does so, he informs us, to “help bridge the gap - the growing and potentially dangerous gap - between politicians and the public”. My reason is less highfalutin: I have stuff I want to say, and which I hope some folk may want to read.
Blog (n.): my space to write about whatever’s delighted or annoyed me that day, forcing me to arrange half-formed thoughts into something semi-coherent for public consumption, keeping my thinking fresh and up-to-the-mark.

Why, dude?

Look, I’ve stated many times that I’m no fan of the BBC licence fee. But I still have huge respect for Auntie’s programming output. Yet, in the name of all that’s good and true, can anyone provide me with a justification for this, as reported in Media Guardian:
... fans of Neighbours have started an online petition in a bid to keep the soap on the BBC. Nearly 4,000 people have already signed the petition since it was set up on April 25. It calls on Fremantle to "accept the BBC's offer to continue showing Neighbours", with several signatories saying they will stop watching it if it moves to ITV or Five.
A free-to-view show moves from one channel to another channel and remains free-to-view. And the problem those 4,000 folks have is what, precisely…?