What I wrote at Lib Dem Voice

January 30, 2007

Liberal? I wouldn’t bet on it

Today Manchester won its bid to host the sole regional super-casino, and the Lib Dems’ Culture spokesman, Don Foster, issued a predictably eeyore-ish response, arguing the Government “must get their gambling addiction under control”.

It’s a shame he’s chosen to indulge in the easy sound-bite, as Mr Foster makes some valid points.

He’s right to point out that the gambling industry should do more to tackle the ills associated with ‘problem gamblers’ - just compare the £2.5m the gambling industry gave to the main body dealing with gambling addictions with the £200m a year the drinks industry spends tackling alcohol problems. If the gambling industry isn’t picking up the tab, it will be the tax-payer.

The Lib Dems were also right, when the Gambling Bill was going through Parliament, to stick up for the right of local councils, acting on behalf of their residents, to reject casino bids. Indeed, when the proposals were first unveiled the Lib Dems were fully in favour of what were then termed ‘destination casinos’, especially if located in seaside resorts.

And, as The Observer reported on Sunday, Blackpool was pinning its hopes on winning the bid:
The majority [of residents] are so desperate to have the casino that council leaders are willing to knock down the police station and the law courts to accommodate it. At the end of last year, the local newspaper, the Blackpool Gazette, asked its readers a simple question: 'Do you want a super-casino?' An overwhelming 91 per cent of respondents said they did.
Read today’s Blackpool Gazette, and you get a flavour of the disappointment at Manchester’s victory.

In the circumstances, you might have thought the Lib Dems would be sympathetic to allowing a town like Blackpool to host a super-casino. After all, Mr Foster did suggest in the House of Commons debate of 1st November, 2004, that “we still need measures that will control the proliferation of super-casinos, perhaps by allowing one or two per region to start with” [my emphasis].

However, that suggestion of “one or two per region” appears to have bitten the dust, with Mr Foster today arguing that: “Any further increase in the number of super-casinos, without a full study of the impact on Manchester, would be against the wishes of Parliament and the concerns of many local communities.”

Liberals are rarely full-blown libertarians: we accept the individual’s freedom has, of necessity, occasionally to be curbed by government for the greater good of society. But our pre-disposition must always be to allow individuals freedom of choice over their own lives; including, crucially, the freedom to make mistakes.

Yet, too often, the Lib Dems appear to be the party of party-poopers, reluctant to relinquish state power to the individual for fear they will mis-use it. Last year, we (take another bow, Don) carped about liberalising the alcohol licensing laws. Now, apparently, we are against super-casinos even when they are wanted by local communities.

The Lib Dems often invoke the two Fs as a slogan: freedom and fairness. Perhaps we should toss another F into the mix: fun. (Steady now, Lembit.) Because, on the basis of today’s statement, there’s no F in liberalism.

January 29, 2007

My head hurts

Tonight, and not before time, I’ve completed my tax return. Happily, and for the first time, it appears the Inland Revenue is in my debt.

As I’d girded my loins against the usual demand for a few hundred quid this makes me happy. It also makes me worried, since I’m now convinced I’ve made a mistake in my adding up. (Heck, I’m only the guy in charge of Oxford city’s finances.)

And credit where it’s due. The online self-assessment forms are well-designed and in plain language - indeed, plain to the point of sarcasm. For example, I was amused - and when I say amused, bear in mind this was during an evening devoted to my tax return - to see this snippy aside in the guidance on whether home-workers’ water bills are tax-deductible:
The amount of water used in actually performing office related duties is likely to be nil. We accept that the room(s) have to be kept clean, but the costs of doing so are likely to be small. The cost of an occasional bucket of water for cleaning purposes will not change that.
Much more of that kind of no-nonsense sarkiness, and I could start warming to the Inland Revenue.

January 28, 2007

For anyone who's ever delivered a leaflet

Now here’s a petition to No. 10 with which we can all sympathise:
Delivering to the public is an important part of political engagement. We call for legislation to make it easier for voters to be engaged by requiring all letter boxes to be:
  1. Located at a clear height
  2. Easy to post through
  3. Designed to allow leaflets to be posted without destroying them
  4. Designed to protect people's hands when posting
  5. Dog proof
In addition we call for doors to have the number clearly displayed and doorbells to be easy to find (with defunct doorbell buttons removed).
Hat-tip to Tim Roll-Pickering for highlighting this often-overlooked issue. But will the politicians listen?

When silence speaks louder than words

Compare and contrast the reaction of David Cameron to the two dominant news items of the last week:
  • On the silly furore surrounding Channel 4’s Celebrity Big Brother: I completely abhor racism. Everyone has got a responsibility here. There's a great regulator called the off button and I think we should use it.
  • On the gay adoption row: “…”
It’s unsurprising the Tory leader felt happy commenting on a reality game show. He was able to take his customary mouthful of waffle confident of offending no-one by accidentally coughing it up. Racism is bad; personal responsibility is good; further regulation is unnecessary. All true enough; all utterly unsurprising.

Personally, I don’t really care what our politicians think about Jade or Shilpa; but he was asked the question, so fair enough. And Mr Cameron at least avoided the ridiculous over-sensationalising of London’s pantomime Mayor, Ken Livingstone: I think everyone is delighted that we got the result we did last night, he ineffably pluralised after Jade’s eviction.

But Mr Cameron’s disinclination to comment publicly on the row about whether Roman Catholic adoption agencies should be excused from discriminating against gay couples is more instructive - worryingly so, both for friends and foes alike.

In today’s Telegraph, that most well-Torily-connected of columnists, Matthew d’Ancona, explains the reaction when he sought clarification on HM’s Official Opposition’s view on this most divisive of subjects:
I was told that David Cameron "sees the difficulty. Our position is: wait and see."
Such trenchant leadership! Such formidable gravitas! Such a rallying cry!

Mr Cameron takes regular delight in accusing the current, Chancellor, Gordon Brown, of burying his head in the sand when the going gets tough. To now act out that precise same charge smacks more than a little of hypocrisy.

Too harsh, you think? After all, it’s the job of governments to govern; of oppositions to hold them to account. Who can blame Mr Cameron for declining to distract the media from Labour-baiting by opening up himself and his party to attack?

And that is really the crunch - for Mr Cameron knows he cannot win this issue. The so-called ‘Christian right’ of the Tory party expects Mr Cameron to stick up for the Catholic Church’s exemption from anti-discrimination legislation. Yet Mr Cameron knows he cannot afford to concede his liberal-lite brand by appearing to side with those whose concept of Christian love elides so smoothly into judgemental condemnation. So, best keep it zipped, button it, stay schtum.

Which is fine if you’re at a Notting Hill dinner party, and anxious to avoid offending your Opus Dei hosts. It’s less fine when you’re offering yourself to the British public as our next Prime Minister.

After all, Mr Cameron believes his great mission is to engender a greater sense of social responsibility through this land; to show that there is a such a thing as society, it’s just not the same thing as the state; and to let a thousand voluntary agencies bloom.

Mr Cameron claims this is about setting a new national agenda in which government’s role is re-defined. At a cultural level, this means decrying chocolate oranges and opining about Big Brother; but not legislating against either. At a more structural level, it means allowing the state to shrink, to be replaced where practical by community organisations.

There is much in this which liberals can, potentially, welcome. However, an enabling government is not the same as an abstaining government.

If government is to hand over money to voluntary organisations to fulfil functions currently performed by the state - to become an investor rather than an owner - it is proper and reasonable for government to use that cash to achieve what, by the force of its democratic mandate, it believes to be a social good. In the case of adoption this means ensuring the best possible home is found for the child; and recognising that the best possible homes come in all different shapes and sizes.

If Mr Cameron truly wishes to usher in a new age of social responsibility, he will need to do more than ‘wait and see’. He will need to do what he accuses Mr Brown of ducking - by putting his head above the parapet, and saying what he actually thinks. Is he a liberal Conservative, or is he a Conservative to the core of his being?

With every passing month in which the Tory leader prefers to keep his powder dry the suspicion grows that he hopes he can keep dodging this question for ever. He cannot. Better to decide now, while you’re ahead in the polls, than to imagine you can continue to retain the support of both ConservativeHome and the Guardian’s leader-writers through a general election.

January 26, 2007

Trident tested for a few more years at least

The two Jonathans’ (Calder and Wallace) postings on replacing Trident reminded me of the interview I heard this week on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme with Professor Richard Garwin, former chair of the US government's science advisory committee and consultant to the nuclear weapons programme.

Only five minutes long, it’s well worth listening to here (it’s available online for another four days). A few extracts from what he said, below:
The question is whether we make the decision now to build new submarines to be operating in 2024 as a direct replacement for the Vanguard-class that would carry the Trident D5 missiles of which the UK has rights to about 58, and those missiles would last for the life of the new submarines.

To my mind, it’s entirely premature to make that decision now because I believe, and I think colleagues believe, that the life of the Trident submarines Vanguard-class can be extended by 15 years or so, as have been the life of the American Trident submarines, and that would give us more time to decide what we need to do in this new era.

The problem is - the opportunity is - that the Cold War is over, we don’t need 12 warheads on each of these big missiles, we don’t need the big missiles at all. Technology has changed, so it’s likely that an optimum replacement, even if one needs nuclear weapons 30-50 years from now, would be small intercontinental range ballistic missiles on new submarines that would be a lot smaller and cheaper and would have single warheads on the missiles. …

The real problem now is the Government says the submarines can have their life extended by only five years to 30 years. We believe the submarines were not designed for a 25-year life; they were designed for a 25 year minimum life. If the steam generators, part of the nuclear plant, show leaks they can be fixed, and they can be replaced, which is routine. … The submarines will be just as effective with their life extension and refurbishment programme. It would be better to delay this decision confident we can do so at reasonable cost. …

It’s routine for project managers and governments to hurry the decision in order not to have these things in question. They often argue it’s too soon to object to because we’re not spending any money; and then you’re too late to object because it’s too late to stop this programme, and to not go through with it. The solution is to discuss these things on the facts up-front.
Shrewd observers will notice the similarities between Professor Garwin’s comments, and those advocated by the Lib Dems’ Trident Policy Working Group, and endorsed by Ming Campbell, last month:
It would be unwise at this time for Britain to abandon its nuclear weapons altogether. But a deterrent of approximately half the current size, and extending the life of the current submarine system, would be sufficient to provide for Britain’s ultimate security until we have more certainty about proliferation.

As the Defence Select Committee has concluded we can delay making the final decision without wasting billions in the meantime. A nuclear weapon-free world is highly desirable. Cutting our stockpile in half would send a strong signal that nuclear disarmament is back on the international agenda and that Britain is prepared to act first.
When Ming suggested this to the House of Commons, this was the reaction he received, according to thegrauniad:
The Liberal Democrat leader, Sir Menzies Campbell, was loudly jeered by Tory MPs and some Labour members for suggesting a delay on taking a decision until 2014. The Speaker had to intervene to scold Tory MPs.
As Jonathan Calder noted at the time: “the performance of the Conservative benches in the Commons today showed that the party has learnt nothing from its error over the Iraq war.”

In 2003, you may recall, Lib Dem MPs were shouted down by an alliance of Tory and Labour MPs for daring to suggest the UN weapons inspectors be given more time to determine if Iraq really did possess weapons of mass destruction.

The Tories are very quick to see hypocrisy in Mr Blair’s dealings. I’m surprised they can see it for the mote in their own eyes.

Reid all about it

Under normal circumstances, I’d have some sympathy for anybody subjected to the typically moronic front page abuse meted out by the 'Soaraway Sun' today.

I am, though, prepared to make an exception for John Reid.

For it was in the almost-as-bad Daily Mirror that Dr Reid delivered his infamously strutting boast, “I'll f****** well work 18 hours a day to sort this out. I'll do whatever it takes to make the public feel safe and confident in the system.”

It is precisely this kind of macho posturing - of which Tony Blair is the master, albeit in a less sweary way - which constantly lands this Labour Government in hot water. The Prime Minister and his Home Secretary delight in implying that - through their sheer force of personality, the grace of their omniscience, and the indispensability of their insight - they can spread their personal Midas touch throughout the land. They are deluded and delusional.

The more tightly clasped to their chests government ministers insist on holding all policy decisions the more they can expect to be hauled over the coals for each and every service difficulty which will inevitably arise.

Is it fair for John Reid to be held directly accountable for all problems in a department whose brief he acquired eight months ago? Of course not. But has Dr Reid taken any steps to ensure the law and order of this country is not perceived to rest solely upon his personal authority? Of course not.

If he’s learned nothing else from this week, I hope Dr Reid might have realized that there’s more to a fit-for-purpose criminal justice system than working f****** 126-hour weeks.

January 25, 2007

Brown sauce

There are two explanations for the news that Gordon Brown has - apparently - been voted the 97th sexiest man by readers of NW (New Woman) magazine.

Either: it’s actually quite hard to name up to 100 famous men who could in any way fit the description.

Or: the magazine’s editors have found an easy way of conning the BBC into running some free advertising, just as they did last year with David Cameron’s first appearance in the poll.

And as regular readers of this blog will know, I take a dim view of any attempt to boost readership through such cheap ploys as polls about sexy politicians.

January 24, 2007

And sometimes you get bouquets

Having posted a pretty jaundiced article here following the wrist-slitting tedium that goes by the name of Full Council on Monday, it’s only fair to say that Tuesday was indeed another day.

A three-hour area planning meeting may sound like most normal people’s idea of a living hell, but it focused on just one issue, of huge interest and concern to many of my residents in Headington and the wider city.

The Council’s planning officers gave clear presentations which neither patronised nor waffled; objectors and the applicants presented robust, measured arguments; councillors asked pertinent questions and restricted themselves to brief, to-the-point comments; and we consensually agreed a sensible way forward.* Now how often does all that happen in one meeting?

To cap it all, I’ve just received this appreciative e-mail:
I listened to your arguments last night and found them persuasive both by reason of logic and inherent good sense. It was reassuring to know that you are in touch with the deeply held and felt views of the local communities.

Indeed, like many residents, having been somewhat disheartened of late, I was impressed by the quality and understanding of the Councillors present last night. Whatever the outcome … I think that the quality of the local democracy, so much in evidence last night, was very reassuring, especially so when politics is viewed rather cynically by many.
Enough to make you feel all warm inside on an otherwise chilly day.

* I’ve assumed most blog readers will have little interest in the specific planning applications, which related to the Warneford Meadow in Oxford. But if you do, I’ve explained my views in full here.

Attaboy Ming!

One of the aspects of Ming Campbell’s character I noticed from the leadership hustings was that his undoubted passion is slow-burning. Though he unfailingly ignites, he doesn’t get angry easily, and doesn’t have Tony Blair or David Cameron’s, erm, talent for faking it on demand.

This has its disadvantages in today’s tell-me-quick sound-bite age, and Ming has been criticized for lacking the necessary fire in his belly when it comes to tackling the Prime Minister in the bear-pit of the House of Commons. This has never really bothered me - leadership is about cool, calm decision-making, rather than over-rehearsed smart-arse quips best confined to students’ unions.

The clear advantage of Ming’s serious and sober demeanour is that, when he does do angry, you sure as hell know he means it. And today was one such day. As the BBC’s Nick Assinder relates:
Sir Menzies Campbell once again confounded his critics by displaying genuine fire and passion over Iraq. Ming, as he is known, repeated his call for a timetable for British troop withdrawals by October and, when he got the expected prime ministerial put down that such a deadline would play into the hands of the enemies in Iraq, he sprung his trap.
Here’s Ming’s stinging rebuke to the Prime Minister:
“If he feels so strongly, he should come to debate these issues. What could possibly be more important than that the Prime Minister should be here to debate the issue of Iraq at a time when British forces are at risk every day in respect of their lives? Isn't that the kind of leadership we are entitled to?”
PS: I would link directly to the BBC Parliament video of PMQs, but (i) it’s almost impossible to find on the BBC website since their whizz-bang audio/video upgrade; and (ii) they’re still showing last week’s (but without any helpful date reference in the title to indicate this).

January 23, 2007

Fit for purpose viewing

Excellent, attention-grabbing video here on behalf of the Lib Dems’ ‘We Can Cut Crime’ campaign.

There’s one they forgot, though… Chances of John Reid becoming the next Labour leader - one in 13. Unlucky for some.

At least it’s over now

“Unpaid Christmas bills, nasty weather, and failed New Year's resolutions combine to make January 22 the gloomiest in the calendar.”
They forgot to add: attending a meeting of Full Council.

And I was lucky today - owing to a clashing work meeting, I missed half of it. I don’t think I’ve ever yet enjoyed a meeting of Full Council. The curious thing is that, though there are rarely any genuine members of the public there, councillors can’t resist playing to the (empty) gallery. Cheap, posturing tribalism rules the day.

I love being a councillor, still get a real buzz out of it, even as I approach my eighth year representing the good folk of Headington. I like to spend the time I can devote to local politics working for their benefit. Five-hour meetings of Full Council knacker me, and do next-to-nothing for my residents.

Fortunately, tomorrow’s today’s another day.

January 21, 2007

What Sundays should be about

I know I should have sat inside today, watching Ming on Sunday AM, and leafing through the papers in search of blogging inspiration. Instead, I opted for a bracing walk in gorgeously wintry sunshine besides Port Meadow. At 440 acres, it's the largest area of common land in Oxford (even if much of it was under water today). So, no erudite opinionating from me today, I'm afraid.

January 19, 2007

Shotting themselves in the feat

It’s awfully kind of Lib Dem News to correct their story last week - highlighting the results of that poll - which accidentally re-christened me John Tall.

LDN even reprint the web-address of my blog to help drive traffic here. It’s a shame they’ve got it wrong - www.oxfordliberal.blogshot.com won’t help you much unless you’re looking for airline tickets, hot lingerie or big booty. (Which, as it’s a Friday night, you very well may be.) But, still, it’s the thought that counts.

Incidentally, my dad tried to post a comment to my blog last week, expressing his faux-outrage at LDN’s making merry with his name… then lost his nerve. But he did e-mail it to me, so here’s a - genuine - extract:
As for using the names Rachel Elizabeth as an intended “toughening up” regime for our son, Stephen, I remind him (or perhaps I’ve not broached the matter before, in which case I’ll tell him) that, just as in his younger days his clothes were often hand-me-downs from his two older brothers, the same process applied to these names. Never say his parents were anything other than consistent.

Now that he’s (almost) reached his fourth decade, we can’t help but note that he’s emulating our one-time parsimony over clothing by himself choosing to dress with becoming sartorial elegance in the current high fashion of holes and tears in faded jeans. That’s not to mention his willingness occasionally to divest himself entirely of all (visible) clothes – and all in the cause of party politics. Can self-sacrifice go further?
(I've a feeling I may have to turn comment moderation on soon.)

Nutcracking with a sledgehammer

Following the news that British Airways is changing its uniform policy to allow religious symbols to be worn openly, is it time the English National Ballet also allowed its employees openly to declare their affiliations? Y'know, just something subtle that nobody would even notice.

January 18, 2007

Oxford reaps reward of its conservative myopia

Last month those who care about these things - which seemed to be most of the British media - were greatly exercised by the governance proposals put forward by the University of Oxford’s Vice-Chancellor, John Hood. Dr Hood’s plan to try and drag the University kicking and screaming into the modern world was defeated by the University’s Congregation, the so-called ‘Parliament of dons’.

Those of us who supported his reforms (the ‘Hoodies’) argued they were the best way in which the University could maintain and enhance its independence from government, and retain its position as a top 10 global university in the increasingly competitive world of higher education.

The joyless conservatives who prefer Oxford to stick in the mud seem to think the University has no reason to be accountable to the outside world - even though the government (and, therefore, the British tax-payer) is the biggest single investor, and even though the University’s charitable status confers on it huge tax advantages. They were warned that unless Oxford proved itself capable of reforming itself from within, it risked having reform imposed from outside.

Well, HEFCE (the Higher Education Funding Council for England) has now fired the first warning shot across the University’s bows. A letter from its Chief Executive, Professor David Eastwood, to Dr Hood makes clear HEFCE’s disappointment with Oxford’s backward-looking rejection of the Vice-Chancellor’s governance reforms:
As you know, HEFCE is the single biggest investor in the University and we assume the lead regulatory role on behalf of all your public sector funders. We set the accountability framework for the HE sector, and within that framework it is a condition of grant that the University has a sound system of governance. We look to the University, its Council, and its Audit and Scrutiny Committee to provide assurance about the system of governance.

Under the recently-rejected proposal the membership of Council would have fallen from 25 to 15 with seven internal members and seven lay, plus a lay chair. The adoption of this arrangement would have given the Council a lay majority for the first time. There is, we believe, a broad consensus across all sectors that corporate governance is enhanced by the external membership and, more particularly, by the discipline and advocacy that non-executives and externals bring to the corporate life and governance of a university.

This has been reflected in reports over the years, including those from Dearing in HE and Turnbull in the private sector. The sentiment is embedded in the Lambert Report and embodied in the good practice guidance to universities published by the Committee of University Chairmen.

The University has accepted that its Council is its single governing body responsible for academic and strategic matters (albeit that Congregation remains the supreme legislative assembly) but has rejected a particular proposal that would have delivered a lay majority. HEFCE takes the view that its investment of public funds must be subject to effective governance oversight, and that this oversight needs to be largely external and demonstrably free from potential conflicts of interest.

I, of course, recognise the academic excellence of Oxford and the effectiveness of many of its operations. I also understand that opponents of reform associate success with the University's governance tradition and consider that fundamental governance changes would undermine continuing success. I consider that argument unproven, and note the performance and progress of some of your competitors who have more modem governance arrangements. I would also remind you that the University's accountability failed as recently as 2003-04 when the accounts were audited and finalised many months after the deadline.

In March of 2006 the HEFCE Assurance Service issued its report on risk management control and governance at the University. We will be following up this report by April 1, and will be seeking assurance about governance arrangements. It would be helpful if you could give this letter your attention before that time.
There will be some who argue that this is ‘government bullying’, that HEFCE has no right to try to meddle in how Oxford University runs itself. They are wrong. For as long as the University is publicly funded, those bodies which dish out taxpayers’ cash have every right to be assured that their money is being well-spent in the wider public interest. I have no doubt Oxford can prove that, in spades; but, by refusing to account for itself in the way every other charitable institution is expected to, it has weakened its position.

There is, of course, an alternative open to Oxford. It could refuse to take the public money HEFCE distributes, and set its own tuition fees at the market rate. Then the University would be free to ignore outside interference (though would still be answerable to the Charity Commission). Many of those who were most passionately agin the Vice-Chancellor’s reforms advocate precisely this.

However, if they think the University could continue to operate as it does - elevating academic self-government above business reality - in the ‘real world’ of tough global markets, without any state subsidy, they are deluding themselves. A private university would be far less tolerant of loss-making academic subjects than a publicly-funded university is able to be. Independence is not the silver bullet for Oxford as it is sometimes portrayed.

The conundrum is clear. Accept state money, and you accept the state’s right to have a say in how you are managed. Reject state money, and you accept the university must manage itself in a far tougher, leaner way.

The Vice-Chancellor saw this dilemma clearly. He proposed governance reforms which would have allowed Oxford to keep its public money, retain its academic self-government, while satisfying HEFCE that Oxford was serious about becoming more open and accountable. It would have also strengthened the University’s decision-making processes, making it easier for Oxford to become increasingly self-reliant, and less dependent on state hand-outs.

Dr Hood’s opponents are delighted at their victory. Their delight may prove short-lived, and they will have only themselves to blame.

January 16, 2007

The shaming of 'Trust-Me Tony'

The word ‘shameful’ has become dulled by its too-frequent repetition. But there is no other word to describe the Labour Government’s decision to order the Serious Fraud office to drop its investigation into alleged bribes paid by defence firm BAE Systems to Saudi Arabia to secure lucrative contracts.

Had such a decision been taken under John Major’s Tory Government, you can bet your bottom oil-soaked dollar that Tony Blair would have led the condemnation. And he would have been right to do so.

Power really does tend to corrupt; which is why we must be on our guard against New Labour’s efforts to create absolute power for the state.

When Mr Blair mounted his defence in December, when the decision was first announced, he did so on two grounds.

First, that Saudi Arabia’s assistance in the fight against Al-Qaeda hinged on the British Government not treading on their diplomatic toes. One might, of course, ask why Mr Blair allowed himself to be blackmailed by a supposed ally, which - according to our Prime Minister - appears happy to place British lives in jeopardy by refusing to co-operate with the authorities unless its business dealings are held to be above the law.

But this weak plea of mitigation appears now to have been holed beneath the waterline, according to reports in today’s Grauniad:
John Scarlett, the head of MI6, has now refused to sign up to a government dossier which says MI6 endorses this view. … MI6 and MI5 possessed no intelligence that the Saudis intended to sever security links. The intelligence agencies had been merely asked whether it would be damaging to UK national security if such a breach did happen. They replied that naturally it would.
This exposure of the Prime Minister’s craven defence was put to Mr Blair at his monthly press conference today. He made no attempt to deny the substance of the Grauniad’s report beyond a couple of cheap and irrelevant side-swipes at its political stance. This is what he did say:
“I can absolutely assure you that there is no doubt whatever in my mind - and I think in those of any of the people who have looked at this issue - that, having proceeded with this, the result would have been devastating for our relationship with an important country with whom we cooperate closely on terrorism, on security, on the Middle East peace process.”
To put it another way (as he was doubtless thinking): “Trust me, I’m Tony Blair.” His messianic conviction that his assertions and objective reality must always tally has, it seems, been untroubled by the abject humiliation of his failed foreign policy in Iraq, and the half-truths he told Parliament and the British people.

But there was a second ground of defence laid by Mr Blair, and this was the clear deal-breaker: jobs. He knows he can’t say that this was the true reason, and so is very careful to indulge in nudge-nudge innuendo to make plain his own views - as he noted today,
“That is leaving aside the thousands of jobs which would have been lost, which is not the consideration in this case, but I just point it out.”
Not a consideration, you understand - he just felt it needed pointing out. And fair comment, some might say. Easy for me to have a pop at the Prime Minister; my job isn’t connected to the defence industry; not my livelihood at stake. Some of which may be true. But it is absolutely not fair comment.

Economic success requires the rule of law not only to be obeyed; it has to be respected, trusted. Last month’s Economist leader got it bang-on:
… jobs are not worth having at any price, and here the cost is considerable. People in countries where backhanders are a way of life see resources squandered and become disillusioned with public institutions. In developed countries, people may come to think that there is one rule for big firms doing big deals with big oil-rich countries and another for everyone else. … The ditching of the SFO inquiry will feed the cynicism already widespread in Britain.
You may wonder what the opposition parties have said about all this. The Tories have been silent on the issue, as recently highlighted by Liberal Review. Fortunately, there has been an opposition party willing to hold the Government to account for its disgraceful actions. As the Lib Dem leader Ming Campbell said today:
"If these reports are true, they seriously undermine the government's case for ending the investigation into allegations of corruption involving BAE and Saudi Arabia. In particular they undermine the reliability and credibility of the prime minister who publicly took responsibility for the decision and publicly sought to justify it."
I’m well aware it is easier to be an opposition than a government; that certain compromises are required of those in power. But some decisions are plain wrong: the wrong motives, the wrong reasons, the wrong outcomes. And when that happens there is only one word that will do.

But were they disappointed?

I don’t often pay that much attention to my website stats. But when you notice that you’ve attracted tens of thousands of hits in one day* (a couple more than usual) you wonder why. Did I write something indiscreet, controversial, bad?

None of these things, it seems.

No, what happened is that my other gaff was linked to by a website which goes by the name Tottyland. I’ll give you the link, but it does what it says on the tin, so don’t click here if easily offended. (And absolutely don’t click on it if you’re my parents.)

One positive thing - setting to one side my embarrassed-but-flattered ego - is their highlighting of the Lib Dems’ ‘Help Stop Homophobic Bullying’ campaign. If you’ve not yet added your name to the petition, you can do so here, now.

* hits, of course, not unique visitors (I know the distinction is being hotly debated).

January 15, 2007

Minority Report Britain

The ‘they just don’t get it’ tendencies of this Government are becoming quite frightening.

The latest intimation of their wish to turn the make believe of Minority Report into a reality is demonstrated by the news that Labour is planning ‘behaviour orders’ for people thought to be “at risk” of committing a violent crime.

We’re well used now to New Labour’s contempt for the judicial process. But, even so, it genuinely shocked me to read the Lord Chancellor, Lord Falconer - responsible for the efficient functioning and independence of the courts - applaud the move on the grounds that:
If there's evidence that you could commit a violent offence in the future, proper evidence of that proved in a court, then why shouldn't you be restrained from committing that violent offence?”
Perhaps, m’Lord, because if there’s proper evidence capable of standing up in a court of law it should be tested by due process. We might even give that process a name - how about ‘a fair trial’?

Because the pictures are funnier

The Guardian carries one of those rather tired ‘Whither radio comedy?’ articles today. Y’know, the kind of article which appear every couple of years, citing past gems from the archives, and finds today’s current crop wanting:
This Thursday Radio 4 is pointing out just how significant its role has been, giving over most of the night to Radio Ha Ha - a combination of features, archive programmes and studio chat with comedians, producers and agents.

The show debates how well the station has done so far and, more importantly, what it should do next. Curiously, there is a nervous element to the proceedings. For one thing, the comedy industry and critics alike have been complaining rather loudly recently.

"The problem is that Radio 4 hasn't developed a really huge zeitgeisty show since Little Britain," says radio critic Will Hogkinson.
Omitted from the article is any mention of That Mitchell and Webb Sound, as it might not have fitted the pre-ordained argument.

Incidentally, the BBC is running a poll to find out which Radio 4 comedy programme it should play at the conclusion of its Ha Ha special. My message is simple: vote for The Day Today On The Hour. You know it makes sense.

January 14, 2007

What's in a name anyway?

As Paul Walters, David Rundle and Iain Dale have all been kind enough to note, I almost get a starring mention on the back page of this week’s Lib Dem News. Almost, but not quite.

For, in reporting the results of that poll, the good folk at LDN have re-christened me John Tall. Fortunately my dad, whose first name is John, doesn’t subscribe to LDN, as I’m not too sure he would care to have his name sullied by association with an article on sexy Lib Dems. He might not feel it would fit too comfortably with being a man of the cloth.

(And, yes, for the record that does make me a son of a preacher-man. Believe me, I’ve heard all the jokes.)

Had I been born a girl, my parents inform me I would have been called Rachel Elizabeth. Thankfully - and pace Johnny Cash’s advice - they decided not to toughen me up in that way.

What they did do was give my two brothers and me middle names beginning with ‘J’ - I got Joseph, a long-standing family name. Though co-incidentally (and something I only found out this week-end) my birthday, 19th March, is also the Feast Day of St Joseph. Wikipedia describes him - in perhaps the most untheologically PC way imaginable - as the ‘foster-father’ of Jesus.

Apparently St Joseph lived to the ripe old age of 111, a fate I don’t intend to emulate - dying standing on one leg is just way too undignified.

January 12, 2007

Back soon....

It’s Friday, I’ve had a hard week at work, I’m off out for a drink.

So for those Divine Comedy fans out there (and I know the Lib Dem blogosphere is teeming with them) here’s La Blogotheque’s video of ‘A Lady of a Certain Age’ (from Victory for the Comic Muse).

January 11, 2007

Pardon his French

My Headington ward colleague and fellow (if, ahem, occasional) blogger, David Rundle, is well-known locally for his love of arcane argot, the bon mots and mots justes. In fact, he’ll do pretty much anything to avoid the lingua franca. Chacun à son gout, I guess.

So it’s a bit of a shock to see him taken to task in the Oxford Mail for lapsing into, erm, earthier language at a Council meeting. The Insider gossip column reports:
David Rundle, the sartorially elegant and usually mild-mannered deputy leader of Oxford City Council, arrived at Monday's executive board meeting a little slacked-tongued, judging by his comments about the work of colleagues at County Hall.

He caused a sharp intake of breath from those sat around the table - and a red-faced grin from leader John Goddard - when he used the words "silly b**ers" - and in front of the new interim chief executive as well.

Tut, tut, David.
Zut alors! But, David - ‘Je ne regrette rien…?

"Don't kill the FoI"

The Government’s refusal to introduce a Freedom of Information Act with teeth was the reason I resigned my Labour Party membership back in 1999. (You can find out just where it was lacking here.)

I no longer wanted to be associated with a political party which has no genuine commitment to empowering the individual against the over-mighty forces of either the state or commerce. Besides, I reckoned that if Labour didn’t have the guts to be radical on an issue like this, which is of minor importance to most people, they were even less likely to make a positive impact on more controversial issues which might attract the ire of the Daily Mail.

But, disappointingly circumscribed as it is, the FoI has dramatically helped to open up the workings of government, local and national. This has sometimes made uncomfortable the lives of both elected and unelected officials - which is just as it should be. I’m sure some public time and money has been wasted answering the repetitive queries of vexatious complainers. It is a small price to pay for the right of all of us to access information about the decisions of those who are in our employ.

But now the Government wishes to rein-in the FoI, and make it much easier for government to refuse to answer questions asked under its aegis. As today’s Press Gazette points out:
According to the Government’s own independent review, an extra 17,000 FoI questions (out of around 100,000) a year will be turned down after the rule changes — irrespective of the public interest in information being released.
The Gazette has launched a petition to urge Labour to change its mind, and retain some semblance of commitment to open and transparent government. No, I don’t hold out much hope, either. But that’s never been a reason not to try. Here’s what you’ll be putting your name to, and how you can do it:
We, the undersigned, urge the Government not to undermine the effectiveness of the Freedom of Information Act 2000 by passing into law the Freedom of Information and Data Protection (Appropriate Limit and Fees) Regulations 2007.
To sign the petition, email your name, job title and the organisation you work for to: dontkillfoi(at)wilmington.co.uk.

January 10, 2007

Discarding my hair-shirt

The problem (and joy) of being a liberal is the duty to consider issues in 360 degrees. So I have some sympathy with Mr Blair’s comments, when the question was put to him that the government should encourage people to take holidays closer to home:
I personally think these things are a bit impractical, actually to expect people to do that. You know, I'm still waiting for the first politician who's actually running for office who's going to come out and say it - and they're not. It's like telling people you shouldn't drive anywhere.
The ability to travel - to explore new regions, understand different cultures - is a natural and healthy human impulse. It is not one government should seek to curtail. What government should do, of course, is ensure the negative externalities are borne by those enjoying the benefits: that the polluter pays.

I recall - always with a grimace - George Monbiot passionately exhorting last year’s Lib Dem conference to give serious thought about whether we should (eg) fly to New York to witness a son/daughter’s wedding because of the damage we would wreak en route. It was the kind of bonkers, hair-shirted remark (in an otherwise very good speech) which taints the environmental movement.

The Labour Party has failed to tackle global warming sufficiently seriously. We need higher taxes on pollution; and compensating lower taxes on income (one might almost call it a Green Tax Switch). But we won’t begin to save the planet by seeking to dis-invent the wheel.

January 09, 2007

What will Gordon do?

Steve Richards writes in today’s Indy:
It is a myth that no one knows what a Brown premiership would be like. Much more is known about him compared with John Major at the point when Major moved into Downing Street.
Which is true. But Mr Richards neglects to mention two points:

1) Mr Major had been in the Cabinet for just 16 months when he found himself ‘risen without trace’ as Prime Minister. By contrast, Gordon Brown has occupied the most important Cabinet portfolio, the Treasury, for 115 consecutive months. The comparison, to my mind, seems a tad stretched; and

2) Is Mr Major really being held up as an exemplum to follow? Though I’m not sure the Tory Party was capable of being led in the aftermath of Margaret Thatcher’s defenestration, Mr Major did little to dispel that notion.

‘Soft left’-leaning commentators are as in thrall currently to Mr Brown, just as non-Europhobe right-wingers are to David Cameron - with as little justification. Mr Richards’ touching faith in the Chancellor’s future omnipotence appears to rest on two factors.

First, that Mr Brown will be able to continue his largesse when it comes to education, to meet his repeated aspiration to “to spend as much on state pupils as the levels currently enjoyed by those that go to private schools”. It’s possible he will find the money: somehow, somewhere. If he does, it will only be by cutting spending on other public services, given the national belt-tightening exercise necessary in the next three years.

But, even if he does, he will be dodging the key question, which isn’t: how much money can the Government spend on state education. But, rather, how can existing money be spent better, while giving parents (and their kids come to that) more of a say in children’s primary and secondary education? For sure, decent funding is a vital pre-requisite; but so is local accountability, and a genuine choice of school - rather than the current postcode lottery.

The second factor Mr Richards identifies, though, is rather more interesting - that when Mr Brown finally steps up to the No. 10 plate he will assemble a ‘ministry of all the talents’. It’s a well-worn phrase, but it’s just possible the Chancellor means it more than most. Mr Richards notes his friendship with non-Labour luminaries such as former US Fed Chair, Alan Greenspan, and Make Poverty History crusader, Bob Geldof.

He could also have noted Mr Brown’s penchant for commissioning independent experts to produce weighty reports on controversial issues so as to take the political sting out of their tails: Wanless on the NHS, Lyons on local government finance, Turner on pensions, Stern on global warming. The question is not whether Mr Brown will seek to buttress his incipient premiership with such an impeccable Praetorian guard, but how he will do so.

In one sense, Mr Brown is now in a happy position. Expectations of him have now been so lowered, and expectations of Mr Cameron raised so high, that he can afford to relax more than might have once been thought possible. For all he knows, he may have just two years as Prime Minister, at least with a governable majority. Why not make the most of it, throw caution to the wind, and let rip with a slew of radical initiatives that will make at least a dent in the history books?

Such a schema would go very much against the grain for such a controlling and cautious figure as the Chancellor. But he may have only one opportunity... Damn, this ‘touching faith’ is infectious.

January 08, 2007

A case of mistaken identity

I notice that the good people at SELECT Privacy have included me in their blogroll. It’s awfully sweet of them, and - as they are campaigning against New Labour’s expensive, invasive and ineffective ID cards scheme - I will very happily reciprocate.

However, I’m still spluttering into my keyboard to see my blog categorised as ‘left-leaning’. The Lib Dem leader may be happy to define himself as a politician of the ‘centre-left’, but I reject any such indulgence of binary labelling. ‘Liberal’ works for me just fine, guys.

The Blair legacy project - will he walk the talk?

At last, a Blair legacy policy in the truest sense… Yesterday’s Times reports that the Prime Minister is planning to offer tax relief to those who wish to leave their homes to their former universities to help create Ivy League-style endowment funds.

It’s a sound idea (and one, incidentally, which should long ago have been championed by the Lib Dems if the party is ever to have a higher education policy which adds up) - and should, of course, be extended to all charitable institutions.

But it begs one big question. The Blairs’ residence in London’s Connaught Square - inside the ‘bonus belt’ - is reputed now to be worth some £4.5m. What better way could there be for the Prime Minister to lead by example than to offer to bequeath his home to his (and my) alma mater?

PS: the boringly obligatory declaration of interest. I’m a professional fundraiser working for St Anne’s, one of Oxford’s 39 colleges.

Reasons to be cheerful... 1, 2, 3

At last, at long last - a balanced and fair comment piece in The Times from Tim Hames that takes a longer-term view of the Lib Dems’ prospects (in sharp contrast to the doom-mongering unsurprisingly favoured by our political opponents, and occasionally given credence by party members of a glass-half-full disposition).

His article starts off a tad dodgily - “Sir Menzies took to the airwaves last week to deny that there are MPs who want [an early end] to his leadership.” As Liberal Review has already noted, Ming was simply responding, with his customarily courteous brusqueness briskness, to a question posed by BBC Radio 4’s Today Programme in a wide-ranging interview. That it was the only aspect highlighted by the media is indicative of journalists’ (and readers’) preference for personality politics over issue of substance.

This newest bout of speculation is, in any case, based on this evidence (according to the BBC): “An unnamed Lib Dem MP [who] was last week said to have criticised his leadership.” Which leaves me staggeringly underwhelmed. Unattributable single sources have a pretty murky history, as The Today Programme knows only too well. Besides, it would be astonishing if not one of our 63 MPs had anything negative to say about Ming’s leadership - that’s a long way away from anyone preparing to mount a palace coup.

And it’s on just such a remote possibility that Mr Hames’ analysis is most shrewd, and should be carefully considered by any party member thinking the Lib Dems should make our opponents’ year, and be panicked into changing leaders. He gives three impeccably cogent reasons why such a move would be foolhardy:

1. “Of all the years in this decade when a change in the Liberal Democrat leadership would win scant attention, this is it. Compared with the arrival of a new prime minister and a wholesale turnover in the Cabinet and Downing Street staff, swapping a Campbell for a Clegg would be utterly inconsequential.”

2. “… the publicity obtained by the Liberal Democrats and their performance at the polls are not intimately related. The chances are that Sir Menzies will have much to smile about after the May elections. His party will do well in Scotland, better in Wales and should pick up council seats in urban England. If there is a parliamentary by-election almost anywhere this year, they will be in the running.”

And most importantly, and most positively:

3. “The Liberal Democrats, steered by Vince Cable, their Treasury spokesman, have framed a more coherent stance on tax and may well have settled on sizeable and credible cuts in central government spending by the time of their annual conference. If the Conservative policy exercise does not work well, the contrast could be striking. It will make it harder for their opponents to claim, as they invariably do, that Lib Dem sums “do not add up” or that if voters were to deliver a hung parliament they would risk placing into partial power a party that is the political equivalent of the Addams Family.

“In short, there is more to the Liberal Democrats than Mr Öpik’s libido. And despite the absence of Sir Menzies from television screens nightly, the party is in a more robust condition today than it was when Mr Kennedy fell so spectacularly 12 months ago.”

We should be careful not to assume the complacent assumption that ‘Steady as she goes’ is all the party needs to do. But we should be equally resistant to succumbing to the media-spun line that ‘We’re sinking’. 2006 was tough; but, given how it began, it could have been a lot worse for the Lib Dems. Our task now is to make 2007 a year to remember for all the right reasons.

January 06, 2007

Not minging

For reasons not immediately apparent to me, this is the top YouTube return for the search term ‘Ming Campbell’. One way to boost ratings for our next party political, I s’pose...

Old arguments revisited

I was intrigued by this graph in the Economist’s analysis of ‘The future of the BBC’:

"… the BBC is not equally loved by everyone. The rich and the old are keener on it than the poor and the young, who in effect subsidise the viewing and listening of more prosperous households."

There has been much holiday discussion about the need for the Lib Dems to regain our risk-taking cutting edge, to dare to be different.

I have to confess to some degree of amusement, though, that I can imagine our party more happily agreeing to scrap Trident than the BBC licence fee.

Stet for stats

I know what the Grauniad’s Martin Kettle is trying to say, but he might have found a more persuasive way of saying it:
The current decline of public trust in the reliability of government statistics is spectacular. An Office for National Statistics survey in 2005 underlines just how dire the situation has become. It found that a mere 17% of people think that government statistics are free from ministerial interference and only 14% say that government uses the figures honestly.
Quoting a statistic as proof of how debased statistics are is an admittedly neat meta-irony.

Though not quite as ironic as Mr Kettle’s optimistic thesis that the statistics bill announced in the Queen’s Speech could demonstrate Gordon Brown’s pluralist approach to open and accountable government.

January 04, 2007

Sale of the (18th) Century

You’re the first elected Muslim congressman in the USA. You want to swear your oath of office using the Quran. But you want to deflect the inevitable reactionary criticism that will follow. What do you do?

Well, Minnesotan Democrat Keith Ellison has come up with an ingenious solution, as reported by IndianMuslims.info:
When Keith Ellison takes his individual ceremonial oath of office today (4th of Jan), it is to be with one hand upon Thomas Jefferson’s copy of the Quran.

Ellison, the first Muslim elected to Congress, requested to take the oath upon Jefferson’s personal copy of George Sale’s 1734 translation of the Koran, commonly called the Alcoran of Mohammed is published in London in 1764.

The two-volume work, which resides in the Library of Congress’ Rare Book and Special Collections Division, is one of nearly 6,500 titles sold to Congress by Jefferson in 1815 to replace the Congressional Library that had been destroyed when the British burned the Capitol during the War of 1812.

January 03, 2007

Lib Dem Voice: Unmasked… Part II

Here it is, as promised, the second installment of my interview with Rob Fenwick, founding editor of Lib Dem Voice. (If you missed Part I click here.)

Q: What plans do you have to expand and improve LDV in 2007?
RF: Re-designing the site is a priority - a new design is needed to make navigation easier and show off the broad range of contributions and contributors. I'm always on the lookout for new people to join in and get writing, Podcasting, or videoing. I'd love to get more contributions from outside the South East of England - the first fortnight of the site saw Blog posts come in from Wales, Scotland and other places, but since then it's become harder to encourage contributors from across the country.

Q: What is the role for blogs in British politics? After all, even the uber-bloggers such as Guido Fawkes are read by a small fraction of people in the UK? Isn’t their influence over-hyped?
RF: Blogs have one hundred and one roles in British politics - everything from allowing constituents to communicate with Councillors (see Walcot Ward, for example), to running the sort of salacious gossip the media wouldn't dare / care to print (eg, Guido Fawkes), to allowing the public to comment on the words of the Prime Minister's Official Spokesperson.

The power of blogging as a medium is not over-hyped (I believe, for example, that Lynne Featherstone's Blog played no small part in helping her win Hornsey and Wood Green), but the power of 'celebrity' bloggers is massively over-hyped. Guido Fawkes is a Westminster Village distraction, the love of politicians and journalists. Even Iain Dale's Prescott revelations, which broke in to the mainstream media, probably actively grabbed the attention of 1% of the population. The other 99% either shrugged their shoulders and muttered 'bloody politicans, they're all at it', or simply didn't hear the story.

One of these days a blogger may come up with something that topples a cabinet minister, or causes a major shift in government policy - but that's not a power inherent in blogging. Any individual, in the right place at the right time with the right message, can change the country - blog or no blog. In the meantime, is there a danger of some bloggers disappearing up their own backsides? Definitely.

Q: Are there things you think the Lib Dem party website could learn from the success of LDV?
RF: Our party website lacks a human touch - ask the Liberal Democrats what we believe, what we stand for, and the website offers you a 20 page policy document - and in the process we pride ourselves on having more detailed policies than the Conservatives. The policy's there, but there's no narrative, little humanity and, dare I say it - no passion.

I'd like to see our website make more use of the diverse base of people in our activist ranks - photos, comment on topical issues, videos even. It seems sometimes that party spokespeople agonise over every subtlety, every nuance of every word uttered in public - specific phrases are tested and polled, we stay away from some issues for fear of upsetting strong lobbies, and of course - we mustn't upset the party's big donors. Is it any wonder then that sometimes what we have to say is about as interesting and inspiring as an exhibition of kitchen floor tiles?

We're the third party, constantly having to pedal our bike furiously to keep our place in the political arena, let alone move faster - I really believe we have to take risks and be less in cautious in what we say if we are to re-catch the public's imagination for reasons other than rent boys and Cheeky Girls.

Q: And, finally, is LDV your main party activity? Or, to put it more bluntly, when was the last time you got off your butt, and delivered a Focus?
RF: I'm very aware of the phenomenal electoral power of printed leaflets, and am prepared to do my bit locally and at by-elections and the like to deliver Focus. I do worry that the party passes harsh judgement on those who cannot, or will not deliver leaflets. I fear we may be turning off activists who can provide valuable assistance with things like office support, logistics, even management and training skills. Activism should be permitted to be more than solely being a postman / postwoman, or producer of literature.

My main form of activism is building various bits of web stuff for the party - recently I was in Scotland helping the team there prepare the internet side of their 2007 election campaign. Before that I put together the party's new Extranet, and continue to provide support for it. I have been regularly involved in keeping the front page of libdems.org.uk fresh. I assembled the IT infrastructure for the Bromley & Chislehurst by-election this year - the platform on which tens of thousands of target letters and other election communications were printed.

As I see my web and IT work for the party as no less a form of activism than delivering Focus, I (unlike most of the party's web developers and agencies) offer my services free of charge, and have done since I left the party's employ more than 18 months ago. Like many activists, we're talking about very many hours of effort. In return for what would commercially equate to tens of thousands of pounds worth of IT 'consultancy' over the years, I only beg to be let off canvassing. I hate it, and am in awe of those who can canvass effortlessly, but please - never again let the words, 'Hello, I'm Rob Fenwick and I'm here on behalf of the Liberal Democrats,' pass my lips.


Richard Cohen of the Washington Post (via Daniel Finkelstein’s CommentCentral) celebrates the recent academic achievements of Monica Lewinsky - newly graduated from the LSE with a Masters in social psychology - and rightly takes to task those journalists still gleefully condemning her for her youthful indiscretions:
Her thesis was titled "In Search of the Impartial Juror: An Exploration of the Third Person Effect and Pre-Trial Publicity." Her thesis might well have been called "In Search of the Impartial Journalist," because she was immediately the subject of more poke-in-the-ribs stories about you know what. The Post, a better paper than it was that day, called her "dumb-but-smart." It was more than could be said for that piece. …

Fortunately for me -- and probably this applies to you as well -- my outrageous deeds are known to only a few, and some of those people, after a lifetime of bad marriages and poor investments, have probably forgotten them. In Lewinsky's case, her youthful indiscretion has been forgotten by no one. On the contrary, it's recorded for the ages, in House and Senate proceedings, in the files of the creepy special prosecutor, in the databases of newspapers, in presidential histories and the musty joke files of second-rate comics.
One of the reasons I have never fallen for Bill Clinton’s much-touted charisma is the inescapable truth that he was perfectly happy to see Ms Lewinsky trashed as a fantasising floozy to save his own political skin. That cloud rather obscures for me the progressive idealism which seems still to dazzle others.

Where I partially part company with Mr Cohen is with this remark:
It would be nice, too, and fair, also, if Lewinsky were treated by the media as it would treat a man. What's astounding is the level of sexism applied to her, as if the wave of the women's movement broke over a new generation of journalists and not a drop fell on any of them. Where, pray tell, is the man who is remembered just for sex?
I think the Lib Dems’ very own human anagram, Lembit Öpik, might bestow a rueful smile in the direction of that question.

January 02, 2007

Lib Dem Voice: Unmasked... Part I

In the 114 days since it was launched (on 9th September, 2006), Lib Dem Voice has well and truly become established as the premier unofficial website for party members - “our place to talk” as LDV bills itself.

In its first week, it was garlanded by Iain Dale as the No. 1 Lib Dem website. In its first month, it attracted 7,000 visits, and now lures in almost double that number.

The techie inspiration behind LDV is Rob Fenwick, the über-blogging posh-sounding Northumbrian, and former Lib Dem Internet Campaigns Officer. (A fuller biog can be found here.)

Rob and I first met via e-mail when I posted a pretty critical comment on his blog to which he took the time to reply (ever so courteously). So I guess it seemed logical enough that when he felt it was time to set the record straight about what prompted him to start up LDV, and whether he has any hidden agendas, Rob reckoned I might ask him a few, erm, direct questions.

As the whole interview weighs in just shy of 2,500 words, I’ve split it into two parts.

Today, part I, unmasks the motivations behind LDV: is it an ego-trip? Does Rob want to be our Iain Dale? Does he regret the ‘rumour mill’?

In tomorrow’s concluding part, Rob anticipates how LDV might develop in the future, and tells us what he thinks of Guido Fawkes, the party’s website, and his dislike of canvassing.


Q: What’s the aim of Lib Dem Voice? Is it a party mouthpiece with attitude? Or do you want it to be the Lib Dem version of ConservativeHome?
RF: When I started planning the site in August 2006, ConservativeHome and LabourHome were models I looked to - though I also wanted to add a private, members-only part of the site which is something they don't offer.

As time has passed, the site has developed in to something which is different to ConHome and LabHome. While it certainly isn't a party mouthpiece, it isn't afraid to say when the party has done something right, as well as when it's slipped up. Lib Dem Voice should 'tell it as it is' - sometimes things go well, sometimes they don't. Both eventualities are given space.

Sometimes Conservative Home sounds like a party within a party - I don't want that to happen to Lib Dem Voice.

Q: Can LDV claim to be independent of the party when you used to work for the Lib Dems, regular contributor Mark Pack still does, and former contributor Will Howells has just started at Cowley Street?
RF: Will had no ties that I am aware of with Cowley Street when he joined up to LDV, but he'll be an asset to the party in his new role and I wish him well! He made a great contribution to Liberal Democrat Voice, and there's no doubt he will be missed.

The site is independently run, independently edited, and independently financed. The proof of the independence pudding is in the eating. Just look at the archive - a broad base of contributions from a wide range of people, all speaking their mind - their words, not the party's words.

Mark Pack (the party's Head of Innovation - or 'propeller-head in chief') and I have worked together on various projects for a couple of years now. I think we trust each other, so giving him a place to publish news and thoughts of interest to the party on Lib Dem Voice seems natural. He has the ability to post straight up on to the site without having to go through me first - so as I have independence from 'Cowley St', they have independence from me!

But as an aside, members are often very hard on 'Cowley St' as some sort of impersonal all-seeing entity. Cowley Street is an office like any other, full of people of various levels of enthusiasm and ability - we expect impossible things of the very small number of people there, and stamp our feet and mutter when they don't deliver. We activists should cut the people in our HQ some slack now and then. HQ could play its part in that by opening up the staff list to members, and perhaps even offering a virtual tour!

Q: What prompted you to start LDV up, and how is it funded? Is your aim to become the Lib Dems’ Iain Dale?
RF: Without wishing to be rude to Iain, I've absolutely no desire to follow in his footsteps. Iain has successfully managed to build himself a living as a conservative commentator - his 'product' as a pundit is himself and his thoughts. I couldn't live the pundit lifestyle. One, I haven't got the brains and two, I like my job to end at five o'clock. Pundits never stop working.

The idea for Lib Dem Voice had been bubbling away in the back of my mind for a while - basically, what is at the heart of it is a belief that, no matter how excellent (and cheap!) publications like Liberal Democrat News are, members shouldn't have to pay to get access to important party information, like PPC selections and routine announcements. Also I believe that members benefit from having an independently owned and managed place where we can talk to one another.

The trigger that led me to finally create the site was rather dull and technical I'm afraid. The introduction of a new web service that allows party websites to check whether or not people are members of the party meant that I was able to create a truly secure 'members-only' section - the last barrier to getting off my backside to create the site was thus removed.

At the moment, the modest charges involved are paid for out of my pocket. I can't see that changing in the foreseeable future.

Q: Does LDV have any policy agenda (eg, pro- or anti-Orange Book)? After all, you were closely associated with Simon Hughes’s leadership campaign, and would identify yourself with the ‘social liberal’ side of the party.
RF: Are you calling me a lefty? Well I am a bit of a lefty at heart, it's true - and I believe that Simon Hughes would have been the best choice for the party earlier this year, but a majority of fellow party members disagreed, and I respect that.

My personal emphasis on social liberalism over economic liberalism is one of the reasons why it's important that Lib Dem Voice continues to be a platform for individuals - any individuals - to say their piece. It is not a platform for me to push my personal policy beliefs - I have a personal blog for that. Having a broad range of contributors giving their opinion usually ensures balance, but when Lib Dem Voice is reporting news, I think impartiality is paramount - and I do try and exercise impartiality in reporting.

Liberal Democrat Voice has no policy agenda - in the case of party conference for example, LDV was reporting the facts of what happened, or was offering space for people to argue their respective corners, but Lib Dem Voice doesn't adopt a stance and say 'this is our collective view' - with so many different viewpoints represented on the Blog, in the comments, and in the discussion board, it's very difficult for that to happen.

Q: Some LDV postings have raised some eyebrows – eg, revealing Paul Rainger was quitting as the party’s director of campaigns, and highlighting well-known blogger Susanne Lamido’s expulsion from the party. How do you intend to walk the tightrope between breaking news and breaking confidences? And are there any articles you regret posting?
RF: No regrets... yet. In the two cases you cite I learned some lessons on dealing with the fallout from posting up 'breaking' news, but if the situation arose again, I'd publish again.

That's not to say I'm always hell bent on publishing and being damned - many articles have been held back until certain times to respect clearly expressed individual wishes - Paul Keetch's decision not to stand at the next election is the most recent example. LDV respected the embargo. As for breaking confidences - that hasn't happened.

Q: The ‘Rumour Mill’ is another section of the site which has proved controversial. Why did you introduce it? To get attention; as a way of proving that LDV is unofficial; a populist way to increase your audience reach; or a bit of fun?
RF: Oh all of the above, and a healthy dose of gut instinct for what would 'work' on the site, too.

Political parties thrive on gossip - though I must say that the Rumour Mill is proving increasingly difficult to find content for. There is a world of difference between passing gossip to one another in private, and putting it down on screen for in copy+pasteable form. I take the responsibility of ensuring that Liberal Democrat Voice doesn't casually damage the party very seriously - one of my great fears is turning up to a parliamentary by-election to find a quote from Lib Dem Voice popping up on a Tory or Labour leaflet out of context.

Q: You set up the LDV Forum to enable party members to discuss issues behind ‘closed doors’. Was this to prevent the vitriol often seen in the comments section of ConservativeHome from being on such public display? And how effective do you think it’s been?
RF: People say things online they simply wouldn't dream of saying to someone's face - sometimes, myself included. We're all human. There's no doubt that I would prefer that some of the more robust debates that inevitably happen between members to be conducted behind closed doors. I also want the members’ forum to be available as place where anyone can start a discussion on any subject, rather than be bound by whatever is being discussed on the public part of the site. It's a place where everyone has the instant power to set the agenda, without having to go through any sort of editorial process.

The discussion board is getting there. There are many more readers / lurkers than there are posters, which is a shame, but is perhaps to be expected. The Private Messaging feature sees a lot of use though (don't worry! site administrators can't read your messages, only see statistics on how many are sent). The discussion board could be a really valuable asset to the party, and I encourage your readers to dive in - for everyone's benefit.

Part II tomorrow...