Sunday 31 March 2013

Why the next manifesto will be boring

The Liberal Democrats have already begun the process of drafting their manifesto for the 2015 general election. Dr Alun Wyburn-Powell reminds us of something fundamental the party risks forgetting:
The major political parties are worried that the voters will blame them for the state of the economy at the next election. But with opinion polls showing that voters share the blame between the last Labour government, the current coalition and the problems of the world economy, there is little to be gained for any party in trying to revisit the past and apportion blame to their opponents. Why?
Voters tend not to be interested in the past (if they even know about it). They are more interested in who can offer the best future. There are plenty of examples of voters ignoring the past (good or bad) and voting for what they believe will be the best option for the future.
This truth presents the Liberal Democrats with a practical problem. If you want to entice voters with “the best option for the future”, you need a vision, and for that you need values.

Liberals have no shortage of values, so why should creating a vision be a problem?

First, Nick Clegg is promoting the idea that he is a non-ideological pragmatist following the only possible course of action. Because he thinks his preferences are both obvious and inevitable, he will brook no argument. Left to his own devices, we will get a manifesto featuring a vague promise of ‘fairness’, an indistinguishable appeal to the mythical ‘centre ground’, patronising lectures about an endless need for austerity, inflated claims about the crumbs the party has picked up from the coalition table, and a tedious blame game (“the mess left by Labour”). What we won’t get is any vision of how society could be radically different. How can we, when above all Clegg will want to avoid saying anything that is implicitly critical of coalition government policy or that makes it more difficult to renew the coalition with the Tories?

Then there is the problem of David Laws, who Clegg has appointed to chair the working group that is drafting the manifesto. Laws has a strong ideological attachment to the failed economic orthodoxy of the past three decades. Left to his own devices, we won’t get a vision for the future but the promise of a better yesterday.

Ah, you may say, but what about the party’s Federal Policy Committee? The FPC is supervising the manifesto drafting process. Surely it will ensure the necessary vision and values? If only we could be so sure.

In 2011, the FPC produced a ‘policy development agenda’, a sort of pre-manifesto called Facing the Future. It was a depressingly timid, unimaginative and lacklustre document, which signally failed to face the future. That is why David Boyle and I wrote an alternative called Really Facing the Future, which suggested a bolder direction for the party.

As long as the Liberal Democrat leadership is reluctant to face the future but prefers to look to the past and cling to a clapped out orthodoxy, the party will fail to offer “the best option for the future” and will suffer the consequences at the 2015 election.

Saturday 30 March 2013

Jimmy Savile and 21st century witchcraft

In an interview for Spiked, Professor Frank Furedi talks about his new book Moral Crusades in an Age of Mistrust: The Jimmy Savile Scandal. Furedi argues that the Savile case has acquired totemic status in a moral crusade that promotes a victim culture rather than actually helping victims:
It seems to me that victim culture has a tendency to ratify the victims’ identity and to recast it as permanent, for life. Which I don’t think is good for anyone, including those who have suffered from abuse. I’ve no interest in being complicit in this process of undermining the power and agency of individuals to deal with negative experiences. Rather, I want the victims to transcend their experience, to begin to regain control over their existence instead of being encouraged to embrace the victim narrative which gives the victim this constant, very distinct, very limited identity.
Furedi does not defend Savile’s behaviour at all – far from it. But he is well aware of the risks he is taking by questioning victim culture:
...the victims are used as a form of moral blackmail. What you have to remember is that it is based upon the idea that an allegation is not simply a claim but also that it must contain an element of truth. By definition it points towards something that is true. That’s one of the reasons I was so motivated to write this book. We live in a world where elementary notions of evidence and proof have been dispensed with, where you just assume in so many domains of experience that an allegation by itself is a precursor to establishing guilt. The police themselves do not use the word allegations in relation to Savile; they use something approximate to evidence. So what is really being said is that if you dare question an allegation, if you call for some measure of objectivity, then you’re complicit in a double victimisation. You are as bad as the person against whom the allegations have been made.
This is why I use a lot of material in the book about medieval witchcraft. The procedure adopted for dealing with sceptics is what you’d find in witchcraft manuals. I spent a lot of time, before writing the book, studying medieval witchcraft manuals. If you look at the guidance that was being given to witchhunters, time and time again they are told that the people they really have to worry about are those who deny the existence of witchcraft. In short, the sceptics are considered worse than the witches themselves. The act of denial or of scepticism is seen as being corrosive to the hunt, or in this case, the crusade.
Even today, if you are accused of abuse, and you claim ‘I’m innocent’, that’s acceptable to some extent, because you’re not questioning the framework in which the whole debate occurs. You might be criticised for lying. But if you question the way in which this culture of abuse has been created, then you are considered to be wholly more dangerous.

George Carey is a very silly man

The May 1968 protests in Paris were noted, amongst other things, for the graffiti. One read: “The church complains of persecution when it is not allowed to persecute.”

I was reminded of this by former Archbishop of Canterbury George Carey’s extraordinary article in today’s Daily Mail. One can think of many reasons for criticising David Cameron, but “aggressive secularism”?

Carey wrote: was a bit rich to hear that the Prime Minister has told religious leaders that they should ‘stand up and oppose aggressive secularisation’ when it seems that his government is aiding and abetting this aggression every step of the way.
At his pre-Easter Downing Street reception for faith leaders, he said that he supported Christians’ right to practise their faith. Yet many Christians doubt his sincerity. According to a new ComRes poll more than two-thirds of Christians feel that they are part of a ‘persecuted minority’.
Their fears may be exaggerated because few in the UK are actually persecuted, but the Prime Minister has done more than any other recent political leader to feed these anxieties.
What is Cameron’s crime? It seems to boil down to the issue of gay marriage; freedom for gay people means persecuting Christians, apparently.

Carey needs to understand two things. First, ‘secular’ does not mean ‘anti-religious’; secularism is in the interests of everyone, religious and non-religious, since it is about creating a space we can all share, a space of mutual tolerance, a space where religion is neither privileged nor persecuted. Second, if your idea of religious freedom is contingent on being able to persecute others, that is no freedom at all.

There are more legitimate worries, such as the spread of faith schools and attempts to teach creationism in schools, not to mention the growth of violent religious fundamentalism. Carey has nothing to say about these trends, which somewhat contradict his silly claims.

When people are being stoned to death for blasphemy, then they can complain about feeling persecuted.

Friday 29 March 2013

South Shields is not Eastleigh

The resignation of David Miliband as an MP means there will be a by-election in his South Shields constituency. But this will not be another famous Liberal Democrat victory, more a case of damage limitation.

Liberator has looked up the South Shields result in the 2010 general election so you don’t have to:
52.0% Labour
21.6% Conservative
14.2% Liberal Democrat
6.5% BNP
2.1% Green
3.6% Others
Labour majority 11,109
Turnout 57.7%
In short, it is a safe Labour seat and Labour will hold it. A Labour hold will not be an achievement. A Labour hold will not be news. There will be more interest in the performance of the other parties.

Liberal Democrat prospects are not good. The party’s vote in 2010 had fallen by 5% since the previous general election in 2005 and, on present form, may fall still further, with the risk of a lost deposit. There is no local government base and not a single Liberal Democrat councillor in the constituency; South Shields is in the Labour-dominated metropolitan borough of South Tyneside, which has 48 Labour councillors, 1 Conservative, 1 UKIP and 4 independents. The by-election will almost certainly be held on the same day as the local elections on 2nd May. For all these reasons, the Liberal Democrat campaign will not attract thousands of volunteers as in Eastleigh; instead, the party is more likely to play the whole thing down as it did in Barnsley Central and Rotherham.

The more observant among you may have noticed there was no UKIP candidate in 2010. That won’t be the case in this by-election. Indeed, the bookies reckon UKIP will come second, as it did in Eastleigh. This is not so much because of Eastleigh but because, once Tory voters realise the Tories have no hope of winning, they will feel safe in switching to UKIP as a protest vote.

The perception that a Labour victory is certain will, of course, have another consequence. The turnout will be abysmal.

Secret courts and the Stockholm syndrome

More information has come to light regarding Tuesday night’s votes in the House of Lords on secret courts. And it seems there is a fundamental problem of Liberal Democrats on the government payroll (i.e. ministers and whips) behaving as if they are suffering from a coalition equivalent of the Stockholm syndrome.

There were three key amendments in the Lords debate:
  1. Amendment 6A (proposed by Labour peer Jeremy Beecham, which would have made secret courts a “last resort”). This amendment was narrowly defeated by 174 votes to 158, a margin of 16. 26 Liberal Democrat peers defied the whip and voted for this amendment, while 29 supported the government by voting against party policy.
  2. Amendment 6B (proposed by Liberal Democrat peer Ken Macdonald, which would have empowered judges to balance demands for closed hearings with the public interest in open justice). This amendment was not moved to a vote.
  3. Amendments 19A to 19D (proposed by Liberal Democrat peer Jonathan Marks, which concerned the review and renewal of the legislation). Amendment 19B was heavily defeated by 141 votes to 65, a margin of 76. 31 Liberal Democrat peers defied the whip and voted for this amendment, while 22 supported the government. The other Marks amendments (19A, C and D) were not moved to a vote. The increased size of the rebellion was largely due to the party leadership in both Houses privately agreeing that it was OK to rebel on this amendment, so the vote was not the display of cojones it might first appear.
Of those Liberal Democrat peers who backed the government, 12 of the 29 on the first vote and 10 of the 22 on the second vote were part of the so-called payroll vote (including whips who don’t actually receive any pay). The rebels therefore had a clear majority of those Liberal Democrat peers who were free agents.

There are reports that about 20 Liberal Democrat peers were in the building but abstained on both votes, while others stayed at home. Given the first vote was so narrow, it would not have required many more Liberal Democrat peers (and/or Labour peers) to secure victory. On the second vote, however, Liberal Democrat peers could not have salvaged the amendment no matter how many rebelled; the problem was the failure of enough Labour peers to vote. The timing was also a problem. The two votes took place later than expected (at 9.21pm and 10pm respectively, instead of 7pm).

The ‘what ifs’ extend beyond the conduct of Tuesday night’s votes. Liberal Democrat peers were put in a difficult position by their colleagues in the Commons. And the circumstances of being in coalition will in any case create frequent conflicts of loyalty.

But let us say you are a Liberal Democrat peer who feels that the discipline of being in coalition always overrides questions of liberal principle. You ought at least to vote for things like secret courts with a heavy heart and not act like one Liberal Democrat whip did on Tuesday night by being openly jubilant when the amendments were defeated.

This enthusiasm when fundamental liberal principles are abandoned suggests that being in coalition has created something akin to the Stockholm syndrome among Liberal Democrat parliamentarians who are either on the government payroll or aspire to it. They should remember that the coalition is a creature of circumstance and not political nirvana. If swallowing bitter pills makes you light up with joy, you really do need a good slap.

Talking of people in need of a good slap, there is more information on Nick Clegg’s recent immigration speech. Simon Hughes was shown the text only one hour before it was delivered and, in the short time available, is said to have prevented it from being even worse.

Thursday 28 March 2013

Please spare some of your outrage for this

What with secret courts, immigration and now the snoopers charter, it is understandable if Liberal Democrat members’ anger is all used up on civil liberties issues at the moment.

But please spare some of your anger for this: the introduction of food stamps:
“Food stamps” arrive in Britain next month, when tens of thousands of vulnerable people will be issued with food vouchers in lieu of money to tide them over short-term financial crises.
Rather than, as now, offering a cash loan, most councils will from April offer new applicants who qualify for emergency assistance a one-off voucher redeemable for goods such as food and nappies.
Many of the 150 local authorities in England running welfare schemes have confirmed that they will issue the vouchers in the form of payment cards, which will be blocked or monitored to prevent the holder using them for alcohol, cigarettes or gambling.
In a perceptive piece in today’s Guardian, Suzanne Moore contrasts this news with the middle class obsession with food evidenced by the boom in TV cookery programmes. (It’s more food voyeurism than cookery; we can see from what’s on offer on the supermarket shelves that the middle classes aren’t cooking more but are actually relying increasingly on ready meals). She reveals that the switch from cash assistance to vouchers is not about saving money but imposing a moral view:
In this world of endless gastronomy, the superstar chefs say eat seasonally and simply. Again, this requires dosh. Choice costs. So what so we do for genuinely poor people? We take away even the most basic of choices. We infantilise them. They are not our problem any longer, but charity cases.
In order to treat people like this one must first vilify them. This has been the coalition project from day one: the immorality of those on welfare is the basic recipe. Repeat after me: austerity removes autonomy. We turn the vulnerable into villains, but even the most rabid rightwinger must pretend that little children should be fed. Do food stamps achieve this? This may indeed be the most ineffective way of administering aid. Edward Glaeser, a Harvard economics professor thinks so. In the past 40 years the use of vouchers and stamps has grown hugely in the US, but dependency has not stopped. Putting money into people’s hands may actually stimulate the economy, but that remains abhorrent to this government, except in its bizarre sub-prime house buying fantasy...
If you accept poverty is the fault of poor people themselves, then you can refuse them choice or money, because you believe they cannot be trusted to spend it properly. Let them eat crappy cake while the rest of us carry on stuffing our faces with ever more exotic ready-meals. Or just say no to this sickness. Fasting is in after all.
How do you take even more away from people with nothing? You strip them of even the most basic of choices, that’s how. The notion of food stamps in a still wealthy country makes me gag. Swallow this and you will swallow anything. But that taste at the back of your throat is pure bile.
Oh, and if you still think that food stamps are justified because otherwise the poor will only waste their benefits on cigarettes and alcohol, the evidence suggests otherwise.

Wednesday 27 March 2013

And Clegg’s next slap in the face to the party is...?

Can it get any worse? Yes it can.

First, we had the vote in the House of Commons on 4th March on secret courts (compounded by last night’s vote in the House of Lords).

Then last Friday we had Nick Clegg’s speech on immigration.

Next on the agenda is the Communications Data Bill. The Drum reports:
The Communications Data Bill, which critics believe could introduce the most ‘intrusive’ powers for a Government in the West in order to store mass communications data, could be introduced in the coming weeks.
The Telegraph reports that the ‘Snoopers Charter’ as it has been nicknamed, could be included in the Queen’s Speech in May, which offers police and intelligence agencies the power to access the records of internet providers to record the activity of their customers.
According to a report from the Home Office, the new charter is necessary “to help in the investigation of crime,” with some communications data found to be longer retained “for business reasons.”
The argument for the bill is to help security services maintain a pace with technological advancement.
In February it was reported by the Daily Mail that the charter had already cost £400 million before any data had even been collected.
Yesterday, a report released by thinktank Demos suggested that police were putting together a centralised hub to ‘collect, store and analyse social media data.
Surely even Nick Clegg would oppose this? Don’t bet on it.

You may recall that, on 3rd April last year, there was a conference call on this very issue between some Liberal Democrat bloggers and some of Clegg’s advisers. By all accounts, this was a full and frank exchange of views. The most disturbing thing about that exchange was the advisers’ apparent lack of liberal instincts; they simply could not grasp why party members were up in arms. If this is indicative of the quality of advice Clegg is receiving, there is little wonder he is so insensitive to the party’s values and culture. But then if one is allocating blame, one is forced to ask why Clegg hires such advice in the first place.

On the night of that infamous conference call, Jonathan Calder advised Nick Clegg to consider this strategic question:
Who do you expect to vote for you at the next election? As my Liberator colleague Simon Titley never tires of pointing out, the Liberal Democrats’ great weakness is that our core vote is so small. We pride ourselves on working harder than the other parties, but the fact that we have to work so hard to persuade people to vote for us is really a sign of weakness.
What we need is a core of liberally minded people who naturally vote Liberal Democrat. If you put yourself on the other side of this debate from every civil liberties group in the country, it is hard to see why liberally minded people should vote for you.
So if you take my advice you will distance yourself from these proposals very loudly and very publicly.
Clegg’s performance on the issues of secret courts and immigration suggests that he is doing the precise opposite. He doesn’t agree with Jonathan Calder that the Liberal Democrat vote can be found among “liberally minded people”. He thinks it is in the same space that the other mainstream parties are trying to occupy: the mythical ‘centre ground’ (criticised recently by Tory MP Bernard Jenkin), with our old friends ‘Alarm Clock Britain’, ‘hard-working families’ and the ‘squeezed middle’.

Well I don’t know about you, Mr Clegg, but most members of the Liberal Democrats did not join the party and campaign so that they could blend in with the (small ‘c’ conservative) scenery. They joined to put liberal values into practice, and a liberal party that regards liberal issues as secondary or expendable has lost its point.

Clichés 2.0

A war on clichés is being waged across the pond. At the end of the day, clichés have become a hot-button issue in the tightly-knit media community inside the Beltway. Needless to say, in this paradigm shift, American journalism is literally at a crossroads. Is this the new normal? [That’s enough clichés. Ed.]

Warning: This mockery will continue until the ‘On Message’ and ‘Alarm Clock Britain’ merchants emerge from party HQ waving a white flag.

Tuesday 26 March 2013

Goodbye RAF, hello Bristow’s

So now search and rescue services are to be privatised. I thought the point of privatisation was to offer more choice but the Bristow Group has bagged the whole lot for £1.6bn. If you need rescuing, it will be Bristow or nothing.

What will the new service be like? If a ship is sinking off the British coast and a sailor makes a distress call, the response may sound like this:
Automated voice: “Thank you for calling Bristow Search and Rescue Services. Please wait for all of the available options before making your next selection. If your ship is sinking, press ‘1’. If you are already in the sea and drowning, press ‘2’. If you are dangling off the edge of a cliff, press ‘3’. If your child is floating away from the beach on a pink inflatable dinosaur, press ‘4’. If you are stupid enough to go mountain climbing in the middle of winter, press ‘5’. For all other services, press ‘6’. To hear this menu again, press ‘7’.”
The sailor in distress, despite being lashed by torrential rain and hurricane-force winds, just about manages to press ‘1’.
Automated voice: “Hello, you have reached Bristow’s Search and Rescue Services Customer-at-Sea Department. All of our customer service representatives are currently busy with other calls. Please stay on the line, and one of our representatives will answer your call as soon as possible.”
There then follows what seems like an eternity of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons.
Automated voice: “All of our customer service representatives are still busy. Please continue to hold for the next available representative.”
More Vivaldi.
Automated voice: “We are sorry to keep you waiting. Please hold. Your call is very important to us.”
Yet more Vivaldi.
Automated voice: “In order to ensure quality service, your call may be monitored. Please hold. Your call is very important to us.”
Even more Vivaldi.
Automated voice: “We believe you deserve the best service. Please don’t hang up. Someone will be right with you.”
By this stage, there is a serious danger that Vivaldi will run out of seasons.
Finally, a real human being comes on the line, speaking in that cheery sing-song tone used by hotel chain receptionists:
“Hello, this is Bristow Search and Rescue Services. How may I help you? [silent pause] Hello caller? Caller...?”

Postscript: More ideas are coming in for Bristow’s customer relations.

People needing rescue could be offered more choice:
  • Those lost on a mountain top can choose the hot air balloon rescue complete with a Mother’s Day hamper option.
  • “Please specify your helicopter size: S, M, L, XL.”
And potential customers could be enticed with these offers:
  • “Rescue two adults and the kids come free!”
  • “For the best prices, book your rescue well in advance.”
Finally, satisfaction is guaranteed:
  • “If you are not entirely satisfied with your rescue, please return it to us within 28 days and we will deposit you once more in jeopardy with no questions asked.”

Migrants and benefits: fact or myth?

David Cameron made a speech yesterday promising a crackdown on abuse of the welfare state by migrants. If you suspected that this crusade is based on dodgy assumptions, you’d be right.

Full Fact has analysed the facts and found that this is not exactly a case of evidence-based policy making. But then it rarely is in this age of tabloid hysteria and poll-driven policy.

No wonder Cameron’s speech is already unravelling. And as with Nick Clegg’s recent speech, no matter what protestations they make about the good side of immigration, merely to discuss the subject in terms of the anti-immigrant agenda is to validate that agenda.

Postscript: Chris Dillow has published a very good blog post on the facts about immigration, and the causes of popular irrationality.

Bad weather? Blame the coalition

If you are wondering who to blame for the current unseasonal weather, look no further. It is the coalition government’s fault. Or at least it is if you cannot tell the difference between correlation and causation.

The Guardian’s Datablog has not made that error but it has correlated the Met Office’s monthly data with the terms of office of each British prime minister since Margaret Thatcher:
It appears that under David Cameron it has been colder, and less sunny – but there has been less rainfall too. Under Tony Blair, there was more sunshine and warmer temperatures than the decade before – but more rain. Margaret Thatcher saw a lot more rain and less sunshine – and Gordon Brown saw more sun but colder temperatures.
Unfortunately, the data does not show which bits of the weather since 2010 the Liberal Democrats can claim the credit for. Presumably it is those bits that are ‘fairer’.

Monday 25 March 2013

The best thing about the budget

One of the best things about last week’s budget went unheralded among Liberal Democrats, probably because it was not something for which the party could claim sole credit (although Liberal Democrat MP Greg Mulholland played a big part in achieving it).

The Chancellor announced that the hated beer duty escalator would be scrapped, for good. Not only that, but the 3p rise in beer duty tax planned for this year was cancelled. Even better, beer duty was cut by 1p.

CAMRA (the Campaign for Real Ale) explains the significance of this move:
Beer duty will no longer rise automatically every year 2% above inflation, in turn keeping down the cost of your pint down the pub.
Since the escalator was introduced in 2008, beer tax has increased by 42%, driving up the cost of a pint and driving consumers away from their local pubs. In that time, 5,800 pubs have closed for good.
The brewing of craft beers is a booming industry in the UK, whose growth was being stunted by excessive taxation. Pubs, meanwhile, are a vital community resource and their loss corrodes society. The soaring price of beer is not the only reason pubs have closed but it is major contributory factor, encouraging more people to buy their beer from supermarkets and drink at home. Far from reducing irresponsible drinking, the beer duty escalator was counterproductive. It is a Labour policy we are well rid of.

The campaign is not over, though. We need to ensure that the tax cut is passed on to customers. As Greg Mulholland points out:
Greg has also previously called on the Minister to insist on a guarantee from the big pub owning companies that if, as we hope, the beer duty escalator is scrapped, that they pass this on and lower prices to their tenants so that this extra revenue is passed on to licensees and to pub customers and not simply into the pockets of the large pub companies to service their unsustainable debt levels.
And there’s another fly in the ointment. The wine and spirit industry has complained, with some justification, that it is unfair to single out beer for favourable treatment. Expect a legal challenge under EU competition law.

The worst thing about the budget

Regular readers will know that a bugbear of this blog is political jargon, the stock phrases and clichés that litter politicians’ speeches.

Bravo, then, to the Telegraph’s Tom Chivers for spotting the worst thing about George Osborne’s budget speech, a major flaw that eluded other journalists; the grim phrase “aspiration nation”:
It’s hard to imagine a way you could abuse the English language more efficiently. It rhymes, for a start, which makes it sound (as a colleague put it) like the name of a bad instrumental jazz album. It is also simultaneously trying to sound clever (“Aspiration! It’s like hope, except it’s got four syllables”) and patronising us (“OK peons, this should be simple enough for you to remember”). For a two-word phrase, that’s good going.
Osborne is not the only culprit:
Every Budget, every major political speech, has to have its own “Aspiration Nation” moment these days. A worthy subset of the population needs to be defined, its undeserving opposite implicitly criticised; the speaker and their party is thus placed on the side of the angels, the hard-working strivers and the little man crushed between the uncaring cogs of the economic machine. “The squeezed middle”, “Mondeo Man”, “Alarm-clock Britain”. The PR teams and focus groups that form the withered heart of 21st-century government create these labels in the hope that a large enough demographic group hears them, thinks “Yes! I am financially squeezed/drive a mid-range saloon/own an alarm clock! This man/woman has seen into my soul and knows the true me: my hopes, my dreams, my morning routine. He/she can be trusted with stewardship of this country”, and puts a cross in the appropriate box.
Despite the competition, Chivers rates Osborne’s catchphrase the worst of the bunch:
...of all of these stupid, intelligence-insulting little nonsense-phrases, “aspiration nation” is surely the worst. The horrible jargony feel, as if the speaker is about to demand that we action it, going forward; the sheer unoriginality of it, a pointless rewording of all the “hard-working families” and “strivers, not shirkers” that we have heard with such unrelenting tedium for however many years.
Is it too much to hope that the Liberal Democrats will turn their backs on this sort of soulless, hackneyed language? Apparently it is.

Tonight on BBC2 – it’s the Boris Johnson Show!

If you enjoyed the car-crash television of Eddie Mair’s interview yesterday with the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, another treat is in store.

Tonight (Monday) at 9pm, BBC2 will broadcast a documentary by Michael Cockerell, Boris Johnson: The Irresistible Rise. Boris’s sister and father are amongst those spilling the beans.

The idea that Boris would replace David Cameron as Tory leader and prime minister was always rather fanciful. After these two programmes, it is doubtful any bookie would even bother offering long odds.

Later... An interesting analysis by Sunny Hundal, which predicts that Sunday’s interview will open the floodgates.

Sunday 24 March 2013

What’s wrong with rights

Our thanks to the grumpy old blogger Grumpy Old Liberal, who recommends a new book called Defending Politics by Professor Matthew Flinders of the University of Sheffield. The publisher’s website summarises the book’s central thesis:
Matthew Flinders makes a highly unfashionable but incredibly important argument of almost primitive simplicity: democratic politics delivers far more than most members of the public appear to acknowledge and understand. If more and more people are disappointed with what modern democratic politics delivers then is it possible that the fault lies with those who demand too much, fail to acknowledge the essence of democratic engagement and ignore the complexities of governing in the twentieth century rather than with democratic politics itself? Is it possible that the public in many advanced liberal democracies have become ‘democratically decadent’ in the sense that they take what democratic politics delivers for granted? Would politics be interpreted as failing a little less if we all spent a little less time emphasising our individual rights and a little more time reflecting on our responsibilities to society and future generations?
If this publisher’s blurb is anything to go by, Flinders is right on the money. We need more emphasis on the need for a just society, in which people’s life chances are not diminished by social class, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation or any other factor beyond their control. The emphasis on individual rights has hindered not helped the cause of social justice. It has turned the debate into a pissing contest between self-interested groups with competing claims to victimhood, while those most in need have been left behind.

Things went wrong in the 1980s. The main reason the left completely failed to mount a serious intellectual challenge to Thatcherism is that it had become self-obsessed. As I wrote in my chapter of Reinventing the State:
The right may have believed that ‘there is no such thing as society’ but there is a tendency to forget that, during the 1980s, the left became just as self-indulgent. It was the decade of being ‘right on’, when the left abandoned its traditional social concerns and instead emphasised the solipsistic obsessions of identity politics, a movement that rapidly descended into our present-day culture of victimhood.
We can see this phenomenon at work within the Liberal Democrats. The party has set up a ‘Candidate Leadership Programme’ “to identify, develop and support some of the best candidates from under-represented groups within the Party”. Yet some of the 40 places on this programme have been allocated to privileged white women at the expense of ethnic minority candidates, which has led to a furious dispute between those responsible for the programme and Ethnic Minority Liberal Democrats. Such outcomes are inevitable when attempts to create greater justice are perverted by competing claims to victimhood, especially when this enables the sharp elbows of the middle classes to hog resources and opportunities originally intended for those who are genuinely disadvantaged.

Self-centred demands also create a problem for democratic politics in general, because they are bound to lead to dissatisfaction. With the best will in the world, democratic politics simply cannot satisfy millions of individualised wants simultaneously. Markets can do that, which if fine if you are choosing a car, a washing machine or a packet of breakfast cereal – and you have sufficient money to make a real choice. But when it comes to the ‘commonweal’, our shared interests, democratic politics is the only power available to most people to make meaningful choices. However, the job of democratic politics is to reconcile rather than gratify. It cannot function properly without a sense that we share the same space and are not merely out to seek personal advantage or instant gratification.

Liberals are always vulnerable to charges of promoting selfish individualism. We must always be clear that, when we talk about individual liberty, we are cherishing the uniqueness of each and every person, and seeking liberty and life chances for each and every person. But this approach can work only in the context of a society in which mutual respect is fostered. That is why we should always place individual rights in the context of an overall demand for social justice, and why demands for ‘rights’ irrespective of other people’s needs are wrong.

So the next time you hear a wealthy and privileged party member pleading victimhood to gain personal advantage, challenge them with this simple question: “Why is it always about you?”

Secret Courts – the battle is not over

Liberal Democrats against Secret Courts has today e-mailed supporters with a reminder to lobby Liberal Democrat peers about Tuesday’s vote in the House of Lords on secret courts. It reminds us that the stakes are high:
The campaign continues and reaches the eleventh hour this week. The Lords vote on Tuesday will either improve this terrible Bill, or see it pass in its current non-JCHR compliant form which will mean the campaign to stop the Bill will have failed.
You may recall David Howarth’s advice at the recent party conference to the Liberal Democrat leader in the Lords, Tom McNally:
Tom, I know the Lords can stop this bill. You know the Lords can stop this bill. They should stop this bill.
McNally and his chief whip Dick Newby have ignored this advice. They are arm-twisting Liberal Democrat peers who oppose secret courts, advising them to abstain rather than vote against the government.

If you would like to treat McNally’s and Newby’s stand with the contempt it deserves, here is an opportunity to do something about it.

Saturday 23 March 2013

Nick Clegg and the politics of immigration

Yesterday, Nick Clegg made a speech about immigration. Since it has been the subject of much misinterpretation and anger, it is advisable to read the actual whole speech before going any further.

At first, the speech seems quite reasonable. In the face of extremism, Clegg wants to move the debate onto “practical and sensible ground”, talks about wanting to maintain “an open and tolerant Britain”, and promises “the Liberal Democrats will never seek to outflank our opponents because we think that’s what people want to hear”.

Yet the more you study the speech, the more it reveals fundamental flaws in not only Clegg’s thinking but also his whole strategic approach. Taken together with the recent dispute about secret courts, both the speech and the reactions from within the party suggest that the party is falling out of love with its leader and that the feeling is mutual.

So far as the question of immigration itself is concerned, others have already criticised the speech in detail. On Liberal Democrat Voice, Caron Lindsay tried to be even-handed in a post titled ‘the good, the bad and the ugly’ but concluded there was more bad and ugly than good. Her LDV colleagues Stephen Tall and Nick Thornsby had no inhibitions, making the case against Clegg in no uncertain terms. They were joined in a thorough demolition job by Lester Holloway.

It was a fortunate coincidence that Liberal Democrat Voice conducted a poll of party members on this very topic a few days before the speech. It showed that these hostile reactions to Clegg’s speech were not the views of an unrepresentative minority but that the membership’s view of immigration remains highly liberal.

Rather than repeat what others have said about the issue of immigration per se, I want to look at the politics of this speech and what it tells us about the party leadership.

The first problem with Clegg’s speech is that, although it purported to show leadership, it did the opposite. Clegg was ostensibly critical of the anti-immigration agenda but, by debating the issue on anti-immigration terms, he effectively validated that agenda. He made little attempt to tackle the popular myths about immigration, let alone enthuse about the positive things immigration brings to society. This approach makes anti-immigration sentiments more respectable and shifts the debate from morality (“right or wrong”) to management (“how much?”).

Most mainstream politicians are in a flat panic about popular opinion on immigration (recall the fiasco during the 2010 general election when Gordon Brown encountered the “bigoted woman”). Hostility to immigration is not a new problem nor is it unique to Britain. What has made the problem more acute is the recession (resentment of outsiders always grows in hard times) and the rise of UKIP.

As Nick Thornsby argued in the Independent, it is at times like these that we look for true leadership, even when the liberal position risks unpopularity. Unfortunately, we live in an era when politicians tend to be driven by opinion polls and focus groups. If politicians had thought like that during the 1960s, we would never have had the abolition of capital punishment or the legalisation of homosexuality.

This brings us on to the second problem, which is the concept of the ‘centre ground’. Tory MP Bernard Jenkin recently criticised this idea:
Politicians often talk about “the centre ground” of British politics, as though there is some big bell curve of voters in the middle where we have to be in order to get elected. The three main parties are crowded there in the facile belief that being anti-immigration, anti-EU, pro-business, tax cuts and tough on crime is “right wing”; while more spending, concern about the poor, pro-EU, pro-human rights and CND is “left wing”, and therefore sensible moderate people weigh up these “extremes” and finish up somewhere in between. And, of course, most people are sensible.
The Clinton/Blair people called it “triangulation”. The architects of Conservative modernisation copied it and made David Cameron in this respect the “heir to Blair”, but the result is that all the parties are now losing to “extremes”. Eastleigh showed there is no such thing as the centre ground – a great pile of voters in the middle waiting to be harvested by politicians’ cynical positioning. Nor is there a magic bullet labelled “immigration” or “Europe” either.
Clegg frequently bangs on about the ‘centre ground’ (indeed, he would have you believe that he is a non-ideological pragmatist) and this latest speech merely underlines the fact that he sees the voters in terms of Jenkin’s ‘bell curve’. His speech can therefore be seen as an attempt at triangulation. But as Jenkin pointed out, this won’t make him more popular or respected. You can only do that by standing up for what you believe in and accepting that this risks making as many enemies as friends.

Anti-immigrant sentiment cannot be ignored, of course. Many voters say they are against immigration, although on closer inspection it is hard to disentangle whether they are concerned more about new immigrants or the ethnic minorities already settled here, and whether immigration directly affects them or is merely something they’ve read about in the papers.

There is a valid non-racist argument that immigration must be managed, but management does not seem to be a major source of popular concern. The one occasion in recent years when the volume of immigration threatened to overwhelm local services was the large influx of Poles following Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004, yet Polish people have rarely been the target of racist sentiment. If you want to tout for racist votes, you would be more successful calling for the repatriation of black and Asian people than Poles. I am sure Nick Clegg would baulk at that, even if the polls and focus groups said it would be popular.

The third problem is Clegg’s attitude to the party and its policy-making process. His speech follows on closely from the notorious vote in favour of secret courts in the Commons earlier this month. Party members are starting to see a pattern of top-down policy-making that contradicts their wishes.

Strictly speaking, Clegg’s speech has not changed party policy. Policy is developed by the party’s Federal Policy Committee (FPC) and approved, democratically, by the party’s Federal Conference. In terms of the party constitution, Clegg was doing no more than kite-flying and, to be fair, he actually only called for existing policy to be “reviewed”. Try explaining that to the media. The Guardian talked of Clegg “abandoning” existing party policy on an amnesty, the Telegraph of him “dropping” it, the Mail of him “ditching” it. So far as the outside world is concerned, an ex cathedra statement by the leader is enough to change party policy – and Clegg and his media advisers must have known it.

Worse, Clegg’s new policy to replace an amnesty is half-baked. His big idea is that visa applicants from ‘high risk’ countries should pay a ‘security bond’ in the form of a cash deposit (Clegg mentioned no specific amount in his speech although the sum of £1,000 is being bandied about), which would be repaid when they leave the UK. This obviously hasn’t been thought through, as various knowledgeable people in the party could have told him if he had bothered to consult anyone beforehand. It’s not as if Clegg lacked the time or the opportunity; the speech was originally due to have been delivered in mid-February but was postponed (presumably because of the Eastleigh by-election), so a draft of the speech has been sitting around on his desk for over a month.

The lack of consultation is particularly inept, since the FPC recently appointed a policy working group on immigration, asylum, and identity, chaired by Andrew Stunell MP. This working group has so far met twice and is due to report to the spring 2014 party conference. Clegg’s speech was not presented to the working group at all, while the Federal Policy Committee was made aware of the speech’s existence but not its contents. Which is all a bit odd when you consider that Clegg, expressing his dissatisfaction with the current party policy on an amnesty, said in his speech, “I have asked Andrew Stunell, the former Integration Minister, to lead a review of this and our other immigration policies in the run up to 2015”. It is unclear whether Clegg was announcing the setting up of a working group that already exists or announcing the appointment of Stunell to conduct a separate review in parallel with the working group.

Of course, the reason for Clegg’s failure to consult the working group might be that he is unhappy with it for some reason. If so, he could have discussed his reservations with the chair of the FPC, Duncan Hames MP, who also happens to be Clegg’s Parliamentary Private Secretary. Or since Clegg is a member of the FPC himself, he could have come along to a meeting and expressed his views in person. He did neither.

Meanwhile, any outsider puzzled about what current Liberal Democrat policy on immigration actually is should consult the motion (‘Immigration in the 21st Century’) debated at the party’s 2007 autumn conference. It was proposed by the party’s then Shadow Home Secretary – one Nick Clegg.

Postscript (1): Nick Barlow has written a very perceptive blog post, which questions whether the arguments for remaining in coalition still hold water, and ponders what depths Nick Clegg will next plumb.

Postscript (2): Several members of the party’s FPC and policy working group on immigration have written an open letter to protest about the speech.

Friday 22 March 2013

Budget: Gareth Epps in the Independent

On the Independent’s Independent Voices blog, Liberator’s Gareth Epps, assessing this week’s budget, says that George Osborne has got the little things right but the big things wrong.

Wednesday 20 March 2013

Tuesday 19 March 2013

From Iraq to the deficit

Q: What do the Iraq war in 2003 and economic policy in 2013 have in common?

A: An illusion of consensus.

As Paul Krugman observes in the New York Times:
The really striking thing, during the run-up to the war, was the illusion of consensus. To this day, pundits who got it wrong excuse themselves on the grounds that “everyone” thought that there was a solid case for war. Of course, they acknowledge, there were war opponents — but they were out of the mainstream.
The trouble with this argument is that it was and is circular: support for the war became part of the definition of what it meant to hold a mainstream opinion. Anyone who dissented, no matter how qualified, was ipso facto labeled as unworthy of consideration. This was true in political circles; it was equally true of much of the press, which effectively took sides and joined the war party.
A similar process is happening today with the policy of fiscal austerity: as then we have the illusion of consensus, an illusion based on a process in which anyone questioning the preferred narrative is immediately marginalized, no matter how strong his or her credentials. And now as then the press often seems to have taken sides. It has been especially striking how often questionable assertions are reported as fact. How many times, for example, have you seen news articles simply asserting that the United States has a “debt crisis,” even though many economists would argue that it faces no such thing?
Krugman concludes:
What we should have learned from the Iraq debacle was that you should always be skeptical and that you should never rely on supposed authority. If you hear that “everyone” supports a policy, whether it’s a war of choice or fiscal austerity, you should ask whether “everyone” has been defined to exclude anyone expressing a different opinion. And policy arguments should be evaluated on the merits, not by who expresses them; remember when Colin Powell assured us about those Iraqi W.M.D.’s?
Whatever the political issue, war or economics, never trust people who begin with “everybody thinks that...” or end with “there is no alternative”.

Monday 18 March 2013

Independence for everyone

The secret courts controversy was not the only item on the agenda of last weekend’s Scottish Liberal Democrat conference in Dundee.

Today’s Guardian reports that the conference also called for greater independence for Shetland and Orkney:
Activists at the Scottish Lib Dems’ spring conference in Dundee agreed unanimously that the islands should develop their own relationship with central government – regardless of the outcome of the independence referendum next year.
They also agreed that Shetland and Orkney had a separate right to self-determination.
This decision is a reminder that demands for independence and self-determination are more complex than is generally imagined. People’s identities cannot always be accommodated within neatly drawn national borders. Most people have multiple identities and their local identities are usually more powerful than national ones.

If Scotland wins independence, there will be consequences south of the border. It is usually assumed these will be increased demands for Welsh independence and an English parliament. But in England, is it not more probable that demands for county autonomy will be boosted? Outside Greater London, the English tend to identify most strongly with their county. They are unlikely to feel much enthusiasm for an English parliament (a parliament in London – no change there) or the contrived ‘English regions’. They are more likely to prefer greater autonomy for Cornwall or Yorkshire or any other county with a strong identity that feels hard done by.

In England over the past decade, there has been a noticeable resurgence in county pride, with a revival of local food specialities and folk customs. If this trend continues, it will eventually find political expression.

In my home county of Lincolnshire, latent demands for autonomy could be unleashed by a trend to independence. An independent country? Think about it. Lincolnshire is rich in resources. It has more top-grade agricultural land than any other county in the UK and produces 20% of Britain’s food. The Grimsby-Immingham port complex is Britain’s largest in terms of tonnage (more than 10% of the UK total), which in turn generates about 25% of all Britain’s rail freight. The county is energy-rich, with two of England’s five oil refineries, the UK’s second-largest onshore oil field, a major North Sea gas terminal and a large offshore wind farm. It is militarily important, home to more RAF bases than any other county (Lincolnshire is to the RAF what Aldershot is to the British Army or Portsmouth to the Royal Navy). Yet average income levels are among the lowest in the country. This means that the county’s wealth is leaching out. The more the locals realise this, the greater the effect on their political consciousness.

We should remember that the movement for Scottish independence took off only in the late 1960s and early 1970s with the boom in North Sea oil and a resentment that this windfall would be enjoyed elsewhere. If Scotland wins independence, other parts of the UK may look at their local balance sheets and reach similar conclusions.

This trend is not unique to the UK but can be seen throughout Europe. The European Union will probably be boosted as home to an increasing number of autonomous regions and big cities that no longer identify with their nation states but have a greater need for the solidarity and protection offered by a European federation. (There are already two EU member states with a smaller population than Lincolnshire: Luxembourg and Malta).

Nation states and nationalism have not existed forever but are relatively recent concepts. They are essentially nineteenth-century inventions and the logic behind them is disappearing. Even when the nation state was at its zenith, national borders were not inviolable. In an essay on nationalism and our sense of belonging, Michael Meadowcroft quoted the late Rabbi Hugo Gryn, a holocaust survivor, who told a wry anecdote to demonstrate the absurdity of nationalism:
A man from Berehovo/Beregszász arrives in heaven and they say to him that before you can come in you have to tell us your life story.
“Well”, he says, “I was born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, educated in Czechoslovakia, started work in Hungary and was for a time in Germany, spent most of my adult life in the Soviet Union and the end of my retirement, just before coming here, in the Ukrainian Republic.”
“My goodness,” they said, “You must have done a lot of travelling in your lifetime.”
“Not at all,” says the man, “I never left Berehovo.”
So my advice is to familiarise yourself with this flag, the flag of Lincolnshire. It might one day be flying from an embassy in your local county town capital city.

Later... News that the US Department of Justice received a 68-page report last week on the possibility of independence in Catalonia, Scotland and Flanders, and a discussion of how the EU will change to accommodate this trend.

Sunday 17 March 2013

The Rise and Fall of Economic Liberalism

The recent debate about secret courts has had an extraordinarily unifying effect on the Liberal Democrats, uniting previously opposing factions. Admittedly, they have been united against their own leadership, which is another matter.

But it does make you wonder why the party split into factions in the first place. The answer is that this is perfectly normal. Major political parties are broad churches and must remain so if they are not to become narrow sects. There are basic beliefs that all members share, otherwise there would be no point being in the same party. But in a broad church, it is inevitable there will also be competing values and interests, and like-minded members will collaborate and coalesce into factions to advance those values and interests.

So the real question is not why there are factions within the Liberal Democrats but why the party was under-factionalised for much of its history. The party was founded in 1988 with two ready-made factions, the Liberals and the SDP, but that division has long ceased to be a fault line.

The main ideological division now is about economics. It began with the sudden emergence of the self-styled ‘economic liberals’ in 2001. This development was one of the most profound in the history of the party. It was also one of the most bizarre.

It was bizarre because the economic liberals seemed to come out of nowhere, having scarcely been evident in the Liberal Democrats beforehand. Nor were they much in evidence in the two predecessor parties. The pre-merger Liberal Party was a social liberal party; classical liberalism was largely superseded by social liberalism towards the end of the nineteenth century. The pre-merger SDP was social democratic, as you would expect. A few of the economic liberals who emerged in 2001 were new recruits to the party (notably the small group of right-wing libertarians around Mark Littlewood) but most of them had been members of the Liberal Democrats for some time. They must have either suddenly changed their views in 2001 or previously kept quiet about their predilection for market forces.

The emergence of the economic liberals was also bizarre because of its timing. Why leap aboard the Thatcherite ideological bandwagon so late in the day? By 2001, Thatcherism had been the dominant orthodoxy for over twenty years. The fall of the Berlin Wall, which encouraged the idea of ‘TINA’ (There Is No Alternative), had occurred in 1989. The same year, Francis Fukuyama published his seminal essay The End of History?, while Tony Blair ascended to the leadership of the Labour Party (and made his peace with Thatcherism) in 1994.
[At this point, some readers may already object to the distinction between ‘economic’ and ‘social’ liberals, claiming to be both or that both are the same. I would merely point out that, if that were the case, why did ‘economic liberals’ label themselves as such and start their factional activities in 2001, which created the current division?
Oh, and this is a long-ish historical analysis. Before you read any further, make yourself a pot of tea and put your feet up.]
For an explanation of why the economic liberals emerged when they did, one should first

Saturday 16 March 2013

This time the Tories have gone too far

The Tories have done some pretty appalling things lately, including a dogmatic insistence on austerity policies, NHS reforms and calls to repeal the Human Rights Act. But they have finally done something so vile and disgusting that it is doubtful the coalition can survive.

I refer of course to the decision by Tory-controlled Mid Devon District Council to abolish the apostrophe.

You can tell how bad things are when even a local greengrocer complains: “The apostrophe is part of the English language so I think it should be upheld.”

The North Devon Journal reports that the rot has spread to the neighbouring district councils of Torridge and North Devon.

The Plain English Campaign can be trusted to judge what constitutes clear language:
Steve Jenner, from the Plain English Campaign, said punctuation, including the apostrophe, was one of the basic rules of language and he described the council’s decision as “nonsensical”.
The council’s justification is bizarre:
A statement from the council said: “Our proposed policy on street naming and numbering covers a whole host of practical issues, many of which are aimed at reducing potential confusion over street names.”
However, it declined to comment further and did not elaborate on who might be confused by the use of correct punctuation.
The Guardian’s report gives a good indication of not only the Tory council leader’s grasp of good English but also his IQ:
Council leader Peter Hare-Scott (with a hyphen), was not amused by the attention his authority was receiving.
He said it had long been practice for apostrophes to be left off signs. What was happening now was that the authority was discussing a policy that formalised the arrangement.
“There’s not really a story here,” he said. “Doesn’t the Plain English Society have better things to do like improving grammar in schools?” Asked if he was a fan of the apostrophe personally, he replied simply: “I am a fan of good English.”
Does this story have any serious political consequences? It does when the Tories lose the support of both the Daily Mail and Daily Telegraph. The Telegraph offers its readers one crumb of comfort, though:
The policy may be greeted with alarm by residents of a neighbouring Devon district – but Torridge council said it had no plans to abolish the exclamation mark from the village of Westward Ho!

Friday 15 March 2013

Bring out your dead!

Construction workers building tunnels for Crossrail beneath the City of London have unearthed a medieval plague pit. And it seems that the dead bodies are piling up:
While the fast-train project promised to relieve congestion in the capital, work on Crossrail has now turned up so many bodies that archaeologists at the Museum of London admit that storage is becoming a problem.
Fortunately, there is little danger of bubonic plague breaking out again. Even so, the Daily Mail will have a field day. Instead of one its customary cancer scares, there will probably soon be a headline that says:
Will Crossrail give you black death?

Thursday 14 March 2013

It’s in the Daily Express so it must be true

Thanks to Tabloid Watch, which found this headline in Tuesday’s Daily Express:
EU attempts to brainwash children with ‘sinister Soviet-style propaganda’
It is, of course, another Euromyth. The story turns out to be complete and utter bollocks.

Opposition to the European Union is a legitimate point of view but, like any other political opinion, it should be supported by evidence and rational arguments. When Eurosceptics resort to this sort of nonsense, they really must be on weak ground.

As the European Parliament’s Information Office in the UK points out:
Welcome to the brave new world of EU reporting at the Daily Express, where information is bad, transparency is dictatorship, civic rights are forms of oppression and checking facts makes you blind.

Please remember to take all your personal belongings with you when leaving this blog

Well said, Norman Baker, for calling on train operators to curb the excessive number of announcements on trains. In criticising the quantity, however, Norman neglected to mention the quality.

On yesterday’s BBC Radio 4 PM programme [zap forward to 48:45], David Marsh of the Guardian’s Mind Your Language blog was interviewed about the bad English used in train announcements. His reply was similar to the blog post he wrote two years ago titled “Railspeak should be terminated”:
Railspeak is a language with a unique syntax and vocabulary – characterised by, for example, the mandatory use of auxiliary verbs (“we do apologise”), the random deployment of redundant adjectives (“station stop”, “personal belongings”) and the selection of inappropriate prepositions (“time into London Paddington is approximately 25 minutes”).
Trains never leave, but “depart”, never reach their destination, but “terminate”, and are frequently delayed by mysterious “incidents”. Rail catering, meanwhile, has been transformed from a music hall joke (British Rail sandwiches) to a surreal world of its own, offering among other treats “teas, coffees, hot chocolates [sic] ...” (Has anyone tested this by asking how many varieties of hot chocolate are, in fact, available? To enjoy, perhaps, while reading the safety information leaflet in braille?)
Like Orwell’s Newspeak, the result of all this is not effective communication but the creation of a gulf between the language used by its speakers and those on the receiving end. Calling people “standard-class customers” serves only to alienate them if the reality is that they feel treated like second-class (or third world) passengers. Hyper-correct, hyper-polite language may be well intended but comes across as patronising and insincere.
Do these people talk like this at home? “This is Julie, your customer host. I do advise Colin that I am now serving a full range of sausages, chips, beans, breads, butters and teas in the at-home kitchen. I do apologise that there is no at-armchair trolley service.” And later: “This is Julie, your customer host. I do wish to inform Colin that due to adverse screaming kids conditions I do not agree to his suggestion of ‘an early night and a bit of a cuddle’. I do apologise for any inconvenience caused.”
Railspeak is not the fault of ordinary railway staff – they are just reading from the script. The blame rests with the illiterate managers who devise and impose this nonsense.

Now will someone please explain to Tim Snowball at Liberal Democrat HQ that his message script (“On Message, In Volume, Over Time”) is the political equivalent of railspeak, and is just as wooden, patronising and alienating.

Wednesday 13 March 2013

Tory Twat of the Week

The award this week goes to Tory MP David Burrowes, who...
...has written to the attorney general, Dominic Grieve QC, asking him to review the eight-month sentences imposed on Chris Huhne and Vicky Pryce on the grounds that they are “unduly lenient”.
Whatever you think of the conduct of Huhne and Pryce, or the sentences handed down, it is quite obvious that Burrowes’s request is spurious. To exploit this case for self-publicity is pretty dismal conduct, but presumably Burrowes imagines this odious behaviour will somehow counter his deserved obscurity.

Meanwhile, in today’s Guardian, Simon Jenkins gets to the heart of the matter:
The truth is that we have so few ways of making power answer for its misdeeds that we grab hold of any stick that will do. There is virtually no accountability for incompetence in office beyond the ballot.
...since we cannot charge such people for things that affect us, we must charge them for things that do not. The ministerial lies that cascade daily over the dispatch box are left as lies. The human lives that are wrecked by unnecessary recessions and pointless wars are dismissed as just too bad. We can rant at our politicians in fury, but there is nothing we can do beyond silently vote them out after five years.
So we attack the powerful for their private failings, and pretend these reflect on their public duties. We hound their marriages and their finances. We jail them for cheating on expenses, since we cannot jail them for cheating on the country. If they swear at policemen we stake out their homes and shout abuse through their windows.
I am sure Mr Justice Sweeney is no different. He would love to get his orotund tongue round the tax dodgers, Libor riggers, planning fiddlers and energy swindlers. But he cannot, so he too must resort to damning a couple of bit players in the great game who fell foul of a speed trap.
We are back in the middle ages. We subject rulers to trial by combat and ordeal. We force them to “carry the hot iron” or “swallow the blessed morsel”. We make them pass tests of purity and honesty we would never pass ourselves. When they fail, we crucify them. The reason is banal. It is that we cannot get at them any other way.
Not unless we call on David Burrowes MP for some gratuitous comment, of course.

‘Hitler Was A Liberal’

Believe it or not, an American author called Joseph P. Kamp wrote a book called Hitler Was A Liberal, published in 1949 as part of an ultraconservative propaganda campaign organised and financed by the Texan oil billionaire and multiple bigamist H.L. Hunt.

The astonishing story of Hunt’s ultraconservative activities is part of a fascinating blog by TV documentary maker Adam Curtis, which explores the idea that the abuse of language deprives us of much of the freedom and independence we imagine we have.

Curtis credits Hunt with starting the current trend towards corrosion of objectivity and truth in the media. He tells the story of Hunt to illustrate his thesis:
So much of the language that surrounds us – from things like economics, management theory and the algorithms built into computer systems – appears to be objective and neutral. But in fact it is loaded with powerful, and very debatable, political assumptions about how society should work, and what human beings are really like.
Once again, Adam Curtis has produced a rich and thought-provoking essay, illustrated with some extraordinary video footage. Far superior to the trivia that passes for most political comment these days, it reminds us of the serious themes that politics is really about.

Tuesday 12 March 2013

“It’s a two cardinal race!”

Voting starts today in the Vatican City to elect a new pope. It is an unusual election. The electorate is all-male. The voters are locked in a room and not allowed out until they have made a choice. And all of them are potentially also the candidates.

It set me wondering what the election would be like if the Liberal Democrats had anything to do with it.

It helps that the Latin word for Focus is ‘Focus’, so the party is already off to a good start. The Vatican Focus would probably be headlined something like “Lib Dem Cardinals – Praying Round Here”.

And there’s plenty to talk about in these leaflets. Never mind the profound theological questions. The big campaign issues will be the potholes in St Peter’s Square, the chewing gum left by tourists on the floor of the basilica, and the shortage of LGBT Swiss Guards.

There is no need for any ‘Sorry you were out’ leaflets because everybody’s been locked in.

Cardinals would be greeted first thing in the morning with ‘Bonus Mane’ leaflets, featuring some dubious bar charts.

The only problem would be the declaration. Burning the ballot papers to generate black or white smoke is not an environmentally sustainable practice, is it? For a new, ecologically-sound signal, a green wheelie bin will be left outside the door of the Sistine Chapel.

Rodrigo Borgia: a worker, a winner” – yes, I can see it now.

Secret courts: Richard Morris in the New Statesman

Liberal Democrat blogger Richard Morris has published an excellent post on the New Statesman’s blog, which gets to the heart of the matter:
Every wing, arm and leg of the party is livid about this. They won’t win another Eastleigh without the activists – and there’s now a move by activists to refuse to support any parliamentary candidate who wandered through the yes lobby the other week. That’s how seriously people take it.
The leadership are no doubt sitting at home, cursing Jo Shaw’s name and wondering why the grass roots aren’t busy repeating the mantra set down from now till 2015 rather than what we are saying – “no to secret courts”.
It’s because we are liberals. And we are democrats. And Nick – we’re against this sort of thing.
Richard Morris has published an addendum on his own blog.

And now planning officers are in the sh*t

Yesterday, this blog reported the Daily Telegraph’s exposé of local councillors offering themselves for hire to property developers to provide planning advice.

Today, the Telegraph’s exposé continues with a report that local planning officers are also on the take:
Moonlighting planning officers help builders exploit ‘vulnerable’ councils
Planning officers are offering to draw up applications for developers who can take advantage of “vulnerable” councils in the wake of the relaxation of building laws, The Telegraph can disclose.
The public sector officials, who work full-time for councils, charge thousands of pounds in consultancy fees to assist companies, including supermarkets and property companies, with planning applications.
A consultancy in Cambridge advised undercover reporters that the planning officials could explain the complex planning system to private clients while still working for local authorities.
The local councillors exposed yesterday were behaving unethically but probably not illegally. For local government officers, however, there is less ambiguity. The Telegraph quotes government minister Brandon Lewis:
“As employers, individual councils should set out clear terms and conditions for their staff, including rules about outside employment to prevent conflicts of interest. Breaking those conditions could amount to gross misconduct. Council planning departments routinely offer formal and official pre-application advice as part of their normal service to both local residents and firms.
“However, it is totally inappropriate for council employees to be personally receiving extra payments on the side in relation to their own councils. Such activities could entail a criminal offence under the Bribery Act.”
Meanwhile, there have been consequences for two of the three councillors exposed in yesterday’s Telegraph. The Tory councillors in East Devon and Esher have both been suspended. But in Newcastle, Liberal Democrat councillor Greg Stone is being treated more leniently. The Northern Echo reports:
Coun David Faulkner, leader of the Lib Dems at Newcastle City Council, said he was not aware of any conflict of interest “nor anything inappropriate about Coun Stone’s role as a planning consultant and how he carries it out”.

Monday 11 March 2013

The vile behaviour of Matthew Harris

An event that saddened most Liberal Democrats over the weekend was Jo Shaw’s resignation from the party over the issue of secret courts.

I say “most” because there is one Liberal Democrat who is celebrating openly on his blog: Matthew Harris, who was the party’s parliamentary candidate for Hendon in the 2010 general election and is vice-chair of Liberal Democrat Friends of Israel.

His blog post begins:
My heart leapt with joy at the news that, according to the BBC, two prominent members of my party had resigned over the issue of secret courts. There is a long list of colleagues whom one could imagine leaving the party over such an issue – a veritable smorgasboard of people who, since they are not at all my kind of liberal, I would be quite happy to see the back of. Nothing personal, and wishing such people no ill will, but if they want to go, I certainly won’t miss them – goodbye. Please all charter a bus and leave together.
Harris goes on to link to an article in the Jewish Chronicle published in April 2009 in which Tory MP James Arbuthnot claims the Liberal Democrats are “little better than the BNP”. And it is here that we discover why Jo Shaw has earned Harris’s eternal enmity:
In January [2009], at the height of the Gaza conflict, Jo Shaw, Lib Dem parliamentary candidate for Holborn and St Pancras, met Bangladeshi community members and criticised the government for not doing enough to stop “Israel’s assault”.
Harris refers in his blog post to “my kind of liberal” but one wonders who this small category of people might be. Only those who are prepared to offer uncritical support to Israel, presumably.

This is the not the first time Harris has been deeply unpleasant towards other Liberal Democrats. He has been at the forefront of nasty vendettas run against party members who dare to criticise the Israeli government’s conduct.

What a vindictive little man.


Around 9.30am today (Monday), Harris’s blog post was removed. Funny old world.

And today’s political scandal is...

Monday’s Daily Telegraph leads with an exposé headlined:
Councillors for hire who give firms planning advice
The story begins:
Councillors across the country are offering themselves for hire to property developers who are hoping to take advantage of relaxed planning laws which come into effect within weeks, a Daily Telegraph investigation reveals on Monday.
Local government politicians are trading on their inside knowledge of the planning system to receive fees of up to £20,000 for advice on how to get developments approved, it can be disclosed.
One Liberal Democrat councillor is amongst those named by the Telegraph (although it points out that “All the councillors said their activities had been appropriately declared.”):
The Daily Telegraph’s investigation also looked at the activities of Indigo Public Affairs, a lobbying company, with offices in London, Newcastle and Manchester.
Its brochure for clients lists the current and former councillors it employs and sets out how the company “helps our clients achieve planning committee approval”. The firm claims it works with major firms and developers including Tesco, Barratt Homes and Taylor Wimpey.
In Newcastle, Greg Stone, a Liberal Democrat councillor who works for the firm, boasted that the company had “a good chance that via our network someone will know someone who knows somebody” at every council.
“Tricks of the trade” used to gain approval for developments included making sure planning committees included “friendly faces”, he said.
Greg Stone explains some of these “tricks of the trade” in this video interview. The Telegraph provides more background to the story here.

I suspect we will be hearing rather more about this story before the week is out.

Update: Our prediction was correct. There was more about this story.

Sunday 10 March 2013

Quote of the Conference

David Howarth, former MP for Cambridge, speaking in today’s debate on secret courts at Liberal Democrat conference:
This is not about policy or about deals: it is about who we are. This bill does nothing to help the security services to gain more information or foil more plots. All it does is give them an unfair advantage in cases where they are accused of kidnapping and torture. Again, anyone who cannot see that is fundamentally wrong and not liberal.
Howarth also had a message for Tom McNally, Liberal Democrat leader in the House of Lords:
Tom, I know the Lords can stop this bill. You know the Lords can stop this bill. They should stop this bill.

Vince Cable backs Social Liberal Forum motion?

At least that’s what it says in the Sunday Mirror. Although the Mirror’s headline is the more dramatic:
Vince Cable backing rebel Lib Dems’ call for end to Tories’ “slash and burn” policies
The Social Liberal Forum’s emergency motion at this weekend’s Liberal Democrat spring conference is titled ‘Kick-starting the economy’. Again, the Mirror prefers a more hyperbolic description, calling the motion: explosive bid to rock the Coalition.
Which is all a bit odd because, of the two emergency motions to win yesterday’s ballot and thus be chosen for debate, neither is the SLF motion. First place in the ballot, predictably, was won by the motion ‘Continuing Our Opposition to Secret Courts’, while the other motion selected was ‘Implementing the Leveson Report’.

The SLF motion actually took second place in the ballot but was not accepted for debate because of a decision by the Federal Conference Committee that it would require one hour for debate rather than the usual 30 minutes allocated to emergency motions. Were it to have topped the ballot, therefore, no other emergency motion would have been taken, which would have prevented a debate on secret courts. As it came second, there was not enough time for it to be debated, hence the promotion of the third-placed Leveson Report motion onto the agenda in its place.

None of this explains why the Mirror thinks that the SLF motion is on the agenda, let alone why it reports that Vince Cable is backing it.


Gareth Epps has a theory why the FCC ruled that the SLF motion could not be debated, and it is not time limits.

Welsh Lib Dem Wonderbra shock horror

Q: When is an ‘ordinary nurse’ not an ordinary nurse?

A: When her photo appears on the Welsh Liberal Democrats’ website.

According to Wales Online, a photo on the Welsh party’s website purporting to depict an “ordinary worker” in a nurse’s uniform is in fact a stock photo of an underwear model called Louise Cole, who once appeared in adverts for Wonderbra. Not only that, but Ms Cole stood against the Liberal Democrats in the Henley by-election, representing the Miss Great Britain Party.

Wales Online also reports that this is not the first time a fake nurse has appeared in publicity for the Welsh party.

Mind you, Jonathan Morgan, Tory AM for Cardiff North, is going a bit far when he claims, “Lloyd George would be spinning in his grave”. It is more likely that the old goat would have heartily approved.