'Oh, so that's who Richard Morris is..." Lord Hattersley on The Daily Politics

'An influential activist' - The Guardian

'Iain Dale, without the self loathing' - Matthew Fox in The New Statesman

You are a tinker...' - Tim Farron

Thursday 31 March 2011

Last week praising Mandelson, today's it's David Willetts. Has my political antennae gone bonkers?

David Willets has upset the Daily Mail. Hooray.

He has apparently announced that he believes children from schools that perform less well should be given preference over pupils from more privileged backgrounds who may have better grades – but perhaps have done better thanks to the advantages they have received rather than basic talent.

I remember a similar scheme being mooted a few year back by the medical school at St. George’s in Tooting – and I have to say it has a lot of merit.

In an era when straight A’s across the board are increasingly commonplace, it seems eminently sensible to me to include a measure of how the grades a pupil achieved were obtained, as well as what those grades actually were, in order to differentiate between candidates. Indeed, I would venture further that those who have struggled through adversity to get to where they want to be rather than sailing serenely along on an educational conveyor belt delivering Oxbridge places are more likely to grasp the opportunity with both hands – and go on and do more with it afterwards.

Yes, of course I’m making a sweeping generalization there – but you get my point.

My only regret at this news was that apparently when Nick announces the social mobility strategy next week, then it won’t go as far as radical measures like these. Maybe today’s words from Willets are designed to make the actual proposals next week seem a little more palatable to the Daily Mail and its ilk.

But I think that would be a chance missed. Come on Nick – radical, creative, brave as a lion. Let’s make a difference now (oh, and Labour green with envy as well).

Wednesday 30 March 2011

The Mid Week Collection

Five things I've enjoyed this week.

1. Johann Hari is an economic genius

At least it reads that way....

2. Johann Hari is not an economic genius

At least according to the Spectator.

3. George Monbiot should be careful who he has a go at.

According to Henry Porter. And to think I bigged George up yesterday...

4. This is about Lembit. I'm saying nothing.

I don't want to get sued.

5. Lib Dems pointing


I'm off for three root canals now. Wish me luck.

Tuesday 29 March 2011

UK UnCut - here are two views....

The picture below shows protesters outside Fortnums on Saturday. I have no idea if they are UK UnCut people or just a bunch of nefarious wasters but either way, this is wrong.

But then on the other hand, take a gander at this video:

I don't think this paints a good picture of the police either - does it? Yes, I know The Guardian isn't every Lib Dems favourite newspaper (let's not forget though they advocated a Lib Dem vote in the 2010 election) but I doubt if the video shows anything but a fair version of what took place.

So I do find my sympathies pretty much divided here. Sorry.


Here's a link to the full story on The Guardian website,

"Cuts protesters claim police tricked them into mass arrest
UK Uncut activists say Met promised to show Fortnum & Mason protesters to safety – and then arrested them"

George Monbiot kicks our backsides...

George Monbiot takes us to task in The Guardian today for not doing enough to promote freedoms and the right to protest (Free to protest? I can still be arrested if my placard reads: 'Nick Clegg, oh dear') and you know something – I don’t really mind.

I’ve blogged before about how I think the right to protest should be inviolate and while I welcome the reforms of ‘The Freedom Bill’ we must keep to our promise that this is a start, and not an end to that process. So while much of George’s criticism makes me uncomfortable, it just makes me more determined to deliver on our goals. As I keep saying, if aren’t doing everything we can to give people more freedom to speak, then what’s the point?

And it’s the people who make us feel uncomfortable that we need to defend most.

I saw Paul Waugh’s tweet yesterday (@paulwaugh on Twitter) saying that the Parliament Square protestors had offered to cover up their posters for the day of the Royal Wedding. But really – should we expect them to do so? Can it be right that we allow protestors to make their case when it suits us, but as soon as they make the place look untidy we shoo them away?

Similarly I find there’s an uncomfortable grey area on the weekends protest. It’s easy and right to condemn the rioters – what they did was a disgrace. Similarly it’s right to praise the behaviour of the main body of the march that behaved impeccably (even if they were protesting against us in part).

But what of the UK Uncut protestors? It’s too easy to lump them in with the rioters (as Tom Harris mistakenly does on his blog – thanks to Guido Fawkes for giving it a wider audience). I understand they weren’t part of the protest. What they do is awkward certainly – but it’s peaceful, creative, thoughtful and effective. It’s not conventional – but does that mean we should condemn it out of hand? I don’t think so.

After all – its radical and creative thinking that gets the world changed – and if they can change the world through protest without throwing a brick through a window – then good on them.

I hope we make it easier for groups like this to protest – not harder.

I await a barrage of people now telling me why I’m wrong…

This is like a bonus post cos its very short...

Lots of talk this morning (and here's another reference) about Caroline Lucas' quote (in reference to the 'why support AV when you really want PR') as 'Do not let the best be the enemy of the good'.

Which is a good sentiment.

However, in Adland we have the opposite sentiment when describing creative work - never forget, good is the enemy of great'.

I guess this demonstrates perhaps, that politics is a slightly more pragmatic enterprise than advertising...who'd have thought it....

Oh look, everyone's at it...

Yesterday I blogged on the non story in the Telegraph about the Liberal Democrat re-brand. The great and the good of the Lib Dem blogosphere all did the same (some of them even did it on Sunday, which makes me look like a right slacker..) so here's a pick of the best takes on the story...

1. Olly Grender at The New Statesman

'The Lib Dems branding crisis'

2. Julian Astle at The Daily Telegraph (Oh, the irony, eh?)

'"Lib Dems to change their logo, their name, their direction and their leader." Really?'

3. Caron at Caron's Musings

'Telegraph gets it wrong on Liberal Democrat rebrand'

4. Charlotte Henry at Virtually Naked

'The Lib Dem rebrand - tipping the scales of nonsense stories'

All great takes on a story that actually isn't true......

Of course if I've missed any others (sure I have - I do have a job to do you know...) then let me know...

Monday 28 March 2011

Of course we should be thinking about our future. Why is the Telegraph pretending that it's news?

Let’s take it as read that the Telegraph report that we are rebranding, including a root and branch look at the party’s name, identity and positioning is wide of the mark. In an age of austerity when we can’t afford to fund the Barnsley Central election campaign, it’s unlikely the very sensible Chris Fox will be throwing cash at that particular issue.

(Thanks to all the trade mags and friends who’ve called me to ask if I’m doing it. I’m not. Though with due deference to my business partner Franco who designed the original logo when he was at Fitch – I wish we could shoot that bird)…

But anyway, I really hope – and I’d be amazed if it wasn’t the case – that we are constantly reviewing the positioning and the strategic approach of the party. Being as even handed as I can here, (so this is not all good), we’ve gone from…

A party of opposition to a party of government
A party of protest vote to a vote for power
A party of trust to a party of distrust
A party perceived to be on the left to a party more perceived to be in the centre.
A party of principle (or radicalism) to a party of compromise
A party strong in the past to a party strong in the present
A party who a quarter of the population intend to support to one around 10% of people can imagine voting for.
A party with the most admired leader in the country to one with the most detested - or not (depending on which week it is)

In other words – we’re in a completely different position now than we were almost exactly one year ago today – when the general election was called.

Since then we’ve done a lot of things we’re all very proud of, a few things through gritted teeth, a lot of things we’d like to get credit for but we don’t, quite a few things we’d rather not have the credit for and it’s been pinned on us anyway. So how nuts would be if we were thinking that come the next election, the electorate will view us in the same way as in May 2010.

I hope that there are meetings going on every day to discuss how our distinctive political philosophy can be applied to new, radical policy initiatives that will keep us at the forefront of political thinking.

And when we have that in place, we’ll need a brilliant strategy that

a) gets people to actually listen to our message – because at the moment they don’t want to hear it and
b) gets people to trust us again and get excited about what we’re going to do.

It’s a long road back from 10% in the polls. But the fightback really does need to start now.

Bit more on the exception and not the rule...

Report in the Telegraph (quoting Research Weekly - who don't seem to have it on their website - that AVERAGE tuition fee charges per University will be £8600.

And here's the clincher: MORE THAN HALF are going to charge the maximum £9000.

Except truly, they can't, can they? As then charging the maximum would be the norm, not the exception - by definition.

I hope Simon Hughes is hot on the tail of this in his role as 'Access Czar' for higher education - as presumably he's going to be instigating some fairly strict criteria for all this, in the very near future...

Friday 25 March 2011

The exception not the rule?

One of the central arguments by which certain Lib Dem MP's were, ahem, persuaded, to march through the 'Yes' lobby to support tuition fees was the understanding that max charging would be the exception not the rule.

Yet this report in The Guardian suggests that of the 16 Universities who have announced their fees for 2012, 13 have gone for the maximum and only 2 have schemes in place to ease the burden for students from less wealthy backgrounds. And even those 2 schemes look fairly mean spirited - and where are the big campaigns to persuade and help less well off students to apply?

I look forward to the government casting an acerbic eye in these universities direction - and being strong enough to say 'no'if any thresholds are not reached.

Wednesday 23 March 2011

The Mid Week Collection

Five wonderful short pieces I enjoyed reading this week, love them or hate them. With a bonus blast from the past as No 6.

1. ‘A Tsunami in the Bristol Channel’ by Lord Bonkers (Jonathan Calder at Liberal England).

The Japanese disaster couldn’t happen to nuclear power stations here, could it…? Well – history would suggest it can. Plus here’s a link to Chris Huhn’s thoughts on nuclear after the disaster – I hope he’s read Jonathan’s piece before he makes up his mind.

2. ‘Why Fukushima made me stop worrying and love nuclear power’ by George Monbiot in The Guardian

Just to keep us all on our toes, one of the UK’s foremost thinkers on environmental issues takes the diametrically opposite view and gives nuclear power a big hug. Blimey. Bet he’s been crossed off a few Christmas card lists this week.

3. ‘Boris has disgraced himself by evicting Brian Haw’ by Ian Dunt at politics.co.uk

The same point as my blogpost from a few days ago but written rather more eloquently and with some additional great insight into Brian Haw.

4. ‘What a hyper injunction looks like’ by Niklas Smith on his blog

Bet you didn’t even know what a hyper injunction was (it seems like it’s a supersonic version of a super injunction). Niklas makes the excellent point that shouldn’t we as Liberal Democrats in government be doing something about tools like these – like dismantling them. Rather than leaving John Hemming MP to do it all on his own…

5. 'Why is evidence so hard for politicians' by Ben Goldacre on his Bad Science blog.

Andrew Lansley has been using the right stats but in the wrong way. Sadly he may have lent his homework to Paul Burstow. Anyway, read it with gritted teeth, but nod sagely at its general sentiment – if we’re going to use evidence to back philosophy, use it properly. Thanks to Edis Bevan for pointing me at this

And a bonus. Richard Littlejohn said nasty things about Japan this week. Of all weeks. Here’s Johann Hari’s brilliant dismantling of him from a few years back. Just brilliant.


Tuesday 22 March 2011

Last night I found myself nodding sagely at Peter Mandelson. WHAT AM I DOING?

I'm reading Peter Mandelson's autobiography The Third Man. Yes, I know I'm late to it and you've all read it already. Please don't tell spoil the ending by telling me whodunnit.

While The Dark Lord is part of a very different political creed from us , I'm sure there's lots to learn from his experience. And indeed Chapter One has already revealed a very good insight for the Lib Dems.

When Gordon Brown invited Mandelson back into the fold, he asked him, as one of the few political strategists he knew, what he thought of the situation he found himself in. Mandelson's reply is revealing.

'Look, people have stopped listening to you. they have tuned out. They don't know what you believe. They don't know what your government is for. You have policies, but they don't seem joined up'.

This to me is exactly the problem we in the Lib Dems, and Nick Clegg in particular find themselves in. We are part of a coalition so our natural political and philosophical narrative is opaque at best. We have policies - but naturally they are not all joined up, as there are two parties at work here (and you don't build a political narrative in a few days coalition negotiations). Our reversals - especially on tuition fees - have meant that people really don't know what we stand for. So - as I blogged the other day - people have stopped listening.

Mandelson's advice was to form a new narrative, true to the Brown political philosophy. In summary , if people understand what you stand for, at least they'll listen to you - and you have a chance to persuade them that you are right. Currently they don't understand what we stand for so all the great things we are doing is lost to them as they are just not interested in hearing us.

Obviously this is harder for us to do than it was for Brown, as we are in a coalition. But if we are ever going to get back on people's radar, that's what we need to do.

Blimey. Taking advice from Peter Mandelson. It's really come to something, hasn't it...

Can someone please answer these questions about Libya please? They are not complicated...

Yesterday’s blog post was written in praise of naïve thinking. Today’s is in praise of naïve questions.

Because it is the most simple, basic, naive questions that seem to be flooring our leaders when asked about why we are bombing Libya.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I think there is an excellent case for the introduction of a No Fly Zone in order to prevent an unelected military leader using his weapons against his own people. And I respect the way in which David Cameron et al have gone about getting UN support and unequivocal legal advice for the action. It’s something of a change from Iraq.

But there are some very basic questions being hurled at our leaders which really should have been answered before all this started- and very much need answers now. Jeremy Paxman’s dismantling of Alistair Burt on Newsnight last night (starts at 27:28) illustrates the whole thing very well.

The three naive questions are:

1. Is Gadaffi a target?

Still no clear response on this, or indeed whether the UN resolution permits it or not. And it’s not just our politicians (and just as worryingly , our Generals) who appear confused. President Obama said yesterday that there ‘was there was no contradiction between the Pentagon saying removal of Gaddafi was not a goal and the White House saying it was’. Once again, we are being treated like imbeciles.*

2. How much is all this costing and how are we paying for it?**

There’s a budget on Wednesday. The full effect of the cuts will begin to bite from the week after next with the start of the new financial year. How are we going to pay for all this and what else is going to be cut as a result? It’s no good saying its coming from ‘reserves’. Show me the money.

There was a brilliant factoid as well from Andrew Sparrow at The Guardian yesterday; flying a jet from the UK to Libya and back costs £200000. The same mission from an aircraft carrier in the Med. costs £5750. Hmm….

3. Who is next?

Having established that this action is being fought on principal, you would imagine that we will be gearing up to apply the same principal to other states where the unelected leaders are using weapons on their own people. Yemen springs to mind. The shame of inactivity over Dafur also raises its head again.

But of course no action will be taken over countries like Yemen, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, because they have ‘friendly’ governments to the West. So really, it’s not about principal at all. It’s about control. Why can’t anyone be honest enough to say that?

Apparently, that would be naïve.


* the line started by Obama, that the removal of Gadaffi is a political aim but not a military one, is now being repeated ad nauseum by everyone who gets asked. Someone's obviously thought of a clever line that keeps everyone happy. But I don't think this sort of naked spinning does anyone much credit. There's more than a touch of whoops your briefs are showing to all this....

** Osborne has just told the HoC the costs will be met from the reserve and will be in the tens of millions of pounds, not the hundreds of millions. Hmmm...that could be a hostage to fortune.

Monday 21 March 2011

In praise of naive thinking

One of the favourite taunts our political opponents (on every side of the spectrum) like to poke us with is ‘naivety’. This is usually in response to a piece of creative thinking from the Lib Dems which has led to an unusual slant on policy, that gets dismissed out of hand by the other parties – and quite often adopted by them some little way down the line as they see the thinking is more effective, differentiating and popular.

Naivety is an interesting ‘insult’ – as I think naive thinking is often the best sort of thinking. Having grown up in the 1970’s and ‘80’s under the threat of nuclear war, most classroom debate I encountered resulted in all the kids agreeing that it would be much better if everyone just got rid of the missiles altogether. Cue much shaking of heads and rye smiles generally from all adults present. But actually – that childish view was the right one. It’s just adults couldn’t make it work. Ironic really then that Presidents of Superpowers now aspire to a nuclear weapon free world, and are inching slowly towards it.

The same ‘naive’ epiphet was thrown at Stephen Williams plan for giving the nationalised banks back to the taxpayer, in equally divided shares. Yet once commentators had chance to take a proper look at he thinking, suddenly tones changed and people began to take the idea seriously. The knee jerk reaction was the wrong one. The naïve thinking is stimulating debate – and I’d like to bet when the banks are returned to private ownership, a large dollop of that thinking plays a part in the process.

Now that the other favourite taunt we kept experiencing is no longer available (which was ‘what are the Lib Dems actually for?’ – the answer is, ‘forming a government’) we’ll see the ‘naivity’ label hurled at us more and more. This is because over the coming months we should see policy papers start to emerge from federal groups, for the party to debate and agree what we want to do next. And I hope when that happens we do hear people start shouting ‘naïve’ at us.

Because if they all think we’re being naïve, we’re probably being radical, creative, exciting and progressive. And that’s what I want the Lib Dems to stand for.

Saturday 19 March 2011

More open for busines than we were before.

I've opened the comments section on all my blog posts to anonymous comments; so do feel free to have a rant. All debate gratefully received. This should also allow people to comment from I phones etc. I would appreciate feedback if anyone still has problems.

Friday 18 March 2011

If there's one thing we should be angry about, it's this, isn't it?

I was really sad to get a tweet yesterday telling me that Brian Haw had lost his high court case and was to be evicted from his protest in Parliament Green. Regardless of whether you agree with him or not, it’s impossible to imagine a more genuine, heartfelt and dedicated protestor, and I would hope under a government in which we play a role, people like Brian Haw would have better protection against this action (which is led by the Mayor and the GLA). If we don’t defend the right to protest – who will?

Many of you reading this will immediately point to the Freedom Bill and what it’s doing to strengthen the right to protest- which is true. But at the same time the ‘Police Reform and Responsibility Act’ currently going through Parliament specifically makes it harder for people to protest in and around Parliament Square. Which is where I think the one place the right to protest should be engraved in tablets of stone.

You also can’t help but feel that part of the reason Brian’s protest is being targeted is that he’s not ‘tidy’; he’s not conventional. He sticks out like a sore thumb amongst the tourists and political glitterati around the square. Good. We’re the party which endorses the right not to conform and to celebrate diversity in the preamble to our constitution. We should celebrate people like Brian and fight for their right to be different. I’m not hearing nearly enough noise on this from the party.

I have also read that if Brian appeals, his hearing will be heard by April 28th at the latest (I would value independent verification of this). What’s happening in Parliament Square on April 28th? Nothing much. What about the day after? Oh yes – it’s the Royal Wedding. Hmm. That timing seems a bit too co-incidental to me – presumably Brian’s protest doesn’t fit the image….

Funnily enough I think Brian’s image – passionate, caring, quirkily eccentric – is one I would be proud for the world to see.

All is not lost. There is the appeal still to be heard and the judiciary has shown themselves on several occasions to be rather more sympathetic to Brian and his natural rights than many MP’s. I hope he wins again. Secondly, he has only been evicted from Parliament Green – the grass where he pitches his tent. The Pavement is owned by Westminster Council and is subject to a different court case. Let’s hope he wins that too.

Meantime, write to Westminster Council (Colin Barrow, the Leader’s details are all here), write to Boris Johnson (mayor@london.gov.uk, but include your postal address as well), tell them how disgraceful you think all of this is. We’re Liberals for goodness sake. If we don’t care enough about this, what’s the point?

Thursday 17 March 2011

It would seem the NHS debate has our MPs between a rock and a hard place. Can we all send them a chisel?

Anyone who has read Paul Burstow's piece yesterday in Lib Dem Voice can surely feel the pain in his carefully chosen words. The promise to listen, the need to add ifs, buts and caveats all over the place, the need to find a scapegoat (Labour) when actually the squeeze is between us, the members, and the Tories. Paul must know how his piece reads to the membership. And he must hate it.

There's a pretty good summation of the problem at the Total Politics blog. And it's no good really saying everyone shouldn't be playing politics. Politics is what we do.

Now it's very easy to join the comments section of LDV and give Paul's piece a good kicking (plenty of people from within the party have started, let alone beyond it!). But is that really going to help? I don't think so. (Not yet anyway)

What I really want to do is make it as easy as possible for Paul to stand up to our coalition partners. To be able to say 'we're not against reform, we are against privatisation by the back door'. After all, there are some good things in the bill. We just want to make sure the bad things are removed.

So let's get writing to our MP's, keep signing the petitions, keep the issue front of mind. We have to make the Conservatives realise if they want to get any of the good things through, they'll have to take out the parts we can't agree with. We have to let Paul, Nick and every other MP know that the only message they can give David Cameron on this is 'sorry - we didn't sign up for this and we can't deliver'.

That is after all, why we negotiated a coalition agreement, and not a blank cheque for the Tories, in the first place.

Wednesday 16 March 2011

An update on my 'placard waving for the NHS' post:

Thanks for the feedback on my post about where do we go if we want to make Andrew Lansley listen to our voices.

Two great suggestions so far have been

Sign the 38 degrees petition at : http://www.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/Protect_our_NHS_Petition#petition Thanks to Paul Wray for that one

Sign the Save our NHS petition Which I was originally pointed to by Martin Tod (twitter @mpntod).

But what else is going on in the party? Come on, I'm all ears!

I want to wave a placard to support the NHS. Where does a Lib Dem go to do that nowadays?

The Sheffield conference sent about as strong a message as you can imagine about the memberships view of the NHS reforms – the party said 'stop them please'. But when asked the direct question on BBC Breakfast yesterday, Andrew Lansley refused to say he would make changes to the bill – saying he had already made numerous changes and all that was needed now was clarification. He presumably thinks no one voting on Saturday understood the bill. Ha. Ha ha ha.

So all the signs are that Paul Burstow et al have a mountain to climb if we are to get the Tories to change things. How can we help them?

Now, a Lib Dems natural reaction to this sort of thing is – to protest. To get our voice heard, to let people know what we think.

So my question is – how are we meant to do that now we’re in coalition.

A quick web search of some protest options doesn’t help:

The TUC have organised an ‘Altogether for the NHS’ day on April 1st – but that’s not our bag is it?

Kelvin Karim, a nurse in south Yorkshire, has put together a protest organisation called NHS SOS with a website and Facebook page. It’s saying many of the right things. But their home page sets that organizations’ face against the (and I quote) ‘ConLibDem plans for the NHS in England’. So I guess we’re not welcome there.

There’s UK UnCut – a broad coalition of the progressive left who are protesting about many things we’d sympathise with, not least tax avoidance by the banks and big corporations. But of course, what they are principally set up to oppose is the cuts in general plus their website on the day of protest is directly modeled on the TUC’s - so that doesn’t sound like our bag either…

And then there’s a good organisation called NHS Direct Action, modeled on UK UnCut but with a specific goal of stopping the NHS reforms. A more likely source of like minded thinking for us – but do they have the clout?


All answers gratefully received

PS. Someone has already (only half in jest) suggested 'Cowley Street' as an answer to the question above. So to be clear – I want to help our leadership to get the bill changed. How can we help best?

Tuesday 15 March 2011

The Mid Week Collection

The first in a series of posts of interesting things I’ve seen in the last week that I haven’t got time to blog about.

Today’s 5 items are:

1. ComRes polling data from politicalbetting.com (via @OllyGrender)

Apparently lots of people are in denial that they voted Lib Dem at the last General Election, to the extent they won’t even own up to it to a pollster. Crumbs.

(Rob Blackie has pointed out that Political betting interpret the data in a different way to me; I hope they're right and I'm wrong!)
(Olly Grender says I've got it wrong too).
(I'm just looking at the Lib Dems numbers - 21% of people claim they voted for us vs. the 23.6% who actually did...I understand the Political Betting point that lots of people who claimed to vote Lib Dem actually voted Labour - but the disparity in our numbers can still be explained by people being in denial..))

2. Why ‘First Past The Post’ is a rubbish way of electing people (via Imogen Carter).

A very nice (and short) video presentation from CPG Grey. And if you like that, you’ll also love a Canadians view of our constitutional geographical make up. Really, it’s funny…

3. ‘To survive the Lib Dems must start pulling to the left’ (by @JackieAshley in the Guardian)

Yes, I know she would say that wouldn’t she, but it’s a thought provoking piece.

4. The 5000 Labour Voters who secured this Conservative-Lib Dem coalition (by Duncan Scott at www.splithorizons.blogspot.com

The blogpost everyone is talking about this week. And it is great.

Although he’s forgotten about all the Labour voters who did vote tactically for the Lib Dems ….

5. The curious case of Ed Milibanana (via Lisa Harding, @wokingspidey).

There’s a sub editor at The Times being flogged right now.

Enjoy All!

Someone threw an egg at my house. Is this a political rite of passage?

The other night someone threw an egg at my house, and then ran off. The window it hit didn’t smash and cleaning everything up the next day only took 20 minutes or so, so no big deal.

Hubris obviously makes me want to think that someone was making a political point about my being a Lib Dem activist. Realism makes me think that it was kids drinking on the Common having a laugh and we were randomly targeted. Who Knows?

Anyway, it did make me ponder the nasty side of politics. The side that, as Caron points out on her blog, means that a 14 year olds experience of her first national conference was to be sworn and spat at by protestors. And to show it works both ways – the alleged use of inappropriate language by a Lib Dem to describe protestors, who will be mainly decent, well meaning people who just happen to have a different view from us (thanks to Lisa H for blogging on this).

I wonder how many more good people, across the political spectrum, are put off getting involved in politics because of behaviour like this?

I’m struck by how few people who read my blog actually feel like they can leave a comment – it’s way less than 1%. Now obviously a lot of people just don’t want to comment – but I do wonder how many others just don’t want to put their heads above the parapet, for fear of the response they will get.

We moan a lot about the low regard politicians are held in this country, and obviously there are ample examples of poor behaviour from national politicians who have got us to that position. But unless the rest of us can behave in a more civil manner, a lot less people are going to involve themselves, and the country will be poorer for it.

Monday 14 March 2011

Armando Iannucci's message to us feels like 'Unforgiven'

Just before the Spring conference started I blogged about what I hoped would be coming out of it – and my frustration at how difficult it was to get people to debate with us. Even as I typed it I received an appropriate tweet from Armando Iannucci so I added the following addendum to the post:

“Just seen this Tweet from Armando Iannucci (@Aiunnucci on twitter).

‘Tomorrow, Lib Dems vote whether to back changes to NHS. Let's see if they're upright and principled or a clump of twats’.

Well: at least he’s willing to give us a hearing….’

Well after the NHS vote I sent Armando a tweet on Saturday to tell him we’d done (in my eyes at least, and presumably his) the right thing. I didn’t expect anything back, although I do know from his various activities that this is a topic he’s very passionate about.

Then, on Sunday, this is the tweet that Armando published.

“RT @sturdyAlex http://t.co/6RTu9DY >> good articulation of why people like me who went and voted LibDem feel so rogered senseless by them.

Everyone should have a read of the article he attached (written by another blogger but presumably expressing views he endorses). None of us will like it much, but it’s well written, well reasoned and clearly an honestly held opinion.

And this to me is the mountain we now have to climb. People feel betrayed by us, mostly on tuition fees, partly on the speed of the cuts. We get no credit with them for all the good things we do (and I can send Armando a list of good things as long as your arm) - because this basic level of betrayal still burns so strong. We’re like a philandering husband, who has spent months doing everything we can to say sorry for straying – but its frankly up to our partner when they’re willing to trust us again, and no amount of begging is going to change that. All we can do is keep doing the right things, telling them we’re doing the right things - and not doing anything to betray them again.

And hope they don’t find anyone more attractive in the meantime.

It’s frustrating. As we all know it’s very hard work. But when we can get Armando Iannucci to at least talk to us again, then we’ll be making some sort of progress.

Saturday 12 March 2011

Shirley Williams doesn't use an autocue...

Hats off to Lisa Harding (who blogs at www.spiderplantland.co.uk, twitter @wokingspidey ) and Chris Mills (twitter @cjmillsnun ) for getting hold of Shirley Williams' handwritten speech notes on NHS reform at Lib Dem spring conference (Chris) and then blogging them (Lisa).

It's a great insight into how a really experienced politician doesn't need all the paraphanelia that seems to come with the territory nowadays.

Friday 11 March 2011

It's not the unpopularity; its the 'fingers-in-the-ears-la-la-la-not-listening' that's getting to me.

For years we’ve been complaining that no one ever pays us enough attention, so I’m not going to grumble about the fact 10000 people are going to Sheffield this weekend to shout at the Lib Dem delegates. At least we’re being talked about, discussed, debated - in short, we’re firmly on the agenda. In many ways we’ve never had it so good. And I say that with no sense of irony.

A few commentators have made similar points and as usual I enjoyed reading Julian Astle’s point of view in the Telegraph.

However there is one area where I do disagree with him. Julian makes the point that more often than not the most effective politicians have got the most things done when they forget about being popular and well liked and just get on with the job regardless. He cites Tony Blair post Iraq war and Mrs. T. from about 1984 onwards. Regardless of whether you approved of what they did, this was when their actions had the biggest effects. And they still went on to win another general election

His argument therefore goes that having accepted unpopularity very early on, having taken over in the midst of a financial crisis, Nick Clegg has got the ‘need for popularity’ out of his system early, and can now crack on with doing the important stuff more effectively.

However, I think this analysis fails to take into account three problem areas for us as Lib Dems.

1. While both Mrs. Thatcher and Tony Blair both went on to win general elections after becoming very unpopular personally, they were faced with very weak political opposition; in 87, Labour was barely off the blocks in reforming itself into what became new Labour, and in 2005, the Tories were still in disarray after the Ian Duncan Smith era and his relatively last minute replacement with Michael Howard. As soon as viable political alternatives presented themselves, the opposition gained enormously in popularity – and regicide of the leaders (Major for Thatcher, Brown for Blair) commenced. Labour under Miliband are already seen as a viable political alternative (see Today’s polls). History shows Nick can’t afford to stay unpopular for too long.

2. Most of the brave, right and proper things that we are doing - taking 800 000 people out of tax altogether, the pupil premium, restoring the pension links to earnings, an extra tax on the banks – are not ‘difficult’ and unpopular actions, they are hugely popular policies. The issue is – we get no credit for them, as the narrative of ‘Lib Dem break their promises’ is still the one that dominates - especially tuition fees. How do we regain popularity if enacting wildly popular Lib Dem policies in so many areas gets us nowhere?

3. As Caron demonstrates on her blog, we’re not ignoring the protestors – in Scotland last week, senior party members tried to engage with them. The issue is that they wouldn’t engage with us. And however unfair we think this may be – if we can’t connect and debate, we won’t change anyone’s minds.

How do we solve this conundrum? Well, of course we need to continue doing the right things policy wise we are already doing – both for the sake of the country, and for our own sanity. And without falling out with our coalition partners we really need to put down markers about what we have inspired, what we’re willing to go along with, and areas of policy we disagree with (Nick’s headline in the Independent is a good start).

But over and above that we need some attention grabbing activity that gets people to start re engaging with the party. Left field creative policy making that really makes people think and that they actively want to engage with. That’s what I’ll be looking to come out of Sheffield.


Just seen this Tweet from Armando Iannucci.

“Tomorrow, Lib Dems vote whether to back changes to NHS. Let's see if they're upright and principled or a clump of twats”.

Well: at least he’s willing to give us a hearing…..

Wednesday 9 March 2011

Today's post advocates bare faced theft and political chicanery. Sorry

Whether you love or hate the Centre Forum/Stephen Williams plan to give the banks back to the taxpayer, everyone agrees that if nothing else, it’s a great example of creative thinking.

And it’s the sort of thinking that I believe attracts many voters to the Liberal Democrats in the first place. We have a great ability to take left field solutions to real problems and turn them into coherent policies – which are often derided by Labour and the Conservatives as ‘naïve’ or ‘unworkable’, before magically becoming part of their own policy or legislative plan a little later. It’s interesting to take a gander at the 2005 manifesto for example and see how many of the policies have been endorsed by one or other of the other main parties since then.

And I wish we were making more of that thinking-out-of-the-box attitude right now.

Now I know the federal policy groups will be hard at it devising policy initiatives that do that even as I type, as will the various think tanks in and around the party and I’m sure lots of this will emerge from Sheffield in the next few days, and over coming months.

But in the meantime, I think we should be engaging in a bit more public debate about some of the more interesting ideas out there right now.

For example, there’s the Robin Hood tax. We’ve debated this in and around the party for some time, but now we are in government, we seem to have stopped as we pursue our agreed legislative programme. Now I’m not suggesting that our ministers should be actively engaged in that debate – but I wish a few more high profile Lib Dems were involved in putting views forward about the campaign rather than leaving it to others (very good though they are at it). I want us to be actively involved in debates like these (pro or against), not studiously ignoring them from the sidelines. So what if we didn't start the debate - lets get involved please.

Or take this article from George Monbiot. There’s a hatful of great ideas here (and some real stinkers, but I digress). George willingly admits he’s nicked them from all sorts of sources – and although he doesn’t say so, one of those sources appears to be the Lib Dem 2010 manifesto. George is advocating the progressive left (he means Labour) use them as a basis for a policy development programme. I say lets nick our ideas back and some of the others to boot, if they fit both our own policy goals and political philosophy. If David Cameron can describe the Conservative Party as ‘progressive’ and Ed Miliband can claim his political heroes are Beveridge, Keynes and Lloyd George, then we can certainly adopt a policy that advocates reducing tax avoidance to the tune of £25billion a year.

After all, apparently the new banks-back-to-the-people idea wasn’t produced out of thin air. It was inspired by a comment made by Maurice Saatchi…..although we’ve done rather more with it than he probably intended.

Tuesday 8 March 2011

I'm leaning towards Stephen Williams....

I rather like Stephen Williams’ plan that all UK shareholders should be given equal shares in the two banks in which the government is majority shareholder. It seems to me an entirely fair way of returning our investment into the hands of the people, and when the shares get sold the government recoups its money (which sits outside of the budget anyway). What’s more, the government may well get a greater return on its investment than a ‘conventional’ privatization as well, and everybody, not just those with capital to invest, owns the banks. The problem with conventional privatisations (alright, one of the problems..) is that even if you can invest, you end up paying for something you already own (which is also why I’ve never paid the admission money for a tour of Buckingham Palace…).

But best of all – and I’m surprised this isn’t the clincher for more people – as shareholders, we would get to vote on bankers pay and bonuses. I think we all know how that would go…

So far I’ve seen four arguments against. I’m not sure any of them hold water. They are:

1. ‘We can’t afford to give the money away’.

But we’re not. When citizens sell their shares, the government gets the investment back. We just keep any profit (in effect, it’s a share option hurdle scheme)

2. ‘Individuals would have too small a shareholding to make a difference’

(Put forward by Liberal Vision).

Afraid I beg to differ. If individuals can be trusted to elect a government, they can certainly be organized enough to decide on some bank governance issues – like do we want the CEO to be paid a multi million pound bonus. It’s generally called the wisdom of the masses.

Just to re emphasis the point, currently the average share in the US is owned for…20 seconds, thanks to High Frequency Trading (hat tip to Liberal Eye for this amazing fact). So much for institutions being the best guardians of shareholder interests. Let the people have a turn.

3. ‘Shares should be divided according to how much tax an individual has paid, not equally’

(as put forward by Liberal Vision)

Nope. Equal share distribution by head would be a progressive and liberal way of divvying up the shares. Let’s not forget everyone – we’re all in this together!!

4. ‘Russian oligarchs will swoop in and buy our shares at knock down prices’

(as put forward by the Adam Smith institute).

But in fact the shares would be traded on a unique platform designed to prevent this sort of abuse. (see penultimate paragraph in linked article).

Now of course I’m not saying the idea is perfect – there are a lot of details to work out yet. But it’s creative, novel, fair, principled, progressive….

Even Andrew Neil seemed for it yesterday

Really – what’s not to like?


Yes I know its shameless showing off, a bucketload of hubris and not to mention entirely co incidental...

...but The Guardian editorial this morning seems rather like one of my own pieces for Lib Dem Voice.

Immitation, flattery and all that. A smug cup of tea awaits....

Monday 7 March 2011

Oi, Tristram Hunt. NO NO NO NO NO

The Labour MP – I’ll say that again with emphasis, the Labour MP – Tristram Hunt has proposed that we start charging for the national museums and collections, most of which reside in London. Apparently – and if you can’t be bothered to read the whole article, there’s a précis in the news section of The Observer – it’s unfair that local council cuts mean that provincial museums are forced to start charging entrance fees, while national museums still get a subsidy to allow free entry. And furthermore, to quote Mr Hunt,

‘At New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art, there is a de facto $20 entrance fee for adults, so why not a fiver for London's great galleries? Would it really undermine our cultural competitiveness?’

Mr Hunt. You’re wrong.

Firstly you’re looking at this from the wrong end of the telescope. All the museums in the country should be free, not the other way around.

My kids go to London museums all the time. A few weeks ago they went to The British Museum on a Saturday morning with their teacher. It was a voluntary school trip. There was no fee, the teacher gave up her free Saturday off her own bat, and the kids loved it. There was no note home asking for a donation, no need for the kids on free school meals to ask for a subsidy, just a brilliant, educative morning out that the kids got loads out of, paid for by central taxation.

Which is what central taxation is for.

The scandal is, my kids only got to do this because they live in London. Every child in the country should be able to visit their local museum, whenever they want, for free. It should be like a library. This is not where I think the cuts should be falling.

Secondly, the fact that the Uffizi, Prado or Met all charge doesn’t give them the moral high ground over us. It does the opposite. Most of the stuff in the national collections doesn’t hail from these shores. Would I feel good about charging Greek Tourists to see the Elgin marbles, or Italian tourists to see Leonardo’s cartoon? No, I wouldn't.

Mr. Hunt, you should be ashamed of yourself.

Friday 4 March 2011

I promised myself I wouldn't do this....

When I got up this morning the first thing I saw was the Barnsley by election result. ‘Deep breath, Richard’ I told myself. ‘No knee jerk reactions’.

Then I got a whole series of tweets which all, in one way shape or form, tried to tell me that ‘ it wasn’t as bad as it first looked’ or ‘don’t worry, we’ve been here before’. And that sort of laissez-faire approach does rather trouble me…

So I thought, sod it.

Ten things I think about that result last night.

1. It was a terrible result and we would do ourselves a huge disservice by pretending otherwise. Tim Farron has it right (as so often at the moment ) when he said (straight after the result was announced) ‘At this time of the evening, there's nothing more laughable than a politician who's got a kicking pretending it's all right’

2. It might have happened before (usual sensible piece by Olly Grender on this) but we shouldn’t pretend that this was all to do with no on the ground support – we’d grown our share and come second here in the last general election, with presumably similar resource issues to cope with.

3. Therefore, this has rather more to do with our perception at a national level, rather than a failure of on the ground support to get the vote out.

4. When we have a chance of winning, we might attract Tory support (Oldham); but when there’s no chance of us winning, forget it. We’re on our own.

5. In % terms at least, all our support looks like it basically went to Labour. The Tories lost ground, but their vote mainly went to the right (UKIP, BNP). Labour has spent a lot of time targeting Lib Dem Voters and workers. It’s working.

6. We got hit harder by voters than the Tories. That’s because everyone has lower expectations of how they will behave in government compared to us. When we went back on our pledge on Tuition fees, having run campaigns saying ‘no more broken promises’ we had further to fall and the bump hurts that much more.

7. If we are going to get people to listen to us, we’re going to have to win back a lot of trust that we’ve lost.

8. And because people believed we were different, it’s harder to win the trust back.

9. Does people’s willingness to vote for, ahem, ‘smaller’ parties, herald a new attitude to voting, inspired by the prospect of AV? Let’s not get ahead of ourselves here, there’s a referendum to win yet – but under AV will the Tories lose significant share to UKIP and others? How will this affect our electoral arithmetic on a constituency by constituency basis?

10. If the next by election is Leicester South, as seems likely – the arithmetic looks very similar to Barnsley central; Labour MP, big majority, but Lib Dems second last time, a seat we won in a fairly recent by election…. We need to start thinking now about how to stop this happening again (come on Lib Dems in Leicester, tell me I’m wrong if I am…).

I’d welcome any opposing views to any of this…


As ever, Caron's musings have a perhaps slightly less jaundiced and rounded view of things...

Wednesday 2 March 2011

NHS reforms. Lets remember we're free to speak our minds...

When Olly Grender blogged the other day about what does having a mandate to do something in government actually mean, it got me thinking. After all neither ourselves or the Tories actually won the general election in the sense of getting a working majority under FPTP, let alone a 50.1% share of the votes cast, so in that sense do we have a mandate to do anything, other than co-incidental policies which our two manifestos happen to share.

Which would make for a pretty limited amount of governing to do…

That's why I think two things that happened in the past week are really interesting.

Firstly Lord Oakeshott’s renewed, strident criticism of the banks and the governments actions over them – he must be the most agreed with Lib Dem politician in the country just now – reminded me that both the Tory and Lib Dem manifestos promised robust regulation and action over the banks. And while we are making some progress, I don’t think anyone really sees enough being done – how are we cutting the funding of frontline NHS staff for example, while allowing Barclays to get away with paying around 2% corporation tax? And why are we doing this when both our manifestos said we’d deal with the banks?

If any government had a mandate to do something, this must surely be it.

And then I read Shirley Williams piece on the NHS reforms and why she disagreed with them (it’s behind the Times firewall I’m afraid so here’s a report about the report from the ever brilliant virtuallynaked blog…).

She makes the excellent point that not only was it not in the manifesto’s (don’t give me that guff about it being one line of page 46 of the Tory one or whatever – you don’t sneak through a decision to turn the most loved institution in the country through in the small print); but the coalition agreement promised the complete opposite – no top down reform of the NHS.

Shirley says (and I agree) that anything not in the coalition agreement is not covered by collective responsibility – so she’s free to oppose it. I’d go further on the collective responsibility argument of course – I think new politics demands we don’t need to agree 100% on everything, and it makes us look daft when we pretend that we do.

But in this case – if you disagree with the proposals (and the party seems a little split on this...), there’s no mandate for it – so go mount the barricades.

I blogged the other day that cutting frontline NHS staff might be the Tories Tuition fee moment.

Let’s not make it the Lib Dems tuition fee moment all over again please….