Wednesday, March 29, 2006

A lot of smoke and hot air

On March 26th, the smoking ban in public places came into force in Scotland. Since film and theatre sets are 'public places' then actors will probably have to use artificial cigarettes.

South of the border, this generated a blip of inaccurate press coverage that any films or TV programmes in Scotland had been banned from depicting smoking.

I'm glad there isn't a ban on the depiction of smoking in films and TV, but it's a sufficiently credible prospect that expect an announcement from the government soon. There are lots of anti-social things that people do - swearing, binge drinking, committing crime, behaving aggressively, smoking... but programmes and films are to some extent a depiction of reality. It would be very difficult to make a grittily realistic drama about life in a rundown area of Glasgow if all the characters were required to slump against lampposts in the rain... actually, scrub that, slumping against lampposts in the dark would make them anti-social and intimidating. Let's have them vigorously tending to old ladies gardens on a sunny Saturday afternoon, going: "Anyone got an organic smoothie with added vitamins? Jolly botheration - I've left mine at home"

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Israeli Elections

I write this post as Israelis go to the polls. At the moment- despite a large segment of the voting public still apparently undecided- it looks like Kadima will emerge as the largest party. The Prime Minister is someone who has been catapulted into international recognition only very recently. Ehud Olmert seems likely to become the new Prime Minister. As his political star rises, another one seems on the wane: Benjamin Netanyahu's Likud Party is fighting for relevance. Formed from Yabotinsky's maximalist Revisionist Zionist Party, later led by Menachem Begin, Likud suffers from the fact that Isrealis now overwhelmingly support a two-state solution, and withdrawals from some of the occupied territories annexed during the 1967 war.

So, what does this mean for the state of Israel and Palestine? There are moments in history and politics where seismic changes allow the far-sighted politician to shape events more easily then a normal state of affairs with its vested interests and counterveiling coalitions. One such moment was the election of Hamas in the occupied territories. Whilst it would be foolish to deny the horrors that Hamas have been responsible for, it is also narrow-minded not to conceive of the potential benefits as well as the downsides of their electoral prominence. Elected mainly due to the preceived corruption of the Fatah government, Hamas's position on the destruction of Israel is not widely shared by the people who voted for them. One poll showed that 60% of Palestinians wanted to open peace talks with Israel.

So the Palestinian elections, and now the Israeli Knesset elections, provide a brief window to move forward bilaterally. Just as only Nixon could go to China, only Hamas can deliver a real peace on the Palestinian side, and the demise of Likud means that Olmert can count on most of Israel's support for a genuine two-state solution, which so recently was the call only of the peacenik Left. There are still many hurdles to overcome, and a lot will depend on the relative strengths of coalition partners like Labour and Meretz compared to the more hardline religious parties, but Hamas must realise that just as a window is open, it can shut very quickly. With a decent mandate, Olmert can withdraw from huge parts of the West Bank, and draw de facto borders to Israel for the first time. Palestine will be able to run its own affairs, but they will lose land to the wall, have little to no sovereignty over Jerusalem and will not get an inch on the right to return. If Israel does not think that it has a chance bilaterally, it will assert its might unilaterally no matter what the Palestinians think. As far as Olmert is concerned, he cannot afford to wait: "The most painful moment of my life was the day I discovered that simple arithmetic was more powerful than the history and geography of Israel....I realised to my horror that, if we insist on holding on to everything, by 2020 there will be 60% Arabs and 40% Jews" (The Times, March 28 2006 pp.35). With Olmert threatening to draw borders on his own, is it any wonder that Hamas are beginning to make noises about peace?

Temporarily the window is open, and now is the time for statesmen to assert their will and give their people justice.

Please tell me she's ok

This post referred to a specific individual and has been removed at their request

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Happiness is about sharing with others. The miserable introspect

This post related to a specific individual and has been removed at their request.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Well I suppose...

... That's one way of trying to make the budget interesting to your readers.

Thursday, March 23, 2006

And in other news...

Government decides there isn't a snowball's chance in Hades of passing Mental Health Bill. Since they haven't passed the Legislative and Reform Bill yet (bummer!), government decides to rebrand the bill as the more innocous 'amendments to existing legislation'.

Grauniad acquires double life in the form of Comment is Free. I've noticed that the writers in this section seem to make relatively sensible points whereas the real silliness (like yesterday's Belarus article) appear in the main paper.

The rest of this post concerned a named individual and was removed at their request. Comments are closed

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

There's always one, isn't there...

... a Grauniadista nerd-wipe who decides to act like he's been oxygen-starved at birth.
  • Probability of sun rising in morning = ~ 1
  • Probability of stupid pinko lefty deciding that disliking the Bush administration must mean that Alexander Lukashenko is nice but misunderstood also = 1
In this Grauniad article, Mark Almond emerges from under a rotten log to proclaim that Belarus is an almost model society where:

the market is orientated towards serving the needs of the bulk of the population, not a tiny class of nouveaux riches and their western advisers and money launderers... officials are not getting richer as ordinary folk get poorer [and] where masses of ordinary people are getting on with life and getting a bit better off.

Let me explain this... very... slowly... The reason why Lukashenko inspires... loathing in the thinktanks and foreign ministries of the west is not because he has sav[ed] Belarus from mass unemployment. Or in the words of a commentator on this thread (see, the Grauniad ain't all bad):

Too many on the left need to reaquaint themselves with some basic principles. They could start with democracy = good; dictatorship = bad and take it from there.

Thanks to the LDYS forums for this prime contender for Traitor of the Week.

Thursday, March 16, 2006

There's nothing like a sense of what's important...

My parents have just received a letter requesting a donation to fund replacement cricket nets in the village. It begins:

'What a year for cricket 2005 was - England won the ashes and what's more AnyVillage CC were champions of the AnyCounty independent cricket league'

I have to admit I laughed. It's something like beginning a letter:

'What a year for peace 200x was - the Arab-Israeli conflict was resolved after lengthy international talks, the Middle East became a haven for free speech and democracy, and what's more Mr Bloggs and Mrs Smith agreed over the positioning of their small herbaceous border'

Britain deserves better, says Mottaki...

Iranian Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki (how come he's a Minister and we have a Secretary in this country?!) has appealed to the British and American people - saying he wants to help them have a freer and more prosperous future.

In a speech in Tehran Mr Mottaki said the British and American people "deserved better" than Mr Blair and Mr Bush. Since there's a vast amount of information in English on the internet already, international agencies should make flydrops of reports over suburban housing estates especially in the SE of England to help reach the British, he said. America would come later since it was bigger and the houses were more widely spaced.

But Mr Mottaki says military action is inconceivable because "Dubya" Bush and Blair are in each other's pockets, the US has loads of big weaponry and isn't afraid to use it, and Britain is quite a long way away.

He refused to comment directly when asked by the BBC's Frank Gardner about contingency plans being drawn up by US military chiefs about possible strikes on Iranian targets.

Mr Mottaki told the International Institute for Strategic Studies that Britain and the US' policies risked damaging its reputation and relations with the rest of the world.

"Britain and the American people deserve better," he declared.

...Such problems were likely to be made worse if there was another situation between the US and the UN, he said such as that which happened over Iraq.

The foreign minister said he was not in favour of "regime change" in Britain and America, and any change in government had to "come from within"...

..."This is not Iraq for a moment ... This is an issue that has to be resolved, yes by pressure, but by peaceful and democratic means," he said. He added that he was currently in talks with David Cameron and had bonded over their shared interest in Indie rock music.

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Good business

Apologies for the slackness of blogging - this is caused by a general thesis panic.

This post was intended to be a link list to draw your attention to Matt Fensome's blog with its rather disturbing picture of Mr Cameron. Since I can't spell Amartya then mentioning the obvious typos would be rude and unnecessary... but someone's bound too so I'd recommend Matt changes them.

I've also become aware of this apparently very popular blog written by a doctor and discussing their personal experiences of the NHS (mostly entirely negative). It's been mentioned on other blogs I link to. Definitely worth a visit.

And on the lighter side - you can hatch an egg...


But then I found this Grauniad article. Much as I'd like to make endless jokes about Gordon Brown being a tank, what caught my attention was:

A key figure has been Steve Hilton, an iconoclastic thinker, former advertising executive and stranger to parliament. Such people are not steeped in Westminster. Indeed, Mr Hilton found working in such a male and tradition-bound environment suffocating. If he had his way he would get rid of the party whips and let MPs vote with their conscience. His personal reaction hints at the extent to which Mr Cameron's Conservatives are no longer conservatives. Mr Hilton and others in the inner circle are frequently urged by colleagues to slow down the pace of the revolution. Mr Hilton rejects the gradualist approach, arguing there is so much to do, and wondering at the extent to which the party had lost touch with reality over the past eight years.

I thought I recognised the name and then remembered that he wrote Good Business, which is probably one of the most idealistic but inspiring books I've read over the last few years. I found it so inspiring that I felt it a real shame that he had been working with Saatchi & Saatchi (the two things I know about the Saatchi brothers is that one at least is a Tory donor and that one exhibited that awful Kippenberger - Triumph of Painting my flabby middle-aged ass... UCK) and have been keeping a weather eye out to see whether their company is recruiting. No time to blog more about the book now but will definitely do so later... Watch this space.

['Henry' is my first painting, and my only oil. Framed oil on canvas paper, around 20 x 20 cm. Now 'Collection of LibertyCat'. My work has improved in leaps and bounds since then - Henry is somewhat lop-sided and the eyes are wrong]

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Cameron's bid to woo... voters

Yet another 'I couldn't resist when I saw this article' moment. The accompanying picture is equally excellent - he looks like he's just been inhabited by a Slitheen.


Tory leader David Cameron has admitted his party has "work to do" to convince voters of its commitment to help people.

He called for action to end world poverty, inequality, conflict and late running train services and to create an eternal utopia as part of the Conservatives' goal to "make the need for politics history."

During a speech..., he outlined a series of areas in which he hoped to develop... policies. These included public services, the environment, political and electoral reform, tax, culture, sports and foreign affairs. He said he would also do what was necessary to boost the numbers of women Tory MPs.

Mr Cameron did not unveil any new ideas... but he said he would offer "a serious commitment", "clear policies" and "leadership" in addressing
these issues. Quite rightly you will set a simple test for our policies. It will be the same one that I set," he said. "In all the areas I have mentioned - inequality, war, finance, nature and the gender balance of my own party - will our policies help to eradicate inequality and deliver fairness? And when it comes to the family: do our policies encourage families to come together and stay together and be that strong force at the heart of our society we all want to see? These are vital tests - and ones that I am determined to meet."

Mr Cameron, who became a father for the third time last month, ruled out policies designed to restrict choice or to make the government force people into doing anything in particular. "Some may choose to do one thing and that's a valid and worthwhile choice," he said. "But the majority might want to do something completely different and that's an equally valid and worthwhile choice."

The Conservatives would seek to expand the range of...
choices available, including from private and voluntary providers. He said the culture of secrecy about politics needed to be removed. "I believe one of the most potent tools in ending... scandal is much greater transparency." he said.

....His comments came as an Equal Opportunities Commission (EOC) survey suggested that voters regarded the Conservatives as the least likely of the three main parties to improve people's lives. The EOC poll of 2,000 adults suggested that Labour was seen as the most credible for helping people..., followed by the Liberal Democrats.

Jenny Watson, chair of the EOC, said: "Our polling suggests that improving... life has to be at the heart of any political party's agenda if it is to have electoral success.

"The Conservative Party that David Cameron has inherited has little credibility among voters when it comes to these issues and he has a challenge on his hands to turn this perception around."

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Amartya Sen meets Vicky Pollard

Simon Mollan has closed his blog InnerWest with a post about the underclass and middle-class self-loathing.

I find the latter intensely patronising which is why the Grauniad makes me spew. The 'underclass' are doubtless insulted by well-meaning members of the intelligentsia sympathising with the pain of being brought up on a Grimsby council estate. It doesn't achieve anything useful and it breeds paternalist politics like this tosh.

But I'm starting to realise that it's middle-class self-loathing that leads to the idea of 'middle-class politics' in the first place; that issues like ID cards and civil liberties are 'middle-class' - luxuries that 'the underclass' are too deprived to be interested in. This is the rhetoric that politicians such as Peter Hain have deployed to justify authoritarian policies, especially those on crime.

I've started to question this since I've been reading Development as Freedom by Amartya Sen. He's mostly talking about overseas 'development' but some of his ideas can be applied to the UK. His crucial argument is that poverty is often seen as being about economic needs. But poverty is wider than income and it should be seen as being about functionings and capabilities. Functionings are things people want to do and capabilities are their ability to do them. Development shouldn't just be about throwing money at people because the ability to develop is dependent on capability, which includes things like public services, political and social freedoms as well as wealth. Countries with well functioning democracies, free speech and a free press tend not to have famines because the poor are better able to articulate their urgent and immediate needs. Countries with high standards of education and healthcare but low levels of GDP will develop faster under promising economic conditions than richer countries with poorer public services because the people are better equipped to respond. Non-economic freedoms are not a luxury poor countries cannot afford. Sen also gives examples to show that the poorest value non-economic freedoms as highly as the rich [it's worth mentioning all this is blatantly obvious and really didn't require 3-4 chapters...]

Many of labour's policies on poverty have been about throwing money at the problem or trying to tell people how to live their lives. The latter decreases non-economic capability. The underclass suffer most from an authoritarian government because it is they who are most dependent on the state and who encounter government officials, sometimes on a daily basis. I have very little faith that the new Minister for Social Exclusion will take a broader approach to exclusion - I expect they will focus exclusively on training, housing, employment (all facets of economic freedom) and lifestyle issues (moulding Vicky Pollard into a Daily Mail respectable middle-class poster-child).

Perhaps it's time for a more liberal narrative on exclusion...

If there were ever a candidate for 'traitor of the week'

The Liberal Democrats will continue to be a heterogeneous group who confound the expectations of stupid Grauniad writers after Menzies Campbell was elected leader, beating both Chris Huhne AND Simon Hughes.

The votes of non-active members who hadn't had time to get to know Chris H. but had seen Menzies on the TV allowed the 64-year-old acting leader to secure 29,697 (58%) of the votes ahead of Mr Huhne's 21,628 (42%).

But his promise to modernise the Lib Dems and make them "the party of ideas and innovation" raised the spectre of a shift to 'the right' in the Grauniad offices and sent them looking for some disaffected party members. They found that some people someplace for reasons unknown were trying to remove a... debate on the Royal Mail from the agenda of the spring conference in Harrogate.

Gordon Brown's jibe - that the party had been in search of a leader, and now the leader was in search of a party... was a complete load of balderdash that fundamentally misunderstands the nature of the Lib Dems.

Many of those backing Sir Menzies are from the economically liberal Orange Book wing whereas Chris Huhne whom the 'activists' supported was actually from the Orange Book wing himself. Simon Hughes, who was the allegedly 'left-wing' candidate was roundly trounced... but why let the facts get in the way of a good story.

They [the Orange Bookers] have been getting the party to think more radically about issues such as public service provision and the environment for some time and, in fact, the Libs policy on green taxation and cap and trade is derived from Susan Kramer's chapter in the Orange Book.

"Let me make it clear now that caution and consolidation will not do," the new leader warned colleagues who had gathered at Westminster to hear the results. "A safe pair of hands, yes, but ready to take risks, ready to challenge orthodoxy and ready to challenge the party too."

All Lib Dem policy is made at the party's twice yearly conferences. All leaders can do is encourage activists to back change [paragraph included because at least the first line is unquestionably correct].

[The] motion - which [called] for the sale of almost half the Royal Mail to shareholders - [was] seen as a move to the right by Tony Greaves. Critics say it [would] provoke furious debate about the details, as a similar proposal did at the autumn conference because people felt it wasn't thought through carefully enough at that time.

After some searching for someone who could back up the Grauniad's story about Lib Dems moving to the right (if the Libs moved to the right everytime the Grauniad thought they were then they'd be acquiring plaudits from the Ayn Rand appreciation society by now), the Grauniad writers realised they'd have to go to press soon and were running out of time. So they went looking for Tony Greaves who they knew would back up their story. In fact, he'd probably think the Libs were moving to the right if Menzies wanted to organise the UK public into agricultural collectives and called people 'comrade liberal'.

"It's very much a first step for the Orange Bookers," said Lord Greaves, described as a veteran activist but actually a member of the House of Lords. It's the Lord bit that gives it away. This does make him a veteran activist... so long as the Grauniad starts acknowledging that great veteran activist, Sir Menzies Campbell "There's a suspicion that under Ming's leadership they will be promoted to high places." he said, confirming that he'd been living on Mars for the past few years since there have been Orange Bookers in the Shadow cabinet for a while. "The word 'modernisation' in British politics means the Blairite agenda." Confirming he'd picked up some of the local culture whilst there.

But Norman Lamb, the trade and industry spokesman, insisted the motion would save thousands of post offices and said the party needed a policy on a service in crisis... Blah... Blah... Blah... In ChampagneTrot-land there aren't local post offices so it's understandable that the Grauniad writer in question had never seen a Focus and claimed that as well as discussing saving post offices... Sir Menzies [also] focused on core Lib Dem issues...

His predecessor Charles Kennedy, who pledged his full backing, said something that contradicted the rest of the article: "I think the centre of gravity of the party, philosophically and politically, is very clear. I don't think that is going to change much at all."

[Slightly belated... but I couldn't resist... and so much more amusing now I've attended the debate and seen the outcome]

Friday, March 10, 2006

Petty officialdom of the week

"Winner of sperm and egg race" on baby's t-shirt warrants police visit. Some googling to confirm the story reveals the Brighton police to have at least some history of bothering people for being 'offensive':

Eighty-year-old John Catt served with the RAF in the Second World War. Last September, he was stopped by police in Brighton for wearing an "offensive" T-shirt, which suggested that Bush and Blair be tried for war crimes. He was arrested under the Terrorism Act and handcuffed, with his arms held behind his back. The official record of the arrest says the "purpose" of searching him was "terrorism" and the "grounds for intervention" were "carrying placard and T-shirt with anti-Blair info" (sic).

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Dog bites man

And, in other news, the police admitted at the time (but since deny) that they knew De Menenzes, the Brazilian electrician shot by mistake at Stockwell tube, was innocent all along.

I am not surprised. Given the circumstances as they were (police tail man from a large block of flats which is under observation because one of about 100 tenants is a known terrorist, he buys ticket legally and walks calmly down to the platform, police jump him and shoot him, then lie about it), it is blindingly obvious that they knew they had the wrong man. If they had the right man, they would not have put so much effort into fibbing to the public about jumping turnstiles and unseasonal coats.

When I were a lad, shooting innocent people at tube stations for no reason was called "murder" and carried a life sentence.

Labels: ,

Wednesday, March 08, 2006

Watching your PM Q's

Well-behaved adults are to be rewarded with "good behaviour credits" to spend on gym membership, organic low-fat food, non-alcoholic drinks, nicotine patches, education and training, voluntary work, community involvement (including jam-making and running tombolas) and other government-approved "constructive" and "improving" activities (including membership of local chess clubs).

The plans were unveiled today by Chancellor Gordon Brown at an exclusive press conference shortly after leaving hospital where he had been having cosmetic surgery to pin up his mouth up at the corners. The popular press have already nicknamed the Chancellor 'The Joker'.

Chancellor Gordon Brown wants to give 20-80 year-olds up to £250 a month as part of a crackdown on anti-social behaviour, crime and social exclusion. But adults who repeatedly misbehave will have their credits and benefits withdrawn.

"This isn't for the hardest of the hard-core like Mr Abu Hamza or very naughty people who protest or wear heart-shaped thongs in public" the chancellor told the BBC. "No, this is for good, respectable people and hard-working families".

The scheme is among a number of measures to improve society. Laws will be introduced to force all councils to improve leisure facilities and to provide special supermarkets where credits can be redeemed for healthy produce and exercise equipment. Gordon Brown said that the credits would make society better for everyone - traditional forms of respectable middle-class behaviour would reduce the obesity crisis, binge-drinking, crime and poor health as well as promoting good behaviour. By removing credits from persistent offenders, people would be forced to act sensibly or starve.

The "citizen opportunity" credits will be piloted in 10 areas in England. They will be credited automatically to voluntary ID cards and will entitle recipients to spend £120 a month in better off areas and £250 in the most disadvantaged. But Mr Brown says the credits will only be available to adults who behave themselves and have ID cards, and not those who persistently misbehave. Repeated offenders will have their credits withdrawn as well as any state benefits. Asked about the link to ID cards, which are currently voluntary, he said "Anyone who doesn't want an ID card must have something to hide and must be misbehaving, it's just we don't necessarily know about it. We have been tough on anti-social behaviour and that will continue," he told BBC Breakfast.

The scheme was given a cautious welcome by some national charities. Mr Brown argues that 98% of people actually do behave and he could see the cash being spent on fresh, local produce and whist drives. He also wants to encourage more people to get involved in volunteering and community service. The plans include the provision of "professional coaches" for badly-behaved adults to keep them out of trouble. Mentoring schemes, to give advice, guidance and work experience are also to be set up.

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

Teaching an old Minger new tricks

Olly Kendall in the Grauniad reads a lot into Menzies Campbell's use of the phrase 'centre-left'. I'm not convinced that it's anything more than the use of old terminology by an elder statesman. I agree that Menzies use of this term will be a red rag to the press but it's just a word. To see the real differences between Campbell and Kennedy, we'll need to wait and see. Olly writes:

One of the main accusations levelled repeatedly at the Lib Dems is political ambiguity. This is highlighted in the alleged conflict between the economic liberal and social liberal wings, which both Charles and Ming deny exists.

By our opponents who can't get their head around liberal ideology... and it doesn't exist. The real division in the Lib Dems is between the pavement politicos and the philosophical liberals (as per numerous posts by LibertyCat). If anyone ever believed in a left/right split in the Lib Dems then the numerous outbreaks of consensus during the leadership hustings between Chris "Orange Book" Huhne and Simon "lefty" Hughes should have convinced them otherwise. He continues:

[Defining the Libs as right-wing] also allows the Lib Dems to begin an assault on the Tories as the party of the right - something they couldn't do under Charles's leadership.

But there's no point in talking about the Tories as a party of the reactionary right with Cameron discussing micro-generation and Letwin discussing redistribution. Accusing them of dumping their principles, being unsure of what they believe, echoing Blair, going for managerialism, yes... Claiming they're secretly reactionary whilst Cameron lays scorn on Tebbit and columnists like Heffer - not going to be convincing. If that's the purpose of Menzies use of 'centre-left' then it's a bit of an odd strategy. Olly continues:

To confuse matters further, in the young Turks you have a group of ambitious MPs, many of whom would quite happily sit around a cabinet table with Cameron and Osborne, but not Brown.

Most of our allegedly 'left-wing' and aged MPs and activists would rather sit around a table with David Cameron if he looked to be serious about opposing ID cards, control orders, the Legislative and Regulatory Reform Act and promoting decentralisation... This government's distinguishing factor is its authoritarian control-freakery and this is one of the main areas in which the Lib Dems are crucially distinct. Menzies made this obvious when he devoted the 1st substantive 1/3 of his speech to discussing topics such as Guantanamo Bay yet Olly Kendall doesn't mention this axis of the political compass at all.

Will Menzies' use of 'centre-left' have an effect? Yes, on the media. Will it have an effect on strategy? Undoubtedly not.

Monday, March 06, 2006

Post offices, pavements and FOCUS

The Liberal Democrats have a long tradition of local campaigning on post office closures. The FOCUS leaflet about saving the local post office has become enough of a cliche that I chose "saving post offices" as a metaphor for the things the Liberal Democrats do which have nothing to do with Liberalism when I was writing my speech for the launch of Young, Free and Liberal.

This was a mistake - post offices are important, and well worth saving. What I meant to object to was not saving post offices, but standing outside post offices you have no intention of saving for the sole purpose of taking an action photo. The problem with Liberal Democrat campaigning on post offices is that we had neither the power to save them, nor any ideas as to how to save them if we did.

That changed last Saturday. The post offices motion passed at Conference calls for the Post Office to be separated from Royal Mail and to be given the freedom to build new businesses, including working with other postal providers. By selling off 49% of the shares in Royal Mail, we could raise over £2 billion to plough back into the post office network. The Liberal Democrats who wanted to save post offices, including all three leadership contenders, supported this.

The opponents fell into two groups. There were a few genuine lefties who think that privatisation is evil and bad. The second group of opponents didn't argue on the merits, possibly because they knew they would lose. Instead, they were worried that Labour would tell lies about our policy, and punish us on the doorstep for "wanting to privatise the Post Office". This kind of behaviour gives politicians a bad name, and gives us a particularly bad name becuase we have more of a reputation for campainging than we do for governing anyway.

If the purpose of Liberal Democrat policy on post offices is to generate Focus stories about "Local Liberal Democrats in battle to save village post office" then I don't want anything to do with it. Fortunately, Conference voted for a policy about saving post offices.

I have often grumbled on this blog about pavement politics not being liberal. That doesn't mean it isn't important. But it has to be about actually fixing the pavement.


A red letter day for F'n'M

Just before we rushed off to Harrogate, I noticed F&M was in the Telegraph. There are also mentions of the blogging MPs sites as well as Hot Ginger and Dynamite, Liberal Bureaucracy and The Apollo Project.


Sunday, March 05, 2006

Menzies tells Lib Dems "I'm a little teapot"...

... or you can add your own caption.

My general impressions of Menzies speech were that he was very clear and succinct on each point, very statesmanlike and in charge of his material. He could have done to be five to ten minutes shorter but overly long speech-making is a common hazard of politics.

The speech didn't say anything new or unexpected. It didn't strike out a radically different direction for the party. Interestingly, it didn't seem aimed at the press - more 'stroking' the audience by hitting all the issues that really get Lib activists going. After he'd done the obligatory 'Charles Kennedy was the daddy, I love the other leadership contenders lots and lots and we won in Dumfermline - NEERRRRR' and insulted Cameron (always popular), he rattled on about civil liberties for so long that I thought that was all he was going to talk about. It wasn't - he went through through a shopping list of issues from social justice to Europe to democratic reform. All very much activist-tickling - one of the better ways of bringing a group of Libs to a state of near-orgasmic excitement is shouting 'proportional representation' in a crowded room.

My only major concern with the speech was this line:

Over the next 6 months, and before we meet again in Brighton, I intend to set out in more detail key challenges and policy directions on the major issues of British politics

We already have quite a lot of perfectly good policy so I'm not sure what he's intending here.

After the dangers of speech-induced repetitive strain injury (nearly every line break in Menzies pre-release speech was an opportunity for at least 1 minute of applause), my final challenge was avoiding being crushed to death whilst getting onto the homeward train. The platform was absolutely packed with departing Lib Dems including some of our parliamentarians and I wasn't entirely sure that we were all going to get onto the incoming train without anyone suffering serious injury. I was imagining the headlines "Frenzied Lib Dems whipped up by Menzies trample Lib Dem MPs" or (the Mail headline) "Lib Dem yobbos in Harrogate platform brawl". I'm delighted to say that my fears were unfounded...

W***y waving and WMDs

The last time I blogged was early Saturday morning when I arrived at the conference centre. My next stop was the tail end of debate on the Post Office motion. The motion was passed after various speakers had reassured everyone that the occasional omission didn't mean we should throw the motion out, that the parliamentary team being in favour of the motion was not a sufficient reason to throw the motion out, and that including the words 'Royal Mail' and 'Privatisation' together in the same policy was not an instant cause for panic. The best quote of the debate goes to a very witty lady speaking against the motion who said that the media "were more concerned where people put their w****s than their weapons of mass destruction".

I remained in the hall for Vince Cable's speech which I found very drily amusing. Definitely worth a read since it was full of quotable jokes. After the speech, I headed towards the exhibition where a chance encounter set me off on 'suit watch'. Sandra Gidley was in front of us on the escalator and was wearing this incredible suit. It was exactly the sort of 1950s style suit that I'm into, beautifully cut and in a lovely brown tweed. I've been looking for a suit like that for job interviews since black doesn't suit me (pun! ha!) at all. It was perfect! Unfortunately, Sandra was in a hurry and she didn't come back through the exhibition. So I spent the rest of the day on 'suit watch' - hoping to collar her to try to find out where she got the suit from.

I popped into Harrogate before the lunchtime fringe and would like to take this opportunity to make a huge plug for the hot chocolate at Cafe Latino (Cambridge Street - opposite side of the road from Caffe Nero). It's definitely worth trying if you visit Harrogate. Unlike most hot chocolate it was viscous enough to stand a spoon in, no frothed milk or cream and very rich (I left most of it) - more like a dessert than a drink.

We went to the Age Concern/Rowntree Foundation lunchtime fringe on long-term care for the elderly. Not much to say about it really - it wasn't terribly memorable and I never really felt it grappled with the whole aging population issue. Just tended to the 'we're raising these issues with all the three major parties and talking to everyone. Free long-term care isn't as expensive as people think but we're also looking at alternatives like encouraging home-caring. Watch this space.'

I was next in the hall for the urgent issue discussion on free speech. I've blogged about a huge amount on F&M about this subject. LibertyCat and I had both put in speaker cards and I got called. I hadn't prepared a speech so it was completely off the cuff. Result: I felt it bombed. Out on the podium I was petrified I was going to sound like I condoned bigotry or that offending people was a good thing, and went out of my way to explain how terrible genocide was. LibertyCat tells me that it was better than average, and one or two people approached me today to say that it was a good speech which I guess meant it was at least memorable.

I returned to the hall for the minimum age constitutional amendment. This was aimed at curbing various forms of electoral malpractice by allowing state parties to set the minimum age for voting in council and PPC selections, with that for Wales set to 10 years, and minimum membership length to 15 months. It was mildly controversial but not as much as I'd have expected.

After the debate, we went to dinner and I would heartedly recommend Est! Est! Est! as an excellent Italian (it's just up the road from the conference centre). The hot chocolate was slightly above average. I ate there on both Saturday and Friday evening. If I were writing for a restaurant review I would be duty-bound to whitter on about how the marinated archichokes exploded in my mouth like a silk grenade whilst the goat's cheese teased the senses like the warm caress of a lover. I would also have to give my dinner companion a nickname like 'The Blonde' (he isn't). But I'm not employed by a broadsheet so will say the food was nice, edible and didn't give me salmonella (touch wood), the staff were attentive (although we were eating early so it was pretty quiet) and the restaurant had pleasant, minimalist decor. There were loads of screaming kids in on Saturday evening - this seems to happen a lot when I eat out.

I attended an evening fringe on affordable housing. It should have really been billed as 'providing housing for low-paid locals in Devon and Cornwall: a local government love-in'. I haven't got any experience of local government so I felt a bit of a fish out of water. It finished early so I easily got into the next fringe on Cameron. This was by CentreForum and featured Nick Clegg, Susan Kramer and a professor with alarmingly excited white hair and black eyebrows. The Professor (he was introduced this way and sounded decidedly like a dodgy bad-guy in a graphic novel) showed us a variety of graphs demonstrating that the more people saw of Michael Howard, the more they didn't like him... and that campaigning works. Susan Kramer discussed new campaigning techniques such as computer programs that identify types of voter who may agree with us but we haven't talked to before. Nick Clegg made lots of jokes about posh boys and wins the coverted Femme-de-R prize for 'best-looking announced speaker at a Spring Conference 2006 fringe' (when 'Dave' won 92nd sexiest guy - Nick was robbed). Nick argued that David Cameron had an informal pact with the Tory party that he would talk about subjects not close to their hearts like micro-generation in exchange for getting them into power. I finally got to speak to Sandra Gidley in the bar afterwards about her suit - sadly the suit was from last season but some may still be around. I didn't have time to go to the shop in Harrogate which stocked the same clothing range, but am going to try a spot of internet sleuthing.

We concluded the evening by attending 'Glee Club' - a shadowy event that drops off the media radar during which a lot of drunken (mostly middle-aged) men get together in a room and sing political songs tunelessly whilst punching the air. Most occasions I've attempted to go - I've felt this crawling need to rush out screaming. I've recently found that singing rousing political songs is quite fun when hiking and have reassessed my passionate dislike. After all, singing crude songs about country gardens accompanied by John Hemming MP on piano is a unique life experience. This is how I came to make a empassioned musical debut.

[NB: Photo is some icicles hanging from a railway bridge taken early Saturday morning]

Saturday, March 04, 2006

HonkeyTonk, Hillary, Hampstead and Hartlepool

On a year-long academic sojourn in Rhode Island, USA, it is not easy to see "The Culture Wars" at first hand. Brown University is a leafy enclave of the liberal North-East, and the only culture warrior is the occasional trustafarian rebelling against their liberal establishment parents. However, last night, I ventured deep into the heart of Conneticut and Mohegun Suns casino to see 'Toby Keith's Ford Truck Big Throwdown Tour II': a night of country music headlined by Toby Keith. Toby is one of the biggest names in Country: a no-nonsense singer who belts out catchy tunes and plays to people's sense of fun and patriotism. Some of his biggest hits play very heavily on the latter theme, with hits such as The Taliban Song, American Soldier, and his most famous song about his reaction to 9/11, Courtesy of the Red, White and Blue (The Angry American).
Going to the concert was a practical insight into political cultures. Often conflicts are as much a case of conflicting cultures as of politics or interests: the lack of knowledge of the life of your opponent makes their suffering less apparent also. So it is with much of America: most Brown students would consider Toby Keith's fans as hicks and yahoos, while Down South they regard most 'Ivy League types' as snooty, interfering quislings. The truth is they are more similar than different beneath the surface, but never the twain shall meet, and never shall they realise.
This way of looking at politics is less neat, theoretical and heartening than many of us would like. How much would we like a new position on tax to be met with cheers of approval on the doorstep? A principled approach to local taxation that combined a mix of ability of pay, taxation of wealth and created a hedged basket of taxes for extra fiscal reliability? The Westminster press' parlour game of asking how comparatively minor events in Westminter will play 'in the country' is as absurd as it is entertaining for us politicos. Just as Toby Keith's army of fans shows that culture would never let sharp-dressing, serious Hillary Clinton every win a plurality of presidential votes, so too it shows that the Tories needed to change. Thatcher's economic revolution made the country both more economic liberal, but also much more socially liberal. The Tories won the hearts of the nationalistic working classes but lost the professional middle classes. Hampstead, until 1992 a Tory seat, is now a three-way marginal and seen as ripe for Lib Dem plucking. The political culture there changed as the Tories refused to.
So where are the Lib Dems in Britain's (comparatively sanatized) culture wars? Any breakdown of our voters or members show that we are an overwhelmingly middle class party, and the seats that we hold (bielections notwithstanding) reflect this fact. When we are 'left' of Labour according to the pundits, we don't pick up seats like Barnsley or Merthyr, but middle class Labour seats like Manchester Withington, Cambridge, and come close in similar seats like Islington South and North and Oxford East. Our 22-23% in the polls largely represent the middle classes with a conscience vote. And our culture reinforces this approach. To move beyond it, we might have to challenge some of the assumptions of that culture or try to speak beyond it.
Ming Campbell, a man who rose to prominence from a housing estate in Glasgow, has declared a war on poverty- both in income and ambition- and this should be a permanent theme of any liberal party that does want to see people given the opportunity to fufill their God-given potential. But in order to address the people who poverty is an everyday issue for, and to widen the electoral battlefields to parts of the country that previously only Labour could reach, then the Liberal Democrat political lexicon might have to change. Policies like tuition fees and free long-term care for the elderly, financed by higher taxes for those earning over £100,000, can only be regarded as left-wing in that a fiscal transfer from the upper-middle classes to the lower-middle classes is seen as such by the press, but it won't wash on the housing estates. In order to make the Lib Dems a truly progressive, liberal force under our new leader, tough fiscal choices and a relentless focus on spreading opportunity for the worst off should go hand in hand. Reforming public services should be seen as a service to the working class rather than a hindrance, while more prominence should be given to issues with massive externalities like youth unemployment, childcare, vocational training and FE colleges as well as helping to get the socially excluded to feel able to participate in any level of British society that their ability allows them. A plan of tangible policies to make people's daily lives easier, rather than sociological theoretizing, could be a nice campaigning tool as well as a spur to action. Only by expanding our political culture can the Lib Dems expand their electoral base. After all, stranger things have happened. For one, Toby Keith is a registered Democrat who voted for Clinton twice.

And in the bleak midwinter...

Minor edit made on 2006/10/09 to protect the anonymity of another blogger

A beautiful morning dawns in Harrogate, the sunlight glinting off the ice and icicles hanging under the railway bridge. Harrogate is in the grip of the bleak midwinter and after being trampled by numerous Lib Dem feet, the 2 inches of soft fluffy snow that fell yesterday afternoon has been trampled into a treacherous sheet of ice.

When I arrived in Harrogate there was a complete blizzard going up and it was cold enough to freeze the brass balls off a ballot box (or such-like). Being the intrepid explorer that I am, I traipsed through the snow to the conference centre and then traipsed back to the station to meet LibertyCat who'd had train problems. After various encounters of the queue-kind, we failed miserably to get into the Meeting the Challenge rally where Menzies was making his first speech. For reasons unknown, the rally was being held in this seriously small room in the Holiday Inn. By the time we arrived they'd closed the doors because too many people were trying to pile in. The rally rejects traipsed into the Holiday Inn bar.

We stayed there until 8pm when we went to a Lib Dem History group fringe about Charles James Fox (see Georgiana and Britons). Mr Fox was a guy who enjoyed permanent opposition (as well as gambling and nicking other guy's wives) and who as a result of being a professional opposer never really got into government for any prolonged period. Shortly after he did get into government for the second time... he died. His legacy was being 'cool' and attracting people who went on and did major s**t during the 1820s - 1850s. And by being a major people magnet he laid the groundwork for the formation of the Whig party out of an aristocratic faction. I'm guessing he was 'cool' as a result of his extra-curricular activities although he apparently was a humorous and articulate orator... Just shows debauchery can pay (this wasn't the tagline for the talk but I bet it would have increased attendance).

I hung about chatting until about 11pm when I popped into the London region disco which had a dance floor on which you would have had difficulty swinging a baby gerbil. I gave up after narrowly avoiding injury to several bystanders. I figure if you can't hear anything without yelling full volume and the dance floor is as pants as your average branch of La Senza then it's probably worth paddling off into the snowy night. Didn't stop me having my last dance though. If you ever read the conference reports from the old F&M you'll know my last dance of the night is always with the same person and it's been a ritual for the last 5 years. Toodloo campers!

Friday, March 03, 2006

Bon Voyage

LibertyCat and I are heading to Harrogate for the Liberal Democrat Federal Conference this weekend. Am hoping to blog live from conference, but if I don't manage it then fear not! It's entirely possible you may be enlightened, stimulated and entertained by our new group blogger, GoodLiberal.

If you're on the libdemblogs network and are heading to Harrogate yourself... if you can recognise us from our cartoons then feel free to pop over and say "Hi".


See what I mean?

I can't get my blood worked up about this, but in fact it goes to the heart of what is wrong with the British political system. Femme-de-Resistance has told me to produce more short, snarky posts, so regard this as the short, snarky version of my long post about the POWER inquiry.

The school dinners at my local school are lousy. In a sensible political system, this has a sensible solution
1) I get together a group of concerned parents.
2) We contact our ward councillor, who has plenty of time to deal with constituents.
3) Our ward councillor raises the issue with the council.
4) The council improves school food, and raises local tax to pay for it.
5) If they don't, you vote them out.

In fact, the fastest way to improve the food in your local school is
1) Be a major TV personality, because national politicians are too busy to bother with issues that aren't on TV.
2) Make a TV programme about how awful school food is.
3) Persuade the Secretary of State for Education, who is an extremely busy person with personal responsbility for the education of millions of children, to take a personal interest in school dinners.
4) In order to cover up the fact that decisions about menus are being made by a national political figure on the basis of a TV programme, the Secretary of State sets up a School Food Trust to make reccomendations.
5) The School Food Trust spends several months deliberating, while its unelected crony members get paid £20,000 a year for 1 day a week's work.
6) The School Food Trust produces a doorstop glossy report (with tens of thousands of pounds spent on graphic design) and spends even more public money shopping it to the media.
7) The Secretary of State makes an announcement that she is implementing the reccomendations of the doorstop report, with another accompanying media circus.
8) Schools are no longer allowed to have vending machines or tuckshops. This is considered preferable to improving the quality of food, becuase it is more eyecatching in the press.
9) Every headteacher in the country has to reorganise their school food provision, regardless of whether it is appropriate to their local circumstances or not.
10) The standard of main meals either does or does not improve, depending on factors beyond your control.
11) If the food in your local school is still not good enough, rinse and repeat.
12) Every 4-5 years, you get to vote for the man who appoints the Secretary of State. But you probably voted on grounds other than school food, because you can't even tell if the bad food in your local school is the fault of a woman in Whitehall anyway.


Thursday, March 02, 2006

The POWER inquiry and the politician's cringe

For politics nargs, the big story of the week is the publication of the POWER inquiry report - of which the executive summary at least is well worth reading. In the same week, no doubt inspired by this, I also came across this Grauniad column by Campbell Robb of the National Council for Voluntary Organisations, and went to a discussion with Steve Webb MP about some of the innovative ways he is engaging individual voters in his Northavon constituency.

My gut reaction is to make fun of the POWER inquiry. It is the kind of committee of the great and the good that the Liberator songbook dismissed as "A judge, an MP, Richard Holme, and a don, and a peer who is rapidly aging." Because this is the 21st century, they threw in representatives of (both black and white) pop culture, and left out the MP. In fact, the inquiry produced a very detailed and well argued report.

The most surprising thing about the report is how unradical its big ideas are. The inquiry's reccomendations fall under three main headings:
1) Reforming government so elected people (MP's and councillors) actually exercise power.
2) Reforming the electoral system so the electorate actually choose elected people.
3) Encouraging (forcing?) elected people to engage their electors in new and innovative ways.

The first two of these are the sort of things Liberals and Liberal Democrats have been banging on about since time immemorial. While it is nice to see yet another blue ribbon commission endorse the Single Transferable Vote as the best electoral system there is, this doesn't tell us anything we don't already know. And nor is this an exclusively Lib Dem thing. The faction of the Labour party which is serious about democracy has also known all these things since the early years of the Thatcher government, if not before.

Although some of the specific suggestions on point (3) are new and interesting, the basic theme of voter engagement is something that was part and parcel of community politics as the Liverpool liberals imagined it when they were putting the idea together. The extent to which community politics (a radical reinvigoration of local democracy based on engaging with the electorate in new and innovative ways) became FOCUS-style campaigning (a cynical attempt to garner votes by pretending to engage the local electorate) is unfortunate to say the least. The POWER report examines the differences between real and fake voter involvement, and if we want to play our part if reinvigorating democracy, we should pay attention.

To be fair to Liberal Democrat campaigners, one of the reasons why we rarely engage in real consultation with voters is that our elected officials do not generally exercise power. If Council tenants do not want their houses sold off, then any consultation on the issue will necessarily be fake because central government effectively forces Councils to sell off social housing. This goes back to the inquiry's point that all three reforms are mutually reinforcing.

By and large, the POWER report avoids the sort of politician-bashing that often accompanies discussions of political apathy. The report explicitly dismisses "the declining calibre of politicians" as a red herring. Nevertheless, some of the recommendations on public involvement suggest that the POWER commissioners don't trust elected representatives. There is a proposal that MP's should be required to hold AGM's and publish annual reports. This is exactly the kind of useless proposal that mistrust generates. The vast majority of MP's want to engage with their constituents, making the requirement unnecessary. For the minority that do not, a box-ticking process of fake engagement will not improve things. Ultimately, the if politicians do not seek new and innovative ways of engaging voters, the voters will seek new and innovative politicians (typically Liberal Democrats). Adopting STV makes it even easier for voters to enforce this kind of requirement without the need for rules.

Campbell Robb is even more willing to damn politicians with faint praise. Although he avoids saying that we are all scum, he suggests that "community groups" provide a better form of democratic involvement, and suggests that politicians need to adopt ways of working from the voluntary sector. Sorry, Mr Robb, but I'm involved with several voluntary organisations, and the way they conduct their internal affairs would be totally unacceptable if these organisations had the power to tax non-members and throw them in jail if they didn't pay. The formal processes of democracy exist for a reason.

My experience as a politician is that the main role of voluntary and community organisations in the formal political process is to ask for money. Robb's article is no exception - he argues that the government should give the organisations he represents grants so that they can create demand for democracy among the people. He looks forward to an era in which citizens empowered by an active (and rich) voluntary sector jump at the chance to be consulted by "a foundation hospital board or a school governing board". His distaste for politics blinds him to the fact that citizens can't be empowered when dealing with an unelected body. Empowerment requires you to have actual power. Both the POWER report and the experience of Liberal Democrat activists is that the voters already know what they want, and are already keen to be engaged with if politicians who can actually change things are prepared to engage with them - "community groups and volunary organisations" just get in the way.

Steve Webb agrees. We spent most of the meeting discussing the way he has used e-mail to consult his constituents about a range of local issues. He has over 10% of the electorate on a permission-based e-mail list, which he regularly "polls" on controversial issues. People (even busy people) are happy to read and think about the detailed arguments he presents on each side before replying with their view. In return, he lets them know how their views inform his Parliamentary work. There are a few obvious pitfalls - a poll on ID cards was an embarassment because Webb, as a Liberal Democrat, was not willing to accept the popular verdict in favour and instead asked the question again until he got the correct answer. But most of the questions MP's must deal with do not implicate basic values (the example he gave is whether wind turbines should be built in an area of outstanding natural beauty in his constituency), and engaging citizens directly pays dividends.

Unfortunately, too many politicians think like Robb and not Webb. Steve Webb does what he does because he thinks voters care about what he is doing, and want to take the time to read long serious e-mails and send considered replies. To say, "I'm a politician, it's my job to listen to you, can we talk about wind farms." requires politicians to admit that they are politicians, that it is politicians' job to listen to voters, and that politicians can legitimately exercise power on that basis. The third of these is the vital one.

A politician who cringingly accepts Campbell Robb's criticism of politicians allows power to be exercised by "non-political" quangoes and civil servants. Once politics leaves the equation, the views of voters are marginalised and the views of "stakeholders" and "community leaders" become paramount. Ordinary people who want to have their end up arguing with experts, in front of a decision-maker who shares the experts' worldview, and are therefore at a massive disadvantage. We are back to the fake consultation that the POWER inquiry dismisses.

Even deeper than the cringe about being a politician is the cringe about having an ideology. POWER identify "The main parties are too similar and lack principle" as one of the main reasons for political disengagement. An ideology is nothing more or less than an intellectually coherent set of political principles. And yet far too many politicians wallow in their lack of principles. "What counts is what works" says the Prime Minister, a man who also said, "We will not introduce top-up fees." Without an ideology, a political programme is just a laundary list of policies, with no reason to believe that they will be kept in office. No wonder that POWER finds that "Parties and elections require voters to commit to too wide a range of policies." Knowing that Menzies Campbell is a committed liberal tells me far more about how he will govern than reading a manifesto could. It also lets me know that those policy specifics we do agree on are unimportant.

Perhaps the most embarrasing sign of the politician's cringe is the need for the POWER inquiry at all. We should all know that democracy is good, and that politics is a necessary part of democracy. But somehow we need a QC and a DJ to tell us this. A major political tradition, operating through a political party with 63 MP's, has identified the problems with our democracy, proposed solutions, and is fighting elections on the basis of implementing those solutions. And yet it is still possible for a comission of the great and the good to make a splash by saying things we have been saying for twenty years.

Labels: ,

Congratulations Ming

Menzies Campbell wins the Lib Dem leadership election.

Congratulations to Menzies, and may you be truly merciless towards the forces of illiberalism.

While I was backing Chris Huhne, I said at the start of the contest that the important thing was that the next leader of the Liberal Democrats be someone who thinks that Liberalism is more important than local campaigning. I have no doubt that Menzies Campbell is such a person.

What happens next? I imagine that there will not be major changes to the shadow ministerial lineup - Ming was always a continuity candidate, even if he does now have a mandate that a coronation would not have given him. Chris Huhne has gone from nobody to heavyweight as a result of his campaign and 32% voteshare, but there isn't an obvious vacancy for an economic heavyweight that is senior to his current position. I expect Nick Clegg to get Ming's old job as Shadow Foreign Secretary, which is a position he is eminenetly qualified for. Alexander Carmichael was Menzies Campbell's choice as acting leader to replace Oaten, so no change expected there. Paul Burstow presumably gets a prize for being the winning agent, but I would expect that to be leader's PPS rather than a shadow cabinet post.

I imagine that any attempts to change the direction the Party is going in will wait for the Meeting the Challenge report to come out (in time for Autumn Conference). In any case, Menzies was never the candidate who was going to rip up the Kennedy plan and try something new and different - and didn't have to be, given that the old Liberal Democrats worked just fine as long as the leader could be kept off the booze.


Excellent linkage

Apologies for the lack of blogging lately - I have been spending most of my "political time" this week trying to digest the report of the Power Inquiry - blog post later today.

Here are some links to keep you going:

Spyblog read all the evil illiberal legislation that Labour bring in and pick out the worst bits so you don't have to. That was a whole blog post's worth of damage to my day, but it's useful to remind yourself quite how awful the government is from time to time.

Timothy Garton Ash gets it. I'm amazed that the Grauniad still prints his columns given how sensible they are.

David Howarth M.P. nobbles the Enabling Legislative and Regulatory Reform Bill. Since I don't normally read Murdoch-owned papers, found via his law school buddy Michael Froomkin, who blogs from the University of Miami law school and doesn't like Bush very much. Definitely worth checking out his stuff on torture and detention without trial.


Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Lobotomy central...

The art of making politics accessible to a mass audience is to ask difficult questions simply... not to ask cretinous questions badly.

This did not occur to the BBC when they commissioned The Daily Politics (and briefed its presenters). The Lib Dem leadership edition joins the list of so-bad-it's-a-scream TV along with Flash Gordon and the Lara Croft movies. I only watched about 10 minutes and it's now been replaced on the BBC website by yesterday's edition. But even 10 minutes were sufficient to have me in stitches (Stephen Tall found it more disturbing than funny). Even the timing of the show was brain-dead - carefully scheduled after the last sensible posting date for completed ballots.

The BBC obviously thinks that the average viewer has had their brain fried by reality television and can't concentrate for more than a minute at a time. So each candidate had to make a 60 second video. This meant Chris Huhne had to talkveryveryfasttosayanythingsubstantial.

Whilst he was motor-mouthing away, the camera swerved around like a drunk in a rowing boat. It swung through 180 degrees to take in a small straggle of bored-looking bystanders, zoomed alarmingly on Chris Huhne's nose and then dropped to ground-level which gave him a brooding silhouette like a statue of Lenin.

He was interviewed by Andrew Neil who used to be the UK editor of the Economist but who appeared to be doing a good impression of having received a brain donation from a newt. As the interview went on I realised it wasn't just any old newt but the Paris Hilton of the newt world on a particularly blonde day. In the minutes before I switched it off, the questioning ran something like this (this is from memory so will only be approximate - the Realplayer file is gone and I don't have a transcript... But it should give you a flavour - it was *this* bad):

Paris the Newt (smugly): The Institute of Fiscal Studies has said that your plans to remove the lowest earners from tax would cost £21 billion. How do you intend to pay for this?

Chris Huhne: As I have said in my manifesto, I'm going to raise this money using environmental taxes. I haven't done like David Davis and produced a fully costed plan during the leadership campaign [bunch of stats about contemporary taxes raised through green taxation compared with under Thatcher]. But I've costed our manifestos during previous years and I will bring fully costed plans to autumn party conference which I'm sure will be checked and approved by the IFS as they have previously

[Clever person's next question: You've said that you're going to be paying for tax cuts for the poor through green taxes but haven't quite decided the exact form this might take. Can you explain what sort of green taxes you might be thinking of?...

No such luck...]

Paris the Newt (scenting a kill): So you can't say where the money is going to come from? You've claimed that you're going to do a good thing - cutting taxes for the less well off but you now can't say how you're going to raise this money?

Chris Huhne (looking mildly bemused): As I've just said, I'm going to raise it through environmental taxes

Paris the Newt (with a sense of finality and glee): So you can't say how you're going to raise this money

Chris Huhne looks utterly and understandably perplexed (and he wasn't the only one). Back to Paris: For someone whose so interested in the environment, don't you think it's dubious having investments in mining and oil companies? Why do you have these investments?

Chris Huhne (looking like he's suddenly seen an Exeter sign when he was travelling Durham to Glasgow): Well, I thought they were good investment opportunities...
Paris the Newt: But you're investing in oil companies?

[I know, Paris, why don't we shun oil manufacturers completely and cut off the flow of oil... effective immediately... Won't that be good for the economy/human race?]

Chris Huhne: BP have a portfolio of renewable resources

[Good - it wasn't Esso. Clever person's next question: So you believe BP's claim that it's trying to be socially responsible? Do you think businesses can voluntarily act for the benefit of the environment (either out of self-interest or even alturism)? Or is it all so-called 'greenwash'?)]

Paris the Newt: But what about investing in a MINING COMPANY? Drilling for gold in Egypt in the Red Sea

[Ok, you've lost me now, Paris... So you think we shouldn't mine anything? Even most plants mine some stuff out the soil! What did he want him to say "I've moved into an eco-commune and this suit is made of my own saliva"? Where's the scandal?]

Chris Huhne (gently rebuking): They're prospecting for gold, not drilling

Paris the Newt: But they're drilling! For gold! In Egypt! In the Red Sea!

[Not sure which was worse here. Chris thinking the drilling mistake couldn't be overlooked or Paris making the mistake and then repeating it... this caused at least 20 seconds of Chris trying to interrupt Paris to tell him it wasn't drilling 10 seconds previously and it *still* wasn't drilling]

Chris Huhne (looks confused): Prospecting. I don't see what that has to do...

Paris the Newt: But it's the Red Sea, in Egypt, for gold

Chris Huhne: I don't think being for the environment means you can only invest in things that are actively promoting the environment

This was about 10 minutes in, but I expect it continued in the same vein. As you can tell, the investigative journalism was as sharp as a meringue.

The 5-minute blog break

The allegedly underblogged but foully illiberal Mental Health Bill (check out the comments box for lots of links).

Booked in

First up, I'm currently reading:

Development as Freedom

Main argument - development needs to be about increasing the freedoms of people, not just their happiness or their economic wealth.

It's hard going but not because the argument itself is difficult. He must have a bet with Rawls over who can best obfuscate a concept. If he wanted to say something like 'dead people aren't free' he'd write "Unfreedom may be the result of the absence of corporeal manifestation". When you make the easy THAT opaque, you need to bang away at every blatantly obvious point to ensure the poor reader gets it before their brain implodes. But at least (in the words of the irreplaceable Harry Flashman who I'm also currently reading) - after he's mounted the point, he just gives it a good old cavalry-style gallop about the room. Rawls vigorously rogers the same point over fifty pages and numerous positions until it's exhausted, sweaty and quivering at the salute.

Before this I read:

Britons: Forging the Nation

Central thesis - British identity was not created from similarities between the English, Welsh and Scottish but because of their (perceived) differences from the Catholic French. The resulting patriotism allowed women an excuse to act in civil society and mobilised the masses. This, in turn, contributed to the Reform Act of 1832. Ok, it's a bit more complex than that. Having read Britons I became interested in reading...

Georgiana: Duchess of Devonshire

Which I'd got for £1 with The Times a while ago. At the time, I thought "Who the deuce is Georgiana when she's at home?" but reading Britons convinced me she was a spunky proto-feminist bint who'd campaigned for Charles James Fox during a by-election in 1780 something. An Amazon customer review for this book reads:

'A must if your passion is 18th century by-elections... we are treated to the minutiae of Whig politics when what are are really waiting for (maybe!) are the steamy details of Georgiana's affair with Earl Grey.'

Oooooh, goodey, I thought, being a political anorak who IS interested in 18th century by-elections. Then suffered through endless pages of her relationship with her husband, Elizabeth Foster, her children and other members of Whig high society (the 'Tup')... Her drug taking, gambling debts and affairs would have been entertaining had the writing not been as dry as the Namib desert during a hosepipe ban. If she'd attended an S&M orgy involving nude mud-wrestling it would have been described as: 'On 17th May, Georgiana attended an orgy in Kent. The next day, she received some creditors demanding the sum of £6,000'.

And finally I read:

Foetal Attraction

Isn't my usual sort of book but was part of a ten-piece fiction pot-luck from 'The Book People'. I haven't read all ten yet but the ones I have aren't worth mentioning. The Business wasn't (I've forgotten it already) and Five Days in Paris should have been named Five Minutes of Cliched Boredom.

Foetal Attraction is billed as a 'wicked and hilarious take on motherhood and romance' but it would have been a far better book had she left out the girl-boy sh**e. Dumping the leg-crossingly painful pregnancy bits would have also been a good move (and not just as a service to the UK birth rate). This is because her dinner party scenes are VERY, VERY funny. I'm hoping it's not a satire on the behaviour of real people or I'd be EXTREMELY WORRIED. But it looks from LibertyCat and I's exchange here that the broadsheet weekend supplements may be representative of the behaviour of some of the right-on, Grauniad-reading, rich London literary intelligentsia... so bagsie me as the first person under the table in the fallout room. Read it and cringe.