Thursday, December 23, 2010

Doctor Who: The Mind Robber

The Doctor moves the Tardis outside ordinary time and space to avoid a lava flow (which looks unintentionally rather like an excess of soap bubbles). They land in a white void.

While the Doctor goes to another room in the Tardis to begin repairs, Jamie & Zoe see images of their homes on the viewscreen. They are lured outside the Tardis, which dramatically explodes. There then follows a series of surreal encounters with an array of characters from literature including Gulliver, the Medusa, a unicorn, Rapunzel, and some life-sized toy soldiers.

How was it?

There is more mystery in this story than the previous ones in this catch-up, and the nature of this particular plot means the cruddy sets and effects are not the drawback they have been previously. However it is rather off-putting that the expanse of nothingness looks pretty much like an empty television studio; and the supposedly scary white robots look like cardboard teletubbies. Nevertheless, the premise is ingenious, and there is lots of nicely judged humour to keep things going.

Audience reaction 2010

After the last story, I decided not to inflict this one on my 21st century companions. I suspect their reaction would have been impatience with the whimsy, sardonic comments on Zoe's sparkly catsuit, and a more emotionally and intellectually engaging plot. But I think they would not have complained about the music, dialogue, acting or sets as they did previously.

Idle questions
  • How did the inhabitants of this realm get there?
  • Was the destruction of the Tardis fictional?
  • Victoria is gone, replaced by Zoe. How does the Doctor choose his companions? Are there any consequences to plucking companions out of history?
  • We saw another room in the Tardis in this story. We now know that it has many rooms. How are they created?

For an alternative view...

Next time on LW's DW catch-up...
The Second Doctor's final story: The War Games.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

BBC journalist gets Cable the wrong way round

The BBC Radio 4 PM programme considers whether Business Secretary Vince Cable can survive telling undercover reporters he has "declared war" on Rupert Murdoch.

Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith says NO, and gives his reasons.

Smith then does a bravura 180 degree turn when BBC Political Editor Nick Robinson reports the opposite.

Listen to the programme for 3 minutes from about the 32 minute mark.

Here's the transcript:

Eddie Mair: Well let’s talk more about Vince Cable. As promised, our Chief Political Correspondent Norman Smith joins me from Westminster. ... Do you think Vince Cable can survive?

Norman Smith: Bluntly, no. I think the likelihood is he will be forced to resign. And at the moment, as I understand it, he’s locked in talks with Nick Clegg and others, and I imagine that is precisely what they are discussing: his resignation.

Because it seems to me his position as Business Secretary is fatally compromised. You cannot have a position where the Business Secretary is engaged in some sort of political grudge match, political vendetta, against an independent commercial organisation.

Never mind the idea of adjudicating over the BSkyB deal, because if he were to continue in that role it seems to me absolutely certain Rupert Murdoch’s lawyers would be all over it. There would be a judicial review. And it would be completely untenable.

He has also, it seems to me, compromised his position in government, by failing to tell David Cameron and Nick Clegg about these remarks. And so they went through the charade, at the news conference this afternoon, of lauding his position.

And there must be questions too, I would imagine, about his personal judgment, in making such indiscreet remarks to two complete strangers.

Now, set against that you have to say that there would be huge reluctance to see him go, because he is such a crucial member of the Coalition: he’s the second most senior Liberal Democrat. He would be the second Liberal Democrat to be forced out, after David Laws. So it’s a balance: when you look at all the things against him, I would say the pressure is for him to go. If they decide they’re willing to take that hit, then they could keep him. But I imagine it would be very difficult to keep him.

Eddie Mair: (10 seconds later) ... We’re just hearing from your colleague Nick Robinson that he will not be resigning from the Cabinet, Vince Cable; although it is still unclear whether he would stand aside from taking that BSkyB responsibility.

Norman Smith: Well clearly the balance is moving in the direction that it would be too damaging to lose him. And that, you know, perhaps, is an indication of how crucial he is to Nick Clegg. Because if he went, that would deprive Nick Clegg of another seasoned and experienced Liberal Democrat figure to fight the Lib Dem corner in government. He would have to be replaced by another Liberal Democrat one supposes, and there aren't a vast number of heavyweight Liberal Democrats to put in that position. So I imagine the view is being taken that actually, for all the difficulties, for all the problems, for all the question marks surrounding him, potentially the price of losing him would be even greater.

Eddie Mair: Norman Smith at Westminster, thank you.

What's wrong with this?

Aside from Norman Smith's skill in finessing the situation, there are a number of things that concern me about this exchange:

1. Smith shouldn't have framed his response as representing his own personal judgment on Vince Cable's behaviour.
Smith puts forward as his own personal views that Cable's "position as Business Secretary is fatally compromised"; that Cable is "engaged in some sort of political grudge match [or] political vendetta"; that Cable adjudicating the BSkyB deal would be "completely untenable"; that Cable "compromised his position in government, by failing to tell David Cameron and Nick Clegg about these remarks"; that the news conference was a "charade"; and that Cable's surgery conversation was "indiscreet".

There were plenty of such views hurtling around Westminster and the blogosphere today. These views are what count, not Smith's. So framing his response as summarising these views rather than as giving his own opinion would not only give a better appearance of impartiality but also a better account of the political situation.

My guess is that Smith was busy trying to keep up with developments in a rapidly changing situation and had insufficient time to prepare what he was going to say on PM; and so in his haste he framed his response as his own opinion, using phrases such as "it seems to me" (a phrase used three times), "I think", "I imagine" and "I would imagine".

2. Smith should have provided proper balance.
The views he expresses are all arguable. There were plenty of alternative views going around Westminster and the blogosphere.

Yet the only balance Smith provides is in noting that Cable is a "crucial member of the Coalition". That's a reason why Cable should stay, despite all the arguments given as to why Cable should go. It does not offer a challenge to any of those arguments. Smith does not report any opinions that Cable's position was not "fatally compromised", that Cable's remarks were hyperbole rather than reflecting a vendetta, that Cable might continue as Business Secretary so long as he passed the BSkyB decision to another minister, and so on.

The balance Smith presents then is between "He should go" and "The Coalition doesn't really want him to go", rather between "Many are saying he should go because X, Y, Z" and "Some are saying X, Y and Z aren't as bad as all that."

Were such alternative opinions expressed to Smith? How widespread were they? Who knows? Well, that's what we have Chief Political Correspondents for.

To be fair, there is not much time available in such news programmes to offer real balance. And summarising a range of sophisticated views in 90 seconds is hard. But Smith's account would be far more nuanced and interesting if he had made an attempt.

3. Smith should have been smarter about predicting the future.
This is easy to say after the event, but at the time this looked like Smith was going out on a limb. In response to Mair's question "Do you think Vince Cable can survive?" Smith could have said something like "Some are saying it very likely that Cable will be forced to resign". But instead Smith gave his "blunt" opinion "No". The outcome then undermines Smith's credibility, and by extension the credibility of the PM programme.

Should Mair have asked the question? Some people don't like journalists engaging in speculation, and would disapprove of Smith suggesting that that meeting between Cable and Clegg was to discuss resignation. I don't have a problem with such speculations, so long as they are interesting and more often accurate than not. Questions about "what will happen next" - and the implications - are what many of us are discussing. They also make for a much sharper programme because they force us to test our understanding of the situation.

The problem here was not that Smith was wrong: lots of people were predicting that Cable would go imminently. But Smith should have realized that the outcome was far from clear cut and that we would know very soon. So he needed to have distanced himself somewhat from the prediction.

In conclusion...

I think it was worth looking at this episode in detail because it points to a number of traps that news programmes need to navigate.

Firstly, Norman Smith could have looked a twit for saying Vince Cable wouldn't survive and then having to backpedal furiously two minutes later; but (in my opinion) he just about gets away with it.

Secondly however, Smith should be reporting views from Westminster, along with providing some analysis. He shouldn't be framing his response as representing his own personal judgments. He should be providing critical balance. And he shouldn't be going out on a limb with tricky predictions in a rapidly changing situation.

One danger of these traps, in my view, is that after the event it could look as though, according to the journalist, Cable should have gone.

Update 28 May 2012

Photo © BBC
Norman Smith's impartiality has now been brought into question by the Government's Director of Communications, Craig Oliver. There are remarkable similarities with the incident I outline above. I have posted further analysis here.

I've also attempted in that new post to respond to an objection to my discussion above, raised by a commenter on Guido Fawkes' blog:
What do you mean by "providing balance". I just read the transcript you linked to. Smith was giving his opinion as a political commentator on what he though the outcome would be.
He indicated the kind of things he thought would be under consideration and said he thought he would have to resign. After stating that opinion he said
"Now, set against that you have to say that there would be huge reluctance to see him go,"
The news then came in that it was announced he would be staying in the cabinet. Smith then carried on taking into account the news that had just come in. The outcome was not as he had anticipated but it did not mean the factors he had related would not have been be under consideration.
Your headline here seems to be "BBC reporter is not infallible and can't predict the future".
Is this really the kind of "evidence" that gets you so heated about the BBC?
As I see it, infallibility, predicting the future, getting heated, etc. are irrelevant. The key point is that Smith sees balance as fair-minded judgement between alternatives rather than as fair reporting and analysis. A fuller response is in the new post.

Saturday, December 18, 2010

The Big Society v Liberalism

(wild cheering)

In the BLUE corner... from the Home Counties of England... weighing in at... not-very-much... with no knock-outs but one win on points... and with a right hook that's pulling punches... the challenger... BIIIIIG SOCIETEEEEEEE!!!!!

(wilder cheering, thunderous applause)

And in the YELLLOW corner... needing no introduction... from quite-a-long-time-ago... slightly doddery, but still standing... the very disputed heavyweight champion of political philosophies... IIIIIIIT'S LIIIIIIBERALISM!!!!!

(polite clapping)

I'm not sure Nick Clegg did exactly say that "Big Society = Liberalism", as reported, but he has said in the past that "David Cameron’s eloquent description of what he calls the Big Society is what I would call the Liberal Society". So the report is not very far off.

So what to make of this upstart idea "Big Society"?

I would suggest that the question is not whether the Big Society idea captures all of liberalism (pace Cameron the would-be political philosopher, the answer to that is obviously no), but whether the Big Society idea is compatible with the aspects of (what is commonly understood to be) modern liberalism that are relevant to Big Society themes; or, more specifically, how the Big Society compares with the contemporary vision of the Liberal Society.

Mark Pack of Liberal Democrat Voice has compared Cameron’s vision of the Big Society and mainstream Liberal Democrat beliefs in community politics, and found "grounds for agreement, grounds for disagreement".

Pack highlights a common dislike for an overly bureaucratic, centralised, top-down state. Such a state is not only inefficient but disempowering.

There is a consequent shared demand for (1) decentralisation of power, particularly in relation to planning decisions and control of local assets; (2) an unbundling of public services, so that anyone can offer to provide them; and (3) volunteerism and philanthropy.

The areas of disagreement or tensions that Pack notes lie firstly in language, such as whether one is primarily talking about personal responsibility or the freedom of the individual; secondly, in the extent of the decentralisation, whether simply to local government or beyond that to neighbourhoods and communities; but perhaps most pertinently in relation to the fraught question of who should provide public services.

My view is that the key tensions here are less about freedoms, localism and diversity, in relation to which Cameron conservatives and Lib Dems share a huge amount in common; and more about democracy:
  • Not so much "Who takes which planning decisions?" but "How should the decision-makers be held to account?"
  • Not so much "Who controls which assets?" but "How are stakeholders in the assets involved in decisions about those assets?"
  • Not so much "Who should provide which public services?" but "How should providers be held to account?"
  • Not so much "How do we support volunteerism and philanthropy?" but "How is it decided what should be left to volunteerism and philanthropy to provide?"

It is telling that Cameron's speech makes no mention of democracy or of councils, of mutualism or stakeholders; or even of "decisions". The closest he gets to mentioning accountability is in relation to public service providers being "held to account with transparent information to enable people to make informed choices". I would suggest he means consumer choice rather than stakeholder choice or voter choice. He also draws attention to a form of market accountability in that if the business community (taken as a whole) is socially responsible the result will be economic stability, lower taxes and minimal regulation. These two mechanisms may be liberal but there's no sense of direct democratic accountability for actions.

In conclusion, this is not at all a boxing match between ideologies: it seems we are all pragmatists now. It's entirely possible I've misunderstood the Big Society idea. However, my worry is that this agenda of decentralisation, public service unbundling and third sector growth will be pushed without sufficient attention to the kinds of mechanisms that would provide the democratic checks-and-balances that a healthy democratic society needs.

Monday, December 13, 2010


Dec 9 is not about betrayal. It's about honest but slightly naive people trying to squeeze a better deal for students from the Tories.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Who came out well from the tuition fees vote?

  • Not the Conservative Party, which somehow omitted the plans to treble tuition fees from its manifesto and singularly failed to make the financial or libertarian cases for the proposals.

  • Nor the Labour Party, which first introduced up-front tuition fees, which introduced loans instead of grants, which broke its pledge not to introduce top-up fees, which gave the Browne Review such a limited remit that it was bound to recommend increased tuition fees, and which now has no policy about the funding of Higher Education.

  • Not the NUS, which failed to lobby Conservative MPs effectively and failed to mobilise Middle England to its cause, thanks to its careerist Labour and confrontational Socialist Worker elements.

  • Not the universities, which effectively lost their case (not that many attempted to make it) that government investment reaps substantive economic, social and cultural benefits.

  • And, arguably most of all, not the Liberal Democrat party, which jeopardised the only currency a political party has - the trust of the voters - by failing to honour the pledge made by each and every Lib Dem MP to vote against any increase in fees.

Sunday, November 28, 2010

Three Futures for the Liberal Democrats and Tuition Fees

There are of course more than three possible futures for the Liberal Democrats and their wretched pickle about tuition fees.

But here are three futures:

Future 1: "The best policy in the circumstances"

Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and several Liberal Democrat members of the Coalition Government vote in favour of the bill on tuition fees, having wrung a couple more concessions from the Conservatives, and having abstained on an artificially-created and largely symbolic Commons vote relating to the level of the cap. The rest of the ministers and a few backbench MPs abstain (as allowed by the Coalition Agreement). The majority of backbench MPs vote against. The bill goes through.

Some commentators and students eventually acknowledge the benefits of the policy over the current situation, and there is scepticism about the role of the NUS, but the failure to honour personal signed pledges overrides all. The whipping of MPs on a bill that goes against party policy enrages the party membership, but the Coalition continues, with the Liberal Democrat Party's credibility severely weakened. The AV referendum is lost in a petty anti-Clegg vote. Within the government, liberal values are crowded out by authoritarian influences.

Clegg is consequently ousted in 2012, but the 2015 general election ends in disaster with MPs in university constituencies wiped out, whether they kept their pledge or not, and despite the Liberal Democrats being the only party with a policy to abolish tuition fees. Under FPTP, Labour forms a majority government with 41% of the vote.

Future 2: "The price of stable government"

Pressure from the grassroots, backbenchers, and ministers in vulnerable seats leads to a collective decision to abstain on the bill. However nearly all backbench MPs vote against the bill, along with some ministers, who resign from the Coalition Government. The bill falls, leading to an immediate motion of No Confidence.

This fails, and crisis talks between David Cameron and Nick Clegg eventually result in an agreement to continue the Coalition Government, provided there are no more such rebellions. The AV referendum is won, and a liberal government makes good progress in relation to civil liberties, social justice and climate change. However Nick Clegg's standing within the party is severely damaged, resulting in a leadership challenge in 2012.

He survives, and in the 2015 General Election the Liberal Democrats are seen as the plucky terriers who stood up to the Tory rottweilers and won. Enough additional seats are won to form a LibLab Coalition.

Future 3: "For the good of the party..."

The grassroots get organised enough to threaten the deselection of MPs who fail to honour their pledges. This, combined with plunging opinion polls and a sense of duty to their voters, causes the parliamentary party to present Nick Clegg with the fact that they cannot in good conscience do other than vote against the bill. Clegg argues fiercely that a renegotiation of the Coalition Agreement is impossible, but an impasse is reached. Clegg resigns.

The interim leader, Simon Hughes, presents the party's view to the Prime Minister. David Cameron notes that it would be a breach of the Coalition Agreement for Liberal Democrat ministers to vote against the bill, and should any do so they must leave the Government. The party votes overwhelmingly against bill, with Nick Clegg, Vince Cable and a few ministers abstaining. The bill falls, and Cameron calls an immediate General Election.

The Liberal Democrats are portrayed in the campaign as weak, divided and lacking the maturity to govern. Since the AV Referendum has not been held, the FPTP system applies, and the Conservatives form a majority government with 38% of the votes.

Warning: I am notoriously unreliable when it comes to predictions. Nevertheless, I love making them, because they help test the strength of my understanding of current political circumstances and of the variability of the factors affecting the future. This does have the consequence that I'm wrong a lot of the time! And certainly less to be relied upon than analysts who make few predictions, or vaguer ones.

At this moment in time my gut reaction is that the three futures described above are in descending order of likelihood. But I'm interested in hearing about alternative futures.

Friday, November 19, 2010

Doctor Who: The Tomb of the Cybermen

The Doctor, Jamie (yay, I remember him from some random episode I must have caught once) and Victoria (I don't) land on the planet Telos, and join an archaeological expedition to the 500 year old tomb of the Cybermen. It turns out that a couple of the expedition are interested in more than just history...

The pace has picked up considerably in the three years since "The Aztecs". Although the story is still fairly slight, with plenty of plot-holes, the incidental music is not quite so jarring; the direction more ambitious and polished; and the dialogue and acting are not quite so theatrical. The futuristic elements combined with the theme of exploring history create more of a sense of mystery than the Aztecs, despite the still laughable sets and props.

The Second Doctor is more playful since his regeneration, but still often seems to know more than he is letting on. He is always very manipulative in the way he assists the expedition. In a wistful moment, consoling Victoria at the recent death of her father, the Doctor says that his memories of his family are still alive when he wants them to be. He says he is 450 years old.

Audience reaction 2010

One youngster accompanied this viewing - probably better to say "endured"! - but she enjoyed making sardonic comments on the dated production values. In particular we both found the strong-and-loyal-but-dumb black manservant rather racist by 21st century standards, and the blatant sexism rather less than futuristic.

The subject of companions loomed large, with Susan, Barbara and Ian gone, replaced with Jamie and Victoria. My own companion noted how refreshing it was to have companions from different centuries (Jamie the 18th century, Victoria the 19th century) and locations (e.g. Jamie being from Scotland) rather than from 20th/21st London, as she noted seems to have become the norm. She was astounded when I let slip that companions have come from other planets too...

Watching The Sarah Jane Adventures recently, we noted the lovely reference to Barbara and Ian, that they had married each other, become Cambridge professors, and have not aged since the 1960s. This kind of reference really enhances our enjoyment of both old and new episodes!

Although not the least bit scary, one aspect of this episode that my companion noticed was the similarity between the scene here in which the members of the expedition try to escape from the Cybermen and a scene from the modern era which takes place with the Cybermen in Torchwood Tower. "And that was scary!"

Next up in this Doctor Who education enterprise are two more stories from the Second Doctor era. I suspect that the youngsters might prefer just selected moments rather than sitting through hours of this.

Idle questions
  • Presumably the Doctor assisted the expedition out of curiosity and a concern to assess the threat posed by the sleeping Cybermen. And presumably it was for compassionate reasons that he returned the Cybermen to their slumber rather than destroying them. Did he not worry though that the security he put in place would be too limited to prevent further archaeological expeditions? Is he somehow relying on the TARDIS to take him to points in the universe at which his assistance is needed?
For an alternative view...
  • John Bensalhia at Shadowlocked has a sometimes hilarious take on this story.
  • A fair review also is available at

Saturday, November 13, 2010

Rethinking what the tuition fees issue is about

Unlike, it sometimes feels, 99.9% of the politically active people I come across, I don't have particularly strong views on university funding.

I've been following the arguments for the last 10-15 years and can see good arguments on all sides. I'm pleased that everyone is concerned about potential students from poorer families, about sustainable funding, and about part-time students. But beyond that I'm still open to persuasion that either 100% taxpayer funding or some variant of the Browne proposals is the way forward.

However, for LibDem members like me I wonder if there is an even bigger issue at stake than the one of how to fund undergraduate degrees.

In short: I'm concerned that the U-turn by LibDem ministers is of a different order of magnitude to normal U-turns.

As we all know, voting for these tuition fee proposals would not just breach party policy; and not just breach a Manifesto commitment made just a few months ago; and not just breach the expectations of parliamentarians and members when they backed the Coalition Agreement; but most of all these proposals would breach a personal pledge by every LibDem MP, signed before the election.

This we know. For the purposes of this post, let's set aside the reasons why Nick Clegg and Vince Cable have changed their minds; and also set aside why Clegg and Cable believe these breaches to be necessary

And also, for now, let's set aside worries about the consequential election losses over the next few years. Set aside questions about lack of mandate. Set aside the vitriolic "lying" and "betrayal" narratives themselves. Others have more to say about these matters than I care to. I want to focus on just one aspect here.

It is possible, I believe, that the magnitude of this breach of trust is such that serious damage, possibly generational, has been done to the capacity of the Liberal Democrat Party to nudge our society in the direction of the social, liberal, democratic rational values that the party cherishes.

For example, respect for science, an understanding of the urgency for action on climate change, the campaign for electoral reform, the internationalism that helped us make the right call on Iraq, the drive to reduce social unfairness... all these and more need LibDem support at every level of politics.

And while there will be insufficient numbers of LibDems, MPs, MEPs, councillors, activists, members, and voters to support these values, it is much worse than that: this question of trust will permeate every policy discussion, every doorstep encounter, every debate, every columnist's analysis... so that LibDem influence in those discussions will diminish.

If I am right about the seriousness of this breach of trust (I might be wrong) then it is incumbent on members of the party to consider whether the long-term interests of liberal democracy might be best served by calling a halt to the plan of Nick Clegg and Vince Cable to whip the parliamentary party to vote for these tuition fee proposals.

There are always compromises in government. Most times we argue our case, sigh if we lose, and trust that the leaders we choose know what they are doing. We do not always get our own way. We often have to defend unpopular decisions that we have reluctantly concluded are in the best interests of the country. We sometimes get things wrong and have to make U-turns.

But here, in this case, it is not that the members are not getting their own way; it is that the MPs themselves pledged that they would vote one way and are now expected to vote another. The facts of the case have not changed. We knew how bad the finances were; we knew what Browne was likely to say; we knew that a hung parliament was likely. People interpret this as a blatant personal betrayal by MPs.

What compounds the sense of betrayal is that Nick Clegg's campaign emphasised "No more broken promises" and "A new kind of politics". This sense of betrayal is likely to have quite serious repercussions.

What I am trying to suggest is that - for once - the merits of the particular proposals themselves are actually not that important. What is important is the consequential damage of MPs breaking their personal pledges for the future of liberal democrat values for some time to come.

Update 15 Nov 10:

I was in two minds on Saturday night about posting my views above. I don't want my view confused with those LibDem supporters who oppose the Coalition, or with certain Labour supporters who are whipping up anti-Clegg hysteria wherever they can. But in the fading light of a frosty Monday afternoon I think I was right to do it. I do not want to be accused of acquiescing - through inaction - to the broken pledges.

This comment by Andy Darley spurred me to write the post, in particular:
"... it’s not a question of whether Lib Dem MPs will break their promise to vote against tuition fee increases, it’s actually a question of which out of two contradictory and equally binding promises they will choose to break.

"Promise one was to vote against a rise. Promise two, in the coalition agreement, was to abstain.

"... One thing the [Liberal Democrat Voice members] survey is clear about – more than 90 per cent of respondents expect them to keep one or the other of the two promises. And at the moment the leadership is marching them towards breaking both."
I would also like to quote Keith Day who wrote...
"... the point about the tuition fees pledge... has nothing to do with coalition compromises and which party got how many seats. It was a personal promise by a candidate to their voters. It doesn't matter which party won or is in coalition with which other party. Our MPs said to their voters 'If I win I will do this'. The promise was not conditional on which party won, or if there was a hung parliament or not.
Those MPs who will vote in favour of increasing fees will betray those voters who believed that promise and all those of us who believed that Lib Dems stood for something better than the sordid, selfish, self-aggrandizing politics of recent years.
Clegg’s betrayal is that he is going to whip his MPs into breaking a promise, forcing those who stand by their principles of honesty and honour to be 'rebels'."
Update #2 15 Nov 2010:

The whole of the above post could probably be replaced by Ming Campbell's simple statement:
"My credibility would be shot to pieces if I did anything other than to stick to the promise I made."

Friday, November 5, 2010

Is the Woolas judgement an attack on free speech?

The news that former Labour immigration minister Phil Woolas has been found guilty of knowingly making false statements about his general election rival in campaign literature sounds good.

In the past I've found Mr Woolas's views and manner very disagreeable, and the false statements in his campaign literature similarly: particularly that his rival had attempted to woo Muslims who advocated violence against Mr Woolas.

It turns out then that Woolas' leaflet is not only disagreeable but also falls foul of section 106 of the Representation of the People Act (1983) which sets out sanctions against anyone involved in an election who "makes or publishes any false statement of fact in relation to the candidate's personal character or conduct" unless they can show "reasonable grounds for believing, and did believe, that statement to be true".

Mr Woolas responded to the judgement saying that it "raised fundamental issues about the freedom to question politicians":
"Those who stand for election can participate in the democratic process must be prepared to have their political conduct and motives subjected to searching, scrutiny and inquiry. They must accept that their political character and conduct will be attacked. It is vital to our democracy that those who make statements about the political character and conduct of election candidates are not deterred from speaking freely for fear that they may be found in breach of election laws."
This judgement, he said, would "chill political speech".

You might argue that this is humbug from a scoundrel who has been rightly punished. Or that it is about time something was done about this culture of political smear in which election leaflets and partial newspapers too often delight.

More coolly, you might argue that it is fine to scrutinise the conduct and motives of candidates so long as you do not knowingly lie about them.

But even this more moderate position worries me. Let me give you an example from a political leaflet that came through my door this week. It's not an election leaflet, granted, but is not dissimilar. It's from Labour (Ben Bradshaw in Exeter), but that's because it's what came to hand rather than because the other parties never do exactly the same things.

The leaflet asks "Do the cuts affect you?", declaiming inter alia that child benefit is being restricted, that free prescriptions for people with long-term conditions are being axed, and that cuts to the police budget put safety at risk.

The leaflet goes on to say "REMEMBER: The Tories and LibDems had a choice. They chose this." They "made the wrong decision. Their savage cuts are a massive gamble with our economy, and a reckless attack on our jobs, growth and services." It says it is "shameful that Lib Dem MPs... are now supporting this vandalism."

Now I don't think there's a legal problem with any of this. Opposing parties would disagree with it all; the claims clearly fail to tell the whole story; and it's a shame that political discourse has to dumbed down in such a fashion. But it's all quite ordinary as political leaflets go.

However, what if instead of generalised references to "Lib Dem MPs" or "the Tories" or "the Government" or "cuts", this were an election leaflet that said "Candidate X says he loves the NHS, but he supports the axing of free prescriptions for people with long-term conditions", or "Candidate X is happy to see law-and-order put at risk by cutting 20% from the police budget", or "Candidate X wants to hit the poorest hardest by unfair welfare reforms".

Again, I think this is dumbed-down discourse that harms our political culture, and would be far from an extraordinary leaflet. But does it fall foul of the law? It's not clear to me. It could be tested in the courts, but surely whether such statements are false should be the stuff of the election, rather than the courts? Following the Woolas judgement, angry candidates with deep pockets might be willing to pursue such cases, although I'm sure the mainstream parties would be disinclined to do anything that risked tumbling into costly tit-for-tat legal battles across hundreds of constituencies.

No, my worry is here is not that there will be huge numbers of court cases, but that election literature becomes more generalised and less focused on the individual candidates' views and record than it should be.

In that sense, the Woolas verdict would inhibit free speech in quite a serious way.

Of course this could go another way: rather than simply dropping the smears against opposing candidates while continuing with tribal nastiness, selective omission, spurious bar charts and misleading ambiguity, candidates could calmly and rationally set out their best arguments for preferring their policies to their opponents' policies.

Nah. Can't see that happening. Can you?

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Doctor Who: The Aztecs

The TARDIS arrives in 15th Century Mexico, and gets trapped in a tomb. Barbara is mistaken for a reincarnation of the high priest Yetaxa. She attempts to end the Aztec practice of human sacrifice, while Ian and the Doctor try to find a way back to the Tardis.

That this second post in the series of reports on my education in the Doctor Who classics is so tardy is less to do with laziness or deadlines, than because of sudden cold feet about the whole enterprise.

In short, The Aztecs is some fans' favourite of the early stories, and yet I almost entirely failed to see its attractions.

In part, of course, this might be a consequence of familiarity with the modern era: The painted backdrops, papier-mâché stones, crude incidental music, antiquated camerawork, lack of special effects, and so on are hurdles for the suspension of disbelief by modern audiences. It is not just the technical aspects: The stagey direction, hammy acting, wordy yet unsubtle dialogue, simplistic story, and laughable cliff-hangers are major hurdles too.

Is it fair to judge 1960s television production values by the standards of 2010? Probably not, but it is hard to set aside modern expectations. I did my best by treating it as a televised play, but still found the plot uninteresting.

There is one exchange that raises interesting questions. The Doctor attempts to dissuade Barbara from stopping the Aztec practice of human sacrifice by saying "But you can’t re-write history! Not one line!" Is it impossible for time-travellers to change history? Or is it that they shouldn't? Aren't they changing it by being there?

Audience reaction 2010

The youngsters who are part of my Doctor Who education had endured all the episodes of An Unearthly Child, but could only cope with one-and-half episodes of The Aztecs. These youngsters do not have gnat-sized attention spans and are far from bored by history: They found on the DVD the 1970 Blue Peter account of Cortez and Montezuma and lapped it up, asking many questions and wanting more. But they were unable to engage in the drama.

The problem now is that it will be difficult to persuade them back to this Doctor Who education until the quality of the story makes up for the production values.

Idle questions
  • Why can't you change history?
For an alternative view...

Friday, September 3, 2010

Doctor Who: An Unearthly Child

Beginning a catch-up of highly rated Doctor Who stories, guided particularly by Alex Wilcock's recommendataions. [1][2][3]

In "An Unearthly Child" we're introduced to a mysterious old man known only as "The Doctor" who has a ship called a TARDIS that travels in time and space and a grandaughter called Susan. He is rather haughty and cranky but clever. She is enthusiastic and kind.

The story, such as it is, involves two of Susan's teachers Barbara and Ian following her home and discovering the TARDIS. The Doctor reacts to this by kidnapping the teachers and taking them to the Stone Age. After getting involved in the power struggles of the local cavemen over the creation of fire, The Doctor, Susan, Barbara and Ian escape in the TARDIS.

Audience reaction 2010:Two youngsters brought up on the 9th, 10th and 11th Doctors found the slowness, laboured incidental music, pompous speeches, and low-tech effects alternately dull and hilarious. And it has to be said: television drama and production values have come a long way! But the atmospheric theme tune, the alienness of The Doctor, and the idea of the TARDIS still manage to create a sense of wonder.

Idle questions
  • With her intelligence and the power of the TARDIS, why did Susan so want to be a school pupil on earth in the 1960s?
  • How much control does The Doctor actually have over where and when the TARDIS ends up?

Friday, May 21, 2010

What happened in Exeter at the General Election?

Before the election, the Conservative candidate Hannah Foster said "The Exeter seat decides the country. If Exeter changes hands, the country changes hands, and if it doesn’t, it probably won't."

It turns out she was perceptive, and my expectations were wrong. The results in Exeter showed a big increase in the Conservative vote, but not enough to take the seat. The Labour vote decreased, but by not quite as much as it could have done. The LibDem vote, at one time expected to be much higher following the first television debate, stayed much the same.

Candidate Party


Ben Bradshaw Labour 19,942 38.2 43.6
Hannah Foster Conservative 17,221 33.0 24.9
Graham Oakes Liberal Democrat 10,581 20.3 20.2
Keith Crawford UKIP 1,930 3.7
Chris Gale Liberal Party 1,108 2.1
Paula Black Green 792 1.5
Robert Farmer BNP 673 1.3

Notional 2005 figures from UK Polling Report

National, regional and marginal opinion polls during the campaign showed a much higher LibDem vote than this, for a few days showing a LibDem win. So what happened?

Firstly, in line with the national trend, I think that the closer it got to election day, the more people reverted to tactical voting in order to either keep the Conservatives from winning, or to ensure that Labour lost office. I'm sure that the relentless smear campaign by the right-wing press had an effect, and numerous other factors played a role, but I think this classic "squeeze" of the third party in the First-Past-The-Post voting system was a key factor.

Secondly, Hannah Foster for the Conservatives was clearly a strong candidate. On the liberal wing of the party, clued up on climate change, personable, experienced in politics, extremely well-funded, with visits from Shadow Cabinet members and assisted by a young energetic team, Hannah was formidable. Without the boundary changes that moved the Conservative-leaning Topsham and St Loyes wards out of the Exeter constituency (to the East Devon constituency), Hannah could well have won.

Thirdly, Ben Bradshaw for Labour also ran a great campaign. A blizzard of leaflets almost matched the Conservatives in number and production values. He wisely persuaded party managers to let him stay to defend Exeter rather than tour other constituencies and the television studios, as had been expected of him as a media-friendly Cabinet Minister. There more hustings than ever before, and his doorstep charm was undiminished. Most significantly, his campaign put out the message that the race was neck-and-neck between Labour and the Conservatives. This claim became self-fulfilling, because many of those inclined to vote LibDem, Green or Liberal did not want to risk a Conservative win, and so reluctantly voted Labour tactically.

Graham Oakes therefore did brilliantly to maintain the LibDem vote share. In fact, despite the squeeze, there was a slight increase in the total number of LibDem votes over the 2005 notional figures. This was despite having nowhere near the funds to match Labour or the Conservatives. As the third party in the constituency, the LibDems could not afford to fight as Labour and the Conservatives could. Many Exeter LibDem activists had to be deployed elsewhere in Devon, defending sitting MPs against the Conservative onslaught. Labour could bring in reinforcements of volunteers from London; the LibDems could not. Labour and Conservatives sent waves of high-profile front-benchers into the campaign; the LibDems could not.

The coverage in Exeter Express & Echo showed the usual bias towards the Conservatives, with some fawning this time also towards Ben Bradshaw, as the Cabinet Minister responsible for the media. This bias was matched in the national press, as illustrated by this article in the Daily Mail by the right-wing journalist Quentin Letts.

So how did votes change?

As can be seen in the table above, the Conservative vote increased by 8.1%, the Labour vote decreased by 5.4%, while the LibDem vote stayed much the same. So it was the collapse in the smaller parties that explains the difference between the Conservative increase and the Labour decline. The best news of the election is that the BNP came last.

In the absence of further evidence, my guess is that there were a few people who switched directly from Labour to Conservative, but a more common route was a switch from Labour to LibDem, combined with big tactical "stop the Tories" voting by those inclined to vote Green, Liberal and LibDem.

What were the key issues? It's of course difficult to say. Many different issues were covered in the debates, by the media, at hustings, and on the doorstep. Labour's leaflets tended to emphasise the government's record on the economy, the NHS and schools. Conservative leaflets tended to focus on David Cameron as the person to sort out the deficit, help working families and increasing employment. The LibDem leaflets emphasised the four steps (fairer taxes, fair chance for every child, fairer economy, cleaning up politics) and attacked Labour's record on Iraq, taxation, and the moving of cancer surgery to Plymouth.

Despite tough questioning at the hustings, I'm not sure how much voters were actually swayed by MP's expenses, unitary local government, foreign affairs or climate change.

It will be interesting to see what happens at the next general election in Exeter. Ben Bradshaw's majority is now down to 2721, which the Conservatives could take on a swing of just over 3%. However, assuming the coalition government survives for the next 5 years as planned, there are plans for constituencies to be resized, and for there to be a vote on changing the First-Past-The-Post voting system to AV. Either of these plans could have a profound effect on the Exeter battle.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

Jumping all over the fence

For all the inherent mishmashedness of the construct, I'm a natural Liberal Democrat.

Not a liberal in toto, because the ideological purity of that philosophy needs for me the counterbalancing of a concern for freedom with concerns for social justice, democracy and our environment. I have had plenty of animated discussions with friends who have argued that liberalism properly understood can encompass all that I need from the latter concerns, but I think the debate is far from settled; and when it comes to a framework for shaping political decision-making I'd rather run the risk of amalgamating philosophies that lead to potentially contradictory conclusions (that can be pragmatically compared against each other) than have conclusions that omit the above concerns because the arguments are too subtle.

Whatever. Philosophically, it's a mess. But I'm certainly not a conservative or a socialist.

So when it comes to the charge of "supporting" a Tory government or "propping up" a failed Labour government, I am uncomfortable, as are many Liberal Democrat voters.

Looking back over my tweets from the last week, I find evidence of this discomfort.

I started with...
I don't relish Nick's choices. My gut feeling is to permit - but be no part of - a minority Tory govt, & explore new HoC's opinions on STV
This got me accused of being a soft Tory, which of course stung. But, I reasoned, coalition with Labour would be seen as keeping a failing government in power. The parliamentary arithmetic is dodgy, and would lead to an unstable government, beholden to tiny parties. Struggling on like this would also lead to both parties hemorrhaging popular support. At the same time I thought that coalition with the Conservatives would be unlikely to work given the sharp policy differences and instinctive psychological antagonisms. And I believed the Conservatives were temperamentally incapable at this time of handling compromise, and so would screw up coalition. Either option would lead to a quick second general election in which (without electoral reform) tactical voting in favour of the two larger parties would lead to electoral wipe-out for the LibDems.

A minority Tory government might protect the LibDems to some extent, gain some minor policy concessions, and lead to cross-party agreement on electoral reform. In this scenario, Labour and LibDems would work in opposition together to block the worst excesses of conservatism. The Tories would screw up minority government and a second election would lead to gains for both Labour and the LibDems. The downside would be that this option would play to the "hung parliament = instability" accusation.

The importance of electoral reform in all this is not purely party self-interest, by the way. Firstly, our current voting system allows a party to attain absolute executive power with a small share of the vote. As Mark Pack put it, "It's not about academic debates on the features of different electoral formulas; it's about the gritty realities of taking power away from the political establishment and giving it to voters". Secondly, the fact that about half the parliamentary seats never change hands between parties leads to complacency and abuses like the expenses scandal. Thirdly, the quality of our national debate suffers because so few voices outside the Labour and Conservatives are heard in Westminster. There are more than just two views in the country. And it's not just the Liberal Democrats: Green and UKIP perspectives deserve to be heard in Parliament since they speak for many in the country, albeit not at the level of the two large parties. But at a more obvious practical level, a British coalition would struggle to survive if the leader of the larger partner can choose to call an election as soon as the polls favour it, and see tactical voting in the FPTP system squeeze the vote of the smaller partner.

So when the Liberal Democrats began coalition talks with the Conservatives, I was of the #dontdoitnick movement:
I agree #dontdoitnick for unworthy reason: Tories can't handle compromise, so will screw it up. But not good advert 4 PR
At this point Twitter and the blogosphere became almost unbearably tribalist. Conservatives suddenly began to be unsettlingly nice to LibDems; Labour supporters frighteningly antagonistic.

The presumption on both sides was that this was all about party advantage. One minster was quoted as saying "If the Liberals do a deal, they will be toast at the next election... You can write the leaflets now". This truth disproved the assertion that a LibDem-Conservative coalition was about party advantage, but no-one seemed to notice. "Party advantage" quickly elided into "A seat at the top table for Clegg", "Trading principle for ministerial cars" and the like.

On Any Questions, Shirley Williams reached the conclusion, as I had done, that there could be no coalition without electoral reform, but allowing Tory government would be possible. Meanwhile, John Redwood thought that calling the LibDem's campaign for fair votes a "pet project" would set the proper expectations.

At about this time, Evan Harris (praise be upon him) wrote that Labour offered the closest value match. The quest for a Rainbow Alliance of red, yellow, green and others was underway, and I got caught up in the enthusiasm for a #progressivemajority.
If it can work, brilliant.
Interestingly, though, the abuse from Labour supporters did not ease up, even after the LibDems opened talks with the Labour party. Conservatives wallowed lovingly in the phrase "Coalition of Losers", but it became apparent, as Ed Balls sabotaged the talks, that Labour seemed psychologically unprepared fora Progressive Majority. The SNP were publicly rubbished; electoral reform was batted away. Perhaps, as some younger Labour supporters notes, there are quite a few conservatives (small c) among the Labour old-guard. Or perhaps 13 years of unthinking authoritarian ways has cut Labour off from the progressive movement.

The irony is, a progressive majority could have been possible if there had been more LibDem MPs and fewer of these old-style Labour MPs. It truly was a case of "Vote Brown; get Cameron".

Finally, with the tribalist abuse reaching fever pitch, a deal was struck. My MP Ben Bradshaw offered warm invitations for Liberal Democrats to join the Labour party. I reserved judgment on the deal itself, until I read the details, but declined Ben's kind invitation:
Let me think... climate change, Iraq, STV, #debill, expenses, banks, authoritarianism, #nuttsack, Vince... no, I'm good thanks
Labour spin doctors insisted angrily that Nick Clegg made David Cameron the Prime Minister. I prefer to think that the voters did that, albeit through a bad electoral system. Things could have been very different if Labour had honoured its promise on voting reform.

When the coalition agreement was published, I read it carefully. I was pleasantly surprised:
I've read the coalition agreement. There are so many good things there, that I can probably live with the bad.
Following the election, few Labour tweeters, bloggers or politicians seemed to want to engage LibDems in policy discussion, and yet this Liberal Democrat - Conservative coalition agreement includes policies for a pupil premium, a scrutiny of Trident's value for money, the restoration of the earnings link for the basic state pension, an increase in the personal allowance for income tax, an increase in Capital Gains Tax, the tackling of tax avoidance by the very rich, the halting of the Conservatives' planned cuts in inheritance tax for the very rich, the replacement of the Air Passenger Duty with a per-flight duty, the establishment of five year fixed-term parliaments, a referendum on electoral reform, a power of MP recall, PR for the House of Lords, a statutory register of lobbyists, the removal of big money from politics, the devolution of power to local government, the phasing out of the default retirement age, the repeal of Labour's assault on civil liberties, the scrapping of ID cards, a review of libel laws to protect freedom of speech, the ending of storage of internet and email records without good reason, plans for home energy improvement, support for renewables, the cancellation of the third runway at Heathrow, measures to promote green spaces, a national recharging network, prohibition of public subsidy for nuclear power...

So many good things that would have been unlikely without this coalition.

I'm still very wary:
Particular concerns about STV, welfare, nuclear energy, Higher Education, marriage tax bonus, slimy bastards & electoral oblivion
... but coalition on the basis of these policies does, on the whole, seem better for the country than the unstable Tory minority government I originally favoured.

The "I voted LibDem; now they've let in the Tories; I'm never voting for them again" meme was, and continues to be, highly virulent. It's nonsense of course: LibDem votes have prevented both a Tory-only government and a continuing Labour-only government, both of which would have been dreadful for the country. I fully expect the LibDems to be shafted by the slimy bastards, and, if the gamble on an electoral reform referendum fails, to be wiped out at the next general election. But that is the price to be paid for getting so many progressive policies implemented.
RT me [can't quite believe this situation] It's amazing Tories are willing to implement progressive policies & Labour isn't.

Friday, May 7, 2010

The General Election: Reflections on my failure as a blogger

I started this blog 18 months ago with a number of aims:
  1. To help sharpen the Liberal Democrat offering to the British people at the next general election, an offering that at that time appeared to lack focus and presentational quality.
  2. To try to help improve the quality of discourse at the more "tabloid end" of political discussion, to move beyond slogans and smears.
  3. To try to influence how voters, particularly in Exeter where I live, go about choosing between political parties and candidates, to move beyond tribalism to rationality.

It might well be said I've failed fairly comprehensively on each of these aims:
  1. The LibDems succeeded in improving their policies and presentation, but no thanks to me. I've not seen any evidence of influence.
  2. Nick Clegg's performance in the first television debate led to improved LibDem poll ratings, but subsequent journalism and politics indulged in all the usual barren punch-and-judy behaviour. There was no renaissance in political discourse that I could see amongst commentators, politicians or voters.
  3. Yesterday's general election results, for me, confirm that this behaviour still works as a way of getting votes. In Exeter in particular, Labour ran with a message of "It's neck-and-neck between Labour and Tories", successfully scaring those who believe in LibDem policies into voting either for Labour (to stop the Tories) or for the Tories (to get Labour out).

Now, I say "failure", but to be fair, there are influential bloggers out there who had very welcome success in relation to Aim 1 - I would single out Neil Stockley, Alix Mortimer & Alex Wilcock for particular praise - so my failure here was not a great loss.

And in relation to Aim 2, I'm very far from being the first person to find it difficult to create tabloid-style arguments that are more than either whispers in the wind or glorified slogans. Maybe blogging can't have such grandiose aims.

And to be fair in relation to Aim 3, the Exeter LibDem candidate Graham Oakes did very well not to have his vote squeezed at all, given that the self-fulfilling "Lab-Con neck-and-neck" scaremongering was championed by extremely well-funded, well-staffed and media-supported Labour and Conservative campaigns in Exeter.

A final point. Perhaps the way I went about blogging was fatally flawed. The most successful blogs have a sense of authenticity about them: "This is what I think", they say, "disagree with me if you like, but you can't deny me my voice." This blog lacked that authenticity. It wasn't my voice. I could have written about tabloid-level arguments without trying to use them; but that seemed somehow patronising and elitist. So instead I tried to construct them. However as constructs I found the overall tone of the blog unconvincing; and being perceived as having a Machiavellian agenda inevitably highlights the inherent elitism anyway, without the benefits of authenticity.

It's worth emphasising that I wasn't "dumbing down" or "slumming it" in order to deceive. I genuinely believe that if your arguments are too subtle and clever to be translated into language that can be readily understood outside activist circles then there's probably a flaw in those arguments somewhere.

It's interesting that Twitter turned out to be a more rewarding experience than blogging, probably because it was authentically my political voice rather than a more stylised blogging construct, but again there was little evidence of impact.

What to do now?

I will probably continue to post every now and again. I think we live in exciting times politically, and Exeter is also an exciting place politically. But I think it's best to stop having ulterior aims beyond writing what I think.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Tie a yellow twibbon...

Yesterday, on the day that I added a LibDem twibbon to my Twitter image, I posted 6 reasons why, in the forthcoming 2010 British General Election, I've decided to vote Liberal Democrat.

I'm not a party official. I don't represent the LibDems. I can't speak on their behalf about their policies. I have no axe to grind.

But, having considered what all the parties have said this year and over the past few years, my firm view is that the Liberal Democrat Party is the only one of the three main parties that...

  1. Understands the urgency of tackling climate change.
  2. Consistently and honourably put the case against the Iraq War.
  3. Is fighting to get a more representative range of the country's views heard in Parliament, is campaigning for less centralised democracy, opposed the dreadful #debill, and is championing the role of independent scientific advisers.
  4. Opposed the corrupt MPs expenses system long before the scandal broke.
  5. Warned of the bank crisis before it happened.
  6. Always carefully weighs the evidence for draconian laws against the civil liberties lost.

It turns out that quite a few people agree that the LibDems are the best choice at this election.

I have been a lonely wonderer. Perhaps I am not quite so lonely now.

P.S. A note to the undecided voter

If you have not decided how you're voting, I urge you to read the party manifestos and make your own mind up. You might think it doesn't matter if you vote or not. It's just one vote. Perhaps your seat has been in the hands of the same party for generations. Perhaps you don't like any of the parties.

But even though it is a single vote, and you might disagree with my conclusions above, it is better to let your voice be heard than let a small number of zealots decide how our country is run.

Parties will tell you "X can't win here", "It's a battle between A & B. C has no chance", "You have to vote D to keep out E". Maybe. Sometimes a tactical vote is necessary, depending on the seat. But everything is different in 2010. The polls have never been like this. No-one really knows what is going to happen, however confident they may seem to be. And if enough people vote, the will of the people can be heard. So every vote ultimately matters.


Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Why I'm voting Liberal Democrat. Reason 6: Civil Liberties

I've decided to vote Liberal Democrat in the forthcoming 2010 British General Election.

I'm giving my reasons in six posts. The first one was here. Here's the final one of the six...

6. Civil Liberties

Henry Porter in today's Guardian writes "What is worrying is the chill that has descended on civil liberties, as though freedom was some minority issue for eccentrics, rather than the oxygen of democracy."

I find it amazing that there is so little interest among ordinary people in examining whether the authoritarianism of government is justified.

Porter continues:
"The [Labour] party has created a country where half a million people come under some kind of official surveillance every year; where emergency terror laws have become part of the normal policing arsenal; and where jury trial is under attack, total surveillance of communications and movement is proposed and secret courts meet to decide house arrest, without subjects ever being told what the evidence against them is."
To this I would add storing innocent people's DNA, introducing ID cards, covering up torture by allies, treating asylum seekers abominably, allowing "fast-track" extradition without proper scrutiny by a court, and passing new laws to curtail free speech.

The Conservatives haven't and won't oppose these measures. And they will exploit them to the fullest when they regain power. Labour has made a mistake in putting these powers on the statute book.

There seems to be an assumption that there are around us such grave threats from criminals - and from terrorists in particular - that only these tyrannical methods are effective. Maybe. Maybe not. It is only by putting careful legal safeguards in place that ministers' claims about particular threats can be tested. It is only the Liberal Democrats that seem to think we should worry about such things.

Why I'm voting Liberal Democrat. Reason 5: The Economy

I've decided to vote Liberal Democrat in the forthcoming 2010 British General Election.

I'm giving my reasons in six posts. The first one was here. Now...

Reason 5: The Economy

I can't begin to judge who is right in all these virulent exchanges between the politicians on what to do about the economy, how to deal with the deficit, how to protect jobs, and how to protect public services. The economists can't seem to agree either, which suggests that laymen probably shouldn't be setting themselves up as arbiters here.

However, several years before the crisis struck I remember hearing Vince Cable of the Liberal Democrats explaining the dangers of rampant consumer debt and the dangers of bank behaviour. He might not be right about everything, as he admits himself, but I'd much rather have someone like Vince in charge of the economy than the arrogant politicians who neither predicted the crisis nor acknowledged that they could have done things differently.

I also believe that it is the more consensual approach to politics proposed by the Liberal Democrats that will help eradicate the current unfairnesses in the taxation system and the education budget and help find a solution to the problem of funding care for an aging population.

Why I'm voting Liberal Democrat. Reason 4: MPs' Expenses

I've decided to vote Liberal Democrat in the forthcoming 2010 British General Election.

I'm giving my reasons in six posts. The first one was here. Now...

Reason 4: MPs' expenses

It is commonplace to say "They were all as bad as each other." It is true that no party is blameless, but...
  1. The Liberal Democrats have been actively opposing the expense system for years, proposing reforms that would have prevented this scandal. Labour and Conservatives voted against the reforms. They also tried to cover it up.
  2. No Liberal Democrat MP "flipped" second homes for financial gain. Labour & Conservatives still refuse to allow an official inquiry into flipping, which is the most widespread and corrupt practice in Parliament.
  3. >Only the Liberal Democrats are proposing an alternative to the electoral system that will rid our democracy of these "safe seats" that currently protect corrupt politicians from the voters.

Why I'm voting Liberal Democrat. Reason 3: A more plural democracy

I've decided to vote Liberal Democrat in the forthcoming 2010 British General Election.

I'm giving my reasons in six posts.

Reason 3: A more plural democracy

On the issues of climate change and the Iraq war (see Reasons 1 and 2), Parliament has lacked important voices. In the first case, every country in the EU has Green MPs except Britain. I disagree with current Green policies in several ways; but I find it astonishing that Green views - with which a huge number of people in the country, including me, have some sympathy - are not represented in Parliament. In the second case, there has been widespread opposition among the general public to the war in Iraq, yet these voices are grossly under-represented in Parliament.

Our democracy is suffering without pluralism. The Conservatives say that unfettered rule by a single party is necessary for strong government. I disagree: Germany has had coalition government for 60 years and is patently successful. Single party government lacks the restraint provided by a range of mandated views: some point to Greece as an example of this. I would also point to the current British Labour Government. Of course there are democracies with dreadful coalition governments, I've no doubt. The point is that better government tends to comes from the country's views being represented in Parliament rather than being ignored.

And as for the argument that strong government is impossible in coalitions, can I remind the Conservatives of the two most critical times of our history in the last 100 years, when strong decisive action was most needed? The parties came together to form coalition government in both world wars.

People often complain that politicians don't listen to them. They're right. There are more views than just two.

Only the Liberal Democrats are putting forward proposals that would enable Parliament to better represent the range of views in the country.


Another aspect of pluralism is that it is mad for Westminster and Whitehall to be trying to micro-managing great cities like Birmingham and Manchester, and counties like Kent and Merseyside. Devolution of certain powers to Wales and Scotland has been a great success, and no-one wants to return to the previous over-centralised system. Local people should be able to decide on their priorities for schools, hospitals, police, post offices and so on, within a freer national framework. There's a lot of talk of "postcode lotteries" whereas we should be talking about "postcode democracy".

The Liberal Democrats are the only ones proposing greater localism.

Scientific advice and technical scrutiny

Furthermore, the sacking of drugs adviser Professor David Nutt and the level of ignorance shown by MPs debating the Digital Economy Bill (#debill) point to another failing in our democracy that needs tackling: we need more expert involvement in helping legislators scrutinise laws and government actions.

Science advisers must be able to give their advice freely and independently, without the fear of being sacked if their scientific advice differs from current government policy. Furthermore , laws with far-reaching effects that require technical knowledge need to be pored over in detail by specialist committees, advised by the experts, rather than rushed through Parliament by means of bravado, horse-trading and ignorance. MPs on the floor of the Commons (still less unelected peers) should not be trying to re-hash in pompous 3 minute speeches the discussions that took Select Committees months. They should be weighing up the rationale of the final report, and sending it for revision if it's not good enough. We need an evidence-based legislature not a public school debating competition.

The Conservatives have sided with Labour both in relation to scientific advice and in relation to the Digital Economy Bill. It seems to be only the Liberal Democrats who are prepared to champion such independent scientific advice and scrutiny.

The man or woman in the street

It's sometimes said that it's only the geeks that care about voting systems, local government and evidence-based laws. Maybe that's true. It shouldn't be.

Why I'm voting Liberal Democrat. Reason 2: The Iraq War

I've decided to vote Liberal Democrat in the forthcoming 2010 British General Election.

I'm giving my reasons in six posts. The first one was here. Now...

Reason 2: The Iraq War
This might seem an old issue for many people, particularly first-time voters. After all, it might be said, the US & UK military campaign began way back in 2003, and Iraq was a live issue in the 2005 General Election. And the Labour Government survived that election.

But thanks to the various official inquiries since then, the facts of the case are even clearer than they were at the last election.

I'm not going over all the arguments here, but the resulting situation is this:

  • There has been no acknowledgment by those in the Labour Government who took this decision that they made a horrendous mistake.
  • Aside from the immediate deaths and suffering caused, there will continue to be negative consequences for British interests for years to come.
  • The people who made that decision are largely still in government.
  • The chance of such a mistake in British international relations happening again will only be minimised if the party responsible is seen to be punished by the electorate.

The Official Opposition, the Conservative Party, supported the decision to go to war, and again there has been no acknowledgment of error.

I do not call the politicians who took the decision liars - although the Labour party's spin machine has much for which to answer - but they did not take on board the reasoned arguments articulated clearly then and since then by diplomats, academics, and the British people. Politicians need to know that they will be held to account for their decisions, or we will make the same mistakes again and again.

Only the Liberal Democrats have consistently and honourably put the case against the war.

Why I'm voting Liberal Democrat. Reason 1: Climate change

I've decided to vote Liberal Democrat in the forthcoming 2010 British General Election.

Here are my reasons in six posts, starting with...

Reason 1: Climate change

I believe this is the biggest threat facing this country, indeed the planet, and it will be for a generation. I am pleased that the Labour Government has taken strong actions both nationally and internationally to help tackle the threat. However much more needs to be done and Labour does not seem to realize the urgency, as evidenced by the third runway at Heathrow, the lack of investment in rail, the low level of investment in renewable energy, and the limited measures aimed at energy efficiency.

The Conservative Party, apart from David Cameron and a small minority, does not accept the need for action in the first place. I would very much have appreciated a Green voice in national discussions. The lack of such representation in Parliament is a major failing of our current electoral system. In the meantime, of the three main parties, it is only the Liberal Democrats who seem to realize the urgency of the threat.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Unitary Exeter and the Laws of the Medes and the Persians

Not much has happened since last this blog reported on the Unitary Exeter plan. Despite opposition from various Devon and Norfolk politicians, the Parliamentary Order has passed in the House of Commons and House of Lords. Consequently, Exeter's scheduled 6 May local elections have been cancelled and the Implementation Executive has been constituted. However, the legal challenge by the county councils will be heard in the High Court on 28 and 29 April. Moreover, even if that challenge fails, the formation of a new government after the General Election on 6 May might result in a repeal, or a delay, to the Order.

In this post I simply wanted to draw attention to the debate in the House of Lords, which highlighted a number of useful arguments (for and against) in a calm and reasonable manner. One contribution in particular is worthy of repeating. It was by the Welsh politician Elystan Morgan:

My Lords, it is with considerable trepidation that I intervene in the debate: what possible contribution can a Welshman - from West Wales - have in relation to matters in Devon and Norfolk? I suppose one can put the other side of the coin and say that one is so far removed geographically from such places that one is able to look on the situation with total objectivity and complete neutrality. I shall speak for only a few minutes in what has been a fascinating, passionate debate with powerful arguments advanced. I do so because I have believed strongly for many years in unitary authorities.

I well remember attending the debates in the House of Commons in the early 1970s with regard to local government reorganisation. The late John Silkin made a speech arguing that one should reduce to the smallest number possible the tiers involved in any part of England and Wales. I remember him mercilessly using the words of Mark Antony:

"If you have tears, prepare to shed them now".

He was speaking a great and universal truth, one that we in Wales have exploited. We have 22 county authorities. Many are small, extremely poor and - I am sure that persons who have dealings with Wales would agree - hardly in a position to carry out their basic statutory functions. The answer is not unification of boundaries, but the unification and sharing of functions. It is in that spirit that I look on this situation.

The noble and learned Baroness, Lady Butler-Sloss, put very powerfully the arguments relating to the five criteria. If these criteria constitute the laws of the Medes and Persians in this matter, and if they relate to the shorter rather than longer term, then her argument succeeds. However, these matters are not the laws of the Medes and Persians. When one is dealing with the prospect of whether a city should be a unitary authority, one is dealing with imponderables. It is of course right that you should have guidelines at your elbow when making that decision-but they are guidelines. How can you calculate how the energies of a great city-for example, Norwich-would be released by having reinstated the authority that it had for many centuries, up to 1974? Norwich is the biggest city in England and Wales that is not a unitary authority. How can you calculate, over the relatively short span of a few years, whether that will be in the best interests of the community?

The right reverend Prelate [The Bishop of Norwich] referred to communities. Parliament can do many things. It used to be said that Parliament could do anything except make a man a woman or a woman a man, but I am not sure whether that is a restriction any longer. However, one thing that it cannot do is create communities. It is people who create communities-by their outlooks, their fears, their hopes, their aspirations, and very often their deeds. There is a community in Norwich, Norfolk, and Exeter in Devon. They are giants with immense potential, but are shackled by the present system. It is right and proper that they should be given the opportunity to develop that potential.
Original source: Hansard

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Rewriting the LibDem case

The other day, I laid into how the LibDems were planning to present their messages for the forthcoming general election. I think there are some decent ideas and principles that have gone into crafting the LibDems' policies, but their new campaign slogan, logo and "Four steps to a fairer Britain" just don't do anything for me. (Of course their presentation might do wonders for everyone else; who knows?)

So I thought I'd have a go at re-crafting the messages, using their website as a source. Inevitably the way I've crafted this represents what I see as strongest in their case. I might try the same with Labour and Conservatives too. We'll see.

LibDem Steps Revisited

What are the key problems facing the country?
  1. the economy
  2. the threat from climate change
  3. social problems
  4. bad bureaucracy stifles schools, hospitals, the police and post offices

1. What are the problems with the economy?

People are struggling with spiralling debts, food prices and energy bills. The country is in debt, growth is stalling, inflation is rising, and jobs are at risk.

What are you going to do about the economy?
The LibDem plan is to cut wasteful government spending such as ID cards and bloated IT projects. We will get the banks lending sensibly, close unfair tax loopholes, and make polluters pay. And we will give the economy a boost by cutting taxes: no-one will pay income tax on the first £10,000 they earn.

2. What is the threat from climate change?

Science is telling us that unless politicians act firmly now, the planet is going to become a much more unpleasant place to live. Severe storms and flooding will become much more common. Food and water will become much more expensive. And human health will suffer. Many politicians pay lip service to the need for action. Others stick their heads in the sand. We need to act now to avoid costly climate change.

What are you going to do about climate change?

The LibDems have ideas to create hundreds of thousands of green jobs. For example, we plan to upgrade disused shipyards to make offshore wind turbines, creating 57,000 jobs. Only a green road to prosperity can safeguard our future. The LibDems will also work with the EU and others to make sure action is coordinated and doesn't disadvantage Britain.

3. What social problems need to be tackled?

Four million children are living in poverty. One in five young people are out of work. Millions of pensioners struggle in the winter to keep warm. There are more laws than ever before, but the fear of crime remains. Levels of inequality are worse than under the Tories. This is a disgrace, and is storing up social problems for us all.

What are you going to do about these social problems?

The LibDems will give a fair start for all our children, by giving schools £2,500 extra for each pupil from a low income family. We will create paid internships to give young people a start on a career ladder. We will cut the costs of pursuing further and higher education. And we will make it easier for pensioners to get the help they need.

4. How is bad bureaucracy stifling schools, hospitals, the police and post offices?

A lot of money has been invested in health and education in recent years but too much of that has been wasted on central bureaucracy. Doctors and nurses are forced to spend time trying to meet government targets rather than caring for patients. Government ministers tinker with how schools are run rather than solving the problem of why so many children are leaving school without the knowledge and skills to be successful. The police are forced to spend too much time form-filling. Vital post offices are closed without communities having a say.

What are you going to do about bad bureaucracy?
The challenge is getting better public services with less money. As liberals, we want to free public services from Whitehall's dead hand. Let local people have a say in how the NHS is run and stop hospital closures. Let communities decide on post offices and police priorities. Put power back in the hands of the people.