Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

House of Comments - Episode 118 - Tragedy and Crises

The latest House of Comments podcast is now out.

This week I am joined by editor Ian Dunt to discuss the Charlie Hebdo killings, the NHS crisis, Angela Merkel wagging Cameron's immigration dog and whether the PM is chickening out of the leader debates.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

House of Comments - Episode 117 - Reviews and Predictions

House of Comments podcast is back!

I'll be doing these fairly regularly in the run up to the general election, just me hosting and usually one guest per week looking at recent political developments.

This week I am joined by Left Foot Forward editor James Bloodworth to discuss the political highlights of 2014 and to look forward to what 2015 has in store. Topics include the rise of UKIP (inevitably), Labour's diminishing poll lead, the Scottish referendum and aftermath and Russia's annexation of Crimea.

You can subscribe to the podcast on iTunes here.

Other podcasting software e.g. for Android can be pointed here to subscribe.

You can download the mp3 for the latest episode directly from here.

Or you can listen to the embedded episode below here:

Any feedback welcomed in the comments below.

PS: A big thanks to Audioboom for hosting the podcast. We would also like to thank Kevin MacLeod from for our theme music.

Wednesday, 17 December 2014

Sanctimonious hypocritical rubbish from Labour on the NHS

I read this piece on LabourList today from a Labour candidate in Brighton and I am afraid I couldn't help myself but post a somewhat ranty response in the comments below it.

I thought I'd reproduce it here seeing as it's the longest thing I've written in a while!

What an absolute load of sanctimonious tribalistic rubbish. You didn't "rebuild" the NHS in 1997 and you won't need to "rebuild" it in 2015. It was perfectly functional when your party came to office in the 1990s and will be so next year if you win.

Your comments about cuts should be seen for what they are - hypocritical. The current government has ring fenced NHS spending against their cuts. Tiny rounding errors where money is either not spent in an area or rolled into the next year are screamed about by your party as "CUTS"! But your party made no such pledge about ring fencing the NHS so the readers can draw their own conclusions about what would have happened had you won in 2010.

The administrative problems you refer to regarding the closure of a GP surgery in Brighton is the sort of thing that happens under all governments not just this one. There were loads and loads (and loads) of admin issues under Labour. I remember Tony Blair getting an absolute roasting from a BBC Question Time audience during the 2005 general election campaign when one audience member highlighted how they could not book an appointment in advance and had to ring on the day first thing in the morning when they could often not get through. Blair said he was sorry and it must be particular to that one surgery at which point many more people in the audience spoke up about how they had exactly the same problem across a variety of surgeries. I myself had experienced it too. It was systemic. It was still happening late in the previous parliament when Labour had had over a decade to sort this out. Was that SAME OLD EVIL UNCARING LABOUR??!!! or is it simply that a massive bureaucratic service like the NHS is by definition very difficult to manage and when you have all sorts of targets (some of which contradict each other) administrative failings like this are inevitable. It's nothing to do with the party or parties in power usually. It's just the nature of complex systems.

Your party might have been in power when the NHS was founded but there was a clear pre-war consensus that something like it was going to happen and the Beveridge report which was the foundation of the NHS was produced by a member of the Liberal Party. Your party does not own the NHS like so much of your rhetoric and this piece would imply. It is owned by all of us. And it is not just Labour members and voters who care about it. We all do.

And finally, this is probably a controversial point because Cameron himself has unwisely referred to the death of his son probably too many times in this context but to suggest as you do that Cameron personally does not understand the value of the NHS is simply factually incorrect. Anyone who has had a sick/terminally ill child understands intuitively the value of it. It is very unwise of you to suggest otherwise.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

This is why people hate you Gloria

Labour MP Gloria De Piero has a piece on LabourList today where she highlights Lib Dem "hypocrisy" on pay transparency.

She talks about how Jo Swinson has been going around saying that compulsory pay transparency is now Lib Dem policy and how it is necessary to help close the gender pay gap.

But the twist in the tale is that Labour are organising a vote on this issue on 16th December and the Lib Dems are not going to vote for it. Hence all the talk of hypocrisy.

I'm not a Lib Dem any more and I don't blog as often as I used to mainly because I feel so often like I am just repeating myself but I'll have another go.

Gloria, the reason why the Lib Dems cannot vote with you is. Wait for it. Because....

They. Are. In. Coalition.

That means they cannot just go around voting on things that are not agreed government policy. If they were to do that the government would collapse.

Gloria knows this of course. She's just playing political games in the hope of "embarrassing" the Lib Dems.

A couple of years ago Gloria went round the country speaking to people on her "Why do you hate me?" tour, trying to find out why people dislike politicians so much. Well here is a prime example. An MP pretending she does not understand how collective government responsibility works in order to score political points from one of her rivals. I'd say that's a good reason why people hate MPs Gloria.

There is a way to redeem yourself though. If there is another hung parliament after the next election, and if Labour find themselves in coalition with a smaller party, you will need to argue vociferously for that smaller party to be able to vote any way they wish on any issue. And Labour will just have to put up with the consequences of this.

After all, anything else would mean that party being "hypocritical" wouldn't it Gloria?

And we can't have that now can we?

Thursday, 30 October 2014

What does the decade of Guido tell us about online political writing?

I started writing about politics online in 2008. At the time the "blogosphere" (as we decreasingly refer to it these days) was in the ascendency. There were serious pieces written and debates had about whether "blogs" would ultimately supplant the mainstream media*.

The ecology of the blogosphere at the time was already starting to take on the sort of "long tail" shape that has since become much more pronounced. There were a number of blogs that were highly prominent. Iain Dale was arguably the most famous of these. The erstwhile Tory parliamentary candidate and publisher had carved out a niche for himself with "Iain Dale's Diary" where he readably and prolifically held forth on his political views and sometimes other more frivolous topics such as his favourite music. Because Iain was (and is) so well connected, having been involved in Tory politics and more widely for years he was often able to get stories and information about breaking news before us mere mortals and hence was genuinely able to compete with major media outlets as well as set the agenda himself. Of course Iain has since gone on to bigger and better things hosting the drive time show on the now national LBC radio. He does still occasionally blog but nothing like he used to.

There were various prominent "self starter" online writers around this time that I used to enjoy reading such as Recess Monkey, Dizzy Thinks, Letters From A Tory, A Blog from the Backroom and others many of whom have either fallen by the wayside or update their blogs much less frequently than they used to.

Perhaps the most intriguing of the lot though back in 2008 was the website "Order Order" run by the at that point enigmatic Paul Staines. The site itself dealt in scandal and attacks which seemed largely indiscriminate. If you were a politician (or even an apologist for them in Guido's eyes) you were a target. Stylistically the pieces on the site were similar to opinion pieces in a tabloid newspaper. Think "The Sun Says" but slightly longer form and with red writing to add emphasis where necessary.

Guido was intriguing though because unlike most of his contemporaries he seemed able to regularly break stories. "Conspirators" were sometimes the source of these (continuing the Gunpowder Plot linked theme) but like Dale, Staines seemed to be very well connected.

I first came across Order Order following Staines' somewhat disastrous Newsnight appearance in March 2007 where Michael White got the better of him. It wasn't helped by the fact that Staines had insisted on being in shadow and not be referred to by his real name in order to protect his anonymity. Of course White revealed his real name almost immediately during the interview rendering the shadowing pointless.

But despite the car crash nature of this I wanted to know more and became a regular reader of Order Order.

I'll be honest, it's not my style. In fact it's almost as far away from my style as it's possible to be. There are smears, attacks, sarcasm (OK that is a bit like me), mocked up photos to illustrate points (very tabloid), nicknames for the most hated politicians and so on and so on.

In the end though it comes down to what you count most for online writing. Some favour well constructed arguments. Some value rigorous evidence. And while Order Order has its fair share of these, what Staines treasures above all else is viewing figures. And who is to say Staines is wrong in this? In 2008 his was right up there among the most read blogs in the country. In 2014 it is still right up there. He has been able to leverage these figures to ultimately get a column in a national newspaper (The Daily Star Sunday initially and now The Sun on Sunday). Very few bloggers can say that. He is also almost unique among political bloggers in the UK in that he has actually been able to earn a living from his online writing. In fact he has been able to employ several other writers and bring them into the Guido stable. Most notably former "Tory Bear" blogger Harry Cole who Staines once described in a comment on my own blog as "the unchallenged reigning playboy of the blogosphere".

I have met Paul Staines on a couple of occasions. We were on a British Computer Society panel in the run up to the 2010 election and together on a judging panel for some political awards following that same election and had a lunch together with a few others. I have also debated with him on the radio down the line a couple of times. He remains the only person to have turned me down to be a guest on my podcast by just saying he didn't think it was worth his time (which in some ways was commendably honest of him). All the other declines I have had have been much more polite than that. It made it clear to me that he can be very brusque and doesn't mind offending people. Indeed looking at the output of Order Order he obviously thrives on it.

He has a number of political scalps to his name. Most notably former Gordon Brown spinner Damian McBride following the whole "Red Rag" debacle in 2009. This episode demonstrated that Guido has real power and was not to be trifled with.

It would also be remiss of me not to point out that on many occasions Staines (and Cole) have very kindly linked to my work. There are some times when things I write about (usually civil liberties or drugs policy) accords with the libertarian Guido philosophy.

So that's a potted history from my perspective. Now Order Order is 10 years old. But where does that leave us with respect to the question posed in the title of this post? What does the decade of Guido tell us about online political writing?

Well I think one thing it tells us, as if we didn't need telling already is that tabloid newspapers do not exist by accident. When political writing began online the barriers to entry were (and still are) effectively zero. There was no need for the blogosphere to mirror what happened in the world of newspapers. And yet through many, many thousands of experiments in self-starter one-person-band blogs (at least in their initial form) we have seen the one that has risen to the top in terms of readers and income is the one that probably most closely resembles a tabloid**.

No matter how much people like me might argue that there is an audience out there for more nuanced and subtle forms of writing, it is clear that the most success and power has been bestowed on a blog that would probably be offended if either of those adjectives were widely applied to it. The truth is there is an audience out there for my sort of writing but it is nowhere near as big as the audience for a bit of good old fashioned attack journalism.

Perhaps the most important lesson to learn from Guido's success though is that you have to be prolific. Staines must have devoted a massive amount of his time to Order Order in the first few years. There were regular posts on most days (usually several). To be able to produce that much content that is interesting and attracts an audience is not easy. Iain Dale once referred to it as "feeding the beast" and he is right. Another way of putting it might be "you're only as good as your last piece and there needs to be another one along in a minute or you're dead".

See I'm not as snappy as these top bloggers am I?

As an addendum to this piece I wanted to point out one other thing. Every now and then, Paul Staines goes off piste and writes a longer form piece on Order Order which does go in depth in analysing issues. It is usually related to the financial markets or fiscal policy where he has particular expertise having worked in the City previously. They are often very readable and would not be out of place in The Economist or a similar publication. But I know from having discussed with him that they get many fewer viewings than his usual tabloid fayre hence he keeps them few and infrequent so as not to distort his brand too much.

* Of course as time has gone on the blogosphere has increasingly become subsumed into the mainstream with brands like The Guardian, The Telegraph and others hoovering up the best and the brightest bloggers.

**Indeed Staines has cited former Sun editor Kelvin MacKenzie as an important influence on him on more than one occasion.

Wednesday, 15 October 2014

Labour agreed with Freud's "Therapeutic Work" idea in 2003

Ed Miliband has managed to dominate today's news cycle with his revelation that Lord Freud, speaking at Conservative conference 2 weeks ago made comments implying that some disabled people may be better off if they were not paid the full minimum wage.

Outrage aplenty today from almost everyone on the left and also lots of disability charities.

But in 2003, whilst Labour were in power, the government published an "Information Note" entitled "The Minimum Wage and Therapeutic Work" (opens PDF).

The document seeks to clarify the legal status of certain groups of people such as those who are disabled with reference to the minimum wage.

With reference to potential therapeutic work it states: "There may be no employment contract if there is no mutual obligation between the parties i.e. the individual is genuinely not obliged to perform duties and the employer is genuinely not obliged to provide the activity or pay the individual."

It then goes on to give a number of examples where it considers the minimum wage would probably not apply such as this one:

(c) A trust runs a facility for mental health out patients, who do various activities such as packing and assembly. They are paid varying amounts up to £20 per week. If they do not attend there are no sanctions. If they go along and do not want to do any activity they don’t have to. There is a production line but the speed is set by the users and if they want to they can turn it off;

Surely this idea is not far off what Lord Freud was saying today? That there may be circumstances where disabled people could derive benefit from a working situation where they were not paid the full minimum wage. Of course Freud did not heavily caveat and nuance his statement and it was clearly not properly thought through.

But the fact that when in power Labour clearly recognised there could be cases where disabled people could provide labour in limited circumstances and not be remunerated to the full extent of minimum wage law demonstrates that Freud's is not such an outlandish idea.

That won't of course stop Labour from continuing to attack him until he eventually has to resign which I predict will happen before the weekend. Because seemingly one thing you never have to worry too much about in politics is being consistent.

Not when there's a shitstorm to kick up anyway.

Hattip to Senior Sceptic on Twitter for highlighting this document to me.

Friday, 10 October 2014

Apathy and the attack culture of politics

Ellie Mae O'Hagan wrote a piece for LabourList recently in which she laments political apathy and tries to analyse what the party conference season says about that subject.

Ellie rightly states that "there are large swathes of the electorate who are disillusioned, angry, alienated from politics, and feeling ripped off and unrepresented". Indeed there are and this has been the case for a long old time. So far so obvious as Ellie herself acknowledges.

As to the main question her piece poses she lightly skips over the Labour conference and immediately draws the conclusion from the Tory conference "that they’re aware of high levels of political disillusionment, but they don’t really care as long as the electorate let them get on with it.".

What a shockingly cynical thing to say. And indeed precisely the sort of thing that commentators, activists and politicians saying about political opponents will cause apathy. After all if members of the "Westminster Village" all say that everyone except their own tribe are scoundrels then what do they expect the rest of us to think? I'd say it's pretty uncontroversial to conclude that a good number of them will think all politicians are scoundrels as a result of these sort of tactics.

It gets worse though: "Finally, Nick Clegg branded the Lib Dems 'the party of education,' a claim so ridiculous I won’t even bother to address it.". How utterly, breathtakingly dismissive of a party that has introduced the pupil premium and ensured that millions of primary school aged children now all have free school meals. I am sure Ellie is obliquely referring to the tuition fees debacle which was handled dreadfully but to so sneeringly dismiss everything the Lib Dems have done in government is to again stoke the apathy problem. What is the point of voting for politicians who are so terrible that their opponents don't even feel they need to explain why you shouldn't?

The coup de grace of the Lib Dem section is this little bon mot: "We all know Lib Dem policies are just tokens they redeem in exchange for power anyway.". Yes we all know that Ellie. The Lib Dems are a bunch of unprincipled shysters who crave power so much that they will literally sell their own granny to get their arse on the seat of a ministerial limo. This is despite the fact that for several generations they got nowhere near power. That of course is ignored because we "all" know the dark heart of the Lib Dems now.

I'm singling Ellie out here probably unfairly because all sides do this. It just particularly jarred with me because of the stated intention of the article.

We have a situation where for short term gain, politicos attack the character and motives of their opponents, their opponents do the same back and this carries on month after month, year after year. At the same time trust in politics and politicians keeps falling, people feel more and more disenfranchised and that politicians are "only out for themselves" etc. I know correlation is not necessarily causation but it doesn't take a genius to work out that in this case one has a high probability of affecting the other.

And in this one article we have a very neat, bundled up synopsis of the problem. A bright, articulate Labour activist attempting to write a piece about what we can do regarding political apathy has managed to load it with attacks that are more likely to exacerbate the very problem she is trying to tackle than to help it.

It's enough to make you weep.