Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday, 30 September 2009

Interview on electoral reform with Malcolm Clark, director of Make Votes Count

Last week at the Lib Dem Conference I met up with Malcolm Clark the director of Make Votes Count, a campaign group which seeks to bring together members of all parties and none who wish to see a fair electoral system for Westminster.

He very kindly agreed to be interviewed by me and I have included the footage of this below. I thought he answered my questions very well and we did cover a fair bit of ground. Despite the fact that I am also an advocate of electoral reform myself I did try to challenge him on certain points and ask him some questions that opponents of reform would ask.

I have split the interview into three parts. It is about 18 minutes in total.

Interesting "Bloggers' Circle" posts

I am part of a project called "Bloggers' Circle" which encourages bloggers to link to interesting content from other bloggers.

I have spotted a couple of thought provoking posts on the circle in the last couple of days which I thought deserved a wider airing:

LDV's very own Mark Pack has a piece on comment moderation policies and potential new developments in this area.

Charles Crawford thinks that the iPhone could be used as a model for social transformation!

Tuesday, 29 September 2009

Brown commits to AV electoral reform referendum

Well just having heard Gordon Brown's conference speech and having live tweeted it my head is still spinning a bit.

However one proposal leapt out at me and that was his commitment to hold a referendum on changing to the "Alternative Vote" system for Westminster.

As I have covered on here before, AV is not proportional. In fact it can be less proportional than our current First Past the Post system, especially in a good year for a particular party it can exaggerate the swing.

I have already seen a few comments from people that it is "better than nothing" and could be used as a springboard for further electoral reform later.

My current thoughts are:

1) It is unlikely to ever happen anyway as Labour are probably going to lost the election. It seems to just be a tactic to perhaps peel off a few soft Lib Dems with a promise of some sort of electoral reform.
2) Labour's promise in 1997 to have a referendum on electoral reform came to nought. Why should be believe they would follow through now?
3) Even if it did happen, I think it would be bad for us ever getting a proper proportional system (I favour STV with multi-member seats). This is because I am sure the argument would be "we've already had reform haven't we?". I fear many people would not appreciate the nuances of the potential systems and would simply think we had already had electoral reform so why do we need it again.

I do however await the internal debate within the Lib Dems about this announcement with interest. Nick Clegg already signalled he would be willing to back an AV+ referendum (That's AV with a top up to make it more proportional). I wonder what his thinking will be on AV.

I hope he comes to the same conclusion as me.

Opportunity for electoral reform to resonate?

The latest poll from Ipsos Mori puts the Lib Dems on 25% (+8) the Tories on 36% (-7) and Labour on 24% (-2). So for the first time since 1982 Labour are in 3rd place in the polls.

I don't want to get carried away here. I am well aware that this is a post-conference poll which traditionally gives us a bit of a boost. However I am pleased to see that in a week when Nick Clegg and our other leading politicians get lots of coverage we see a bounce like this because the next time that is likely to happen is during an election campaign. It also does not quite fit in with the media narrative that the Lib Dems had a bad conference. It is also the second very positive poll for us with another recent one putting us neck and neck with Labour.

What I actually wanted to focus on today though is something that Stephen Glenn has already highlighted here. He fed these figures into the Electoral Calculus seat calculator and found:

On this opinion poll the Tories would have 327 seats, Labour on 209 and the Lib Dems with 82. So even having overhauled a sick Labour Party in the opinion polls the Lib Dems would still have less than half the seats. How the apologists for First Past the Post can call this a clear, simple, easy-to-understand outcome is beyond me. Even when they are in third place Labour would still maintain a strong second place in the number of seats. Just how safe are some of those that wear a red rosette?

Stephen is spot on here. What is great about this is that the figures are coming directly from current polling data from a reputable company.

I hope we get more polls like this and the more we do, the more we can do the seat calculations and draw people's attention to how those percentages would be translated into seats. I think when people start to understand that even though when the Lib Dems get more votes than Labour, Labour would get more than double their number of seats the argument for electoral reform will start to resonate much more loudly with people.

Monday, 28 September 2009

The Prime Minister and pills

Stephen Tall wrote an impassioned piece yesterday on Lib Dem Voice arguing that Andrew Marr was "wrong, wrong, wrong" to ask Gordon Brown whether or not he was taking pills yesterday on his morning TV show.

Stephen does make some good points, for example he suggests that if this was a Tory Prime Minister then the reaction of the right-wing blogosphere would likely be very different and the"scarcely contained glee" of some of the blogs at the question having been asked is certainly not edifying. He also asks what Marr's sources are for asking the question in the first place suggesting that unless he has substantial evidence then the question should not be asked.

But whilst Stephen puts a good argument forward I am afraid that ultimately I do not agree with his conclusion. He concludes:

..the only people qualified to make the decision to quit, or not to quit, are Mr Brown and his closest family, friends and advisors. If his feelings of depression were linked to his job as Prime Minister, and the only way he could break the link would be to resign his office, then so be it. I imagine we would all respond with sympathy and understanding to such a decision. However, if his depression were nothing to do with the job – perhaps linked to frustrations with his failing eyesight, or the tragic death of his first child – then resigning would make no difference to his depression, indeed may just make it worse.

There are any number of reasons why the Prime Minister should quit, and just as many again why he deserves to lose the next general election. None of them are related to his health. And in making it an issue on the basis of no evidence, Andrew Marr and the BBC have done a real disservice to serious political reporting.

I probably need to tread carefully here as it is a delicate issue so let me first outline a couple of caveats.

Firstly I have nothing but sympathy for people who have mental health issues. There can be few people in this country whose lives have not been touched by problems of this nature either personally or through friends or family. They absolutely deserve sympathy and support.

Secondly I am very unhappy about the stigma that mental health problems still have attached to them in this country. Just because somebody is suffering with issues of this nature does not mean that they are incapable of contributing to society and prejudice in this respect is thoroughly unhelpful.

However, just because I have sympathy for somebody in adverse circumstances and I do not wish to see that person unneccessarily discriminated against does not mean that I agree with the conclusion that in the case of the Prime Minister it is nobody else's business but his own. Let me explain why.

The Prime Minister of the UK is in a very special position. He/she is in theory "First amongst equals" but in practise that is no longer how it works. What has happened over the last few decades is that power has become more and more centralised in the hands of the Prime Minister. The cabinet and parliament are supposed to act as checking and balancing bodies but in practise all too often they do not work like that. There is also the question of the "Royal prerogative" powers which although nominally vested in the head of state, in practise are executed at the whim of the Prime Minister. There are also huge powers of patronage.

What has effectively happened is that we have moved much closer to a sort of presidential style of government but without a codified constitution to underpin this.

Given all of this, I think the public has a right to know about the health of the person holding this office.

It is instructive at this point I think to look at what happens in the USA regarding their Presidents. They have an annual health check and the results are made public. They obviously feel that the health of their primary political leader should be in the public domain. I think this is right for a situation where one person has so much power vested in them.

This is not to say that I think the way this was broached is correct. To have the Prime Minister of our country asked a question like this out of left field was not the way I would have liked to have seen this happen. However I can't imagine that Gordon Brown or any future Prime Minister would volunteer this information. Indeed it seems that the way Tony Blair played down his heart problems a few years ago was not entirely straight and it was a bit more serious than his office made out at the time. Therefore it was probably always going to take a journalist asking this question to provoke the debate as it has done.

I would just conclude by saying that if we had a less top-down style of government with much of the prerogatives and patronage removed from the hands of one person then I would not see the need so much for us to know about the health of any one individual. Unfortunately we are not in that position and I therefore reluctantly conclude that this is one of the those situations where although it to an extent goes against my liberal instincts I think we should know.

UPDATE: After some vigorous discussion in the comments below and also on Jennie's blog here I am inclined to have a bit of a rethink of my comments here. Andrew Hickey (below) has come up with some good points about flaws in my reasoning and has made the point that disclosure could actually be counter productive. As I say in the comments in both posts my aim was to try and overcome constitutional problems with so much power being concentrated with one person who is ultimately his/her own arbiter of suitability to continue in office.

I still think we should do something to make it easier for a PM to be removed from office if they become incapable, perhaps along the lines of the US 25th amendment but accept that my comments about making health information public may not be the best way to achieve this.

Sunday, 27 September 2009

Conservatives deny Bracknell local choice in "Open" primary

In the last few months, many Conservative supporters and bloggers have been singing the praises of open primaries. They see this as a way of trying to ensure that seats, even potentially safe seats are at the very least openly contested at the candidates stage which should improve democracy.

I am quite dubious about the benefits of open primaries, not least because they sound like reform without in my view delivering real reform. A change to multi-member seats using a transferable vote system would be a better reform in my view and allow the electorate to make their choice from a wider field as part of the actual election.

Despite my misgivings, I was however intrigued to learn that in my own constituency of Bracknell, the Conservatives have decided to hold an open primary* to select their candidate to replace the current MP Andrew MacKay. For those who aren't aware, Mr MacKay was forced to announce he was standing down at the next election back in May as a result of the MP expenses scandal.

I have already done a post on Bracknell Blog about my surprise that local Tory council leader Paul Bettison has not been shortlisted for the primary. I am even more surprised to learn now that the shortlist has been released that there are actually no local candidates at all on the shortlist of 7.

This seems bizarre to me. Are the Tories saying that there are no local candidates of a high enough calibre to be on the list? Mr Bettison clearly wanted to be on the shortlist (see this article from the "Get Bracknell" website just a few weeks back) and I suspect others from the local party would have liked to have been too. I understand that in any process like this the candidates have to be whittled down but I am curious to know what sort of process they use for this that has led to no local representation on the shortlist.

The recent Totnes open primary which was held up by the Conservatives as a great example actually had three local candidates in the final vote.

Why is Bracknell being denied a similar choice?

* To be strictly correct, what the Conservatives are holding in Bracknell is actually an open caucus as Douglas Carswell MP has already pointed out, although everyone else seems to be referring to it as a primary.

Friday, 25 September 2009

Lib Dem Conference - personal reflections #LDConf

I have done a few posts about the various things I got up to during the Lib Dem conference this year but I just wanted to do a post about my personal view of the whole thing.

I was surprised at how at home I felt. The hotel I stayed in was very welcoming and right from the start there was just a nice feel. I had to queue up to get my pass because it hadn't arrived in the post and the chap who dealt with me was Chris Ward a Guildford Councillor who I already knew and who had my pass ready for me!

The hall itself was actually very impressive. Often I have found that when you attend these things in person after having seen them on TV everything looks a bit rubbish but that wasn't the case here. I also found the format very accessible with motions proposed and then amendments introduced, interventions allowed, wrapping up and then votes.

It was great to finally meet so many of the people that I have interacted with online. I am sure I will miss some people out but I met Jennie Rigg, Mat Bowles, Richard Gaddsden, Charlotte Gore, Stuart Sharpe, Paul Staines, Mark Pack, Helen Duffett, Ryan Cullen, Alex Foster, Stephen Tall, Andy Hinton (stats man!), Millenium Dome Elephant, Costigan Quist, Mark Littlewood, Sara Scarlett, Julian H, James Graham, Ali Goldsworthy, Peter Black AM, Ed Fordham, David Wooding, Prue Bray, Steve Webb MP and lots of other non-online people too.

I barely had a moment to myself with all the fringes and training as well as various informal things. I found myself pretty knackered at the end of each day, in a good way!

The biggest highlight for me was winning the Best New Blog of the Year award at the BOTYs on Sunday night. Although I had been nominated in three categories I really didn't think I was going to win anything and hadn't prepared a speech (which showed!). I have never won anything like that before and I really appreciate everyone at LDV who organised it, especially Helen who from what I can tell from what Stephen said did much of the admin stuff associated with it. It means a lot to me and I am very grateful.

Another highlight was being asked to be part of 5 Live's coverage for Nick Clegg's speech and then doing the podcast with John Pienaar and Steve Webb afterwards. Both thoroughly enjoyable experiences and it was also fascinating to see how it all worked from a technical perspective too having listened to these things for many years.

I had the chance to go to conference last year but was too ill to go in the end so this was my first one. The thing is though, last year I hardly knew anyone in the party and hadn't even started blogging so I suspect it would have been quite a different experience.

I don't know what the next 12 months will bring but you can be sure of one thing, I am definitely going to Lib Dem Federal Conference 2010. I am putting it in my calendar right now! Who knows, next year I might even make it to Glee Club....

UPDATE: To my immense shame I forgot to mention Stephen Glenn in the list of online people I met. He is an exceedingly friendly chap and of everyone I spoke to during the week I think he was the most full of energy and vigour. I really cannot think why I missed him out. That'll teach me to do a list of people in a rush! He's in good company though as I have also realised I missed out Lynne Featherstone MP, Martin Tod (PPC for Winchester), Angela Harbutt from off of Liberal Vision, Neil Fawcett, The Honourable Lady Mark, Ros Scott the party President and I suspect some others too.

Mental note, don't make lists of people like this in future!

Why I am writing for Left Foot Forward

A new collaborative blog has been started in the last few weeks under the editorship of Will Straw (yes, that Will Straw). It is called Left Foot Forward and its aim is to advance the cause of progressive politics through the use of evidence and to counter reactionary and conservative (with a small c) claims in the media.

A little while ago Will asked if I would be involved. I have had a few debates online with him via Twitter and blog comments so I had an idea of where he was coming from. After some deliberation I decided that I would contribute to it.

The way the blog is structured is such that most of the contributors have specific areas of expertise and act effectively as correspondents for those topics. In my case we have agreed that I will be the correspondent on drugs policy and also electoral reform. Regular readers of Mark Reckons will recognise they are two of the issues I cover most on here.

The main reason I have agreed to write for them is because I suspect in a few months time LFF will be pushing its way to the upper echelons of the blog lists and I would like as wide an audience as possible for the evidence that is out there on these two topics. Although I will not be able to editorialise as much as I do on here I can point to the evidence which will I hope allow readers to draw conclusions similar to my own.

I don't expect I will agree with everything that is published on LFF. Indeed I have already spotted one or two pieces on there, the emphasis of which I did not concur with. However that is in the nature of a collaborative blog.

I am looking forward to producing articles for them and indeed have already done a few which you can read here, here and here.

I think I am currently the only Lib Dem to be contributing but I know Will is keen to get input from other Lib Dems who may be interested. See the link at the top for contact details.

Thursday, 24 September 2009

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 24th September 2009 - #bbcqt

It's back baby!

Yes, BBC Question Time is back in our lives later today and the Live Chat on this blog will start at 10:30pm.

The panel will include Deputy Labour Leader Harriet Harman, Conservative peer Lord Heseltine, Lib Dem spokesman on children, schools and families David Laws, former Minister of State for Trade Digby Jones, and the editor of the Spectator (and visitor to this blog) Fraser Nelson.

Liberal Democrat Voice also always have an open thread for BBC Question Time which is usually posted just before the start of the programme.

Join us from 10:30pm below.

Riddle me this... public spending cuts

In all the debate there has been about public spending and the cuts that it is now apparent will be necessary to get a grip on borrowing something has been bugging me.

I co-own and co-run a business. Through this I also know lots of other people who run businesses. I know that throughout industry companies have been needing to cut costs and often one of the largest outgoings is the salary bill. Now traditionally the way to cut the salary bill is to make people redundant, however from what I can tell many companies have been trying to be a bit smarter about this and instead in some cases have been asking staff to take salary cuts and/or reduce the number of hours they work. Often the directors will lead the way in this reducing their own salaries when times are tough.

By doing this, companies can often reduce their outgoings quite substantially. Of course it is far from ideal for employees to have a reduction in their salaries but in my view it is better than redundancies and once the economy improves I would expect these companies to put the salaries back up to where they were previously again.

In fact it makes sense from the perspective of the company as well. Making people redundant is expensive and time-consuming. Companies that go down this path may live to regret it in a year or two when they suddenly find they have a shortage of staff and then have to start recruiting again (also not cheap) when they have only recently made staff redundant.

The thing that had perplexed me in all of this is that this sort of sensible, pragmatic attitude seems to be almost absent from the debate about public spending. Anatole Kaletsky has a piece in The Times today where he argues pretty much what I have been thinking for a while. This section leapt out at me:

According to the Institute for Fiscal Studies, the “eye-watering” squeeze needed to bring Britain’s public finances back into reasonable balance translates into a reduction of 8.6 per cent in departmental budgets spread over three years. If the directors of any private company sent their line managers an instruction to reduce costs by that amount over three years, with no loss of customer service or output, this would not be considered an insuperable challenge, still less a managerial nightmare.

I suspect one of the main things managers in this situation would consider is pay freezes/moderate reductions and would do their best not to lose staff.

Why can't this approach be taken in the public services? Why do any mooted cuts always end up being translated into "X THOUSAND TEACHERS!" or "Y THOUSAND NURSES!" by political opponents?

I am not saying there won't be problems trying to do this, of course there will as there are in the private sector but they are not insurmountable. In my view the highest earners in the public sector should be asked to contribute the most. Weren't doctors for example given a ridiculously good deal a few years ago? Well surely now that times are tough their pay deal could be revisited. The same could be applied across other areas too.

I would suggest that a limit should be pinpointed though and below this no salary freeze/cut should apply. I certainly would not want to see those lower paid public sector workers having to contribute.

An approach like this could save several percent of public spending I am certain and once it has been implemented we may well find that few further measures are needed to get our spending back on track.

I am on John Pienaar's podcast this week #LDConf

John Pienaar, 5 Live's chief political correspondent did his podcast this week from and about the Lib Dem Conference and he very kindly invited me to be one of his guests. I was on with Steve Webb MP, the Lib Dem spokesman on Work and Pensions.

You can download the podcast as an mp3 file directly here. You can also subscribe to it on iTunes via this link here.

Let me know what you think...

PS: Mr Pienaar has just joined Twitter and you can follow him here: @JPonpolitics.

Wednesday, 23 September 2009

Nick Clegg's speech review #LDConf

I had a slightly surreal experience with Nick Clegg's speech today. I was on a panel for BBC Radio 5 Live being interviewed by John Pienaar along with Olly Grender and Simon Hughes MP. Olly apologised for not having read my blog, although she said she would. I'll believe it when I see a comment from her! We were up on the balcony with headphones on for the pre-speech interviews and I stayed there for the speech as John was going to come back to us for comments afterwards (although in the end the speech overran and they couldn't squeeze us in). I was facing the wrong way so there was much neck craning!

The speech itself was delivered very well I thought. There was some good stuff in there which I will come to but there was also a notable lack of any direct reference to the mansion tax and student fees debacle although it was alluded to. I really felt that he had to tackle this head on. I was reminded of how someone like Tony Blair would have done this. He always found a way to shrug these things off usually in a self-deprecating style which I think would have worked here. Nick chose not to.

Some other notable things for me:

  • The Cameron and Brown bashing unsurprisingly seemed to go down well.
  • It was his wedding anniversary today! I'm not sure how my wife would react if I spent our anniversary making a 45 minute speech like this...
  • His comment about perhaps being a little bit blunt in interviews but at least it proves he is not being spun had unfortunate echoes of the "Not Flash, Just Gordon" slogan...
  • What the hell is "progressive austerity"? I suspect they won't be talking about this down the Dog and Duck.
  • When he talked about specific saving pledges and what could be done with the money he made no mention at all about tuition fees despite being specific in a number of other areas. The applause for this section was halting and hesitant.
  • He made a very good point: "In Britain today, a poor, bright child will be overtaken by a less intelligent, but wealthier child by the time he is seven". This is dreadful but research I saw in Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" suggests that this can be attributed to the lack of summer reading and other extra-curricular educational activities that better off children are exposed to. I wonder if Clegg or his team have read any Gladwell.
  • There was a good section on electoral reform where he pointed out the rottenness of the existing system and also seemed to me to be quoting figures from LDV's Dr Pack about almost half of seats not having changed hands during his entire lifetime. This section seemed to me to get the longest applause of the speech (apart from the end of course).

People I spoke to afterwards seemed to think that overall he had done well. I always expected he would deliver it well and he did.

I still think he needed to do more to calm some of the troubled waters the leadership have stirred up in the last few days and may come to regret not having done so.

I am on 5 Live today as part of their Clegg speech coverage #LDConf

John Pienaar has very kindly invited me along with some other people to be a part of BBC Radio 5 Live's coverage of Nick Clegg's speech later today at the Bournemouth conference. We should be on from around 2:45pm until the speech and then again straight afterwards when John will get our reactions to what we have heard.

After some of the problems of the last few days, the disquiet over the "mansion tax" and the actions of the leadership seemingly trying to impose top-down policies it will be very interesting to see how Nick acquits himself. He needs a strong speech and to address these problems in my view.

Then afterwards John has also invited me to be his guest on his political review podcast round-up this week which will be recorded today and should be available to download soon after. I will provide a link when this is up.

Tuesday, 22 September 2009

Ed Fordham nails former Tory councillor on live radio

Radio 5 Live's Victoria Derbyshire show yesterday that was in Bournemouth at the Lib Dem conference featured an interesting and elongated exchange. I was at the show and participated briefly myself as I posted about here but there was a chap there called Mike Greene who made a point early on in the show about the Lib Dem's new so called "Mansion Tax".

He pointed out that he just happened to own a house that was worth £1.5 million as it had increased in value over the last few years but that he was unemployed and under the Lib Dem's new rules he would have to pay thousands of pounds extra in council tax if he wanted to get a part time job. Nick Clegg attempted to deal with the question and you can hear the exchange on iPlayer here for about 3 minutes from 41:45.

So I thought that was that. However Ed Fordham, Lib Dem PPC for Hampstead and Kilburn who was sitting very near me leaned over and whispered that Mike used to be a Tory councillor who he had ousted a while back and he was going to tackle him. He informed Victoria about this and then later on (at 1:18:00 on the iPlayer) Mike comes in and has another crack, this time he said he wanted to talk about "honesty and integrity" and about a leaflet that was apparently circulated by the ALDC a few years ago called "Effective Opposition" which appeared to have a few rather underhand suggestions for how to deal with political opponents.

At this point Ed had clearly had enough. He pointed out that Mike had been a Conservative councillor and that if he was really concerned about honesty he could have been straight about that - this received a round of applause. He then advised Mike that if he was going to have a problem with money due to the property tax he should sell his second home on Fitzjohn's Avenue in Hampstead NW3! At this point the audience started booing Mike. Ed also pointed out that Mike's wife is a local Conservative councillor in the cabinet. He quickly dealt with the question about the document by pointing out it was a mistake, it was quickly withdrawn and it was about 12 years ago although Mike is still using it as attack material.

What the audience at home would not have seen but I had a clear view of being directly opposite Mike was how absolutely hilarious he clearly perceived the whole thing. He was laughing heartily when he was caught out and quite obviously could not have cared less that he had been found out not properly representing who he was and where he was coming from. It is obviously all a game to him. A bit later on, Angela Harbutt from Liberal Vision pointed out how bad it was for Mike to have done this, he just laughed again.

I am not going to end this by making a partisan point. I have seen politicians in all parties play games like this and it is pathetic. We are better off without people like Mike in active politics and I hope his current status as an ex-councillor persists.

Mark Reckons interviews Greg Dyke

One of the fringes I have attended at this year's Lib Dem Conference was the "Moats, Mortgages and Mayhem" event run by Liberal Vision.

One of the panelists was former Director General of the BBC Greg Dyke and he had some very interesting things to say about reform of parliament. He suggested that there should be some sort of citizen's convention or jury which could take the reform decisions out of the hands of the political classes. However he did describe some of the reforms he would like to see. Amongst them he suggested that:

  • Parliament could be physically moved to Birmingham, Manchester or another city well away from London.
  • Halve the number of MPs.
  • Electoral reform to a proportional system for the House of Commons.
  • An elected second chamber.
  • Abolition of the whips.

At the end of the meeting I managed to grab a couple of minutes with him and asked him a couple of further questions about his time at the BBC and the likelihood of his reforms being implemented:

Monday, 21 September 2009

Conference Day 3 - So much to blog, so little time! #LDConf

I am on my third day of Lib Dem conference and am still really enjoying myself. Here are a few highlights from the last couple of days:

  • Very good fringe session on "Moats, Mortgages and Mayhem" yesterday lunch time which included Guido Fawkes and Greg Dyke (former DG of the BBC). I also spent some time afterwards having a few drinks with Guido, Mark Littlewood, Nick Cohen of the Observer, Lynne Featherstone and various other Lib Dem bloggers. I certainly learnt a few things I didn't know before...
  • Excellent training course on "How to build your personal brand". It sounds like it could be rubbish but I actually learnt some very useful stuff, usually quite simple techniques to help with interpersonal interaction. The training courses have actually been a revelation to me here.
  • Fascinating fringe event last night on drugs policy which very much underlined to me that I am far from the only person in the party who thinks that the current leglislative approach is not working.
  • The Lib Dem Blog of the Year awards last night were a great experience too. I was honoured to win the award for the Best New Lib Dem Blog. Congratulations to all the other winners, James Graham, Jo Swinson, Brian Robson, Slugger O'Toole and Costigan Quist. It was nice to be able to meet all the people in the flesh that I have read so much from!
  • Attending the Victoria Derbyshire debate on 5 Live this morning. There were a lot of people wanting to get in to talk but they did plonk me near the front and I managed to get in with a few points about MPs expenses and electoral reform. I also had an interesting chat with someone there which could lead to something else but more of that later...
Right, I'm off for more conferencing!

I am on BBC Radio 5 Live today from 10:00am from #LDConf

A quick reminder that I am on Victoria Derbyshire's show on BBC Radio 5 Live today to be part of a panel at the Lib Dem Conference. I think the format is that they will keep coming back to us asking us questions every now and then during the programme. I am scheduled to be there from 10:00am until about 11:30am.

Please do tune in if you get the chance or you can listen to it on the iPlayer after it has been broadcast.

UPDATE 1: It turned out that apart from the MPs/PPCs the other invitees were closer to the front but just joined in the debate with the rest of the audience. I managed to get in around 10:30 just before the news. It was an interesting experience that I might blog about in more detail later. I was very impressed with Victoria Derbyshire's ability to handle about 18 things at once!

UPDATE 2: It is now up on the iPlayer here. I am on from 29 minutes in for about 2 minutes.

Sunday, 20 September 2009

If Cameron wants a Tory/Lib-Dem alliance he can prove it

There is a piece in The Observer today by David Cameron entitled: "A Lib Dem-Tory alliance will vanquish Labour".

In it he argues that The Lib Dems and Labour have a lot in common and that we should not be "drawing dividing lines where they don't exist". Here is a quick snippet:

Politics works best when instead of hiding behind false divisions we seize opportunities to work together to get things done. That's what Nick Clegg and I did with the Gurkha issue. We had different answers as to how best to repay those who had given our country so much, but we agreed the status quo was unacceptable, so we recognised it was best to work together, defeat the government and make them think again.

That same spirit should exist between the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats in other areas, too. That's because on so many progressive issues, there is strong agreement between our parties.

He then goes on to argue on various issues such as 42 days, ID cards, DNA database etc. the Tories and Lib Dems are in agreement in opposition to Labour.

His final paragraph is:

There's barely a cigarette paper between us in all these areas. It's clear: the real enemy of progressive politics is not the Conservatives and I would not claim it is the Liberal Democrats. In truth, it is the bureaucratic, backward-looking, big state government that Labour epitomises. That is why at our conference, instead of trying to create some artificial dividing lines between Liberal Democrat policy and Conservative policy, my message will be: if you want rid of Gordon Brown and the big brother state, and if you care about our schools, our quality of life and our liberties, then join us in one national movement that can bring real change.

So, Cameron is saying that there is little difference between the two parties and we should form a "national movement for change". If he really believes that then there is a simple way to facilitate this. He should argue for implementation of a proportional voting system for the House of Commons.

That way, if enough of his own party and the Lib-Dems agree with his hypothesis then the parties could work together in a meaningful partnership. He would have nothing to fear from electoral reform because he clearly thinks there is little between the Tories and Lib-Dems and hence would have no problems sharing power.

If he is not willing to put his money where his mouth is then I think it would only be fair to conclude that his article in today's Observer is not worth the paper it's printed on.

Saturday, 19 September 2009

First impressions of my first Lib Dem Conference #LDConf

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Well I arrived in Bournemouth for the conference first thing this morning and so far have really enjoyed it. This is just a quick post - will blog more fully later.

This is my first #LDConf because although I signed up last year for the weekend I was ill and couldn't come.

I had a course first thing on interview techniques. I thought it was best to get a bit of advice in this area as I do have a tendency to not smile very much which was picked up on. The chap said I looked very angry with him! Anyway, it was worthwhile and I learnt some useful stuff.

Unfortunately my first Fringe event was not on! I don't think they knew I was coming so I am not too offended. I think they just put the wrong day in the programme.

I spent much of the afternoon in the main hall where the debate was on the Real Women motion and it was interesting to see how it all works with the speeches, interventions and then the votes. I think I was accidentally given a "voting" pass but I didn't use it! They were pretty brutal about cutting the mikes off from the interveners if they went over their one minute!

I am looking forward to the rally later today and then the LDV fringe event later.

Right, off to grab a quick bite...

Friday, 18 September 2009

My Liberal Moment

There has been a fair bit of comment in the Lib Dem blogosphere in the last couple of days about the document that Nick Clegg produced recently called "The Liberal Moment".

Well, like a good little Lib Dem blogger I have tried to read it all but various work stuff has got in the way and I am only about half way through it. I am actually quite enjoying it though and agreeing with a fair bit so far. Maybe this is what some others have implied about it "tickling liberal erogenous zones". If so, then that's fine by me! Helps to confirm that my political instincts are quite closely aligned with that of the party.

I will try and finish reading it over the next few days when I am at the Lib Dem conference. I better had actually because when I am on the radio on Monday they will probably ask about it and I don't want to look like I have not done my homework!

Anyway, I am nearly half way through it now and whilst I might do a fuller post on this when I have finished it, I just wanted to make a few observations thus-far:

  • I am pleased to see him right at the start refusing to succumb to the overtures that we should "fall in line with Gordon Brown to hold back the rise of the Conservatives". I cannot speak for other Lib Dems but if it was up to me I would not prop up any government led by Gordon Brown in a million years.
  • I hoovered up the points near the start about how Labour has allowed their instinct for collective action to move too far in the direction of authoritarianism. I have seen this happen time and again with illiberal measures being proposed and brought in along with a strong feeling that we are seeing "ends justifying the means".
  • There seems to be a fair bit of wishful thinking trying to draw parallels between the position of Labour in the 1920s and the position of the Lib Dems now. I am not yet convinced that we are poised to become the second party as much as I would like to see it happen. Our focus on target seats and the often poor state of the party in seats where there isn't currently a high chance of getting an MP militates strongly against this.
  • I am glad to see the increasingly pluralistic nature of our democracy being highlighted. I blogged about this a couple of months ago using similar figures to those that Nick uses showing that the two main parties have gone within around 50 years from having well over 90% of the vote between them to barely two-thirds in 2005. Yet the electoral system still stitches everything up in favour of the two big boys. We need to keep banging on about this at every opportunity.

I am looking forward to reading the rest of it.

I am on BBC Radio 5 Live on Monday from 10:00am from #LDConf

I have been invited onto Victoria Derbyshire's show on BBC Radio 5 Live next Monday (21st Sep) to be part of a panel at the Lib Dem Conference. I think the format is that they will keep coming back to us asking us questions every now and then during the programme. I am scheduled to be there from 10:00am until about 11:30am.

I have already been put through my paces a bit by one of the show's researchers the other day over the phone and am really looking forward to it. I don't know what questions are going to be asked, I guess it depends what issues are high on the political agenda on the day.

Please do tune in if you get the chance or you can listen to it on the iPlayer after it has been broadcast.

Thursday, 17 September 2009

Uxbridge Tory says politicians aren't allowed to have a sense of humour

@JamesCousins on Twitter has drawn my attention to this story about an Uxbridge Conservative councillor who has been ousted by his local Tory party and barred from standing as a candidate by them because of a joke quiz he did on Facebook entitled: "How sexy am I?".

This is a quote from Christopher White, branch chairman of Uxbridge Conservative Group:

"There is the issue of your lack of judgment over inappropriate material being placed by you on the social networking site Facebook. With deep regret, we have decided not to reselect you as a council candidate for the 2010 council elections."

Now there may be more going on than meets the eye here and there could be other reasons for this action but if it is true that he has been ousted because of his joke quiz then I am pretty much speechless.

As I have said time and again, what sort of people do we want in politics? Normal people who have a sense of humour and do things like jokey quizzes on Facebook to share with their friends or bland automatons who never say or do anything even vaguely controversial or indeed interesting?

I think it is clear what sort Mr White wants for his local Conservative party.

There is now a group on Facebook called "Tell the Tories to Re-Select Geoff Courtenay" which I have just joined.

Sign the Downing Street petition to stop the "Vetting and Barring scheme" #StopVetting

I submitted a petition on Sunday to the Downing Street website calling on the Prime Minister to halt the implementation of the "Vetting and Barring scheme". As I have blogged about before I think the scheme is a complete overreaction and will cause bigger problems in society than it seeks to solve. However as of this morning I had still not heard anything from the Downing Street website and was starting to get concerned that they might be ignoring me.

However a quick glance at the new petitions soon explained it. A Mr Oliver Hodson has beaten me to it and they understandably don't allow more than one on the same subject.

The petition reads:

"We the undersigned petition the Prime Minister to abandon the proposed Vetting & Barring scheme, which will result in approximately 11m volunteers and professionals needing to be registered before they can help kids."

So, now it is up there, if you disagree with the implementation of this scheme for whatever reason, please sign the petition:

Please also tell other people about it, blog about it, tweet about it etc.

For ease, if you are on Twitter you could tweet this:

RT @MarkReckons: Sign the Downing Street petition to get the govt to abandon the Vetting + Barring Scheme #StopVetting

UPDATE: Caron has a good blogpost about this here.

"Science reporting: Is it good for you?" - event review - Ben Goldacre and Lord Drayson debate (#SciDebate, @BenGoldacre)

I attended an event last night at the Royal Institution of Great Britain (the place where they do the wonderful Christmas lectures from) which was a debate between the science minister Lord Drayson and the "Bad Science" writer and blogger Dr Ben Goldacre.

I am a big fan of Ben's and I follow his "Bad Science" column and blog regularly. I have also read his book of the same title and would readily recommend it to anybody who wants to try and understand more about the scientific process and how it can be misrepresented in the media. However I did try to go into the event with a fairly open mind and I was certainly ready to hear what Lord Drayson had to say.

Simon Mayo from Radio 5 Live chaired proceedings very well throughout.

Lord Drayson started off with a 10 minute presentation where he explained that from his perspective there have been big problems with science reporting in the media in the past but it is getting much better and British science coverage is now amongst the best in the world. He highlighted how previous coverage of things like BSE/CJD and MMR were not good but that the media has learned from those mistakes and more recent coverage of things like Swine Flu and the Large Hadron Collider were much better examples of science reporting. I very much got the feeling that he sees it as his job to "big up" science coverage.

Ben's presentation was heavy on the slides and he set out his stall illustrated with a number of examples of bad science reporting including the shocking fact that I blogged about myself whereby the Daily Mail is campaigning against the HPV vaccine in the UK and for it in Ireland. His position is that there is lots of good scientific reporting in the media but that there is also a lot of bad reporting too and that we don't help the problem by pretending it does not exist as Lord Drayson largely seemed to be doing.

After that there was a brief discussion between the two which largely focused on a cancer drug that was reported in the Daily Express on the front-page yesterday. Both were able to use it to illustrate their points. Drayson said it was an excellent example of coverage and he had even spoken to the scientists behind it to verify the claims. the PR chap from the company involved was actually in the audience and explained the rigorous process they go through. Goldacre said that it sounded good but you can never be sure with the Express and cited a previous headline about Bridgend suicides having been "caused" by a mobile phone mast. His point is that just because it is on the front cover of the Daily Express does not mean it can be relied upon.

The debate was then opened to the floor and I rather cheekily managed to get in first with a couple of questions. One was trying to get Lord Drayson to respond to the Daily Mail's bizarre HPV positions and the other was to ask whether specialist science journalists are given enough prominence given that people like Peter Hitchens and Melanie Phillips who are not scientifically trained are free to pontificate on subjects like MMR and get great prominance for these in their papers.

Lord Drayson did concede that the Daily Mail's position on HPV was not good and said we need to improve that but still maintained that things are pretty good. Goldacre agreed that science specialists should be given more prominence.

Some highlights from the rest of the Q&A:
  • A chap from the Daily Mail was there and Simon Mayo insisted that he ask a question. He explained that when they looked there were 46 studies saying that coffee was bad for you and 45 studies saying it was good for you.He asked what they are supposed to do. Goldacre suggested that individual studies like those are of limited benefit and it would be better to concentrate on aggregated studies (meta-analyses like the Cochrane Collaboration do).
  • A question came in via Twitter asking Lord Drayson how he could defend the coverage of the LHC last year when there were loads of stories making it sound like the Earth could be destroyed by a black hole. His response was that may have been the hook but it got people interested in particle physics and hence it was good. Goldacre pointed out that lots of people had been scared by that and audience members pointed out that lots of children had been terrified and one person even committed suicide.
  • The final question from the floor was a cracker in my view. the questioner asked Lord Drayson if his child's school had gone from 1/5 of things that they told his child were absoute rubbish to 1/10 absolute rubbish, would he be praising them as much as he is the science media. drayson's response was they he would be delighted that the 9/10 was so good.
  • At one point Goldacre used the word "embiggens" showing his Simpsons fan/geek credentials!
All in all it was an excellent debate which I thoroughly enjoyed. I still broadly agree with Ben Goldacre but I have to admit that Lord Drayson acquitted himself well and some of the questions from the floor and points made did make me think. The audience was not entirely made up of Goldacre-groupies and some hard questions were asked of Ben too.

The video of the event is available on this site here and it is well worth watching if you have some time to spare.

There were also a lot of people (including me) live tweeting the debate using the hashtag #SciDebate. The debate seems to be continuing on Twitter using that same hashtag.

Tuesday, 15 September 2009

Interview with Helena Kennedy QC about the new campaign launch - POWER2010

A new campaign has been launched today called POWER2010. Its aim to allow ordinary members of the general public to ensure that the next Parliament makes a commitment to fix Britain’s broken political system.

It is formed from the 2006 Power Inquiry and will use mass campaign tactics and a unique people’s ‘vote’ to identify the five changes to the UK political system the public most want to see. The priorities are created, prioritised and decided by the general public rather than interest groups. Parliamentary candidates of all parties will then be invited to support the reform proposals to be implemented after the general election.

Right, that's enough already with the spiel. On the surface, it sounds like a good campaign to me but here at Mark Reckons as regular visitors will know, we like to delve a little deeper. I asked Helena Kennedy QC, one of the founders of the campaign a few questions in advance of today's launch.

My questions are in bold and her repsonses are in italics:

POWER2010 sounds like an interesting campaign for political obsessives like me but why do you think this will succeed in a way that previous ones perhaps haven't? For example as far as I can tell, despite all the hard work of you and your colleagues, almost none of the original Power Inquiry key recommendations have been implemented three and a half years on.

There have been, as you say, many campaigns over the past few decades which have tried – in various ways - to get democratic and constitutional reform realised. I have been involved with many of them. You are right – despite the welcome the Power Inquiry report received – little has changed. I think you have identified the problem very accurately. In the end we have been reliant on politicians – those with power to implement reforms – reforms which in most cases will see them losing Power. And – they just can’t take that!

So despite fine words, things don’t change. But I do believe that change can happen. Look at how the Scottish Parliament came about – we needed an Act of Parliament and for MPs to vote for change. But they were persuaded in favour of the Parliament in the end because of the campaign in Scotland which involved civil society and real people and over years persisted and changed the culture in which that conversation was taking place. We need to do the same now.

The MPs expenses row gave people a real shock - a shock that has led many to begin to believe that it’s the system that needs reforming – that replacing one set of MPs with another isn’t going deliver meaningful change. It’s a question of how we do politics not just who is in charge.

How will you decide which citizens will form the group to decide the shortlist of reforms?

We will ask an independent body to run the process of honing down all the ideas we receive into a range of suggested reforms which we can put to the popular vote. The citizens will be randomly chosen from across the country and be representative.

If one of the five reforms that the public want is electoral reform to a proportional system for the House of Commons, how can we persuade potential turkeys to sign up to a certain Christmas?

I think it isn’t just electoral reform which poses this problem . So many democratic and constitutional reforms will temper or confine the power of those in power – by sharing power with other bodies – by giving people more of a say or by creating more effective checks. The way we get over this is to have a moral hold over those in power. We want them to know that back in their constituencies there are thousands and thousands of local people who will continue to call for and press their local representative for these changes. Democratic reform is no longer the play thing of a small groups of people; it’s something we all want and need.

Given that even governments don't always stick to their manifesto promises once elected (e.g. 1997 electoral system referendum from Labour) how can POWER2010 ensure that candidates who sign up possibly in a fairly lukewarm way will follow through on their pledge in the subsequent parliament?

Once we have the pledge established - and remember the reforms contained in the pledge will have been created by us all – we will be reliant on local people spreading the word. Local people asking their candidates to take the pledge seriously and commit themselves to it . It is that relationship – between a local voter and a potential MP - that we need to work hard on establishing. It will be easy for MPs or want to be MPs to dismiss an ask that comes from an office far from their constituency. It is harder to ignore one that is being driven by local people – local voters – their potential supporters.

What political backing does the campaign have?

This is a strictly non-party political campaign. Those who will be involved are from all parties and no party at all. Our success will depend on engaging the concerned ordinary member of the public who wants to change how this country is run.

There seem to be a lot of campaigns launching off the back of the MPs expenses scandal. Is there not a danger that the public just gets overwhelmed by them all and they just switch off? What are you doing to try and avoid this?

The MPs expenses scandal isn’t really what we are responding to, however that series of events bought into the public’s mind issues of accountability and transparency – how we run the UK – who has Power and where Power lies. The issue of MPs expenses was a symptom of something much deeper and it highlighted that.

Monday, 14 September 2009

Interview on drugs policy with Phillip Oppenheim, former Conservative minister

I recently interviewed former Conservative Minister Phillip Oppenheim about his views on drugs policy in this country. He was a minister under John Major but is no longer an MP and is now a motivational speaker and businessman. He is also managing director of the Cubana bar and restaurant in London. He does however still keep his hand in with politics and regularly writes for the Party Political Animal blog.

His answers gave me an interesting insight into the views on the progressive wing of the Conservative Party.

My questions are in bold and Phillip's answers are in italics:

You wrote a piece for your Party Political Animal blog recently entitled “The drugs policy isn’t working” where you were scathing about drugs policy in the UK. How long have you felt like this?

At school and univeristy I saw the damage that drugs can do and I was very anti-drugs, but I have also always been on the libertarian wing of the Tory Party and in the '80s began to consider first the personal freedom issues and second, increasingly the practical failures of drugs policies and began to argue for reform. My time as Treasury minister in charge of Customs and Excise in the mid '90s also exposed me to the practical failures of the policy, while Blair's promises to get tough on drugs were a complete failure. Finally, travel to countries like Mexico in the '90s were also an influence - I suppose it was the late '80s when my views changed significantly and I wrote in the Guardian in the late '90s for reform.

You were a government minister in the 1990s with responsibility for Customs and Excise within the Treasury. In your experience was the view that the system regarding drugs policy is broken widespread within Whitehall and/or amongst your parliamentary colleagues?

There was a strong minority view at all levels that the policy wasn't working, but the Thatcherite's social conservatism played against a real debate, while under Major the government was too weak seriously to consider reform. The response of the media to any reform was always a factor.

Did you try to influence policy from behind the scenes in a more progressive direction in this area when you were a minister?


Can you give some examples of how you tried to do this?

In Cabinet committee in private discussions with ministers and more generally - I was in the Treasury in charge of Customs for a year, but unfortunately it was the last year of the Major government when we had other priorities and concerns, added to which the Home Office had the major input into drugs policy and the Home Offie ministers were generally very conservative. The debate has moved on since then, of course, and I think more politicians realise the policy isn't working.

I raised a question on this subject during a panel discussion about the existence of a political and media class at the Convention on Modern Liberty earlier this year (video here) about how politicians and the media generally seem to conspire to prevent a sensible debate from occurring about drug policy. It tends to degenerate into accusations of being “Soft on drugs” and reduced to emotional arguments about “keeping our children safe” without any attempt to address to fact that drug use is much higher under the existing regime. Simon Jenkins of The Guardian responded that from his perspective the problem is a cultural one within government that there is a perception that the public is against any suggestion of reform but that is a fundamental mismatch with reality. I would be interested to hear your thoughts on this.

I completely agree - I think that politicians would be surprised at the response they would get to a serious debate on the subject. My experience is that a lot of Tories now favour reform, but they are terrified about being seen as soft on drugs by the media and prejudicing an almost certain election victory. Cameron had a chance to start a real debate when his own drug taking experiences became an issue, but I guess he was too timid to do so.

So of the current Parliamentary Conservative Party, what percentage do you think privately think there should be reform of the drugs laws?

Very difficult for me to say as I am not an MP and not in as close touch with the party as I was - when I was an MP I would have said 20%. But the Tory grass roots are very anti reform and Cameron, having dragged the party to the centre, will not want to upset them any more. I would say that my old association in Amber Valley would be very anti reform - when I went up to give a dinner speech in 2004 and argued against identity cards, I was almost booed - if I had spoken for reform of drugs laws, I might have had bread rolls chucked at me!

If you were still in Parliament, do you think you would have been as outspoken about this issue?


What would you have done and said?

I would have tried to find like minded MPs and set up a group to push for reform and argued for it at every opportunity to move the debate on. One problem is that MPs with hopes of promotion don't want to be seen as mavericks and support a line which might prejudice their promotion - hence the 'politariat', the professional political class, are very unwilling to discuss the issue properly

I did a blog post recently where I highlighted the findings of an opinion poll in New England a few years ago which found that although a majority of people thought that cannabis should be legalised for medical use, they actually thought (assumed?) they were in a minority which I found an interesting quirk. Does this finding chime with your experience of this subject?

Very much so - the public are more mature on this than the media or the politicians

And yet the media and politicians are supposed to reflect the views of the public. Why do you think the mechanism has broken down on this issue?

Ha ha! The media I think also takes a safety first policy and they don't want to stick their head over the battlements. When I wrote for the Sunday Times a decade ago, they would not let me write in favour of reform - they have changed their ground a bit since then, but not much. No-one wants to appear wacky and also in the past few years, the news priorities have been with economics and terrorism.

In your article you suggested that if any major party was willing to be a bit more brave on the drugs issue, they might find they get a better response than they think. In your view, which of the 3 major parties do you think will grasp this nettle and hence reap these potential rewards of treating the public like adults?

Sadly, the Lib Dems!

Finally, I would be interested to hear your thoughts on the results of Portugal’s 8 year long experiment with decriminalisation (I blogged about it here) and how you think the lessons they have learned could be applied here.

We have pretty much the tougest laws on drugs (and drink) in the EU and pretty much the worst problem - we treat people like kids and the result is they behave like kids, and criminality flourishes. Portugal and other EU countries have had a more liberal approach and now have less of a problem. No one visiting the real Portugal would say they have more social disorder or crime than we do - I recently took a late Saturday night train in Lisbon with my son and the contrast between that and a similar experience in the UK was instructive.

Sunday, 13 September 2009

Campaigning against the ISA will not be easy

There has been a lot of discussion recently about the new ISA regulations that are due to come into force next year and that could mean millions more adults having to undergo checks to ensure they are deemed fit to run other people's children to and from clubs and sporting events.

There have been contributions to the debate from various bloggers including Caron, Costigan, James Graham and Iain Dale amongst others.

Charlotte Gore seems to have stayed up half of last night doing an excellent post which is a rallying cry for all who value liberty to boycott the new scheme - she is not kidding. She does is a fisk of the regulations and they are so far encompasing and vaguely worded as to be frankly terrifying. It looks to me like almost anyone could end up being rejected even through hearsay or rumour and thus end up at risk of being ostracised in their community.

I briefly laid out my initial views on this here on Friday. Also, yesterday I jumped into a debate that was going on about this on Twitter. The main person I debated with was a chap who goes by the handle of @GedRobinson and describes himself in his bio as "Democratic socialist, social activist, all round good egg." I have been following him for a while and am pretty sure I have had the odd tweet chat with him previously. However the tenor of the "debate" we had about this yesterday I think gave me a flavour of what those of us who are very worried about the further encroachment on our liberties that these latest measures represent can expect when we try to explain our position.

I have reproduced the entire tweet debate we had below. Apologies for length but I wanted to include the discussion from start to finish. I have highlighted points from Ged of particular note in red and ones from me in blue. Also please note that because we are restricted to 140 characters sometimes we either had to abbreviate points or split them across lines. I have made some further comments at the end.

My tweets are preceded by M: and are in italics, Ged's are proceeded by G: and are in bold:

M: Sorry to step in here. Ged, at what point does this all stop? You can never make kids 100% safe.
G: so you shouldnt bother trying? how very apathetic of you
M: But at what price to society do we put these measures in? There is literally no limit to how far you can go.
M: All adults are now assumed to be paedophiles until they can "prove" otherwise with a bit of paper. Why?
G: check into people's criminal past is not excessive, it's a shame you don't take safeguarding seriously
M: It's a shame you're trying to smear me rather than engage with me. The measures announced yesterday are basically unworkable.
M: Not to mention horribly illiberal and foster a deep feeling of mistrust within our society. Listening to 5 live yesterday...
M:... there are a lot of people who agree with me and are very angry. I am NOT apathetic, I am furious about this.
G: why should people prove that they are safe to be left with others children, is that a serious question?
M: YES! Why are you trying to make it sound so ridiculous. What happened to basic common sense and trust?
M: Why do you consider it so sensible to assume every stranger is a pot. child abuser? Most child abuse takes place in the home.
G: Why should strangers who people leave their kids with be checked?
M: How, many times? YES! For gens we did not feel the need to do this. Suddenly you can't move for checks. It's way over the top.
G: I'm sorry you find keeping children and young people safe excessive.
M: And this is the arg I hear all the time. Any opposition to your position is painted as somehow being in favour of child abuse.
M: Do you think having a quarter of the adult population having to be checked to give kids lifts is a proportionate response?
G: I can imagine @MarkReckons in the 17th C - why should we make child labour illegal, we've been doing it for generations
M: Don't try and paint your position as progressive. It's very very illiberal and the attitude it fosters is poisoning our society
G: show me the data that a quarter of the adult population will be checked just to give kids lifts.
M: It's early days yet. The measure was announced yesterday. Let's see. It will be a lot of people and you know it.
G: so your claim of a quarter of the adult pop was BS?
M: My internets keep going down and I keep having to reset my router. might have to continue this debate later.
M: It is the estimate I saw yesterday repeated in several places. I agree it is too early to be sure but the figure will be large.
G: i don't tend to think about made up statistics
M: If it is a quarter, do you think that is too large?
G: I think those that oppose protecting kids should be able to evidence their argument that's all
M: I am trying to find out where you would draw the line. At what point would you concede we had gone too far?
G: why do you think filling in a form is too high an inconvenience for protecting children?
M: So you won't debate the principle of what would be going too far until you know the exact figures?
G: i am not assuming everyone is a paeadophile but recognise those that are are unlikely to publicise the fact
G: how many child deaths would it take for you to support the scheme?
M: There you go again, the turn of phrase of the righteous! How far would be too far? An eighth? A quarter? A half? 100%?
M: Why do you think assuming every adult in the country is a paedophile by default is making society better?
M: So in order to try and catch a very, very tiny minority you make everyone a suspect and thus make children wary of all adults.
M: You really can't see how damaging this is to our society can you. I wouldn't go near a child who had fallen over now for fear..
M:.. of being accused of something. Your attitude is poisoning society. We are becoming atomised and untrusting of everyone.
M: How much increased child obesity and antisocial behaviour due to unintended consequences would it take for u not to support it?
G: i have to complete a CRB yet don't feel a suspect.
M: Good for you! Now try to put yourself in the position of someone who does and hence will no longer run kids to clubs.
G: how many child deaths would it take for you to support the scheme?
G: why would there be increased obesity, even the largest young persons vol movement has no problem with it
M: Well they must be right then! I am sure that less kids will end up at clubs because of this, hence more obesity.
G: I repeat how many child deaths would it take for you to support it?
M: You could use that argument to go on introducing measures ad infinitum until all kids are watched 24/7 and all freedom is gone.
G: why do you want peodophiles to remain undetected?
M: I don't! But this is not the right way to do it. Can't you debate this without posting tabloid headlines at me?
G: this scheme helps detect peadophiles, to oppose it is to oppose such detection...
M: By that token, any measure to try and detect paedophiles is fair enough and anyone opposing it does not want to catch them.
M: How about cameras in every home in the country monitoring everyone 24/7 to catch paedophiles. Are you in favour of that?
M: It would probably reduce child abuse a lot and if you say you are against it, you are against catching paedophiles.
G: what is your alternative to this scheme?
M: Why do I need to come up with an alternative?
G: so your alternative is to do nothing, to leave kids at risk?
G: however you did say....
G: RT : @gedrobinson I don't! But this is not the right way to do it.
M: Kids will be at risk. These measures won't stop that.
M: Yes, this is not the way to do it because of all the reasons I have given. This is a complex area and any attempt by me to
M: I am not going to try and come up with alternative workable proposals right now on Twitter. I stand by everything I have said.
G: typical libel dem, criticise but nothing to offer
M: Typical Labourite, resorting to ad hominem attacks and distorting their opponents position. See, I can do it too.
M: Of course I would like to see more paedophiles caught but the measures you support will exact a very high cost on society.
G: so you do think something does need to be done?
G: i am only saying what all can see, criticise this proposal but have no alternative
G: i cant see an alternative to checks for strangers who people leave their kids with
G: Maybe we should scrap all CRB checks they are highly illiberal after all....
G: would you agree with the scrapping of all CRB checks?
M: Right, I'm off to do some offline stuff now. Thanks for the debate. We clearly aren't going to agree!
M: This piece by @caronmlindsay sums up my view. I agree with every word of this:
G: do you think all CRB checks should be scrapped?
M: I do not think the current situation should be reversed but I do not want it to go further as I said.
M: That will be my last tweet on this for now though. I have other things I need to do. Read Caron's post - it is excellent.
G: so children are at risk from paid staff but not volunteers?
M: I am not getting further drawn into this now Ged. I knew that would be your next point. No further on CRB checks is my view.
G: ok i'll leave with your arguments in tatters, have a good day sir

I guess there will be those who agree with me and those who agree with Ged. However I just wanted to highlight a few things to illustrate what those debating against this need to be ready for:

1) Several times Ged tries to paint me as being opposed to protecting kids. This measure is supposed to protect kids, I am not in favour of it, therefore I am not in favour of protecting kids according to him. I have seen this debating tactic used many times at the national level by Labour ministers on many issues.

2) He uses the phrase "your solution is to do nothing, to leave kids at risk". In several other places he demands to know what my measures are. The certain idea that "something must be done" is threaded throughout everything that he says. Exactly where the drive for this sudden blanket vetting of millions more adults comes from is really not clear to me. Ian Huntley would not have been caught by this scheme - he was not giving lifts to anyone. Has there been an epidemic of adults who give children lifts abusing them? Also, the way Ged phrases the above comment implies that his solution will result in kids not being left at risk at all (that is the corrolary of what he is saying). I am sure he didn't mean it like that but the impression is left from the phrasing.

3) He asks me why I want paedophiles to remain undetected. I must admit at this point I started getting quite angry with him. He was trying to align me with a category of the most reviled section of society. My response was to take his argument to its logical conclusion (highlighted in blue above) asking if we should put cameras in every home, after all that's where most of the abuse in our society takes place. It is the natural end point of where these measures are taking us.

4) His final tactic was to ask if I wanted the existing CRB checks scrapped. The truth is I am deeply unhappy about the way in which those measures have been brought in. I am not in favour of outright scrapping them but they are very illiberal and I think we have to be very, very careful. I fear that there are too many people at the moment who because of a minor infraction years ago that has nothing to do with child safety are being barred from working with children. I think it needs reform but I reluctantly accept that for people who work with children very, very regularly that some measures like the CRB are warranted. However to then use this as an argument for extending it to volunteers trying to do a favour for clubs and helping out with their local community is a big step too far for me. I could not easily express this at the time as I had other stuff to do. Of course Ged took this as an indication that I had lost the argument with his last comment.

I don't doubt that the people who are bringing this measure in and those who support it have good motivations. They want to help protect our children and I am sure Ged is as he says a "good egg". However I hope as this debate goes on that both sides do not descend into smears and distortions of the other side's position.

Those on the other side of the debate should at least concede that we also have the best of motives.

I strongly and sincerely believe that our liberty is very precious and we give it up at our peril.