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.
Wednesday, 30 September 2009
I am part of a project called "Bloggers' Circle" which encourages bloggers to link to interesting content from other bloggers.
Tuesday, 29 September 2009
Well just having heard Gordon Brown's conference speech and having live tweeted it my head is still spinning a bit.
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.
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?
Monday, 28 September 2009
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.
..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.
Sunday, 27 September 2009
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.
Friday, 25 September 2009
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.
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!
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.
Thursday, 24 September 2009
Yes, BBC Question Time is back in our lives later today and the Live Chat on this blog will start at 10:30pm.
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.
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.
Wednesday, 23 September 2009
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.
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.
Tuesday, 22 September 2009
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".
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.
- 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.
Monday, 21 September 2009
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...
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.
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!
Sunday, 20 September 2009
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
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
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".
- 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 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.
Thursday, 17 September 2009
@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?".
"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."
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.
"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.
- 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!
Tuesday, 15 September 2009
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.
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
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.