Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday, 28 January 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 28th January 2010

Bit of a rush this evening so no time for the details of whose on etc. but the chat will start at 10:30pm as usual here tonight.

Dazmando from Bracknell Blog will be hosting as I am otherwise engaged.

Have fun!

Tuesday, 26 January 2010

Top 20 Lib Dem "influencers" on Twitter

Egged on by both Will Straw and Jonathan Sheppard and following on from the post I did this morning listing the 20 Lib Dems on Twitter with the most followers, here is a slightly different methodology.

Edelman have a web application called Tweet Level which claims to calculate the influence level of Twitterer. So what both Will and Jonathan have done is take the Labour and Tory top 20 lists respectively and put each of them through Tweet Level and then reordered the top 20. I have done the same for the Lib Dems. The value in brackets is where they were in the top 20 originally in terms of followers:

1 (2). Nick Clegg - 60
2 (1). Lib Dems - 57
=3 (8). Mark Pack - 55
=3 (19). Mark Thompson - 55
=5 (3). Jo Swinson - 54
=5 (9). Lib Dem Voice - 54
=5 (15). Will Howells - 54
8 (16). Andy Reeves - 52
10 (14). Jonathan Fryer - 45
11 (4). Vince Cable - 44
12 (6). Alan Belmore - 43
13 (10). Phil Willis - 42
14 (7). Toran Shaw - 40
15 (18). Sandra Gidley - 38
16 (20). Norman Lamb - 36
17 (13). Susan Kramer - 30
18 (11). Lembit Opik - 24
=19 (12). Julia Goldsworthy - 23
=19 (17). Graham Watson - 23

Of course this approach has a big problem. All we are doing is reordering the Top 20s. This takes no account of the fact that there may be Twitterers who are more influential but that didn't have enough followers to make the original top 20. For example, Stephen Glenn who just missed the cut coming in at 21 (or the Stephen Glenn position as he refers to it) has an influence score of 49 which would have put him in ninth position in this new list. I am sure there are loads more like this and in fact the top 20 would look very different if they were all included, for all the parties. But I don't have time to put every single Lib Dem tweeter through Tweet Level right now! Maybe someone else can have a crack?

And I refuse to believe that I am as influential as Dr Pack and more influential than every single MP except Nick Clegg on Twitter! What about Jo Swinson and Sandra Gidley's PMQs tweets for a start?

Anyway, it's all good fun until the next round of lists comes, probably tomorrow at this rate!

The Top 20 Lib Dem Twitterers

Iain Dale did a list of the top 20 Labour and Conservative Twitterers this morning. I thought we Lib Dems deserved our own list for comparison. I went through the list of Twitter accounts listed on the "Tweets" page of the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator and pulled out the top 20 (in terms of followers).

Here we go:

1. Lib Dems 7,692
2. Nick Clegg 7,199
3. Jo Swinson 2,666
4. Vince Cable 2,399
6. Alan Belmore 2,030
7. Toran Shaw 1,607
8. Mark Pack 1,580
9. Lib Dem Voice 1,547
10. Phil Willis 1,359
11. Lembit Opik 1,301
13. Susan Kramer 1,253
14. Jonathan Fryer 1,245
15. Will Howells 1,094
16. Andy Reeves 1,013
20. Norman Lamb 923

If you think you have been unjustly missed from this list please let me know and I will update it. If you aren't on the Lib Dem Blogs Twitter list then you won't be here so get yerself added!

As Mark Pack (or number 8 as he will henceforth be known) has already pointed out on Twitter, this is just purely based on follower numbers which is a debateable measure but I have stuck with the same method that Iain has used for comparative purposes.

UPDATE: Stephen Glenn has commented asking if he is in position 21 just outside the chart and indeed he is! This is becoming something of a meme with Stephen regularly just missing the cut in various charts so I thought I'd include a link to his twitter feed here to compensate for his rotten luck. He is definitely worth following!

Economy squeaks out of recession - election consequences?

So it is official, the economy just squeaked out of recession in the final quarter of 2009 growing by 0.1% according to the official figures released today. Of course that is good news although the UK is the last country in the G20 to do so.

Mike Smithson asked this morning whether it could make a difference to the date of the election. His reasoning is that as we are now in recovery the narrative from Labour will be that they steered us out of recession *and* managed to keep unemployment low. The most likely date for the next election is May 6th (to coincide with local elections in some parts of the country) but the economic figures for the current quarter are due out on April 23rd. If we were to find that we had dipped back into negative growth in the first quarter of 2010 just days before a general election that would be devastating to Labour and their electoral prospects.

It could happen. The end of the 15% VAT rate is likely to have boosted economic activity towards the end of 2009 and the restoration of the 17.5% rate at the start of 2010 could have the opposite effect. The growth last quarter is only 0.1% against an overall drop of 6% since the start of the recession. It therefore would not take much to tip us back into negative territory.

During the period just before "The election that never was" in autumn 2007, Ed Balls made the comment that the bigger risk at that stage was not going to the electorate. His basic point was that things were likely to get worse for Labour electorally and the position then might be a high water mark although he did not say it in those terms (and he was spot on). We are now potentially in a similar position again. Although Labour is much further behind now than it was in 2007 it could again be as good as it gets for them. In fact the end of the recession could give them a little electoral fillip although we won't know that for 2 or 3 weeks.

There are other reasons why an earlier election would make sense for Labour. It would mean Brown would not need to go before the Iraq inquiry until after the election. It would mean Labour did not have to have a budget as well and given the negative response to the PBR in December this could be another headache for them were they to have to do it.

In fact the more I think about it, the more it would seem that a truly brave Prime Minister would come back from Northern Ireland this afternoon and go straight to see the Queen to ask for a dissolution of parliament. He would catch his opponents on the hop and would be hoping to ride the wave of increased optimism in the economy that this morning's news could bring. He may even get some kudos for seizing the initiative and going a few months before he had to.

Of course up until now, Gordon Brown has not shown that he has that sort of courage.

Will he surprise us all?

Monday, 25 January 2010

Cameron will regret his "Broken Britain" rhetoric

David Cameron has been talking about "Broken Britain" for a long time now. He frequently raises the issue and did so again recently regarding the horrific Edlington torture case.

I do not think Britain is "broken". In fact crime has generally fallen in the last few years. However the public do not perceive that is that case and a recent survey showed that most people actually think crime has risen in recent times. The truth is though that there are pockets of deprivation and very large social inequalities which the official figures disguise to some extent. The circumstances in which the boys who perpetrated the torture in this case were brought up have been well covered in the media and I do not doubt that sadly there will be other children currently being brought up in such circumstances right now.

Of course just because crime is falling does not mean we should not try our hardest to eliminate the sort of problems that led to this tragic situation. However we are dealing with deeply embedded and in some cases intractable social problems. Nothing I have seen from David Cameron suggests that he has policies that will end these problems and herein lies his problem.

I well remember Tony Blair as Shadow Home Secretary in 1993 commenting on the Jamie Bulger murder case. He made similar comments to the ones that Cameron is currently making. In fact Cameron's response seems to be emulating the politician that he most closely resembles in this respect. But of course Blair was not able to eliminate these deep seated problems in our society and as much as I hope that Cameron would be able to were he Prime Minister it is an extremely tall order and he is leaving himself a very big hostage to fortune.

Let's imagine that Cameron becomes PM in a few months time. I can well imagine that in 3 or 4 years time there could be another horrendous case such as the Edlington one and at that point who would Cameron blame? The media will be justified in blaming him directly, after all he said he was going to fix it, just as Blair did and even if crime has been reduced further under his government he will get no credit for it as he is hoist by his own petard.

I wish it was not like this. This way the media is able to continue with their narrative that things are constantly getting worse even when they are not. Cameron is playing straight into this and will come to regret the way he has approached this issue because the narrative will eventually come back to bite him.

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Empty chair 'em

I have noticed on a number of blogs today (including Iain Dale and Dizzy) that there is discussion that the TV debates might be in jeopardy because of the demands of Brown and Cameron about the make-up of the audience. Brown apparently wants the audience weighted by number of Commons seats (ridiculous given that Labour only got 36% of the vote but 55% of the seats) and Cameron apparently wants them weighted by current opinion polls.

Back in July last year I suggested that a broadcaster should announce that a debate will take place and empty chair any leader who does not turn up. Then in October when there was some wobbling on the agreed format, I again suggested that the broadcasters should decide.

I am sorry to sound like a broken record but frankly, if the leaders can't agree then to me the answer is obvious. The broadcasters should come up with their own impartial way of selecting an audience (the best one I have seen so far is randomly from those who apply for tickets) and then tell the leaders that's how it's going to be. If any of the leaders then refuse to attend that's their call.

We cannot allow any of the leaders to scupper the chance of these important opportunities for the public to hold them to account and properly test them on their election manifestos. If they need to be shamed into agreement and attendance then so be it.

Empty chair 'em.

The BBC is doing itself no favours

I have blogged in the past about how the BBC can sometimes be its own worst enemy and I have seen some further evidence of this recently.

Last year I enjoyed watching all six episodes of a new comedy
show "Stewart Lee's Comedy Vehicle". It was a 30 minute show that showcased the stand-up comedy of the critically acclaimed Stewart Lee interspersed with sketches to illustrate the topics he was talking about on stage.

I loved the stand-up portions of it although some of the sketch bits were not as good. Lee's stand-up style sometimes verges on performing art. He uses a lot of repetition in his themes, riffing on this to build up to a climax within certain parts of his sets. He also often talks in abstract about issues and situations in a way you do not often see elsewhere. There is also a feeling that you never quite know where he is going on a subject and can suddenly turn on the audience subverting their expectations and he sometimes even goes in amongst them shouting at them. I have seen him live a couple of times and I felt his performance style translated well to the small screen.

The critics loved the show and although the audience size was not huge they were respectable for the sort of alternative show it was. Of course it is not everyone's cup of tea but from what I can tell, those that liked it, really liked it.

Anyway, it looks like the BBC has cancelled the show and there will be no second series. There is a petition you can sign here which has already garnered a couple of thousand signatures which is trying to get the BBC to reverse their decision. It seems unlikely though, they rarely do once a decision like this has been taken.

Now of course I am slightly biased here because I really liked the show and am a big fan of Lee but I think this is an example of how the BBC has got it all wrong.

Firstly, I should just say kudos to them for having commissioned the show in the first place. However they are shooting themselves in the foot by taking action like this. The show was very well received by the critics and as I said has a solid (although not massive) audience. Because the BBC does not have commercial considerations, they are able to take risks like this and cater for a minority audience without needing to fret over audience sizes as much as channels that take advertising.

And this is exactly my point. I have lost count of the number of times the BBC has cancelled shows that seem to cater to a minority taste because the audiences are not large enough. This should not be the way they make their decisions.

I am not saying that they should never cancel anything but they should be much more discerning regarding the criteria they define as "success" for a show. It seems to me that far too often they just look at the numbers and let those decide.

The real danger for the BBC is that if they carry on like this then they undermine the reason for their continued existence as a public funded broadcaster. After all, if they are not willing to stick their neck out and cater for minority tastes in this way and only want to keep things that are first-time sure-fire hits with a wide audience then it becomes very difficult to distinguish them from their commercial rivals. And that is the point where the argument about whether they should continue to receive public subsidy (as I hope they will as I have made clear before) gets harder and harder to make.

Ratings cannot be the predominant criteria used to decide whether a show gets recommissioned for the BBC.

They are doing themselves no favours by behaving in this way.

Hattip to Wikipedia for the picture of Stewart used above.

Some MPs are more equal than others

One of the main arguments that opponents of electoral reform to a proportional system use is that some forms of PR create two classes of MP. Now firstly, this is not true for Single Transferable Vote with multi-member constituencies, the system that the Lib Dems and most electoral reformers favour. However it is true for systems like Alternative Vote Plus or Additional Member System. Those systems have a "top-up element" to allow proportionality but that does generally mean that some MPs have constituencies and others don't. In other words some MPs have constituents to answer to and others from the list only have their party to answer to.

Just to reiterate, I (and many like me) do not support these top-up systems but the fact that they exist and in the case of AMS have been used in the past gives supporters of the status quo an opportunity to blur the issue and making this claim of two classes of MP against all variants of PR.

But it is worth just taking a few steps back here and looking at our existing electoral system, First Past the Post. I was struck by the following passage in Chris Mullin's excellent Westminster diaries "A View from the Foothills" when I read it recently:

Friday 11th May (2001)

Much speculation about which members of the New Labour elite will be parachuted into the safe seats vacated by MPs retiring at the last moment. Ed Balls and David Miliband are among the names being mentioned. Not for them the cutting of teeth in hopeless seats or the long, wearying slog around the selection circuit. A few high-level phone calls, a quiet word in the right ears and ... Bob's your uncle ... a safe seat for life. And who knows, within two or three years a foot on the ministerial ladder, first steps on the inevitable rise to the Cabinet.

As we now know, both Balls and Miliband were indeed selected for very safe seats. Miliband in 2001 (he was in the government by 2005 and the cabinet by 2006), Balls in 2005 (he was in the government by 2006 and the cabinet in 2007 as soon as Brown became leader). There are plenty of examples over the years of favoured candidates who are parachuted into safe seats like this and hence their political career is put on the fast track. Because they are gifted a seat where there is virtually no chance of them losing it they don't have to worry too much about what their constituents think. They will not have to have spent years slogging away at getting to know the constituency and their constituents before election and they will have to pay little attention to them after election too. Whereas MPs in less safe or marginal seats will have to pay much more attention to their electors and indeed spend much more time on them.

So we already have MPs who on a sliding scale have to take less and less notice of their constituents as we go up the list of safe seats. That sounds to me very much like a two (or even more than two) classes of MP that we have already.

Under Single Transferable Vote this would not happen. The seat of every single MP would be at risk in every election and they would have to earn re-election. There would be no safe seats. But of course if we had this, how would Blair have been able to secure an easy passage for Miliband and Brown likewise for Balls into the Commons and ultimately the cabinet?

Also, the seats of even the most senior politicians would need to be tended to properly and the electors engaged with.

This is why the decision on how they are elected cannot be left up to the MPs themselves. They have already proved that they cannot be trusted with their own remuneration. Why should they be any different when it comes to the terms of their own employment?

Friday, 22 January 2010

Pod Delusion Podcast - Episode 18

This week's Pod Delusion podcast is now out (embedded below). There are some goodies on it this week including a discussion with comedy and skeptic godfather Robin Ince. Also, if you want to hear me attempt to do an impression of John Cleese in a homeopathic medicine version of the classic Python "Dead Parrot Sketch" written by Crispian Jago (who also plays the Michael Palin role) then make sure you listen to the third piece...


Proposition 8 Update (1:18) by Salim Fadhley
YouTube Censorship (8:36) by Dave Cole
Homeopathy and Python (14:24) by Crispian Jago (ft Mark Thompson)
I’m Feeling Sleepy (21:17) by Sly & Reggie
Robin Ince & Nerdstock (25:31) by James O’Malley (ft Robin Ince)

Meeting Vince Cable - properly this time!

A few months ago I attended an event in Guildford where Vince Cable was the guest of honour (I blogged about it on Lib Dem Voice here). On that occasion he had to rush off and I didn't get a chance to properly meet him. Yesterday I attended another event where he was the main guest, this time a more intimate affair for business people in Islington (I run a business that has offices there) organised by Bridget Fox, the Lib Dem PPC for the area who I have previously interviewed for this blog and who had very kindly invited me.

There were about 25 people in attendance and the format was that Vince made a short speech and then took some questions/comments from the floor. He described it as an opportunity to hear what we thought and that these sort of events help inform him how people on the ground are experiencing things like the recession.

His speech was largely focused on the economy and the sort of things that we can do to try and recover from the recession. He used a metaphor of the UK being like a patient who had suffered a massive heart attack and was weakened but now trying to recover. Things like very low interest rates and quantitative easing are the very powerful medicine that has helped the patient through the crisis and kept him alive but they cannot be used forever and we now need to make some serious lifestyle changes to avoid it happening again. Although all metaphors eventually break down I think this quite a good one and it makes it easy for people to grasp what he is saying. I expect he hear this way of describing things popping up during the ensuing election campaign.

When it came to questions I did manage to ask a couple. I questioned him about the recent surprise fall in unemployment and suggested that one of the reasons for this could be that many firms are reducing staff hours and/or salary rather than making them redundant. He agreed this was probably one reason and also cautioned that if things don't start to get better soon there is a risk that firms are viewing these measures as temporary and they will start to shed jobs again if confidence does not return. This of course could lead to the dreaded "double dip recession" scenario. I also asked what concrete measures could be taken to convince the banks to lend to viable businesses again, after all Alistair Darling has been pleading with them for two years to do just that to little avail. Vince's view is that the government should take a more hands on approach with the banks that it partially or wholly owns and ensure they hit targets for lending.

Afterwards I managed to have a brief chat with the great man himself. I am standing in a local council by-election here in Sandhurst in the Bracknell constituency and he wished me luck. He suggested that if I could win the seat (we currently have no councillors in this area) then that can be a good foundation to build upon for the future. He didn't go so far as to volunteer to come and help me campaign though! I suspect he is in very high demand so I will let him off this time!

All in all it was a good event and I also met and had some interesting discussions with other political and business people in the Islington area.

Darrell Goodliffe and Constantly Furious on House of Comments Podcast - Episode 11

The latest "House of Comments" podcast with myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion political blog is now live. The website for the podcasts is here (cast your eyes in awe at the shiny new layout!) and the tenth episode which we recorded on Wednesday 20th Jan is available to download via this page here (raw mp3 file here if you prefer). You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here. Or you can listen to it right now here:

The format is to invite one or two other political bloggers each week and discuss a few of the stories that are making waves in the blogosphere.

This week we were joined by Darrell Goodliffe, the former Lib Dem and now Labour blogger who blogs at "Moments of Clarity" and Constantly Furious who always seems to be slightly piqued about something.

We discussed Darrell's reasons for jumping ship, the arrest and questioning of Paul Chambers for an ill-advised comment about bombing on Twitter and asked whether the authorities overreacted, Constantly Furious' liver, clearing snow in the context of the nanny state and the takeover of Cadbury's by Kraft. And we resisted the temptation to make a load of chocolate bar based puns even though it might have BOOSTed our ratings. Maybe it's because we're too FLAKEy.

If you are a political blogger and would like to participate in the future, please drop me an e-mail (address in the sidebar near the top of this blog).

Thursday, 21 January 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 21st January 2010 - #bbcqt

It's that day again and as usual the Live Chat on this blog will start tonight at 10:30pm.

The panel will include the Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liam Byrne MP, the Conservative shadow secretary of state for communities and local government Caroline Spelman MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on housing Sarah Teather MP, the broadcaster Richard Madeley and the historian Andrew Roberts.

Join us from 10:30pm below:

Cameron's Albatrosses

As we start to move towards the election campaign in earnest, I can't help but feel that there are two of the Conservative Party's major policies that will become albatrosses around David Cameron's neck.

The first one is the pledge in increase the inheritance tax threshold to £1m. The Conservatives generally think that IHT is an unfair tax and have sometimes characterised it as "a tax on the dead" as well as claiming that it means tax is effectively paid multiple times on earnings. There are others who think that it is fair to tax the estates of the deceased (over a reasonable minimum threshold of around £325,000) as the people paying the tax are the heirs who have often not done anything to earn that money/windfall anyway.

I happen to come more down on the side of agreeing that IHT is a reasonable way to raise tax revenue (although I do think there are still too many occasions when people have to sell their homes to pay it which needs to be addressed). But regardless of what I think, the Conservative proposal to raise the threshold to £1m is far too easy to characterise as a tax cut for the rich. The reason it is so easy to do this is because that is effectively what it is. There are really not that many people in this country who will inherit anything like that amount of money. So at a time when the entire country has to tighten its collective belt, Cameron is proposing a substantial tax benefit to what will amount to a few thousand of the richest heirs in the UK.

Even if you agree that the IHT threshold should be increased, is now (or the next few years) really the time to do it? The Conservatives are weak on this point and their opponents will rightly keep challenging them on it. I expect it will come up during the televised debates and Cameron is at real risk of looking hopelessly out of touch as he tries to defend it.

The second albatross is their plan to "recognise marriage in the tax system". Aside from the fact that different Conservative spokesmen seem to be interpreting it in slightly different ways (e.g. Iain Duncan Smith suggesting it would apply to families with children aged 3 or under) there is a major problem with the principle. Why should people who choose not to get married (or are not through no fault of their own) be penalised by the tax system. As Nick Clegg said during his Andrew Marr interview at the weekend, where would it leave the woman with three young kids whose philandering husband leaves her and marries someone else? She would be left penalised whilst he gets the tax benefit.

When Polly Toynbee raised a similar point with David Cameron at a recent press conference he suggested that the details had not been worked out yet. I am afraid I fail to see how this "detail" could be "worked out". It is surely an intended effect of the policy. There will be manifest unfairnesses and countless hypothetical examples of these that can be thrown at the Conservatives over the next few months.

In the case of both of these policies it is probably too late for the Tories to row back from them. It is too close to the election for that so they are stuck with them.

The question is just how heavy will these albatrosses become?

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

BBC Mastermind result

Following my poll asking you to help me decide the subjects I should choose for BBC Mastermind (they make you choose all 4 subjects prior to application in case you get through to the final) the results are now in.

Over 200 of you voted selecting the subjects you like the sound of best (each person could vote multiple times):

There are obviously a lot of Sci-fi/comedy fans amongst you! I was particularly disappointed with the poor showing for "Friends". I think this might actually be my best topic. Other people have suggested that some of my topics, e.g. the politics ones are too broad and I might want to consider narrowing them.

Anyway, I will fill in the application soon. Hopefully I will get through!


Sunday, 17 January 2010

Is this one of the reasons why the Tories are not doing better?

In 1997, one of the things that underlined how much Tony Blair had changed his party from the one that had lost in 1979 (and been out of power for 18 years) was how few members of his shadow cabinet had been members of that previous administration.

I did a bit of research on this last night and as far as I can tell, the only members of Blair's Shadow Cabinet in the run up to the 1997 General Election that had been a member of the 1979 losing government were:

  • Margaret Beckett: She had held a number of junior positions under Wilson and Callaghan.
  • Michael Meacher: He also held a couple of junior positions in the 1974-1979 administration.
  • Gavin Strang: Ditto.
  • Ann Taylor who was an assistant whip from 1977-1979 under Callaghan.

Donald Dewar had been a junior member of Wilson's administration in the late 60s but not in the 70s as after the 1970 election he lost his seat and did not get back into parliament until 1978.

So that is 4 shadow cabinet members who had held rather lowly positions in the most recent Labour government and 1 who had been a lowly member of a previous, non-contiguous Labour administration from almost 3 decades earlier.*

I think it is also significant that no former Labour cabinet ministers at all were in Blair's 1997 shadow cabinet.

For a putative Prime Minister such as Tony Blair who was trying to demonstrate how much his party had moved on from the discredited government that lost the 1979 election, the fact that there were only a very small number of shadow cabinet members associated (in a fairly small way) with that former government I think sent a strong message. It was that the old ways of doing things were out and his party had fundamentally changed. He was rewarded with massive poll leads and as we now all know a huge landslide victory in 1997.

Now contrast that with David Cameron's shadow cabinet. Ten of his shadow cabinet held ministerial positions under John Major and 3 of them were cabinet ministers. I have listed them below with the former cabinet ministers in bold:

  • William Hague
  • Liam Fox
  • Sir George Young (he was also a minister for a short time under Margaret Thatcher)
  • Cheryl Gillan
  • Francis Maude (he was actually out of parliament after 1992 but was a minister under Major until then)
  • Andrew Mitchell
  • Kenneth Clarke (he was a minister all the way through from 1979 - 1997)
  • David Willetts
  • Lord Strathclyde
  • Patrick McLoughlin

Now this is probably a slightly unfair comparison because it is less than 13 years since the Major government fell compared to 18 years between the Callaghan and Blair governments. However, the electorate won't be factoring this differential into the calculations when deciding to vote. Elections are often down to tone and how voters feel about parties, sometimes in ways that they cannot even quite put their finger on.

I also know that in the case of both William Hague and Kenneth Clarke, despite having been cabinet ministers under Major that they are quite popular and well respected. I am not questioning that, what I am drawing attention to is the message that having them and so many other former ministers on board sends out.

I would suggest that despite David Cameron's efforts to try and modernise his party in the last few years and dump much of its baggage, the fact that nearly half his shadow cabinet served in a widely discredited government does send out a subliminal message and it is in contradiction to the one that Cameron is trying to get out there. It suggests that his party and its leadership since 1997 has not changed as much as he might like to think.

I wonder if this is one of the reasons why the Conservative poll lead is not as high as that of Labour's at a similar point in the electoral cycle in 1997.

*It is also worth bearing in mind that the Labour Party rules in opposition mean that the Shadow Cabinet is elected by the party and therefore Blair actually had little choice as to who he had, only over the roles they had. It is noteworthy that upon becoming Prime Minister, Blair refused to appoint Meacher to the cabinet and instead made him a junior minister. Although Strang was appointed as Minister of Transport in the cabinet in 1997 he was sacked in 1998 and has remained on the backbenches ever since.

Saturday, 16 January 2010

Pod Delusion Podcast - Episode 17

This week's Pod Delusion podcast is now out (embedded below) and is up to its usual very high standard. I did the final item on how ITV could improve its future by looking to its past (expanding on one of the themes I wrote about in this post).


David Cameron’s Face (0:55) by George Poles
The Big Freeze (4:15) by Martin Robbins
Google Owns Our Souls (9:23) by Liz Lutgendorff
NHS IT Systems (15:16) by Simon Howard
Douglas Adams (20:26) by Misty
Dan Brown and Tony Robinson (23:10) by Billy Abbott
ITV and the Regions (26:42) by Mark Thompson

It's all good stuff but Misty's piece on Douglas Adams in particular is wonderfully warm and yet made me sad as she imagines how good he would have been with things like Twitter and appearing on QI if he had lived. Also, Liz Lutgendorff's voice and style of delivery is always great to listen to whatever she is saying!

Friday, 15 January 2010

"Cameron Direct" event in Reading - review

I attended David Cameron's "Cameron Direct" event in Reading yesterday. It was held in one of the conference rooms at the Madejski Stadium.

There had been some problems with the organisation and it had been postponed from last Friday because of the weather. I have also heard that some people struggled to get places booked as it was necessary to pre-register. The fact that it started at 5:15pm on a weekday probably didn't help with maximising the possibility of all those who wished to attend being able to.

Anyway, I found the whole experience fascinating from the perspective of someone who is very interested in politics. It was good to see a face-to-face political event with one of the party leaders (I know that Nick Clegg has also done lots of these sort of events too) and it felt a bit like I guess the sort of town hall meetings there used to be many years ago.

Cameron was briefly introduced by Alok Sharma the Conservative PPC for Reading West and then he came on and rather than make a speech, pretty much straight away went into taking questions from the floor.

Being on the second row and directly in his eye-line when he asked for the first question as my hand went up, I managed to get selected first. I asked him about drugs policy and in particular I wanted to know why he had changed his position from one of supporting liberalisation of drugs laws before he was party leader and was a member of the House Affairs Select Committee to being in favour of the status quo now.

The way he responded to my question, I felt was representative of the way he answered quite a few of the questions during the evening in that he rather deftly and subtly shifted how he talked about what I had asked in a way that avoided directly answering the question. He first said about how the report that he had signed up to when a member of the committee was a great report but that the call for the UN to relax its legal approach (which I referred to in my question) was not a part of it that he thought was particularly useful. He instead suggested that the important thing to do is to focus on treatment and improving people's access to that treatment rather than on banging people up but he refused to countenance any change in the legal status of any illegal drug because of the message that that might send out.

I countered with a follow-up question suggesting that his aims are contradictory in that he is trying to improve access to treatment within a legal framework that makes that more difficult and that sometimes even people trying to help addicts find themselves falling foul of the law and even sometimes arrested and prosecuted. I also reiterated my initial question asking him why he had changed his mind. His response was that he does not think that the legal situation makes it difficult for people to get treatment and he restated his belief that the legal framework as it stands is correct. He again did not answer my question about why he had changed his mind.

I have to say that David Cameron is a very impressive individual in the flesh. I have found this with a number of senior politicians when I have seen them live giving speeches and taking questions. He is very charismatic and has the ability to inject humour at the right level to lighten his tone when it is appropriate. There were no questions that seemed to phase him.

However there was another theme to the way he answered a lot of the questions. He frequently went out of his way to insist that there was very little money around and that made it difficult for him to promise anything. He included this in virtually every answer he gave. There was a particularly odd answer (or so it seemed to me) when one of the audience members who identified himself as a floating voter asked for Cameron's "elevator pitch". Cameron then spent most of his answer explaining what he was not able to do or promise rather than on what he was going to be able to do. I am not convinced that is a winning pitch and Cameron seemed to suggest as much himself with a little self-deprecating jibe at the end where he quipped that he probably hadn't convinced him.

There was a very moving segment when a headteacher of a local special needs school asked about a putative Cameron government's priorities for special needs provision. He made reference to his son Ivan who was severely disabled and who died last year. I think everyone in the room was touched by the way he handled this; he even seemed close to tears as he talked about his experiences of trying to get the right schooling programme for his son.

Stylistically it was impossible for me to watch Cameron in the way he answered the questions with his injection of humour and confidant charismatic style without seeing very strong echoes of Tony Blair. Cameron himself even gave a nod to this at the start when he took his jacket off expressing the hope that he was not coming across too much like Blair which got a good natured ripple of laughter. It is clear to me that he had almost completely modelled himself on our former Prime Minister. This was underlined even more starkly in the flesh than when I have seen him on TV.

A couple of Blair-like rhetorical examples that stuck in my mind:

  • He was asked a question about the "third sector" (i.e. voluntary sector). During his answer he suggested that it should really be referred to as the "first sector" as they often historically got there first e.g. setting up schools and things like Barnardos etc. There were a disproportionate number of people in the room from the voluntary sector and this received a number of approving comments.
  • He was given a hard time on the Iraq war by one questioner who wanted to know if he regretted having voted for it. He refused to say that he regretted it and at one point used the formulation: "Am I glad that Saddam has gone? - Yes!". That wasn't the question that was asked and is a classic Blair way of responding to a question by asking another related but different question that he is more comfortable answering.

All in all, I felt it was a very worthwhile event and it was good to have seen the man who the bookies think will be our next Prime Minister.

However, I do think that he is going to have to hone his message in the run up to the election. I think people are looking for a leader who can inspire them and I was just not quite getting that yesterday. I think he is going to have to focus much more on what he can do and less on what he can't do.

As someone once said he needs to try a bit harder to let sunshine win the day.

Sara Bedford and Jack of Kent on House of Comments Podcast - Episode 10

The latest "House of Comments" podcast with myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion political blog is now live. The website for the podcasts is here and the tenth episode which we recorded across Tuesday 12th and Wednesday 13th Jan is available to download via this page here (raw mp3 file here if you prefer). You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

The format is to invite one or two other political bloggers each week and discuss a few of the stories that are making waves in the blogosphere.

This week we were joined by Sara Bedford from the "Always win when you're singing" blog and Allen Green, convenor of Westminster Skeptics (which I will get over at some point soon!) and who also blogs at "Jack of Kent" largely on legal issues.

We covered the Greg Stone case that I recently blogged about, the banning of Islam4UK, Britain's stop and search powers, last week's attempted coup against Gordon Brown and a computer game that attempts to engage children with the work of MPs and parliament.

If you are a political blogger and would like to participate in the future, please drop me an e-mail (address in the sidebar near the top of this blog).

Thursday, 14 January 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 14th January 2010 - #bbcqt

#bbcqt is BACK BABY and as usual the Live Chat on this blog will start tonight at 10:30pm.

The panel will include the senior Labour politician Peter Hain, the Conservative shadow secretary of state for business, enterprise and regulatory reform Ken Clarke MP, the Liberal Democrat spokesman on home affairs Chris Huhne, the comedian and writer Shappi Khorsandi (Mmmm.. Shappi..) and the columnist and former newspaper editor Kelvin MacKenzie (for Jaysus' sake...).

It's being broadcast from Finchley which is Thatcher's old stomping ground.

I will be back in plenty of time from attending a "Cameron Direct" meeting in Reading this evening and if you ask nicely on the chat I'll tell you how airbrushed his face looks in real life!

Join us from 10:30pm below:

Haiti Earthquake Appeal

Following the devastating earthquake in Haiti this week where the government fears 100,000 could be dead I have been e-mailed the details of the following appeal:

SOS Children Appealing for funds for Haiti Emergency

Sponsorship sites in Haiti

Although we, as a well established charity in Haiti since 1982 have not managed more than brief contact with our offices and field workers in Haiti, it is clear that there will be a massive need for emergency relief work after the earthquake yesterday. Therefore we have decided to appeal for funds to help the people of Haiti.

After the massive earthquake in Haiti yesterday evening, brief communication has been possible with the national director, Celigny Darius. He informs us that all staff at the national office in Port-au-Prince are uninjured but the national office has been partially destroyed and we have not been able to move from the office. Unfortunately, since all communication lines are down and all roads are blocked, there has been no possibility of communicating with any of the SOS Children's Villages or other programmes as yet. There are severe damages to some of the team's own homes and some of them have not been able to contact their families. The epicentre of the quake was just 10 kilometres from the capital Port-au-Prince, where the national office, one village and one SOS Social Centre are located.

An Emergency Programme is being developed and immediate support will be coordinated from SOS Dominican Republic where we still have working facilities.

Our track record in emergency relief speaks for itself. We have staff and infrastructure on the ground and we will be one of the first to offer assistance. In all likelihood, as with the Asian Tsunami and with the Kashmir Earthquake and so many other places, as we are already registered to care for lone children, in the short term we will probably be entrusted by the government to run emergency shelters for children who have been orphaned or separated from their family (in Kashmir we ended up as temporary guardian for all unaccompanied children). We expect to be involved in trauma care and family tracing. We are in Haiti long term and we will probably (as is usually the case) end up providing the long term home for children who have been orphaned by the disaster. This is a well established pattern.

In all events we undertake to spend 100% of all funds generated by this appeal helping in Haiti, with absolutely no deductions for UK costs such as administration or fundraising.

If you would like to contribute to this appeal please donate here and enter "Haiti" into the instruction box. We will keep you informed of news and of what we achieve with your funds.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

Is Gordon Brown now less powerful than when he was Chancellor?

Steve Richards had an interesting opinion piece in The Independent yesterday where he asserted that Gordon Brown is now less powerful than when he was Chancellor of the Exchequer. Here's an excerpt:

As a mighty Chancellor, Brown had a big say in who got what job and who did not. If he disapproved of a ministerial appointment he made sure that his or her space for manoeuvre was limited. When Blair elevated the likes of Mandelson and Alan Milburn in cabinet reshuffles Brown despaired. As one of his close allies told me, "Tony's reshuffles were highly charged affairs as far as Gordon was concerned". In particular he needed to lie down in a darkened room when Blair promoted Mandelson to be President of the Board of Trade in 1998. Even so, once Brown had recovered from the shock he was so powerful as Chancellor he made sure Mandelson had no space to put the case for the euro or to say very much on the economy.

With an almost comical symmetry, as Prime Minister he was so weak he buttressed his precarious perch by giving Mandelson a more wide-ranging and powerful portfolio than Blair would ever have dared to offer his friend. During an earlier crisis Brown also discussed with Milburn the possibility of a return. Since becoming Prime Minister his powers are so diminished that his enemies have flourished more than they did when he was Chancellor. In contrast, even before last Wednesday Brown was not powerful enough to make Ed Balls Chancellor, although he is the figure whose judgement he rates above all others.

As Prime Minister he finally acquired formal powers of patronage. Yet he was able to hand out more jobs to his allies when he was Chancellor and he had no formal powers at all.

The whole piece is certainly worth a read and he touches upon other aspects as he makes his case.

I agree that Brown is now a less powerful and diminished figure compared to what he was 5 or 10 years ago. However the tenor of Steve's piece almost seems to be that Brown should rue ever having become Prime Minister which I very much doubt he does.

I think what Steve is overlooking is that the reason why Brown is so much less powerful than Tony Blair was as PM is because the Labour Party itself is now so much weaker as it slides towards what seems like inexorable defeat.

It is true that ministers including Alistair Darling now appear to be able to strut around and make comments that are at variance with what Brown says and there is not really anything that Brown can do. But that is largely because Darling et al know that their party is going to be out of office in a few months time. If they thought they had a good chance of still being in after the general election (or like in 2005 and 2001 a near certainty) then things would be very different and the patronage Brown has at his fingertips would be much more potent. They would toe his line for fear that he could sack them. That's how it normally works and what has broken down in recent times.

So I suppose I am saying that although Brown is less powerful than he used to be, he would be even less powerful still had he remained Chancellor and Labour were shuffling towards a defeat. It's all relative.

I do agree with Steve's final comment though:

He (Brown) will never enjoy the immense power he wielded at the Treasury when he yearned, every minute of each day, to make the move to No 10.

It probably never occurred to him at the time that he was at the pinnacle of his powers at that point but looking back it is almost certainly true (perhaps we could include the first 4 months of his premiership too until "the election that never was").

Maybe he should have spent more time enjoying it rather than scheming to get his next door neighbour's job....

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

An audience with Professor David Nutt

The Reading University Lib Dems have invited Professor David Nutt, the former head of the government's Advisory Committee on the Misuse of Drugs (see previous posts) to speak at an event on Monday 25th January.

They have very kindly asked me to chair the event which I am pleased to do. According to the invite, all are welcome to attend.

Here are the details from the Facebook page for the event:

Professor David Nutt is one of the most highly respected, yet controversial figures in drugs research and is the former Chairman of the government advisory body on drugs policy, the ACMD (Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs).

In this role he was seen to be outspokenly critical of the classification of some drugs, publishing several papers in noted medical journals on the correlations between Dependence/Self Harm; risk assessments between taking some drugs and other activities (f.e. horse riding and taking ecstacy); and speaking out on these and similar topics in public lectures.

He has been a vocal critic of the move to reclassify Cannabis from Class C to Class B based upon the evidence of the harm it can cause.

After being dismissed by Home Secretary Alan Johnson, he has setup his own independent drugs advisory board The Independent Council on Drugs Harms.

This will be one of his first public appearances since establishing this board.

The discussion will be chaired by Mark Thompson, campaigner within the Liberal Democrats for Drugs Policy Reform group.

All are welcome, time will be allotted for questions at the end of the talk.

So if you are local to Reading please sign up and come along. It should be a very interesting talk.

Has Greg Stone paid too high a price?

Greg Stone has resigned as Lib Dem PPC for Newcastle East as a result of the fallout following some lewd comments he made during one of Guido's PMQs live chats a year or so ago. Amongst other comments were a reference to whether Hazel Blears was on Botox and asking whether she had had a stroke and describing a Labour MP as a "sour-faced bitch"

There was various coverage of the comments last month in the press (for example here) and there had been calls for Mr Stone to stand down.

So on the surface, a PPC makes some ill-advised comments in public that have offended people and as a result has stood down. Fair enough eh?

Except, except I feel a bit uneasy about this. I will try and articulate it here. Apologies if it seems a bit disjointed.

Before I start I should mention that I did meet Greg during Lib Dem conference last year and had a drink with him. I thought he came across as a nice bloke and he was good company for the hour or so I spent sitting at the same table as him.

As far as I know, Mr Stone has not made comments like this in his capacity as a councillor or as a candidate. He has apologised on numerous occasions and I suspect he will be much more careful in future.

Now I have been following politics long enough to understand that Greg's position had pretty much become untenable. His political opponents in Newcastle East had started to put out leaflets drawing attention to the comments. It was going to be very difficult for him to continue his campaign in that context and it is therefore not surprising that he has gone. I also am sure that members of the Lib Dems would have done the same had it been an opponent that had made these comments.

I want there to be a wide range of people in parliament. Indeed if you speak to people about the sort of MPs they want to see they will often say they want people who are ordinary. Like it or not, there are lots of people who enjoy engaging in lewd banter when they are amongst friends. I expect if you went into many of the pubs in the Newcastle East constituency you would hear the sort of things described above.

I suppose what I am saying is that I wish our politics was mature enough for people to be able to have the odd lapse like this showing that they are human like the rest of us and not be punished by effectively having their political career destroyed. Sadly that is not the case but we reap what we sow with our politics.

I know some people will think I am just saying this because he is a Lib Dem but I really am not and am on record as having defended members of other parties when they have made mistakes too (e.g. here).

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Help me choose my BBC Mastermind specialist subjects!

For a while now I have been thinking about applying to go onto BBC's Mastermind. I usually do OK in my armchair at the general knowledge rounds but the sticking point has been picking a suitable specialist subject. Or, as the application form makes clear, the four subjects. It looks like you have to declare enough subjects to take you all the way through to the final!

Anyway, Dazmando from Bracknell Blog suggested that it might be fun to get my reader's views on which subjects would be best and/or the most appropriate. Therefore I have decided to run a poll. It just below the header at the top of the page.

The subjects I think I could do either straight away or with a bit more boning up (fnaaar!) are:

  • UK politics 1997 - 2007. I lived through Tony Blair's reign and pretty obsessively followed the politics programmes and comment pieces. Also, I have read numerous biographies from the period recently and intend to read more over the next few months.
  • UK politics 1990 - 1997. I did also live through John Major's period as PM and was politically sentient throughout although I am doubtless going to be a bit rustier on this due to the passage of time. It might give me an excuse to re-read some of the political biographies of the time though...
  • Punk rock 1976 - 1979. Now this is before my time but in my late teens I got very interested in the music and social history behind punk. I have read numerous books including the definitive and excellent "England's Dreaming" by Jon Savage. I think with a bit of revision I could be very strong on this.
  • The TV show "Red Dwarf". I used to be obsessed with this show when I was a kid and am certain I could answer pretty much anything on the first 5 series. I am less sure about the last 3 series and the recent specials though but it wouldn't take much to gen up on those.
  • The TV show "Friends". I have now watched every episode of this several times so I should be pretty good.
  • The TV show "The Simpsons". I am an expert on about the first 12 seasons. After that I would be more patchy but I am sure a bit of intensive catching up would sort that out.

Now I'm not even sure if all of these would be eligible so you might want to bear that in mind when voting. You can vote for more than one BTW, after all as I said I need four!

I will post the results when the poll closes on 17th Jan.

Myleene Klass and that knife

It is being widely reported this morning that Myleene Klass has been warned by police after wielding a knife at some intruders who were in her back garden attempting to break into her shed.

The Telegraph reports it as follows:

The youths approached the kitchen window, before attempting to break into her garden shed, prompting Miss Klass to wave a kitchen knife to scare them away.

Miss Klass, 31, who was alone in her house in Potters Bar, Herts, with her two-year-old daughter, Ava, called the police. When they arrived at her house they informed her that she should not have used a knife to scare off the youths because carrying an "offensive weapon" – even in her own home – was illegal.

Jonathan Shalit, Miss Klass's agent, said that had been "shaken and utterly terrified" by the incident and was stepping up security at the house she shares with her fiancé, Graham Quinn, who was away on business at the time.

He said: "Myleene was aghast when she was told that the law did not allow her to defend herself in her own home. All she did was scream loudly and wave the knife to try and frighten them off.

"She is not looking to be a vigilante, and has the utmost respect for the law, but when the police explained to her that even if you're at home alone and you have an intruder, you are not allowed to protect yourself, she was bemused.

"Her questions going forward are: what are my rights, and what are you actually allowed to do to defend yourself in your own house?"

When I lived in Manchester in the mid-90s as a student there was lots of crime and students were often the victims. I myself was mugged at one point and I knew lots of other students whose houses were broken into (including one that I had lived in although after I had left for the summer), sometimes terrifyingly when the people were in. Indeed one friend of mine was tied up and kept prisoner along with some of her housemates whilst the thieves ransacked the house for several hours and they went out to use their cash-cards to withdraw money. To be honest I never felt particularly safe in any of the places I lived whilst I was there.

There was an incident in the house I lived in in my third year which reminds me of the Klass incident. I was not in the house at the time but one of my housemates was and he told me what happened when I got home. He had been home alone when he heard the doorbell ring. However it was not a normal ring, it was someone continuously holding down the doorbell. Instantly fearing something untoward was happening, he picked up the biggest kitchen knife he could find and went out into the hallway. There was a large and menacing looking bloke staring through the glass whilst still holding down the bell. My housemate was a reasonably well built chap himself and he looked at the man through the glass who continued staring and holding down the bell. It was obvious to my housemate that this bloke was up to no good. He sat on the stairs facing the door holding the knife and staring at him. He continued to hold down the bell for a little while but in the end he stopped and walked away. My housemate stayed at the bottom of the stairs with the knife for quite a while until he was fairly sure that the bloke was not going to come back.

Now when I heard this story later on I was pretty disturbed. I don't know for definite what would have happened if my housemate had opened the door but I can take a pretty good guess given what had happened to so many of our fellow students in this sort of situation. So I think what he did was actually very brave. Not least because if the bloke had forced entry he then would have had to take a decision about what to do next. As it was, I suspect he walked away in the hope of finding easier pickings where there was not someone willing to defend their home with a knife. So in other words, the fact that he was willing to defend our home probably prevented a burglary or worse. And that would seem to be the case with Myleene Klass too.

From what I have read about the Klass case so far, if it is true then I think what she did was right in that same way as I think what my housemate did was right. We should be able to defend our own property and posessions. Indeed, I have seen on many occasions the police and politicians claim that we are entitled to do this. I remember a few years ago on a TV discussion programme a senior police officer was being interviewed and he was given a number of scenarios of increasing extremity regarding someone defending themselves against an intruder in their own home and in each case he stated categorically that the measures suggested would be fine. I am certain that had he been given the Klass scenario or the other one I have highlighted here that he would have said they were acceptable measures too.

There will doubtless be further questions now about the law and whether it needs to be changed. I suspect that what is actually needed is just for the public and perhaps as importantly the police to be more clear. We should be allowed to defend our homes against intruders and I think the law as it stands currently allows for this. It's just that comments like this from the police allow the water to be muddied.

I hope the police are able to clarify this ASAP.

The "House of Comments" podcast has moved house

We have had to move the URL for the "House of Comments" podcast to If you want to know the details of why this has happened, Stu has a detailed explanation on his blog. Because of the way iTunes works, your old subscription will now not update any more so you will need to resubscribe. You can do this very easily via this link. Apologies for any inconvenience.

For the uninitiated, it is a podcast hosted by me and Stuart Sharpe of the politically unaligned "Sharpe's Opinion" blog. Every week we also feature one or two other political bloggers and we cover various stories that have been making waves in the blogosphere during the previous week. The format is a fairly relaxed open chat. We have done 9 main episodes so far since October last year.

So if you haven't listened to it before, why not subscribe now? You can have a listen to old episodes and will be all cued up ready for future ones. And if you have listened before, why not recommend it to a friend? You know it makes sense!

Saturday, 9 January 2010

What if Iain Dale's prediction was right?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Iain Dale has done a fun (and presumably very time consuming exercise) where he has gone through every individual seat in the country and made a prediction about who he thinks will win based on gut feel in each case. He says that the overall result surprised him:

Conservative 331
Labour 216
LibDem 69
Plaid Cymru 5
Green 1
Others 3
Northern Ireland 18*

Which would give the Conservatives an overall majority of just 12 seats.

Various posters on Political Betting question some of Iain's assumptions, the main one being that they think he has overestimated the number of Lib Dem seats, perhaps due to his own personal experience in North Norfolk against Norman Lamb in 2005.

Anyway, I thought it might be interesting to think through what an election result like this might mean for the parliament that ensued. I think there would be several main effects:

1) I do not think that David Cameron would go to the country again soon afterwards. Although a majority of 12 is very small, it is a majority. Technically he would be able to govern with no assistance needed from any other party (assuming his backbenchers hold the line!). It would be a very brave Prime Minister who gave that up in the hope of something better when it could instead be snatched away from him altogether. However...

2) Because he would have such a small majority he would have to listen to the views of his backbenchers much more keenly than the Labour government has needed to. It would be the sort of situation that I remember from the dying years of the Major government. Because there is quite a sharp divergence between some of the Conservative leadership's policies and its MPs (e.g. on climate change and Europe for example) this could start causing problems very quickly. I can imagine that Mr Cameron might even need the support of the Lib Dems and even Labour in order to get some of his measures through.

3) Related to point number 2, although the Lib Dems would only have increased slightly in number of seats, they would have greatly increased influence because of the arithmetic of the parliament. Cameron, knowing that he may need support from outside his own parliamentary ranks would likely take account of the views of the Lib Dems when drafting legislation.

4) Because some of the decisions that Cameron would have to take would be pretty unpopular (on the economy etc.) it is likely that any by-elections triggered in existing Conservative seats could easily be lost. It would only take 6 or 7 of these before his administration would become a minority one. That is perfectly possible - indeed it happened to John Major (although some of his loss of majority was due to defections which are much less likely).

5) This would make the subsequent general election in 2014 or 2015 all to play for. Because of this, I would expect that the Labour Party would not tear itself apart in opposition as the possibility of a return to power in 4 or 5 years time would be very real and this would focus their minds. One of the reasons that the Conservative Party was such a basket case from 1997 onwards is because they were so far from a return to power and they knew it.

6) Finally, I would suggest that whilst the Labour leader would not be Gordon Brown within a few months of the election, the Lib Dem leader would remain Nick Clegg right through the parliament. Having increased his party's share of seats, this would cement his (already pretty secure) position.

As it happens, I also think Iain is overstating the Lib Dem total (I think our vote share will remain about the same as 2005 but our seat number will slip slightly) but I actually think Labour will hold up better than he thinks too and as I stated in my 2010 predictions, Cameron will form a minority government.

This is all good speculative fun of which I expect much more as we move ever closer to the election.

Congratulations to Daisy Benson - Lib Dem PPC for Reading West

I just wanted to say a huge congratulations to Daisy Benson who was selected as the Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate for Reading West in a selection hustings last night.

Daisy regularly tops the list of the most hard-working councillors in the borough, in fact you only have to look at the top few posts she has done on the Redlands Lib Dem blog to see how much she has been doing in the last few days alone during the cold weather. I am sure she will apply the same dedication and tenacity to trying to with the seat for the Lib Dems.

I wish Daisy the best of luck and I am sure she would appreciate any help that anyone who lives locally (or further afield) can offer in the run up to the election.

Friday, 8 January 2010

Labour's internal democracy could bite some ministers after the election

Paul Waugh has a very interesting piece just published on his blog reminding us that when Labour is in opposition, the Shadow Cabinet is elected by the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Apparently, people like David Miliband and Douglas Alexander might struggle to get the votes to remain a member of the Shadow Cabinet should Labour lose the next election. It could also lead to some interesting appointments such as Jon Cruddas and perhaps others currently languishing on the back benches.

It's one of those things that I expect Blair and Brown intended to change at some point (given their centralising and controlling tendencies) but given that neither of them expected to be Leader of the Opposition after 1997 it was probably way down the list of priorities.

I think it is a good thing for the democracy of their party and I wonder what the effect might have been if these rules also applied to the Cabinet when the party is in government.

Frozen Britain picture taken from space

I have seen this fascinating picture on the TV and on various websites in the last 24 hours. I think it is going to become one of those iconic images that sums up an entire news event, in this case it being the weather in January 2010 in the UK.

It was apparently taken by NASA's Terra satellite and shows the entire country covered in snow.

Thursday, 7 January 2010

Cross-post: Prohibition is a cowardly, immoral idiocy that we can not afford

This piece is by Ewan Hoyle, founder and head of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform and is cross-posted from his blog Ewan's Liberal Musings:

It's motion submission season for the Spring conferences and this year the conference committee will have the opportunity to allow conference to debate drug policy reform for the first time since 2002.

In the last decade the drug-related death rate has doubled in Scotland, while in countries like Switzerland and Portugal death rates have fallen by half since they had the bravery to adopt heroin prescription and decriminalisation policies respectively. It is perfectly reasonable to conclude that British reluctance to engage with drug policy has caused hundreds of the most vulnerable, desperate Scots to die.

A great many more Britons will have encountered illegal crack and heroin dealers, developed a habit, and descended into shameful lives of theft, prostitution or be dealing drugs themselves, creating more desperate addicts to steal from us and fill our prisons.

We can stop these people piling misery upon our communities. Were the government to control and regulate the production, distribution and sale of drugs, existing addicts could be managed in such a way that theft, prostitution and dealing would be entirely unnecessary. If problem drug users were treated medically rather than abandoned to wreak havoc, we could potentially reduce domestic burglary by 80% and virtually eliminate street prostitution. A well controlled market could come close to eliminating the illegal market for all drugs, greatly diminishing the chances of children and teenagers encountering anyone who might seek to profit from luring them into that lifestyle.

Far from "people who have kids going "Oh God no, anything but that" " (an assumption of Anita Anand on the daily politics), they should recognise that control and regulation is the best way to keep drugs out of the hands of children. Illegal dealers don't ask for proof of age. Control and regulation might require everyone buying drugs to have a licence to buy that drug and might allow systems to be put in place that allow drugs found in the possession of children to be traced back to their purchaser to aid in prosecution. In Switzerland heroin prescription has been credited with giving heroin the status of "loser drug". Controlling and regulating drugs should not be seen as consumption being approved. Rather legalising should hopefully remove the rebellion from drug use and establish it as a behaviour that responds to medical treatment, a behaviour which occurs as a result of unhappiness and is a symptom of failure.

It is true that control and regulation cannot happen until reform or rejection of the UN drugs conventions. This should not mean that we should not hold it as our aspiration. Decriminalisation may encourage people to seek treatment and may vastly reduce unsafe drug use and drug-related death in Portugal, but in Mexico, Colombia, the Caribbean and many other regions people are dying in their thousands because of the billions of pounds to be made from trafficking from and through these countries to meet Western demand. The only way to eliminate the illegal market is for states to control and regulate legal markets. Britain can be the first to announce this as their intention, and the Liberal Democrats can be the first party to gain considerable electoral success from holding it as policy.

If we do nothing to hasten reform, we are morally responsible for all the crimes and the prostitution that drug users engage in to fund their habits and all the distress that criminality causes in our communities. We need to take responsibility for the millions of pounds the Taliban are raising from the opium trade, money they are spending on the bullets and bombs that murder our troops and the innocent civilians of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Britain can grow our own poppies. We don't need to allow our addicts to be funding Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. We don't need our "recreational drug users" to be funding the criminal drug gangs that terrorise our own streets either.

There are no other policies that will reduce spending while improving public health, reducing crime, creating jobs, increasing freedom and undermining international criminal gangs and terrorists.

This is a stunningly beautiful policy flower breaking through the snow, patiently waiting for the party smart enough to pick it and present it to the people.

The nearly final draft of the motion can be found on the Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform blog. If you are an elected rep and wish to support the motion's submission or you wish to propose the motion to your local party or SAO, please e-mail me at