Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Saturday, 29 May 2010

I am so angry about David Laws having to resign

I know people will think I am saying what I am about to say because I am a Lib Dem but I would be saying this if David Laws was a member of any party. I did have a fairly hard line on some of the MPs who were guilty of the worst excesses regarding the expenses regime last year. However I was only hard on those MPs who I felt had clearly tried to play the expenses system to their financial advantage.

In the case of David Laws it is now abundantly clear to me that all he was trying to do was retain his privacy regarding his sexuality. He was in a very difficult position once the rules changed in 2006 about partners and if he had just stopped claiming, as Charlotte Gore blogged earlier today he would have been effectively outing himself. His breach was a technicality and if he had followed the rules it would likely have cost the taxpayer more money. As Mark Pack has just said on BBC News, it could be the first expenses scandal case where an MP has got into trouble for claiming less than he was entitled to.

The media and Laws' political opponents have now got their ministerial head. I hope they are pleased that such a bright and talented minister has been forced from office for what Matthew Parris has just called a "ridiculously trivial" matter. David's resignation statement was extremely dignified and I defy anyone watching it to not have been moved by his integrity.

I am slightly worried about the tenor of the closing remarks in his on camera statement. I can't find a link at the moment to it but the comments were about having neglected the people closest to him and needing to decide the best thing for the constituents of Yeovil. I hope I am misinterpreting this but it sounded a bit like he might be considering standing down as an MP altogether. Frankly after everything that has happened I would not blame him but I really hope he is not planning to do that and that he takes some time out now to reflect.

Hopefully he will remain an MP and return to government at some point in the future like the Prime Minister and Deputy Prime Minister have expressed that they would like.

David Laws should not resign

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The story that broke last night about David Laws and his £40,000 claim
for rental of a room from his lover is reverberating around the
blogosphere today.

My initial thoughts last night were that he should not resign and that
this seems more like a technical breach basically forced upon him
because he is gay and wanted that information to remain private. I
argued this strongly on the paper review on 5 Live yesterday. Having
slept on it I am even more convinced of this.

I don't have much time this morning but Sara Bedford has said
everything I was thinking in detail in a great post here:

Friday, 28 May 2010

Case that sparked mephedrone panic didn't involve mephedrone

It is now being reported that in the tragic case of Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith, two teenagers who died back in March, neither of them had taken the now banned (but then legal) drug mephedrone.

The case kicked off a media panic about the drug when it was rumoured that they had taken it. The political furore that then ensued ultimately led to the banning of the drug just before the General Election.

There have also been other cases where initial reports have suggested the drug was involved only for it later to turn out not to have been the case. This is one of the reasons why many at the time were pleading for more time for the ACMD to reach its decision about the drug - they needed more and more accurate information.

Eric Carlin, a former member of the ACMD who resigned in protest at how political pressure was being applied regarding mephedrone has said that the decision to ban the drug should be "revisited" in light of the findings, and the "public health consequences" of the ban needed to be considered. he went on to say:

"The fact these two people died and it's not actually connected with mephedrone just emphasises the fact that we were under a lot of pressure to ban this drug and these cases were actually cited as being examples of why that was necessary."

In fact there has only been one case so far in the UK where mephedrone has been established as the cause of death.

This latest revelation about the March cases underlines how important it is for government policy to be based on evidence and not media panic stories.

We can but hope that the new administration is more circumspect in its approach the next time there are a rush of unproven stories about one particular drug.

BBC Question Time Alistair Campbell debacle

The decision by the government to refuse to allow any cabinet minister onto BBC Question Time yesterday has generated a fair bit of comment today.

I had a bit of a debate with a couple of people on Twitter earlier but quickly realised that I was not going to be able to easily express my view in 140 characters.

Firstly, I should say that I think whatever the situation, for the government to refuse to allow a cabinet minister onto the show is a mistake. It looks evasive and even in some ways potentially weak. This is compounded by the fact that it is the week of the first Queen's Speech of the coalition. Surely in this of all weeks a high ranking government representative should be on the nations foremost political debating show to promote and defend its policies?

The reasons given for not allowing a minister on were two-fold. Firstly they were not happy about the fact that Alistair Campbell was on (along with Piers Morgan) effectively representing the Labour Party. Although Campbell was very close to both Blair and Brown and wielded significant power in their respective governments, he is not actually an official Labour spokesman and had never been elected to office on that basis either and now is not even an adviser. He has a certain level of removal from the whole process which he can deploy, after all he is just giving his personal opinion. There is something a bit asymmetric about this situation where he can attack the government but not have to defend the Labour party. the second reason was that the BBC has asked John Redwood to be a guest. I guess the suspicion was that they would try to find differences between Redwood and whoever the government minister was. In fact it has been slated to be David Laws. The crazy thing is though that I am certain Laws would have more than held his own even in this situation.

The government are going to have to get used to this new arrangement regarding the media and accept that sometimes backbench coalition MPs might be on the same platform as a minister. And yes, perhaps chinks of light will be exposed but that's just something we will have to learn to cope with, both government and the media. Perhaps it may even, horror of horrors result in a slightly more grown-up discourse where genuinely held differences can be debated more openly.

The bottom line is that the government needs to do better than they did yesterday.

Thursday, 27 May 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 27th May 2010 - #bbcqt

It's #bbcqt day again and the Live Chat starts on this blog from 10:30pm as normal. I will be in the hosting chair.

David Dimbleby will be joined by the Conservative MP and former Welsh Secretary John Redwood and the Liberal Democrat Susan Kramer who lost her Richmond Park seat in the recent general election.

Tony Blair's former Director of Communications and Strategy Alastair Campbell and the former newspaper editor Piers Morgan will also be on the panel together with the journalist and historian Sir Max Hastings.

Join us below from 10:30pm:

Other Reckonings - 27th May 2010

  • Caron confesses to having iPad envy.
  • Lib Dem Voice reports on Tim Farron's bid for the Lib Dem deputy leadership - I think Tim would be brilliant in that role.
  • High praise for Iain Duncan Smith from an unlikely source - Labour blogger Hopi Sen.
  • And a second happy blog birthday to Tory MP and blogger Douglas Carswell. Given how many of his (and Daniel Hannan's) ideas seem to have ended up as government policy he must feel like every day is his birthday at the moment!

Thursday bonus is David Laws' masterful performance at the dispatch box this week dealing with the spending cuts debate. It's like he was born to be a minister!

The sense of entitlement of some MPs

The new body responsible for administering MPs' expenses (the IPSA) has come in for some stick recently from MPs themselves recently. It seems that some MPs are having trouble adjusting to the new regime following the expenses scandal last year.

Now I am not one of those people who think all MPs are "at it". I believe lots of them are trying to do a good job in often difficult circumstances and that they generally work hard. However one of the things that last year's scandal threw up was the sense of entitlement that some MPs seem to have (see duck houses, manure, flipping etc. etc). And whilst many of the excesses of the former system are now gone, this sense of entitlement sadly seems to be perpetuating amongst some.

This report from The Guardian recently has a number of unattributed quotes from MPs referring to the new rules which really do not reflect well on them. I have listed a couple of examples below along with my thoughts:

The requirements for payment of expenses are too stringent. If an MP wants to claim for the travel expenses from the constituency to Westminster of their spouse or civil partner, they must produce their marriage or civil partnership certificate. If they want to claim travel expenses for a child (under the age of 16 and in full time education) they must produc the original birth certificate. This is what the rules say:

Prior to any reimbursements of this nature taking place, MPs wishing to claim for this will need to submit a completed application form via the online expenses system.

To support this pre-approval, they will need to provide the original certificate of marriage, civil partnership, or utility bill to prove co-habitation.

Evidence for travel for will be the same as for MPs, based on the mode of transport.

One minister is furious:

"For Christ's sake, what has happened if this bloody authority doesn't believe me when I say my wife is my wife? A utility bill to prove co-habitation? Good God."

The minister clearly has no idea how the real world works these days. The rest of us regularly have to waste hours of our lives filling in forms and showing evidence of our identity and marital status etc. in order to get services we are entitled to from governments/councils etc. or even to do things like opening a bank account thanks to their laws. A friend of mine recently had to take half a morning off work to go to an embassy in London to prove in person that his signature was actually his signature. This is the sort of thing we have been putting up with for years and if MPs now have to suffer similar indignities then good quite frankly. Perhaps it will make them think twice before heaping even more bureaucracy on the rest of us in future.

Taxis home can only be claimed after 11pm. One woman MP says:

"What happens on a January night in London? I suppose I will have to take the tube, then a bus and then a long walk home. That is not safe."

MPs are resigned to the fact that there is nothing they can do. They have completely lost the trust of the public which is no mood to tolerate any easing of the rules.

One MP said:

"We just have to accept this because the public is not with us. It will take something really horrendous, such as a woman MP being stabbed on the streets of London because she is not entitled to take a taxi home late at night, before people wake up and realise how unfair this is."

That any MP could say this even in an off-the-record briefing frankly beggars belief. Of course we don't want to see MPs being mugged or stabbed on the way home but they earn over £65,000 per year! If they want to get taxis home they should pay for it themselves. Why should taxpayers be forced to subsidise this very expensive way of getting home? How many of the rest of us are entitled to free taxis to get us around?

It is also worth making the point that if the streets are not safe enough for MPs to walk home then what the hell have all the crime bills of the last few decades been about? It doesn't say much for MPs' confidence in that area of policy that some of them are so terrified of being exposed to the real world.

And I think that last point actually sums up the problem. For far too long MPs have been insulated from the consequences of their policies. There were exemptions for MPs from rules that the rest of us have been subject to for decades. That is exactly what so infuriated people last year when the expenses scandal exploded. There was one rule for MPs and another rule for everyone else. It is clear that some MPs think this should still be the case.

Well it won't wash. The sooner MPs accept this and stop their off-the-record whining the better. If they have a problem with the new rules they should come out into the open and argue on the record.

Otherwise they should do themselves and their colleagues a favour and shut up.

Rupert Murdoch's baffling decision

It was announced earlier this week that The Times and Sunday Times online versions would, as indicated last year finally go behind a pay-wall next month. The price will be £1 per day or £2 per week for access to their content.

Now have a quick look at what I did above. I linked to The Times online story about the decision. You can click on that link and go straight through to it within a couple of seconds. Now imagine that it is behind a pay-wall. You'll click on it and will be faced with a demand for money. I expect most people will then not bother going any further. After all there are a plethora of places on the internet where you can read the story for free. In fact it is worse than that. Pretty quickly most people will not bother even linking to The Times online. What is the point when hardly anyone will want to click through the links?

I blogged about the future of newspapers last year and expanded on the above point a little:

The internet is built on links. The system it uses is called "Hypertext Transfer Protocol" (that's what the HTTP you see at the start of web pages means) and hypertext is the traditional name for these links. Google for example uses links between websites to determine their rankings. If you move content behind a pay-wall the first thing that will happen is that your traffic will drop severely. Culturally, the internet is now almost universally seen as a "free" medium and most people are not willing to pay anything at all for content. The second thing that will happen is that people will stop linking to you. At the moment, The Times and The Sun are linked to from all over the place on the web. Once the content can only be accessed through payments, there will be little point in linking to it any more. This will then become a downward spiral as you fall down the rankings of search engines like Google, thus less people know about you, hence less future subscribers.

At the same time as all of this is going on, blogs will be reporting about issues and giving opinion and content to the world for free. Services like Twitter will be used by millions to communicate with each other, indeed it is already rivalling news services as a means of breaking stories (I found out about the death of Michael Jackson for example on Twitter before the BBC had even reported it).

I did a talk on this subject at an Editorial Intelligence event too last year where I explained my views set out in the blog post linked to above. Some of the responses from the audience suggested that I was very wrong and that I should wait and see what Murdoch came up with. He is after all a business genius and was likely to come up with something very clever that finally cracks the problem of paid for content.

I was sceptical but took the point and hence awaited the announcement. And what have we got? About as crude a pay mechanism as I can think of. All content moved behind a pay-wall with a fixed fee of £1 per day (about the same as you would pay for a physical copy of the paper) or £2 per week. OK so there is a bit of discounting for the weekly one but it is still hopelessly unimaginative. There are thousands of news outlets online. Why will people pay Murdoch for access to his when there are so many others available for nothing? He is trying to dictate terms in a game where he now holds none of the cards.

Also, from what I can tell the content is very similar to what we have had with Times online up until now. No great new innovative ideas about how to present the content with mobile apps or easy integration with RSS aggregators etc. Just plain old vanilla online news. At £1 a pop.

Just think about what he could have done though. Imagine if the announcement had been something like this:

Subscribe to Times Online for two years and we will give you a free Apple iPad. There will be a custom designed Times online application pre-installed on the unit which receives push-updates so you will always have the latest Times online on a portable device.

Imagine what a game changer something like that could have been. They could have negotiated a really good deal with Apple who in turn would have seen sales of their new slate go even higher than they had been planning for. It would be a gamble but it would be a truly innovative attempt to shake up the paid for online model. You can then imagine other newspapers teaming up with other mobile device providers.

I predict that within a year or two this attempt to charge people for content will be widely seen as a failure and either the model being used will be comprehensively overhauled or perhaps more likely just abandoned as the pay-wall is brought down.

I hope Murdoch's competitors realise that they will have to do much better than this if they want to retain any sort of online audience.

Wednesday, 26 May 2010

Turkeys might just vote for a deferred Christmas

It is a relatively exciting time to be an electoral reformer. The one major party that has always supported reform is actually in government. We know we are going to get a referendum on changing the voting system for the Commons, albeit only to Alternative Vote but many reformers think that would be a step in the right direction. Politically it was the only possible option and an acceptance of that seems to be sinking in. The fight will now be to win the referendum as a staging post for something better and much more proportional later once people are used to preferential voting.

But another thing should be taken into account. As I blogged about yesterday, even under First Past the Post, hung parliaments are more likely these days. Under AV I think they would be even more likely because although it is not proportional, it will tend to favour the Lib Dems more than FPTP does. So if AV passes we can expect similar situations to that we were faced with on May 7th 2010 ever more frequently.

And this brings me to this crux of this post. What will the Lib Dems do next time they find themselves in hung parliament negotiations? This time as I said it was a political impossibility to get PR on the table from either of the parties. Even if Labour + Lib Dem had just pushed us over the magic 326 number there are far too many Labour MPs who would never vote for even a referendum on PR and almost all Tories would be against too.

I think that if we ever want to get PR we need to be more pragmatic about it. What I am about to suggest I am sure has some problems, indeed I can think of a couple straight away. However I think that something like it might be necessary if we are ever to get proper reform.

Some MPs who are against PR are against it in principle. They think it would be bad for the country. That is fair enough and although I will strongly argue against those who think that they are unlikely to change their view. There are however some MPs who I think could be persuaded except for one thing. If PR came in they may well lose their job. It's the old "Turkeys never vote for Christmas" argument. I can completely understand this by the way. Most people would find it difficult to vote for something that may threaten their job. So we need to do something to mitigate this threat and allow MPs who fall into this category to put those fears to one side and vote on the principle.

My idea is to make it so that any change to the voting system to a proportional system would be delayed by 10 or 15 years from the date of a referendum. On this sort of time-frame many of the MPs who may be persuadable of the positive benefits of a more proportional system but who worry about being out of a job in 2 or 3 years time would find it much easier to allow a referendum.

There may actually be some arguments for implementation of any positive referendum result to be deferred anyway. For example if we have only just changed to AV then making any further change probably should be deferred for a while. Also, there could be other constitutional changes being implemented in the next few years such as a reformed and elected House of Lords which could even be under PR itself. Those other changes may also need to bed in too.

Like I said, I know this proposal is not without its problems. I understand the issues about binding a successor parliament and about how a future parliament could reverse the decision or even just refuse to implement the result of the referendum. I am sure there are other problems too.

But the more I think about it, the more I am convinced that without some pragmatic move like this we will struggle to ever get PR for the Commons. The votes just won't be there.

Turkeys however may just vote for Christmas if it is far enough into the future that it would not affect them very much anyway.

Tuesday, 25 May 2010

Other Reckonings - 25th May 2010

  • Charlotte Gore seems to have a problem with Ikea tables.
  • Lib Dem Voice have details of the 23 Lib Dem policies that have made it into The Queen's Speech. Or 22 if you discount the referendum on AV which was not actually Lib Dem policy, but still, 22 aint bad for a kick-off.
  • The Fink wonders why some Labour leadership candidates are holding back with their nominations and I am inclined to agree. Have they not heard of the Big Mo!?
  • Alix Mortimer has a suggestion for a future attendee at Lib Dem Conference which I second.

Tuesday bonus: Whilst I was working today I was listening to some music on Spotify and one of the tracks I heard reminded me of this gem from a couple of years ago which is a version of Aha's "Take on me" with the lyrics changed to match exactly what is happening in the classic but when you actually watch it, rather bizarre video. Enjoy:

Hung parliaments are now more likely than ever

Fascinating bit of research here from top psephologist John Curtice who makes the point that hung parliaments are now quite likely to keep happening, even under First Past the Post.

He cites three preconditions for FPTP to be able to regularly deliver overall majorities:

If first past the post is to be a reliable instrument for delivering single party majority government to whoever comes first in votes, three conditions have to hold. First, the system should dissuade most voters from backing third parties on the grounds that doing so constitutes a wasted vote. Moreover, when votes are cast for third parties they should indeed receive little reward in terms of seats.

Second there needs to be plenty of seats that are marginal between the two main parties so that when the nation swings a point or so in one direction of the other, many seats change hands. That way, even a party with a relatively small lead in votes should still be able to establish a clear lead in seats.

Third, the system needs to treat the two largest parties equitably. If one of those parties would secure an overall majority of, say, 30 seats if it had a two point lead over the other in votes, then the same should be true of the other party if it had a similar lead. Otherwise the system could deliver a majority to the wrong winner.

None of these conditions now hold with sufficient force to ensure that hung parliaments could not become a regular feature in Britain even if the first past the post system were to be retained.

He then goes on to explain how those preconditions no longer hold. It's well worth reading the full article for the details underpinning this but he concludes:

...the system can no longer be relied upon to give either Labour or the Conservatives an overall majority if they only have a narrow lead in votes. Meanwhile the Conservatives cannot secure a majority even if they secure quite a substantial lead — such as the seven point lead they obtained on 6 May.

Doubtless those who campaign in the forthcoming referendum against switching from first past the post to the alternative vote will do so on the grounds that the change would make hung parliaments more likely. That is undoubtedly true. The only problem is we are likely to be stuck with them in future anyway.

I think what is fascinating about Professor Curtice's final point is how it may well undermine one of the major planks of opposition to proportional electoral reform, never mind AV. Even defenders of FPTP will often concede some of the major drawbacks but then counter with the crucial "fact" that it produces overall majorities. Earlier this month that was shown not to be the case and the research above shows that that is probably not a freak occurrence but instead a likely regular feature in future elections.

The proponents of change can quite credibly claim that if we are going to have hung parliaments anyway then we might as well have a fairer system.

I await the counter arguments to this with interest.

Hattip to John Rentoul for drawing my attention the the research.

Freedom juxtaposition

One the day when The Queen announced the following bill during the opening of parliament:

Freedom (Great Repeal) Bill

Will limit the amount of time that DNA profiles of innocent people can be held on national database. Will tighten regulation on the use of CCTV cameras, remove limits on right to peaceful protest. The storage of DNA is a power devolved to the Scottish Parliament. The Bill would adopt the Scottish model.

The following happened:

Parliament Square anti-war protester Brian Haw arrested

Parliament Square protester Brian Haw has been arrested for obstructing police during searches of tents on the green.

Anti-war campaigner Mr Haw, who has been camping there since 2001, was held as police searched the "peace camp".

Another protester Barbara Tucker, who has also been camping outside the Houses of Parliament, was arrested.

Now is it just me, or does there seem to be a slightly odd juxtaposition going on here? The police going in and arresting people who are peacefully protesting on a piece of ground opposite the Houses of Parliament whilst almost at the same time the government is proclaiming it will improve civil liberties and remove limits on rights to peaceful protest seems a bit jarring.

I hope Brian, Barbara and anyone else arrested are released soon and allowed to go back to protesting their cause peacefully.

Will the government regret publishing all expenditure above £25K?

The idea of publishing all government expenditure that is more than £25,000 by the Conservatives has been their policy for a while now and it has been confirmed following yesterday's spending cut announcements.

Nick Robinson on BBC News yesterday suggested that it could be a clever move ensuring that the public can go line-by-line through government expenditure and flag up clearly wasteful spending which would then be a target for cuts presumably backed by the same public that flagged it up in the first place.

I am not so sure.

Firstly, what criteria are they using to break down the totals? Are we going to have a situation where some departments (cleverly) break things down into separate chunks and hence have lots of things that come in under the £25,000 limit? Maybe there will be rules to avoid this but if so expect extra bureaucracy to control this hence costing more straight away.

Secondly, what level of granularity are we going to have on the list? Are we just going to have a 7 word description and no way of being able to drill down to see the detail of what the headline expenditure actually means? Without detail it will be a difficult task for members of the public to make a value judgement on individual expenditure. Maybe departments will be made to provide the detail for each item but again, if this happens expect extra costs to be incurred in doing this across all departments.

But finally, and probably most importantly, what criteria will be used to decide which items are too expensive and should be cut? I can certainly imagine some media organisations or highly motivated individuals/groups launching campaigns on the back of some of the revelations to insist that certain items of spending be trimmed. The question is how equitable will this be? Just because a vocal minority kick off about some items of spending does not necessarily mean it is the best thing to cut them. So perhaps it will be balanced out to an extent by other groups arguing to retain the spending. But what about the items of spending that don't have highly motivated pressure groups to defend them?

Related to this, from the government's perspective what about expenditure that is necessary to fulfil its programme? I can imagine a situation where the government spends half its time on the media defending individual spending items and having to cope with "couldn't you reduce it by 5% minister? 10%?".

Now all of this may be a good thing. I am certainly in favour of more transparency and knowing more about how our money is spent. I expect some areas of waste will be identified and we may end up making considerable savings because of it. I just think there could be some downsides too that have perhaps not been fully thought through and that in the short term this measure could even cost us money. Imagine the irony of a department publishing an item of over £25,000 for "Production of public list of expenditure items over £25,000"! The press would have a field day.

I hope after inevitable teething problems that this measure will be seen as a good thing. I like the fact that the government is willing to trust us with this information. Now we need to prove that we can handle it responsibly.

Monday, 24 May 2010

Other Reckonings - 24th May 2010

  • Guy Shrubsole on Left Foot Forward talks up the economic benefits of renewable energy.
  • Matt Wardman decides to launch his own version of Orange's digital campaign awards.
  • Paul Waugh reports on the increasingly ridiculous behaviour of Mid-Narnia MP Nadine Dorries. Now she refuses to shake the Speaker's hand at her swearing in ceremony.
  • Mike Smithson on Political Betting asks how long the current government can go on blaming the previous Labour government. Well, I would suggest if the previous Labour government is any yardstick looking at how long they continued to blame the previous Tory administration, at least 13 years.
  • Cruella writes about the new Marie Stopes abortion advert and a recent experience debating the subject on the radio.

Monday Bonus: In the wake of the end of "Ashes to Ashes" (stunning final episode by the way, never saw that coming) I thought it was appropriate to link to 5 Childhood Heroes from the 80s That Let Me Down from

Andrew Wakefield is not the only guilty one

The news today that Dr Andrew Wakefield (the doctor who suggested there was a link between the MMR triple-jab and autism) has been struck off the medical register having been found guilty of serious professional misconduct will be welcomed by many people who value a proper evidence base for medical decisions. His research was hopelessly flawed in a number of ways and the consequences that have flowed from it in terms of unneccessary (sometimes very severe) measles cases and loss of herd immunity in some areas are still reverberating now.

However Dr Wakefield is not the only one who is culpable for causing this problem. As least as guilty if not more so are those in the media who perpetuated the scare stories long after it became clear that Wakefield's evidence was flawed. All those journalists who published stories containing anecdotal "evidence" that suggested Wakefield was right and those columnists who used their national voice to imply that there was some sort of cover up by the medical establishment going on, some of whom still persist with this even today should also take their share of the blame.

I hope that all of them will now feel moved to publish apologies for the misleading and damaging things that they have written over the years. They are the first to insist people from other walks of life apologise and/or resign when they get something wrong. The same standards should apply to them.

I won't hold my breath though.

These cuts had to happen now

George Osborne and David Laws today have announced £6.24 billion in spending cuts to be implemented imminently. The cuts cover:

• £1.15bn in "discretionary" areas such as consultancy and travel costs
• £95m through savings in IT spending
• £1.7bn will be saved in delaying or stopping government contracts and projects
• Reductions in property costs will save £170m
• More than £120m expected to be found through a freeze in civil service recruitment
• £600m by cutting the cost of quangos
• £520m will be saved through other low-value spending

Our deficit this year is £167 billion or around a quarter of government spending so these cuts comprise around 1% of all spending. I run my own business and I am sure that if we approached the bank for an overdraft to cover a quarter of our turnover the bank would expect us to make cost reductions as part of the deal. In fact I am sure they would expect us to make much more than 1% savings.

I know that the national economy cannot be directly compared with a business due to its scale and various knock-on effects at a macro level but even so with such a huge deficit and with the problems in Greece and other European countries potentially spreading the problem is acute. We need to start tackling it now.

I am glad to see the new government doing so. It bodes well for the reductions that will need to be made in future years to get our economy back on track.

The Lib Dem "support melting away" problem

Mike Smithson has a good post on Political Betting this morning where he highlights the final 12 polls of the election campaign (you know, the ones that all massively overstated the final support for the Lib Dems).

In the post, Mike suggests that the Lib Dem vote may have "melted away" as large numbers of people changed their mind on the day itself. This would suggest that the polls may not have actually been wrong. Many of them did pick up on this volalitity in the underlying data and I recall being worried about it myself as to how soft the Lib Dem vote was.

The post also quotes former pollster Robert Walter:

“..Essentially the view is that the campaign polls were not wrong, but when confronted with an actual choice of government on the day, voters turned away from the ‘lighter’ alternative stimulated by Clegg and the debates, to make a very serious decision between the two main contending parties about who to trust to govern for the ensuing years.

This view, which is not unknown on academic circles, has always struck me as valid. Voting is not a consumer choice between packets of cornflakes, more like choosing professionals to represent over a long period of time."

This also rings true. Both Labour and the Tories repeatedly made the point "The Lib Dems can't win" during the election campaign and the fact that the party had not held power for 65 years played to the age old narrative that a vote for the Lib Dems is wasted.

The fascinating thing about the next election however will be whether this sort of effect will work any more. I suspect not. The fact that the Lib Dems will have been in power will I expect have all sorts of other effects, some good, some bad. For example there will be a record to defend, a detailed job of communicating to people which parts of the programme were from our manifesto, making sure we are seen as distinct from the Tories, rebutting the claim that we propped them up etc. etc. etc. But one thing that will no longer be credible is the idea that there is no point in voting for the Lib Dems at a national level. That will clearly be untrue.

So although there may be all kinds of other consequences from the coalition for the pollsters to cope with, I suspect that this particular one may actually resolve itself.

Friday, 21 May 2010

Ed Balls all over the place

I was just listening to a clip of Eddie Mair's interview with Ed Balls from Wednesday's PM on John Pienaar podcast this week.

Eddie asked Balls a simple enough question, which of Gordon Brown's policies did he disagree with. After much pausing, dithering and hesitating he finally tried to offer some nuance about the Iraq war but Mair pressed him on specific policy issues. Balls could not come up with any.

This underlines the problem with candidates such as Ed Balls and David Miliband who are so closely associated with the government that was recently turfed out of office and is essentially discredited by the electorate now. How can they set out a distinctive vision that responds to the fact that the electorate has rejected their recent government programme but that does not sound like they are repudiating policies that just two weeks ago they were campaigning for? So far all we seem to have heard is wishy washy stuff about "listening" to the voters. Were they not listening before then?

The candidates in this position need to find a better way of responding to these sorts of questions and quickly. Otherwise their proximity to the heart of the previous government will fast be exposed as a reason not to vote for them.

Margaret Thatcher would have gone for this coalition

Various members of the Tory old guard such as Norman Tebbit have been railing against the coalition recently.

They can rail all they like but the glory days of the 1980s that they hark back to were very different from the 2010 situation that Cameron faced.

Margaret Thatcher had decent working majorities in all three of her general election victories. Even then though she demonstrated the sort of pragmatism needed to win and retain power. The 1979 manifesto was not exactly explicit about what she would do when she became Prime Minister and some of the radical steps she intended to take. She didn't want to frighten the horses before she had proven that she could be trusted with No 10. She also accommodated many of the Tory "wets" in her cabinet for a long time because she knew she needed to carry that wing of the party with her. As with all large political parties, it was a coalition in all but name.

I am certain that had Margaret Thatcher been faced with the election result that David Cameron had 2 weeks ago she would have pretty much done the same. She was all about getting and retaining power and the best way to have done that after the recent election was to make a serious offer to the Lib Dems. People like Norman Tebbit would not have liked it but if it was the difference between government or opposition he would have swallowed it.

Trying to compare the 2010 situation with the 1980s is like trying to compare apples with oranges.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 20th May 2010 - #bbcqt

It's #bbcqt day again and the Live Chat starts on this blog from 10:30pm as normal.

Once again Matt Raven has saved my bacon as I can't be around for the start of the chat tonight and he will be hosting. I will however try and join in later on.

The panel includes the new Home Secretary Theresa May, Labour's Caroline Flint and Ming Campbell for the Liberal Democrats. David Dimbleby will also be joined by the Director of Liberty Shami Chakrabarti and the journalist and writer Douglas Murray.

Join us below from 10:30pm:

The 2010 Committee

If I was an MP and member of a grouping that traditionally consisted of backbench MPs of my party and which was used as a way of gauging and communicating feeling on the backbenches to the party leadership, and then that grouping was bounced into accepting members of the party leadership as part of the committee thus rendering it much less effective then I might well consider my options.

Such as disbanding the grouping and then setting up a new one consisting of backbench MPs and with the same rules as the old one. Oh but with one extra rule.

No party leadership members allowed.

Just sayin'

Lib Dems are now first or second placed in nearly half of seats

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I have spent a bit of time crunching the numbers from the recent general election with a specific focus on the Lib Dem performance. There were certain things that I was interested in looking at regarding the progress made by the party.

Despite the fact that the overall vote share increased from 22.1% in 2005 to 23.0% (and increased in absolute numbers by 14%) in 2010 the number of seats we held dropped from 62 (as per the 2005 General Election, an extra one was won in a by-election during the parliament) to 57. It is interesting to note that according to my calculations the notional result for 2005 on the 2010 boundaries would however have been 61 so it looks like it was notionally a loss of 4 seats.

The thing I was most interested in looking at was in how many seats we are now second placed. I think this is a useful indication of progress as when we are trying to ultimately win a seat we often have to come from third (or worse) placed to second before we can then have a decent shot at taking the seat in a subsequent election. On the 2010 boundaries, in 2005 we were notionally in second place in 188 seats. In 2010 we were second placed in 242 seats. This is a pretty big leap in my view, an increase of 54 seats or more than 28%. If you combine the 2010 winning seat total with the number of second places you get to 299 so that is more than 47% of seats where we are now first or second placed (based on the 632 mainland seats so excluding Northern Ireland). This compares to 249 (on the notional 2010 boundaries) in the 2005 parliament which would have been less than 40% of seats where we were first or second placed. I think this is real, noteworthy progress. I guess it is not so surprising though when you consider that our absolute vote and vote share went up and yet our seat numbers went down. These extra votes had to go somewhere and it appears that they have bolstered our second placed positions considerably.

Something else that I was interested in is how many marginal seats we now have to go at compared to last time. Again using the 2010 notional boundaries, in 2005 there were 8 seats where the Lib Dems were second placed and the majority was less than or equal to 1,000. In 2010 there are 12 seats in this position. If you make the threshold 2,000 then in 2005 there were 10 seats but in 2010 there were 17.

I am sure there will be all sorts of analyses done on the figures in the coming weeks and months but I think that the details above show that once you get beyond the headline figures about loss of seats (and of course we should still have a proper inquest into what happened there) there is ample evidence that the Lib Dem performance in the 2010 election was better than it may seem.

I suspect candidates for the party in 2015 will be very grateful for this as it may have just made some of their tasks a bit more achievable.

"Vetting and barring scheme" - review promised by coalition

I am working my way through the coalition programme for government at the moment and have just noticed the following:

"We will review the criminal records and vetting and barring regime and scale it back to common sense levels"

Now of course this is quite vague on vetting and barring (a piece of legislation I have railed against in the past) but at least a promise of a review is there. I would like to know what form this review will take and whether the public will be allowed to input into it. If anything, I would suggest that this horrible piece of law could be a candidate for total repeal as one of the laws that the public may think should go.

Diane Abbott should not be dismissed so lightly

There has been much mirth on Twitter and elsewhere this morning at the news that Diane Abbott has decided to put herself forward as a candidate in the Labour leadership contest. It is clear that some see her as a joke candidate who has no hope of winning.

Perhaps we should first look to history though. Long serving female MP not given a chance by many in the commentariat throws her hat into the ring for a leadership bid. Sound familiar?
Margaret Thatcher was equally widely seen as not a credible candidate when she ran against Ted Heath for the Tory party leadership in 1975. Before a load of Tories jump down my throat for daring to compare the two, I know circumstances and personalities are very different but there are some striking similarities.

We can also look to much more recent history. In 2007, Harriet Harman was also seen as an unlikely winner in the Labour deputy leadership election. Indeed candidates like Alan Johnson, Peter Hain and Jon Cruddas were perceived as more likely to succeed. In the end, Harman won. It did go down to the last round of voting but that demonstrates how unpredictable Labour leadership contests can be - the leadership contest uses the same Alternative Vote method. If Abbott is the only really left wing candidate standing she could do much better than people are suggesting right now.

I would not put money on her winning. She is still clearly a long shot. However even just by being in the contest she will raise her profile and also ensure that some of the more left-wing issues that she cares about will be given a good airing. This is exactly what the Labour Party needs, to ensure that the debate at the highest level is as wide-ranging as possible.

Abbott's candidature really should not be so easily dismissed. It could make a big difference to how this contest plays out.

This is why I became a Lib Dem

Nick Clegg's speech yesterday on political reform ticked so many boxes for me that it is essentially a summation of many of the reasons why I became a Lib Dem in the first place; to argue for things like he talked about to be implemented.

Here are some of the highlights for me with my accompanying thoughts:

...sweeping legislation to restore the hard won liberties that have been taken, one by one, from the British people.
This government will end the culture of spying on its citizens.
It is outrageous that decent, law-abiding people are regularly treated as if they have something to hide.
It has to stop.
So there will be no ID card scheme.
No national identity register, a halt to second generation biometric passports.
We won’t hold your internet and email records when there is just no reason to do so.
CCTV will be properly regulated, as will the DNA database, with restrictions on the storage of innocent people’s DNA.
Britain must not be a country where our children grow up so used to their liberty being infringed that they accept it without question.
There will be no ContactPoint children’s database.
Schools will not take children’s fingerprints without even asking their parent’s consent.

This is fantastic stuff. Some of the most illiberal work of the last government is going to be unwound. One thing that seems to be missing from this list though is the "Vetting and Barring" scheme. I hope that it will be thrown into the mix too.

...we’ll remove limits on the rights to peaceful protest.
...we’ll review libel laws so that we can better protect freedom of speech.
And as we tear through the statute book, we’ll do something no government ever has:
We will ask you which laws you think should go.
Because thousands of criminal offences were created under the previous government…
Taking people’s freedom away didn’t make our streets safe.
Obsessive lawmaking simply makes criminals out of ordinary people.
So, we’ll get rid of the unnecessary laws, and once they’re gone, they won’t come back.

Again, lots of great ideas here. Asking people which laws should go is very interesting and could work very well although I would like to see more details of that. Also, the government should be prepared for a few unintended consequences there!

This government will replace the House of Lords with an elected second chamber…
Where members are elected by a proportional voting system.
There will be a committee charged specifically with making this happen…

Long, long overdue and it looks like it will finally happen. We just need to see a time-frame now and to make sure that the committee referenced does not just become another talking shop.

If your MP is corrupt, you will be able to sack them.
You will need the support of 10% of people living in the constituency…
And your MP will have had to have been found guilty of serious wrongdoing…
But it happens in Switzerland, in Canada, in 18 US states…
And it’s going to happen here.

Another long overdue and extremely welcome move. If I was Eric Illsley I would be very worried right now...

This government will be putting to you, in a referendum, the choice to introduce a new voting system, called the Alternative Vote.
Under that new system far more MPs will have to secure support from at least half the people who vote in their constituency…
And, hand in hand with that change, there will be new constituency boundaries, reducing the number of MPs overall and creating constituencies that are more equal in size.
David Cameron and I are very relaxed about the fact we may be arguing different cases in that referendum.
But my position is clear: the current voting system, First Past the Post, is a major block to lasting political change.
According to some estimates, over half the seats in the Commons are “safe”… giving hundreds of MPs jobs for life… meaning that millions of people see their votes go to waste.
Is it any surprise that, with a system like that, we end up with politicians who are seen to be out of touch with the people they serve?
New politics needs fairer votes.
This referendum will be our opportunity to start to make that happen.

It is no secret that this is not my ideal system for the Commons. However an AV referendum was all that was politically possible at the moment and Clegg is spot on about how FPTP is a block to lasting political change. It's also good to see him acknowledging the differences with the Prime Minister and then underlining what the Lib Dems will do.

...we are serious about giving councils much more power over the money they use, so they depend less on the whims of Whitehall, and can deliver the services and support their communities need.
We know that devolution of power is meaningless without money.

Again I would like to see more details but devolution of power more locally has to be the right way and is a touchstone issue for Lib Dems.

I’ll still be holding my town hall meetings, that I’ve been holding for the last two years, around the country, where you can come and ask me whatever you like.
The next one is actually in Sheffield on Friday.
As I lead the transformation of our political system, I want you to tell me how you want your politics to be.

Great to hear. It will be a good way of ensuring that he keeps in touch with what ordinary people think about how the government is progressing. That also puts pressure on David Cameron to continue with his "Cameron Direct" events.

All in all there are lots of goodies in that speech. The only thing we need to see now is some more flesh on the bones.

Wednesday, 19 May 2010

Labour is in danger of choosing the wrong leader for the wrong reasons

In the first few days of the new coalition there seemed to be what I
consider a rather lazy assumption often articulated by Labour
activists that the government can't last and will fall apart in a year
or 18 months. I have mentioned before how I think this as a risky
assumption but in the context of the Labour leadership election it
becomes even more so.

This is because of how the way the coalition government is perceived
could significantly affect the leader they choose.

I am not a great fan of David Miliband. I think he is too wonkish and
does not connect with ordinary people very well. However I do concede
that he is very experienced at the highest levels in government having
been one of Tony Blair's closest advisers in Downing Street and
subsequently a Cabinet Minister reaching the giddy heights of Foreign
Secretary. I also concede that because of this that of the 3 currently
declared candidates (him, his brother and Ed Balls) he appears the
most plausible Prime Ministerial candidate.

The problem is that is true right now. And if we were to have another
election in 2011 then it is possible that D Miliband would be best as
Labour's leader. Just. But if we assume the election will be in 4 or 5
years time then that no longer holds true. In that sort of timeframe
another contender such as E Miliband or even someone less well known
would have a long time to grow into the job. It would also mean it
would be much easier to break with the past. D Miliband is far too
implicated in the Blair and Brown governments to be credibly able to
appear as the change that is needed.

Labour would do well to look at what happened with the Conservatives
in 2005. Who had heard of David Cameron before he threw his hat into
the ring? He seemed to come almost from nowhere (as far as much of the
public were concerned) and was much more plausible as a change
candidate as a result. Would David Davis, member of the old guard (and
just like David Miliband the strong early favourite) have been as
effective in the role. I would suggest that it would have been very
difficult for him.

So the Labour electoral college should think carefully as to whether
they want to install their own member of the old guard or instead to
truly embrace change.

To make the best decision on that, they first have to accept the
likelihood that the coalition will run close to its full term.

Tuesday, 18 May 2010

House of Comments recording 26 - Listen Live from 8pm

We have started streaming the recording of the House of Comments podcast in the last few weeks. We will be doing so with the latest one from just after 8pm tonight. You can listen to it via the embedded player below:

Monday, 17 May 2010

Nominate your Lib Dem peers

Lib Dem Voice have a post today discussing the likelihood of the coalition nominating 172 peers, 95 of which would likely be Lib Dems.

I know there are strong arguments against doing this given our policy on the House of Lords and if it goes ahead as reported I expect it will only be a short term adjustment until the second chamber is elected. A fairly robust debate is ongoing on the post linked to above along these lines so if you want to discuss the merits or otherwise of doing this please go there.

However, here I thought we could just focus on which Lib Dems you would like to see in the House of Lords.

I'll start the ball rolling:

Sue Doughty: She is a remarkable campaigner who was MP for Guildford between 2001 and 2005. She fought valiantly to try and regain the seat from Anne Milton in the election this year but sadly it was not to be. She is missed in the Commons and I think her wealth of experience would be welcomed in the upper chamber.

Which Lib Dems do you think should be donning ermine imminently?

How will Nick Clegg handle reshuffles?

It is an exciting time in politics at the moment with the coalition and Lib Dems in government positions for the first time in decades. There are lots of Lib Dem MPs pleased to have been made ministers. Indeed I saw some of them at the special conference yesterday.

Amidst all the excitement though it is worth considering how the cabinet and ministerial situation for the Lib Dems is likely to work during the course of the parliament. I am particularly thinking of how reshuffles will work.

Let's start with the cabinet because I think that is where Clegg will have his biggest problems. I am going to assume that the Lib Dems will always have 5 slots available. It is possible that the exact cabinet positions may change but I think the total will remain static. So in say 2 years time when the government is looking to refresh things and move people around, as well as promote talent, what will Clegg be faced with? I can't imagine him demoting Vince Cable. He has been such a star in the last few years and is so beloved by the party that it would be a huge wrench for him to be pushed out of the cabinet. So what about Chris Huhne? Well Clegg only beat Huhne by a very slender 511 votes in 2007 to win the leadership. In fact at the time there were problems with postal votes not arriving in time and a suspicion that if they had have been counted the result may have been different. That's how close it was. To Huhne's credit he accepted the result without kicking up a fuss about this but would Clegg really want to take a cabinet position away from a man who has so much support within the party? Then we move on to David Laws. Laws has been deeply impressive recently. His work during the negotiations was widely praised as exemplary and he has now taken on the role of Chief Secretary to the Treasury at the helm of the difficult decisions about spending cuts. Will Clegg really want to reward him for his hard work and courage by kicking him out of the cabinet? That leaves Danny Alexander. Danny is probably the least well known of the 5 Lib Dem cabinet ministers. But he is Clegg's right hand man and one of his closest confidantes. It would be a very difficult decision personally for Clegg to remove him from the cabinet.

There will be similar problems for the other 15 or so Lib Dem ministers. However Clegg will have a bit more scope here as the numbers are higher and hence he will have more room for manouver.

The fundamental problem with the cabinet positions is that there are only 5 of them within his gift. In fact there are only 4 if you exclude Clegg's own position which I presume will not be up for grabs. When leaders have previously made reshuffle decisions they have had 20-odd cabinet positions to dish out. There is usually plenty of scope there for moving people around, in and out. Clegg is faced with a granularity problem. In most governments there are typically a hardcore of rock solid cabinet ministers who retain positions at that level for many years despite reshuffles. The current setup allows Clegg to do this but at the expense of promotion for anyone else from the Lib Dems to cabinet at all.

I guess in the end it will come down to performance. If any of the Lib Dem cabinet ministers are seen to have performed badly then their positions could be under threat. The big problem for Clegg will come if they all do pretty well. It will then seem churlish to demote any of them but there will be numerous high quality junior Lib Dem ministers looking for promotion too.

The last few days have seen numerous Lib Dem MPs with big smiles, happy to have been given unexpected ministerial positions. This is the easy bit for Clegg though. The difficulties will come later.

Sunday, 16 May 2010

Special Lib Dem conference on the coalition - review

I attended the Special Lib Dem conference in Birmingham's NEC today which was called to allow voting reps within the party to vote on the recently negotiated coalition deal with the Conservatives.

The conference was structured around the main motion and also 9 amendments which had been drafted prior to the conference, mostly requiring the party to reaffirm its longer term commitments to certain policies and principles.

There seemed to be a mixed feeling to the event near the start. There were of course a lot of positive vibes. We are now a party of government and rubbing shoulders with ministers is a novel experience for us Lib Dems and the feeling I got was that people liked it! However of course there was sadness. I spotted a number of MPs who lost their seats and also candidates who despite huge efforts had not managed to win theirs. Some of the contributions from the podium referenced this.

All amendments were accepted and the vote at the end was overwhelmingly in favour of the coalition. I only saw a few hands voting against and reports suggest there were only a dozen or so out of the many hundreds of voting reps making sure that the total in favour far surpassed the two-thirds threshold.

Here are a few of the highlights from my perspective:

  • Dr Evan Harris got a very warm reception as he moved an amendment clarifying the circumstances of the coalition especially relating to the Labour Party and their unwillingness to participate. He was his usual funny and yet serious self, quipping that the media were not allowed in because he was going to praise the leadership! He got a prolonged round of applause as he left the podium.
  • Often it is Vince Cable who gets the best reception of the day at conference (apart from the leader) but today it was Simon Hughes who won this accolade. He delivered an absolutely barnstorming speech in favour of the coalition where he linked his campaigning of almost 30 years as an MP to how our party is now in a position to actually implement our policies. He whipped the crowd up into a frenzy and left the stage to a standing ovation. This contribution actually reminded me a little bit of John Prescott's speech in support of the abolition of Clause 4 to the Labour Party conference in 1994. Prescott's intervention was all the more powerful because it came from someone from the wing of the Labour Party where you would have expected opposition to it. It gave Tony Blair legitimacy in the move he was trying to make. I think Hughes provided a similar service to Clegg today. Hughes is very much from the Social Democratic wing of the Lib Dems and the fact that he was so firmly in favour of the coalition I expect helped convince some waverers in the party. Nick Clegg himself said in his speech that Hughes had given the speech of his life. I think he might well be right.
  • Dinti Batstone gave a great speech about equality in representation and expressed real frustration at the smugness of Labour and Conservative people when debating with her about this. As she said: "It's easy to be smug about gender representation when you have loads of safe seats!"
  • Tessa Munt, the newly elected MP for Wells was very impressive in my view. She has great stage presence and gave a well thought out speech delivered with a twinkle in her eye. I saw her speak at a fringe event last year and she was very good them too. I expect that she will be one to watch in the future.
  • Having a parade of cabinet ministers making speeches was wonderful to see. In fact the only one of the 5 we have who did not appear on stage is David Laws. All the others (Danny Alexander, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and of course Nick Clegg) did. It was great to see our MPs actually able to say what they will do in office rather than what they would like to do.
  • Nick Clegg's speech hit all the right notes for me. There were jokes, e.g. he explained how David Laws' ratings were sky-high at 72% in a recent poll. He paused and then pointed out that it was a poll of Conservative members! He made comments like "The Freedom Bill is now going to come off our leaflets onto the statute books", again underlining how we are in a position to do rather than just say. He closed his speech by stating how humbled he was by the support that the party had given him and pledged that he would not let us down.

Some people I spoke to afterwards said that they now felt more comfortable with the coalition. I don't think anyone I spoke to had been thinking of voting against but from the perspective of someone like myself who was already in favour of the deal, it was good to see that the effect of the day seemed to have been to confirm in the minds of some who were not toally convinced that we are doing the right thing.

Although today's conference was not constitutionally necessary (the MPs and Federal Executive vote last Tuesday was all that was needed as they both passed with 75%) I think it was a very worthwhile thing for the party to do.

It has demonstrated yet again the democratic nature of my party.

PS: I am hearing reliable reports that Lynne Featherstone's speech was also an absolute corker. Unfortunately at that point I was queueing up to buy some food and hence I missed it.

Off to Lib Dem special conference

I am heading off to the Lib Dem special conference in Birmingham soon where the coalition deal will be debated and voted upon. It is an exciting time for the party and it will be fascinating to see how it all goes.

Charles Kennedy has come out against the agreement in today's Observer and I got a phone call from Stephen Nolan's show on 5 Live last night as the story was breaking to ask me to go on air and comment. I said that it was understandable that Charles and some others feel uneasy about this deal but that in my view, given the election result it was the best option available for the party and the country. There was no easy option and I feel strongly that none of the alternatives available would have been the right course to follow.

I will be voting for the coalition today.

Friday, 14 May 2010

Now Cameron has to prove himself wrong

Just under three weeks ago I wrote a blogpost speculating about what could happen in the event of a hung parliament and how we could end up with a Lib Dem/Tory government. I focused on how were that to happen, given all the negative comments by the Conservatives in the run up to the election about how disastrous hung parliaments would be. I then went on to say:

Cameron would not be able to easily escape his election campaign words and predictions. In fact the only way he would be able to get out of it is to prove himself wrong and make a success of a coalition government. Which would of course kick away the last prop of the argument against proportional representation that his party has been so viscerally opposed to.

I think it's fair to say that was mildly prescient. We are now in exactly that situation and Cameron has gone further than I ever thought possible in trying to put things in place to make this coalition work. People always said that Cameron was looking for his "Clause 4 moment" and I think he has found it in this bold step, albeit it was actually the best option available to him (and I think the country) in the short term. Still he has seized it with both hands.

But what I said in the quoted section above it absolutely bang on. Either this government is a success and the arguments against hung parliaments (and by implication against proportional electoral reform) are weakened, perhaps fatally, or the coalition is perceived to have failed and hence Cameron by his own lights has also failed.

We are now in the bizarre situation where the leader of the Conservatives has to fundamentally disprove the key argument used by his own party against electoral reform (it leads to weak unstable government) in order for him to succeed.

I keep saying it but we really are through the looking glass now.

Lib Dems need a proper election inquest

My party is now in a very unfamiliar position. We are in government. I think that our negotiation team did an excellent job. We have 5 cabinet ministers and numerous other government positions with some of our best MPs now in a position to actually do things rather than just say them.

We got a higher share of the vote than at the last election. We also did well to take some of our target seats such as Wells and Norwich South. I know from first hand experience just how hard our candidates, members and helpers across the country worked.

The fact that our party is now swept up in a very unpredictable political drama of the new coalition is very exciting. We have great opportunities to show what a Lib Dem influenced government can do.

However we need to make sure that in all the excitement we do not forget to have a proper inquest about what went wrong with the election result.

Despite increasing vote share we lost seats. As I wrote in this article back in March, the Lib Dems had increased their proportional seat share compared to votes at every election for 36 years. We were steadily getting better and better at winning seats in First Past the Post elections compared to the size of our vote. So if that pattern had continued we would have expected to increase our seats. Instead we lost 5 compared to the 2005 result.

We also saw poll numbers in the low-mid 30s after the first leaders debate subside to what was in the end 23%. I don't fully know the reasons behind this although I have heard comments about the classic two-party squeeze kicking in in the last few days of the campaign and also that some of those who said they would vote for us just simply did not turn out to vote at all in the end. We need a more detailed analysis.

We also need to be honest about our policies. We got an absolute kicking in the media for our immigration and Trident policies for example. Now I happen to think that they were both good and defensible policies but there were some problems. Firstly, we were hit by the classic issue of nuanced thoughtful policies in that our opponents could express what they thought in about 5 words in each case "We will encourage illegal immigrants" and "We will leave Britain unprotected". I think both of those are wrong and we could explain why. However it took us about 20 times as many words to explain why and as I have said before that makes it much harder to win the argument. Secondly, I feel that in some cases we did not make the argument well enough. In the case of immigration, the incumbent Labour and previous Conservative governments had both operated a de-facto amnesty for anyone here for 14 years or more. I hardly heard any of our spokespeople (including Nick in the debates) mention this. They did to be fair mention that Boris Johnson had called for an amnesty too but probably not enough for my liking. And even people who follow politics fairly closely were talking to me about how the Lib Dems are unilateralists. That is absolutely not what our policy was but the message claerly was not getting through! Next time we need to make sure that our policies are properly bullet-proofed before our people go out there to try to explain and defend them.

I expect there will be a review of what happened at some point. I will just reiterate that we need to be very honest. Just because the outcome was an historic and politically game-changing coalition government does not mean that the campaign was an unbridled success.

We could have done better and we should learn the lessons. The fact that we will have been in government and will be defending a record next time makes this actually more necessary.

Thursday, 13 May 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 13th May 2010 - #bbcqt

Right, normal service is resumed this week for #bbcqt with it starting at the regular time of 10:35pm on BBC1 and the Live Chat starts on this blog from 10:30pm as normal.

Thanks again to Matt Raven for standing in for me for the live chats in the weeks running up to the election but I am back for tonight's one.

The panel includes Conservative peer Lord Heseltine, Labour peer Lord Falconer, Liberal Democrat MP Simon Hughes, Daily Mail columnist Melanie Phillips and Mehdi Hasan of the New Statesman.

We are now in what feels like a political parallel universe and I am interested to see how the dynamics of the new situation play out on things like Question Time. Will Heseltine and Hughes have to be nice to each other for example!?

Join us below from 10:30pm:

Will Labour campaign for AV?

In the run up to the election, Gordon Brown kept banging on about how important it was to change the voting system to the Alternative Vote. In Labour's manifesto was a commitment to hold a referendum in 2011 to change to that system and listening to the rhetoric you have to assume that they were planning to campaign for a "yes" vote had they been in power.

We already know that the Conservatives (or at least most of them) will likely campaign for a "no" vote (although they are bound by the terms of the coalition agreement to pass the referendum bill in the Commons).

There are certainly some Labour figures such as Peter Hain who have wanted AV for a long time and others who although they want a more proportional system, see AV as a stepping stone towards that.

So the interesting question is, now that Labour are in opposition, but a referendum for AV will be called anyway, will they campaign for it?

Ken Clarke - the great political survivor

Something that has been a bit overlooked in all the excitement over the new coalition government is just what an incredible achievement it is for Ken Clarke to be resuming a cabinet position after 13 years in opposition.

Clarke was a government whip under Heath from 1972 - 1974 and then became a junior minister when Margaret Thatcher became Prime Minister in 1979. From 1985 he then took on a succession of cabinet posts under both Thatcher and Major culminating in Chancellor of the Exchequer from 1993 - 1997.

There can't be many politicians whose government careers span 38 years. And of course we have no idea how long he might last. He could easily be in the cabinet for a good few years yet. He's only 69.

What also makes his achievement even more remarkable is that he was able to maintain his position in Cameron's shadow cabinet despite his very pro-EU views in a party dominated by anti-EU sentiment. I know that now the coalition with the Lib Dems has come about there are plenty of pro-EU cabinet ministers but to have been in contention for a good post in opposition was an achievement in itself.

So let's raise a glass to Ken Clarke, one of the great survivors of British politics!

Will Labour really be back so soon?

From what I can tell by following Labour activists on Twitter and in the blogs it would appear that quite a few of them seem to think that they will be back in power in a few short years' time.

The argument goes that the new Lib Dem/Conservative coalition cannot last. It will likely fall apart at some point in the next few years. The argument also seems to be that the Lib Dems will be tainted by office and also squeezed with Labour able to claim that a vote for us is effectively a vote for the Tories. Finally, the government itself will have to take such difficult financial decisions that it is all but inevitable that a battered public will rush willingly into the arms of Labour at the next election.

I am afraid I don't buy it.

I think Labour activists are in danger of underestimating just how damaged their own party brand already is. They may not have lost as many seats as they feared they would (partly at least through smart deployment of resources where it really counted) but their vote share dropped by 7 percentage points (or almost a fifth) compared to 2005. The only reason this looks sort of OK to them is because of how much worse it looked like it could have been in some of the polls running up to the election. It is still a terrible result.

Although the government will of course have to take tough decisions on tax and spending (which will mean tax rises and spending cuts) is it really credible that the public will just forget who was in power for the last 13 years? I know that Gordon Brown and his ministers always tried to blame the rest of the world for the financial crisis but I do not think people buy this really. Yes the rest of the world has suffered too but we were one of the last countries to emerge from recession (weakly) and there were specific things encouraged by Brown (such as the house price bubble) which made it worse for us.

I think the idea that the public in a few years time will have forgotten all about the Labour government was like during its 13 years is let's say optimistic.

Labour may also be misjudging what could happen to the Lib Dems in office. Now I should start with this point by conceding that it is quite possible that they might be right here. We are in unchartered territory with this new coalition and it could indeed transpire that following this period in office the Lib Dems suffer very badly electorally as the two party squeeze and the electoral system works against it. However I would say it is equally possible that an effect Labour are not expecting could happen. Perhaps the government is relatively successful and perceived as such. Perhaps some of the policies that are clearly Lib Dem in origin (such as the £10,000 tax threshold) are implemented during its lifetime and the public at large very much like them. Having had a taste of what a Lib Dem influenced government can do, would they really be so keen to punish them at the ballot box?

(As an aside on this point, so many political commentators seem so sure that the Lib Dems will definitely suffer from this deal. To repeat, I agree it is certainly possible and we need to try and guard against it but frankly we are through the looking glass and nobody really knows how the public will ultimately react to this unusual (in post-war historical terms) way of doing politics.)

I should just caveat all of this by pointing out that I am not predicting here that everything will be peachy for the entire lifetime of this government. I am merely saying that this default assumption that Labour will be perfectly placed after a few years in opposition to be straight back in is by no means certain.

Perhaps Labour activists should have a look at what happened to Labour the last time they lost office in 1979. There were many in the party then who, having been battered by the financial markets and having weathered the "Winter of Discontent" welcomed a period of opposition and leaving Margaret Thatcher to have to take the difficult decisions in the early 80s. Many of them assumed they would be back soon after. In the event it took 18 years of bitter opposition and 4 changes of leader before they were ready to take government again.

Labour could be making a very big mistake if they just assume the pendulum will swing straight back towards them.

Wednesday, 12 May 2010

How will the media handle the Lib Dems now?

I had a brief discussion with a few people on Twitter yesterday about how we think the media will now handle the Lib Dems.

Members have often complained that our party does not get a fair crack of the whip in terms of media coverage and it is often seen in terms of the number of slots we get on things like BBC Question Time and other political programmes.

I think we will see a couple of contradictory effects.

Firstly we may find that we actually get fewer slots for programmes like Question Time. Because we will be members of a government whose ministers and to some extent MPs take a "coalition line" it might seem odd to regularly have more than one representative for that coalition on panels. However as Lib Dems we need to make sure that we fight for fair representation in this respect. We got 24% of the vote which is 2/3rds of the total the Conservatives got (they are the key figures, not seats) and we are still a distinctive party who will be fighting elections on our own. It would be unacceptable to be squeezed to a disproportionate level. The media will have to find a reasonable way to accommodate this. Perhaps the way smaller coalition partners are treated by the media in other countries could be instructive here.

Secondly, a contrary effect to this is likely to be that what people within the party say and do will be treated more seriously and covered accordingly. We are now in government so what Nick Clegg, Vince Cable, Chris Huhne and David Laws etc. think and say about issues is very important. They have the power to actually effect change. Each Lib Dem cabinet minister will have more power and influence than whoever is Leader of the Opposition, at least for the first few years of the government. The same will be true but to a lesser extent for the 20 or so junior Lib Dem ministers. We will see effects like Lib Dem conferences being taken much more seriously. No longer will some elements of the press be able to effectively ignore them. We now make up nearly a quarter of the cabinet after all.

We also need to make sure that on issues such as the AV referendum where the Lib Dems and the Conservatives are likely to be on opposite sides that the Lib Dems are heard properly.

It will take time for our political culture to adjust to the new reality and that includes politicians, the media and the public.

You can rest assured that Lib Dem activists will be watching to make sure that we are given a fair crack of the whip. We are just in coalition. We have not merged with the Tories!

Now we need to prove that coalitions can work

What an amazing, historic day in UK politics yesterday was! For the first time since the Second World War we now have MPs from the liberal party in government and the first coalition since then too.

It is an exciting time and looking at the policies that appear to be shaping up to form part of the new government's programme I would suggest that our negotiating team has done a good job.

There are of course some people both inside and outside the Lib Dems who are not happy about this turn of events. There are accusations of "selling out" etc. But what I would say to those who feel like this is to ask what the alternatives were? It was clear that trying to form some sort of agreement with Labour was never going to work - we did actually try. The other option would have been to sit on the sidelines and allow the Tories to govern in minority but that would likely not have lasted more than a few months and we would then have had another election which could easily have thrown up a similar situation, or perhaps even a Conservative majority. In the meantime the financial situation would not have been properly tackled. Is that what they would have preferred?

As I mentioned in a blogpost I wrote yesterday, because we as a party support a proportional electoral system which would regularly throw up parliaments where no one party had an overall majority we have to prove that coalitions can work. This is our opportunity to do so and I for one am very pleased that we have grasped the opportunity with both hands. I also think that the apparent commitment for this government to run for a fixed term of 5 years is right as it gives the stability both parties and the country needs to be able to govern effectively. I always said coalitions could only work if we had some sort of fixed term agreement.

An interesting quirk of the current situation is that the Conservatives now also have a vested interest in proving that coalition governments can work. This would make their arguments against a more proportional voting system in the future a bit more difficult to make further down the line.

I didn't get involved with the Lib Dems to see us in perpetual opposition. I always suspected that our opportunity to prove ourselves would come in the next few years.

We now get to stamp our mark on the governance of this country. Of course there are risks and dangers but there are also big potential rewards too. We are able to show the public what sort of a difference the Lib Dems can make in government. We will have experienced ministers with a record to point to at the next election. I would rather we were in there making a difference and able to help moderate Conservative policies as well as enacting some of our own. It will once and for all nail the argument so often used against us that a vote for the Lib Dems is a wasted vote.

We are in unchartered territory for UK politics. It is exciting but also our ministers and MPs have a big responsibility.

We have our shot now. History will judge us on how we respond to this opportunity in the next few years.