Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Sunday, 30 January 2011

Surely it's too early to tell on the economy?

The surprise news this week that the initial figures for Q4 2010 showed a 0.5% contraction of the economy caused a lot of comment.

Labour claimed that it proved the government was going in the wrong direction and that the cuts are damaging the economy. The government claimed it showed no such thing and tried to shift much of the blame onto the cold weather (although independent economists calculate that even without the cold snap growth would have been "flattish" (down from 0.6% growth in Q3)).

So who is right? Do the figures prove that the government is heading in the wrong direction and that Labour was right? Or is it a statistical blip that will be ironed out as we forge ahead.

I would suggest neither response has this right. In fact I would suggest it is far too early to decide one way or the other.

Let's look at the facts. The period Q4 runs from October-December 2010. At the start of the quarter the coalition government (AKA Teh ConDems) had been in power for just over 4 months. The CSR was not even announced until 20th October. The way people behave and the decisions they take simply do respond immediately to these anyway. It takes time. If anything it could be argued that people were still largely responding in Q4 to decisions taken earlier in 2010 and even earlier than that. I know new governments love to blame the previous administration and it does get ridiculous (I still remember Labour blaming the Tories for things in 2005 for example) but after only a few months this is surely still legitimate? At the very least it is fair to say that the current administration cannot be solely to blame for economic behaviour towards the end of the year when they only took office in May.

It will be a while before it becomes clear exactly which direction the economy is going in and whether Q4 2010 is a blip or a trend. Michael Portillo said something interesting on This Week on Thursday. He suggested that from his experience, the way the government has reacted and the other economic indicators suggest that they really do believe this is just a blip and even that when the revised Q4 figures come out they will tell a better story. Otherwise, if they really thought we were heading for a double dip they would be forced to act as it would be politically very damaging.

Having said this I return to my main point. We just do not know.

And anyone who claims Q4 2010 is at this point clear evidence one way or the other is being misleading. They don't know either.

Monday, 24 January 2011

Paint and the Alternative Vote

This clip from Auf Wiedersehen Pet has being doing the rounds sparked by a post from Mark Wallace where he claims that it shows how AV is not a good system.

The clip shows the lads trying to decide what colour paint they should use to paint the hut. Because they can't agree on a colour Barry suggests they use a preferential voting system whereby everyone gets 2 choices, their first is weighted with two points and the second is weighted with one point. They then total them up to decide which colour wins. The result is yellow which was apparently nobody's first choice. Cue much hilarity from Mark and others who claim this shows AV is unfair. Mark does concede that the system is not AV but that the same result would have happened under AV too*.

According to Barry in the clip, of the 6 who voted, none of them chose the same first choice colour. Three of them chose yellow for second place so it wins with 3 points vs 2 for all the others that were first placed. We also need to assume that all the other second placed colours were different from those that came first, otherwise at least one of them would have had 3 points and hence it would have been a tie.

I am not so sure that this clip shows AV as being wrong or unfair. Mark implies that AV has chosen the wrong winner as yellow was nobody's first choice but in such an election with such a disparate variety of views amongst the electorate, how else were they supposed to choose the colour? Surely allowing preferences like this is fairer than just one person imposing their first choice view on everyone else despite it only being the first choice of under 17% of the electorate?

In fact, if anything a proper AV system would have been even more fair allowing each voter to express more information about their preferences and hence having an influence on the outcome.

Let's just move this scenario into the voting world for a minute. Let's imagine a constituency with a very diverse range of views amongst its electorate like this. Let's also imagine that like in the example from AWP above that first choice vote is very close, say around 16% to 17% for 6 parties. Something like:

Conservative 17.1%
Labour 16.9%
Lib Dem 16.7%
UKIP 16.6%
Green 16.4%
SNP 16.2%

This is about as close to the AWP example as the real world could ever get (it's never going to be an exact 1/6th split amongst all parties) and it is an extreme example but useful to work this through.

In a real world scenario it is statistically highly improbable that 0% of the electorate would opt not to choose a specific party as its first choice but that 50% would choose that party as its second choice as in the AWP example. Far more likely is a party that did not come first in first preferences overtakes the one in first place (but well short of 50%) after the second (and third and so on) preferences are taken into account.

Under First Past the Post the Conservative would take the seat with less than a fifth of the vote. Even if most of the supporters of all the other parties would prefer to have had a Labour MP, no account is taken of that.

So far from "proving" the case for FPTP, this example actually highlights the pernicious effect of First Past the Post.

*Incidentally, Duncan Stott in the comments on Mark's post refutes this claim in that if yellow had received no first preferences it would have been eliminated after the first round.

Saturday, 22 January 2011

Three reasons why Ed Balls will not make as much difference as some think

With the resignation of Alan Johnson and the promotion of Ed Balls to the shadow chancellor brief Labour now have someone with an economic background in the most important role outside of the Leader of the Opposition's office. In fact given the current economic situation it could be argued that the shadow chancellor is even more important than the LOTO right now.

He is being heralded to great cheers by most within Labour and is lauded as an economic big hitter by much of the media. However there are three reasons why I think Ed Balls may not make as much of a difference as many people think. And in fact he could become a millstone around Labour's neck.

1) The obvious first point is that he is very closely associated with Gordon Brown. He was his chief economic and political confidante right through from opposition in 1994 to when Brown became PM in 2007. Even then he was still one of his closest political allies. Given how much influence he had over Brown it is going to be quite easy to paint him as culpable in various ways for the economic problems the country now finds itself in. The only way to extricate himself from this is to denounce important parts of what Gordon Brown did and I cannot see that happening. So he is damaged goods before he even starts.*

2) The economy is in a bad state. There is a huge deficit and a growing public debt. The coalition government has embarked upon a strategy that focuses primarily on cutting the deficit with the aim of bringing the public finances to order. There are risks involved with this approach and it might all go horribly wrong in the next few years. Labour in its first 8 months in opposition have made it clear that they would not have enacted many of the cuts announced by the government and whoever is shadow chancellor it is clear that Labour's message in one way or another is going to be less cuts and more "investment" with growth being the driver to reduce the deficit. If the economy does go south and it can be demonstrated that the government's plan has failed then the governing parties' strategy will be shot to ribbons. If however it does work then Labour will find it very difficult to win the next election, after all they will be seen as not only having presided over the problems in the first place but also to have been on the wrong side of the argument as to what to do about it. And frankly it does not really matter too much who is in the role of shadow chancellor for how this will play out. It is largely dictated by economic events over the next few years.

3) The hype is too great. I have lost count of the number of times I have read phrases like "economic big hitter" and "he will land punch after punch on Osborne" in the last 48 hours. Yes he is an economic expert (although point 1 does diminish his claims on this somewhat) and he did well at attacking the government during the Labour leadership campaign but the expectation management has gone seriously awry. If he does not come out of his corner and continually land knock-out blows on Osborne and the government in the next few weeks then the narrative could very quickly start to turn. Stories about him having been a damp squib and perhaps not such a great candidate for the role will start to filter up. The press love to knock people down off pedestals and the way he has been built up so far leaves him very exposed to this possibility. If I was Ed Balls I would be furiously trying to play down my likely initial impact. The truth is that there are not so many opportunities for opposition economic spokespeople at this stage of the electoral cycle anyway. Even when the budget comes around, lest we forget it is the Leader of the Opposition who will stand up initially in the House of Commons to respond to the Chancellor. Balls will not actually get the chance to even try and land punches directly after the showcase economic event of the year. We are more than 4 years from a general election. Balls' value to the opposition is likely to be in building a strong and coherent economic policy basis to move forward on but if the hype continues he may not even get the chance to do this before he is already deemed a failure.

Don't get me wrong, I think Balls is a smart appointment to the role (although I actually think appointing Yvette Cooper would have been smarter for various reasons which I may blog about in future) but he is unlikely to live up to expectations and he comes with probably the heaviest political baggage of anyone else on the Labour front-bench.

*I am aware that a similar charge could have been levelled against David Cameron as he was an adviser to Norman Lamont in the early 1990s and was even pictured hovering behind Lamont when he made his now fateful Black Monday announcement. Indeed Gordon Brown relished making this connection over and over again and it never seemed to do Cameron much harm. The big difference is that Cameron was a very junior adviser to Lamont for a relatively short time after which he went off to do other things in the private sector before coming back as an MP in 2001. The link was pretty weak and hence the attacks were quite ineffectual too. Balls' situation is very, very different and attacks on him for his links to Brown are much more likely to stick.

Thursday, 20 January 2011

How big will the "voting with their hearts" problem be?

Listening to some interviews with Old & Sad voters following the recent by-election I was struck by some comments from one woman who was very annoyed about the tuition fees issue.

She explained how for various reasons she could not vote for Labour but that also she could not bring herself to vote for the Lib Dems because of the fact that the party had helped triple tuition fees. And instead she voted Conservative.

Yes, you might just need me to repeat that. She voted Conservative.

I think what this demonstrates is that voters do not always vote rationally. If tuition fees is really such a touchstone issue for this woman, how could she possibly bring herself to vote for the party whose fault it largely was that tuition fees went up? If the Lib Dems had formed a majority then the fees would already be on the way to being abolished. As it was they had to compromise with a party who was implacably opposed to anything other than raising tuition fees. The Lib Dems took some of the harsher edges off the policy and made it fairer than it would have been. The Conservatives on their own would I am sure not have approached it in that way.

I just wonder how many people out there over the next few years with the various elections and referenda will follow a similar path to that and vote with their hearts rather than looking objectively at the decisions the parties in government have taken and weighing up the good against the bad.

I do fear that many will not do this and that may be why the Lib Dem polls are so low. I can only hope that over the next few years the party gets its fair share of the credit as well as the blame.

Tuesday, 18 January 2011

Dr Phillip Lee MP writes to me about AV

I recently asked for the views of my local Conservative MP Dr Phillip Lee regarding the potential change to the AV system. I was hoping for some measured and nuanced views on this from someone who is undoubtedly an intelligent and thoughtful man. Instead I got a list of recycled canards which look like they have been cribbed directly from the No2AV campaign literature.

You can judge for yourselves as I have scanned the letter in and included it below. You can click on the image to enlarge it.

Monday, 17 January 2011

MPs against AV were on average worse expenses offenders

In May 2009 I caused a bit of a stir when some analysis of the expenses scandal I published on this blog suggested that there was a correlation between the safety of an MPs' seat and their likelihood of having been involved in the expenses scandal.

Now we are less than 4 months away from what is likely to be the date of the Alternative Vote referendum, and given the noise the No to AV campaign are making about which MPs are against change I could not resist having a look at the data to see if there was any link between the size of the amount that MPs were made to repay by the Legg inquiry and whether they are for or against a yes vote on AV.

As my source I took the data published following the Legg inquiry. I then filtered out all the MPs who had either retired before the 2010 election (taken from this Wikipedia page). Then I filtered out all MPs who lost their seats in the 2010 election (using this Wikipedia page as a starting point to see which MPs are still around). The purpose of this was to come up with a list of MPs from the current parliament for whom we have a definitive ruling from Legg about how much they had overclaimed and for whom we also have a good idea what their views on AV are.

For the views on AV I applied the following:

1) I have taken the list of Labour MPs that the No2AV campaign recently claimed as against AV but removed those 5 MPs that Left Foot Forward since revealed are actually for AV. I have assumed that the rest are in favour of AV.
2) I have assumed all Conservative MPs are against AV.
3) I have assumed all Lib Dem MPs are in favour of AV.
4) I have assumed all Plaid Cymru, SDLP, and Green MPs support AV based on this article.
5) I have taken out of the equation all SNP, DUP and Sinn Fein MPs as they are declared as undecided at the moment based on this article.

Before the results, the caveats. I accept that this is preliminary and incomplete data. We do not yet have an absolutely definitive list of which MPs are for and against AV. What I have done is the best I can with the available data. There may be a few Conservative MPs who come out in favour of AV and there may be a few more Labour MPs who are against. However I did feel that we are pretty close to what the final position is and it may be the case that we do not actually get a definitive picture before the vote.

Using the above described data I found that there are in total 412 MPs whom we can consider having been in the previous parliament (and hence we have Legg expenses data for them) and for whom we have a good idea of their views on AV.

The average amount repaid by the MPs who according to my rules above are against a yes vote on AV is £1,784.34.

The total for those MPs who are for a yes vote on AV is £1,195.70.

Which makes MPs who are against AV on average almost 50% worse expenses offenders.

It also occurred to me that because many of the worst expenses offenders actually retired from parliament before the 2010 election, if we had been able to take a snapshot of opinion from the 2005 intake it is likely that this picture might have been even more stark. As a quick experiment I added back in all the MPs who I had filtered out as retired or lost in 2010 and indeed using the same assumptions as above, the figures were £2,408.30 on average for the No to AV MPs and £1,431.99 for the Yes to AV MPs. In other words on average the MPs against AV from the 2005 parliament are nearly 70% worse.

I am not sure what to make of these figures. There could be various reasons why the No MPs seem to have been on average worse offenders. I am also mindful that these figures could change a bit as a fuller picture of which MPs are for against emerges but I expect the final figures will be similar to this.

The fact is that neither camp comes out of this analysis looking great. The MPs in the Yes camp still on average had to pay back over £1,000 each. However at the very least I think we can say that the judgement of those in the No camp, (given the apparently significantly higher figure for them) is open to question. If they could not be trusted on their expenses, why should they be trusted on their views about the electoral system that gives them their job in the first place?

As I have stated before I want the AV campaign to be fought on the arguments, not personalities. However the No campaign seem determined to use lists of which MPs are against AV as some sort of argument to try and persuade voters to be against it. They should think long and hard before continuing this approach because as I have demonstrated here, it may backfire on them when those same voters see exactly which MPs are in the No camp.

Note: If anybody wants to contact me about this please e-mail me at

Sunday, 16 January 2011

What a turnaround!

It was fascinating listening to "Any Questions" on Radio 4 yesterday.

Sarah Teather was batting for the Lib Dems and the mellifluously toned Emily Thornberry was doing likewise for Labour.

During the course of the programme, Thornberry repeatedly tried to turn every question into one about the "harsh cuts" being imposed by the government. At no point of course did she make any attempt to highlight what she and Labour would have cut instead as indeed they would have had to have done.

In the end Teather called her on this pointing out that Labour continually attack every single cut without having a credible alternative plan for what they would have done instead (see Andrew Rawnsley in The Observer today for more on this theme). It is opportunism of the highest order.

But how strange that we find ourselves at the start of 2011 in a political world where a Lib Dem MP (and government minister to boot) is lecturing one of Labour's rising stars who only just missed election to the shadow cabinet by one vote on realistic politics and government! For decades we have heard Labour (and Tory) ministers claim high-handedly that a vote for the Lib Dems is a waste of time because they are not a realistic party of government and will never be in a position of power. They cannot credibly make this claim in the future.

As an aside, I also just wanted to draw attention to something else Thornberry said during the programme. At one point she claimed: "Being in coalition is not an excuse to break your promises". This garnered a fair bit of applause from the audience. However it is an easy line that like her claims about the economy does not stand up to scrutiny. As I have said time and again, coalition is about compromise and by definition it is impossible for two parties to come together and for both of their programmes/manifestos to be implemented in full. Some policies and ideas from both parties will have to be modified or dropped for it to work at all. So it is another example of Labour being totally unrealistic about the realities of coalition governing.

Emily Thornberry gets added to the ever growing list of Labour spokespeople and activists who by their words are effectively ruling out their own party from ever governing in a coalition at Westminster.

Friday, 14 January 2011

Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election result - something for everyone

The final results are:

Labour 14,718 42.1%
Lib Dem 11,160 31.9%
Conservative 4,481 12.8%
UKIP 2,029 5.8%
BNP 1,560 4.5%
Others 958 2.8%

So Labour has a majority of 3,558 and just over 10%.

First of all, congratulations to Debbie Abrahams who will be delighted to be the latest addition to the House of Commons. She fought a good campaign (certainly compared to her predecessor) and deserves credit for it.

There is something for everyone in this result.

Labour will (rightly) claim that it is a decent victory for them increasing their vote share by over 10% on the May 2010 general election result. Debbie Abrahams even gained 534 more votes than Phil Woolas did last year (14,718 vs 14,186) despite the fact that the turnout was only 48% (vs 61.2% last May).

The Lib Dems will (rightly) claim that their vote held up well under the circumstances. They even ended up 0.3% higher than their general election performance. Given the national situation and some national opinion polls having them down in single figure percentage points this is a creditable result and will give Nick Clegg some comfort that the Lib Dem vote has not collapsed as many commentators predicted and Lib Dem activists feared.

Despite a poor result the Conservatives will (rightly) point out that having come third at the general election, their vote was always going to be squeezed mercilessly and there was doubtless some tactical voting going on. Secretly David Cameron will be pleased that the Lib Dems managed to hold their own even if it was at the expense of his own party. The last thing he wanted was for his government to be threatened by a Lib Dem wobble triggered by this result. As things stand that is now unlikely.

And even UKIP can (rightly) point to a decent increase in its votes.

All in all it there are positives for just about everyone. Oh, except the BNP who (rightly) lost votes and vote share.

Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Why Alan Johnson's NI "gaffe" matters

On Sky News on Sunday morning, it became clear during questioning by Dermot Murnaghan that the shadow chancellor Alan Johnson did not know what the rate for employers' national insurance is. It is 12.8% although Johnson seemed to think it was 20% at one point.

This has been seized upon as a "gaffe" by the media and Johnson's political opponents. Often these situations when a politician makes a slip are hugely overblown by the media and on many occasions I have found myself lamenting the way such things are covered.

However in this case I really do think it is important. I run my own business (along with some partners) and I am responsible for the company's financial affairs. Therefore I regularly have to sign off on financial transactions and also perform calculations based upon people's salaries. I am only too aware that every time the gross salary is considered, you have to multiply by 1.128. So I can look at this situation of the perspective, not of a politico but someone who signs the cheques for a small business.

That the shadow chancellor does not even know what the rate of employers' NI is a very poor show from where I am standing. I know he indicated he was a bit of an economics novice when he first started in the post but he has had months to get up to speed now. At the very least he should know what the different rates are. They should be absolutely at the forefront of his mind, not least because one of their main policies is to raise the NI rate. The fact that he does not means that he is not properly on top of his brief. For the chief opposition finance spokesperson in parliament to not be on top of this will just drive a wedge between him (and his party) and the millions of people in this country who run businesses.

Can you imagine any of the recent holders of the office of shadow chancellor to have been so sketchy on something like this? Alistair Darling, George Osborne, Oliver Letwin, Michael Howard, Michael Portillo are those who have held this post in the last decade and I am sure all of them were fully up to speed with the main rates of tax and NI.

I think Johnson has used up most of his nine lives now. He has caused other problems for Ed Miliband in the last few months and there has been a suspicion that some of them have been deliberate mischief making. This latest one was obviously not deliberate but I suspect the Labour leader's patience is wearing thin.

I would not be surprised if he was shuffled out of his post at the next available opportunity.

Sunday, 9 January 2011

The coalition and political biodiversity

I miss Matthew Parris.

I always used to read his Times columns but since that paper disappeared behind the paywall last year I have (so far) not succumbed to the temptation to sign up. But listening to him this week on Radio 4's Any Questions gave me a reminder of what I am missing.

I was particularly impressed with something he said about the coalition government with respect to control orders. He explained that he is a card carrying Conservative member and always will be but that on this and related subjects he does not trust his party's own instincts and the fact that Nick Clegg is coming at this from the direction of having been sceptical about them and will come to a judgement based on the facts presented to him is a good thing. He even said that he would trust Clegg's judgement on this basis and go along with whatever he decided. He went on to suggest that this is an excellent example of where the fact that the government is a coalition is a benefit to the country and that its decision making processes are the better for it.

I think Matthew is right. I would not go so far as to say that I personally would defer my own judgement to Clegg on this particular issue, I have my own view, but I certainly think the fact that politicians from two different parties are involved in the decision making process is ultimately a good thing.

I think for me it is a bit like biodiversity. In nature if there are not enough of a range of genes available within the pool of a particular species then eventually it atrophies and ultimately dies. I think that is what can happen with single party government and it certainly happened with the recent Labour administration. But with more than one party in government, the body politic has an infusion of different and in some cases disparate ideas from which the governing programme emerges.

Following this, I may even be tempted to do a month trial of the Times to get a more regular infusion of Mr Parris' disparate ideas!

Thursday, 6 January 2011

Are Labour incapable of being in a coalition?

This post today on Labour Uncut is very critical of Lib Dem Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election candidate Elwyn Watkins and some comments he made on Newsnight about tuition fees. LU seem to find it hilarious that he could have a view on tuition fees (that they should be ideally abolished) and yet still would have voted in accordance with the coalition agreement had he been an MP.

How can you campaign one way but vote another? How would he have campaigned against himself? Picketing his own office? Shouting at himself? Sending himself furious letters? Distributing leaflets saying “Do not vote for Elwyn Watkins – only the Lib Dems can win here”?

And all the while having to do all this campaigning without trying too hard, in case he convinced himself, and ended up not voting the way he intended.

Now I know this is not a world that we are particularly used to but the reality is that the Lib Dems are in a coalition with another party. So it is perfectly reasonable for Elwyn Watkins to have his views on tuition fees but at the same time to make it clear that he would have supported the government and the coalition agreement. If all Tory and Lib Dem backbenchers went against the agreement all the time the government would collapse. All he is doing is making it clear that he is a supporter of the coalition and the Lib Dem policies (and there are lots of them) that this brings. That doesn't mean he abandons all his views and he is still free to campaign for what he believes, after all the more Lib Dem MPs there are, the bigger the influence. It does however mean that he is willing to compromise to get the politically possible Lib Dem policies to be enacted.

Labour Uncut seem to have real trouble understanding this and it is not just them. I have seen lots of comments, mainly from Labour acvitists which if taken to their logical conclusion effectively rule out Labour from ever being in a coalition. Because many of these comments clearly have a problem with the fundamental principle of compromise. Either you absolutely stick to every pre-election position even when you are in a coalition (and hence it would not last 5 minutes) or you have "betrayed your principles" and "sold out" and made yourself a laughing stock.

If this is the case, and this view seems to be widely held by Labour activists from what I can tell then how could Labour ever be in a coalition?

Tuesday, 4 January 2011

Lib Dems get all of the blame and none of the credit

This comment (by timak on a Lib Dem voice post about whether VAT is regressive) is quite instructive as an indication of how very often the Lib Dems get the blame for things that are not really their fault whilst getting no credit for the influence they have had in government. I have quoted the comment in full below:

I used to believe the Lib Dems were on the side of social justice, progress politics and equal opportunity before I started to read this site.

40,000 families own 70% of this country, both in assets and investment terms.

If they sell or trade these assets they are taxed at 28% (above 10k per annum) as a capital gain, this is naively assuming the assets are not held in a more tax efficient structure.

If I want to buy £100k worth of the assets, as a lower rate tax payer I would have to earn £140k (£35k for 4 years) as tax plus NI comes to 35% of my salary. If I were a higher rate payer this would be nearer £200k.

The person selling the assets would have to pay a maximum of £25k in tax on their £100k profit whilst I’d be paying £40k-£100k in tax to earn enough money to buy the assets.

Why do we tax income and not unearned wealth?

So essentially the Lib Dems are being blamed here for the entire tax structure of the UK despite the facts that:

a) The Lib Dems have only been in government for just over 6 months.
b) They are a minority partner in a coalition.
c) Before that they had not been in any form of national UK power since WWII.

Whilst simultaneously the comment gives no credit for the fact that the 28% capital gains tax rate that is referenced is only at that rate because of the Lib Dems. It was at 18% before the election and as part of the coalition negotiations it has gone up by 10%. That is by any measure a progressive and socially just thing to do. OK, so it's not all the way up to the 40% the Lib Dems would have liked but it is a lot higher than it was and almost half way to where we wanted it to be which considering we have less than 20% of the MPs in the coalition is a pretty good deal.

But there is no credit for this at all. Just criticism for what the party has not done, much of which would be politically impossible.

Sunday, 2 January 2011

More Lib Dem votes *will* get more Lib Dem policies

During my self-enforced blogging purdah, something that really started to annoy me is the misrepresentation of how coalition government and compromise politics actually works. This was typified by various comments about how, because the Lib Dems had "sold out" on their manifesto commitment to abolish tuition fees, that somehow more votes for Lib Dems would lead to more of this "selling out" and the idea that more votes for Lib Dems might have made it possible for that manifesto commitment to have been held to is somehow ridiculous. I have heard this point made many times by various commentators and activists from both major parties.

I remember listening to Evan Harris trying to explain this on Radio 5 Live with Shane Greer and Will Straw. I have a lot of respect for both Shane and Will but the way they ripped into Evan when he made the point that if the Lib Dems had had more votes and seats at the general election they would have been in a better position to deliver on the tuition fees pledge was very disappointing. Not least because I am sure they both understand full well the point that Evan was making. Shane even made a snarky comment along the lines of "Is that a pledge!!!?".

But let's look at the facts for a minute. The Lib Dems got 57 seats at the general election. Labour got 258 seats. The Conservatives got 307 seats. Part of the coalition negotiations were to work out which parts of each party's programme would be implemented in government. The 4 key pledges from the Lib Dem manifesto (political reform, the pupil premium, fairer taxes and green jobs) were all included in substantial part in the agreement. The tuition fees policy was not included in this way. In order for the pledge to abolish fees within the 6 year time horizon to have been realised in full, the rest of the manifesto in its entirety including the ways in which the revenue for this measure was planned needed to be available too. Once those started to be compromised upon it became very difficult to sustain the pledge.

Let's go to an extreme hypothetical here first. Let's imagine that the Lib Dems had got 326 seats back in May last year (yes, yes, I know). Then there would have been a Lib Dem majority and the manifesto in its entirety would have been implemented. The tuition fees pledge would have been stuck to as the Lib Dems would have had a majority on their own without the need for a coalition. So that is a definite example of where (many) more votes for the Lib Dems would have led to tuition fees being abolished.

Of course that did not happen. But we do not need to go to such extremes to be able to see how it could have worked. The Lib Dems plus the Conservatives (57 + 307) have a decent majority of close to 80. But the Lib Dems plus Labour (57 + 258) only got to 315 seats, 10 short of an overall majority. This meant that during the coalition negotiations it was very difficult for a Labour/Lib Dem coalition to be a viable solution. But let's hypothesise that the Lib Dems had got another 30 seats (equally taken from both Labour and the Conservatives). Then Lib Dem plus Labour would have been 87 + 243 which would have been 330 or a majority of 10. Not a huge majority but good enough to be going on with. That would then have meant that with a "doubly hung parliament" like this, the Lib Dems would have been in a better position to be able to get further concessions from either of the two bigger parties. Even if they had still have gone with the Conservatives eventually, the fact that a Labour coalition was viable (and given all the noise Labour have made about tuition fees since I would expect this is an area they would very much have been willing to compromise on) would have made it a lot more likely that a deal on tuition fees that was much closer to the Lib Dem manifesto pledge would have been struck. Given our quirky electoral system, even a small change of say 3% to 27% for the Lib Dems (taken equally from the other parties) could have seen a difference in seats of this magnitude. So if a few more hundred thousand people had voted for the party, they would have been much more likely to be able to deliver partially or even wholly on their pledge.

I am not arguing in this post for or against the existing policy. I am simply saying that this attempt by the political opponents of the Lib Dems (of both major parties) to try and somehow pretend that it is ridiculous to imagine more votes for Lib Dems would have led to more Lib Dem policies is completely disingenuous.

It is not ridiculous, it is self evident.

The media need to stop these witchhunts

I have no idea if Christopher Jefferies had anything to do with the death of Joanna Yeates. He has been released on police bail today after 3 days of questioning. The problem is that some of the media coverage of the last few days would make you think that he has already been tried, convicted and is on his way to the gallows.

Mark Wallace wrote an excellent blogpost a couple of days back which highlighted how the "fact" that Mr Jefferies was a posh loner seems to have been enough in the minds of most of the press to consider him guilty already at least in the tone of their coverage.

Just look at some of the ridiculous nudge-nudge, wink-wink comments in the coverage:

The Mirror: "He showed almost no interest in cars or sport". As if this is relevant in the slightest to whether he is guilty of murder. It seems a calculated ploy to make it seem like he is outside of the mainstream, or at least the "mainstream" as narrowly defined by the tabloid press (i.e. blokes like cars and sport and if they don't they are dodgy).

The Telegraph: (From an unnamed former tenant): "On several occasions he even entered our flat unannounced.". There are a few of my previous landlords that the police might want to bring in for questioning too in that case.

And The Mirror again from the same article linked to above. An unnamed woman running a shop said: "He came in recently and wanted to buy a black apron with the words ‘little black apron’ written on it. He was most insistent we get it. When the apron didn’t come in for a time you could tell he was bothered.”. I think that might go down as the most irrelevant piece of information related to a suspect of murder I have ever read. How on earth has that got anything to do with the case?

It seems Jefferies is getting the same treatment as Tom Stephens did initially in the Ipswich Ripper case (when it turned out that he had nothing to do with the murders but not before his reputation had been left in tatters by the press) or Robert Murat who was arrested in connection with the disappearence of Madeleine McCann in Portugal back in 2007 only to later be cleared of suspicion but again his life was shattered by the coverage of him being a "weirdo" and "loner". Spotting a pattern yet?

I am greatly heartened by some comments made by Joanna Yeates' boyfriend Greg Reardon and read out at a press conference where he directly commented on the media coverage:

"The finger-pointing and character assassination by social and news media of an as yet innocent men has been shameful. It has made me lose a lot of faith in the morality of the British Press and those that spend their time fixed to the internet in this modern age."

He is absolutely spot on. Also, as I have seen commented more than once, it is actually dangerous for the media to follow witchhunts like this. If Mr Jefferies is ever brought to trial it is going to be difficult to find 12 people who are not already prejudiced in some way by the media coverage. Indeed the Attorney General Dominic Grieve has already commented to this effect and is clearly concerned about it.

This has to stop. Freedom of the press is a vital part of our democracy but they have to be more responsible in their reporting. I suspect that in the end if they do not do this themselves, they will be forced to do so by law. We cannot go on with the principle of "innocent until proven guilty" being so comprehensively trashed over and over again.

NOTE: I have slightly changed the wording at the start of this post following a suggestion by a commenter who then deleted their own comment that it might have previously been a bit too loosely worded.