Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday 15 December 2008

Early Election?

Various political blogs are debating the likelihood of Gordon Brown going to the country very soon. There is apparently a rumour that advertising space is being booked (although latterly that is being denied by the company Iain Dale has claimed leaked the info to him).

Anyway, I would be very surprised if Gordon Brown went to the country any time soon. Labour was about 8 points ahead in September 2007 and he didn't go then. If I remember correctly, there was some polling done in marginal constituencies which showed Labour would struggle to gain a decent majority and that was enough to persuade Brown to call it off. Labour are now anywhere from 1 to 5 points behind and whilst the biased electoral system would still give them a chance of a majority (or at least being the largest single party) I just can't see him going for it nearly 18 months before he has to.

I have learned as well over the years that just because I might want it to happen (I love general election campaigns) does not mean it will.

I reckon he will go long and not call it until he virtually has to around May 2010.

Tuesday 9 December 2008

Political Class Watch

I have been thinking about this post I made a few days ago where I talked about how disappointed I am in general with political discourse these days. In particular I hate the dishonesty, distortion and manufactured outrage that so often accompanies it.

Because I see this so often it can get to the point where it washes over me but that is not right so in an attempt to try and document what I am talking about I will post instances of it on here whenever I come across it. I will make sure the title of each post of this nature is "Political Class Watch" and it will be one of the labels also.

To kick things off, here are a couple of very low level things that I have noticed. It may seem petty for me to raise them but they are subtly representative of what I am talking about (albeit there will be much more blatant examples to come).

  1. On Newsnight just after the PBR, Yvette Cooper was being questioned by Jeremy Paxman and one of the questions he asked included an incorrect calculation about the effect of the 2.5% VAT cut (he said that the cut was equivalent to £2.50 for every £100 - in fact it is about 2.13% as I already alluded to in this post). Now Cooper has a BA in PPE and an MA in Economics from Harvard. I am certain she knew that this was a miscalculation (she is always on top of her brief) but she made no attempt to correct this and let the anomolous calculation stand. Because I have a mathematical background myself this stuck out like a sore thumb for me but I suspect many people will not have noticed and hence the government's action seems better than it actually is.
  2. Peter Hain has been claiming that his name has been cleared in the inquiry about the fund-raising for his deputy leadership campaign. This is not true. The CPS decided there was insufficient evidence and their statement said they "could not prove Mr Hain handled the unreported donations.". This is far from "clearing" him, but he (and other Labour figures) have repeated this so much in the media that it is now common currency that he has been cleared. Again, this is a subtle difference and is symptomatic of the way politicians tend to operate. By the way, this specific way of operating was typical of the MO of Alistair Campbell and is well documented in Nick Jones' book "Sultans of Spin".
I will post more when I come across them

Friday 5 December 2008

Jeff Randall gets it Spot On

Jeff Randall's piece today in the Telegraph seems to me to sum up one of the main problems today with political discourse in the UK today. It is an excellent article about why people in public life rarely tell the whole truth about things or even attempt to answer questions put to them. It also covers some occasions when politicians have tried to step outside the narrow bounds they set for themselves and end up commiting a "gaffe".

This state of affairs has concerned me for quite a while now. Peter Oborne's latest book The Triumph of the Political Class covers this subject matter and related topics in great detail and is a very good read for political junkies like me!

I have lost count of the number of times I have been willing politicians when they are being interviewed to answer the question, engage with the issue, resist the opportunity to distort or make cheap partisan points and been left disappointed. It is just part and parcel of the usual discourse unfortunately.

A good example of this is what happened with Andrew Lansley a couple of weeks ago (Randall makes reference to this in his piece). He made some comments which were in response to claims that the recession could be bad for people's mental health. His comments were pertaining to the potential upside of a recession and that there is evidence that because people tighten their belts they tend to eat more healthily and drink and smoke less. That is exactly the sort of interesting and sensible observation that ordinary people would be interested. I certainly was and I thought it enhanced the debate about the current situation. However there was an outcry stirred up mainly by Labour politicians and others in the media about how heartless this was and how "TEH TORIES THINK TEH RECESSION IS GOOD FOR US!!!11". Complete lack of any attempt to engage with the substance of what Lansley was saying and just an opportunity for cheap political point scoring. Pathetic. Tom Watson MP's comment on his blog is typical of the sort of reaction I am referring to.

Once it became clear that the media narrative considered it a "gaffe" Lansley was forced by David Cameron to apologise for his remarks. Probably the next time Lansley has an original and interesting insight into some issue of the day he will keep it to himself. And the homogenisation continues as the standard of political debate in this country step by step gets a little bit poorer.

*Edited to correct a couple of mistakes.

Liberal Democrats being dismissed

I have just read this post on the Coffee House Spectator blog by James Forsyth which is an interesting post about the possibility of David Davis returning to the shadow cabinet. I think this would be a good development as I have posted about earlier.

However there is an example in the article of something that I have noticed quite a lot of recently. That is to dismiss Lib Dems out of hand as being irrelecant or just not very good apparently by definition of them being Lib Dems. The particular bit is this:

"Dominic Grieve was impressive in the Commons yesterday but he has failed to cut through in the media. He was outperformed on Newsnight the other night by Chris Huhne which is rather like being the second tallest mountain in Holland."

So Chris Huhne is dismissed out of hand as not being a worthy debating opponent. There is no attempt to define why this should be, it is just assumed that a Tory should be better than a Lib Dem and the fact that Grieve was "outperformed" is seen an an aberration. The truth is of course that Huhne is one of the best politicians of his generation and has huge experience both as an MP and MEP and also in business.

I have seen this attitude often on many of the more partisan blogs especially in the comments sections (e.g. Iain Dale, Guido etc.). Lib Dems are dismissed as an irrelevance or an annoyance.

This frustrates me hugely for a number of reasons:

  1. The Lib Dems in my opinion have a great many excellent MPs among their ranks. I would argue that they have most talent proportional to their size of the 3 major political parties in the Commons. People of the calibre of Vince Cable, Chris Huhne, David Laws, Evan Harris, Norman Lamb, Norman Baker, Susan Kramer and Ming Campbell. And I could go on. Frankly most of that list are better than much of the current cabinet and shadow cabinet. It is ridiculous to try and dismiss us with these levels of talent.
  2. We often lead the way in terms of policy formation with the other parties initially attacking us (or dismissing us - see any sort of a pattern here) and then a few months later our proposals get adopted and pretty soon they are in the mainstream. I am certain that if we did not exist as a political force then there would be a lot less pressure for these sorts of policies to be adopted by the other two parties. We are far from an irrelevance.
  3. Members and supporters of the other two parties act as if the status quo of power flipping between the two of them periodically is just the way it is. They often try to persuade voters to vote for them as a means of keeping the other one out. I recall Tony Blair doing this during the 2005 election warning that a vote for the Lib Dems could let the Tories in by "the back door". Well quite aside from the completely anti-democratic connotations associated with not voting for who you want to because the electoral system might hand the seat to someone you want less (which I have and will continue to post about), the status quo may not be there for ever. It is possible that after the next election, if Labour is defeated quite heavily that they start to implode and within another few years the Lib Dems could end up as the official opposition. It has happened in other countries. Labour and the Tories do not have a divine right to be in positions 1 and 2 in this respect and they and their supporters would do well to remember this. There is also of course the possiblity (quite likely judging by current polls) of there being a hung parliament after the next election. If that happens then all bets are off for how politics pans out over the next few years.

Wednesday 3 December 2008

Speaker getting grilled - Astonishing

Well, I have just finished watching the grilling of the Speaker of the House (Michael Martin) and I have to say I cannot recall a parliamentary occasion like it. It was astonishing to see MP after MP get up and question the Speaker like that.

I have to say that he did not come across well. I appreciate that there are protocols to follow but it seemed like he was trying to evade questions. Also, it seems clear to me that the Serjeant At Arms did not execute her duties correctly as she seemed to be unaware that she could (and should have) refuse entry. There were claims that the police should have informed her of this and I take that point but the SAA should be aware of the rules herself, surely.

I have to say that given all of this, the Speaker's position must surely be under threat now? I will be interesting to see how this pans out.

Commentary on others blogs here and here.

Monday 1 December 2008

Swiss way ahead of us on drugs

This article in the times today demonstrates to me how far behind the curve we are in this country when it comes to the laws around illegal drugs. Good on the Swiss for starting to grasp this very difficult nettle.

The "War on Drugs" has palpably failed and is easily demonstrated by just how many illegal drug users there are in the UK now compared to say 1970 when the existing laws came into force. TDPF has all the figures and it is well worth having a look through their site, especially the "Tools for the Debate" publication if this is a subject you are interested in.

People who are receptive to the idea of reform of the drugs laws are often portrayed as "Soft on Drugs" by the media and opportunist politicians but I very strongly feel that until we can debate this issue openly and honestly then the misery and crime that is a direct cause of the existing laws will continue to get worse.

Instead of fiddling with classifcations of cannabis and disseminating nonsense about TEH KILLER SKUNK 20 TIMES WORSE THAN 20 YEARS AGO bollocks, politicians and opinion formers should engage with a proper review of existing policy. Tony Blair used to advocate evidence based policy but in this area he (along with most politicians) seemed to have a blind spot.

Hopefully this latest Swiss change will provide further evidence of how things could be improved with a little imagination and a proper engagement with the issues.

Incidentally, the Swiss have a model whereby the people can force a referendum on an issue if enough people sign a petition. We of course do not have this system in our country. It is interesting that where this is possible, it appears that cosy consensus between the parties can be overridden by the people.

Performer Pay

Interesting comment piece from Libby Purves in the times on this subject today:

I do struggle to understand how we have ended up in a situation where stars are paid such huge salaries, even by the BBC and in the meantime, runners and others further down the food-chain are paid next to nothing, or in some cases actually nothing.

Any reduction in the salaries paid at the top can only be a good thing and as Kevin Whately says will leave more money for the rest of the budget for shows. Or am I being hopelessly naive?