Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday 31 December 2009

Disappointing discussion about drugs policy on The World Tonight

I have just finished listening to a special edition of Radio 4's "The World Tonight" that was broadcast on Christmas Eve about drugs policy (it's still here on iPlayer although I am not sure for how much longer).

I was disappointed by how little of the 40 minute programme was given to the idea of legalisation and regulation of drugs. It was touched upon tangentially a couple of times and then there was a small amount of time at the end where one of the contributors (former Mexican Foreign Minister Jorge Castañeda) stated that he was in favour of legalisation and regulation of cannabis and also heroin. The other panellists were Professor of Drug Misuse Research at Glasgow University Neil McKegany and US government advisor on drugs Keith Humphries.

There were recorded pieces and lots of discussion about the production of drugs, the supply routes and the demand side of things. These were all covered in a lot of detail. I think that the programme suffered from what I hear a lot around this debate: an assumption that the current prohibition situation is broadly correct and that what needs to happen is to modify the approach slightly but still keep everything illegal.

Jorge made the point that all the comments being made by the other two panellists and successive governments about how they were going to refocus their efforts and that there "may have been mistakes in the past but they have learned from those mistakes" have been said time and again over several decades now. There was no real recognition from the other two panellists that the "War on Drugs" has failed. In fact at one point Neil McKegany stated that in his view the fact that "only" 1% of people in the UK use heroin is a testament to how effective the current policy has been. Given that there has been at least a hundred-fold increase in heroin users in this country since the 1971 Misuse of Drugs act came into force I am not sure how that can be considered to have been an effective policy.

There were also some other comments made that I found frustrating. The example of Portugal and the success its 8 years (and counting) of decriminalisation of all drug use was raised near the start and was highlighted as a great success (although no detail was covered). I blogged about this myself here earlier this year and described how Portugal had found that drug use had actually decreased in every category since they had decriminalised. However later on in the discussion when the idea of legalisation was briefly put to Neil McKegany he stated baldly that he would not want to do anything that might encourage drug use. Nobody picked him up on the fact that Portugal's situation flies in the face of the received wisdom that liberalisation of drug laws inevitably lead to increased use and in fact shows that is not necessarily the case at all.

There was also much talk about how good and successful abstinence based programmes are. Keith Humphries claimed to have lots of evidence showing this. However the discussion also just seemed to accept that mandatory abstinence based programmes are the only way forward and the idea that some treatment may also need to encompass managing the addiction in other ways was dismissed as almost unbelievable. The thing is though that in order for an addict to abstain they have to want to. 12 step based programmes such as Narcotics Anonymous were mentioned but one of NA's founding principles is that the person attending the meeting should want to stop taking drugs. This is exactly the same as for other 12 step based programmes such as Alcoholics Anonymous or Gamblers Anonymous. It is actually the only requirement for membership of one of these fellowships. Taken from the UK NA website:

NA is a non-profit Fellowship of men and women for whom drugs had become a major problem.
We are recovering addicts who meet regularly to help each other stay clean.
The only requirement for membership is the desire to stop using.

Legally mandated or enforced attendance at NA meetings risks going against this principle. If someone does not want to stop using (or drinking or gambling), nobody can make them. The difference with illegal drugs of course (as opposed to alcohol or gambling) is precisely that they are illegal and governments consistently try to make users of them stop.

I think this panel discussion would have benefitted from the input of someone from Transform Drugs Policy Foundation or Release to have been able to argue much more strongly for legalisation and regulation. Many of the other problems they were discussing on the programme would be greatly eased and perhaps even in some cases eliminated if a regime such as this were embraced.

Kudos to the BBC for dedicating an entire programme to this subject but perhaps next time they could strive to ensure that the discussion is widened.

My Predictions for 2010

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Here are my predictions for the coming year:

  1. Gordon Brown will push the General Election very late to May or June.
  2. There will be a hung parliament after the General Election with the Conservatives as the largest single party.
  3. The Lib Dems will lose seats despite the vote share being very similar to last time.
  4. David Miliband will become Labour leader after the election.
  5. England will go out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals (sorry to sound unpatriotic but 44 years of hurt and all that...)
  6. Like last year, I again predict that Eddie Mair will become the new host of Question Time.
  7. Caroline Lucas will become the Green Party's first MP.
  8. Nigel Farage will become UKIP's first elected MP.
  9. A senior Labour MP will defect to the Lib Dems.
  10. One of the major political bloggers will quit blogging altogether after the election.

Happy New Year!

Wednesday 30 December 2009

Jack Straw's hypocrisy on party finances

Jack Straw has done an opinion piece today for The Independent where he rails against the current situation where he claims that the Tories are trying to buy the election:

Mr Cameron ... has ordered his party to fight the most expensive election campaign in British political history. It is an American-style campaign, costing millions, with wealthy suitors each paying £50,000 to join David Cameron's dining club, and British high streets covered with billboards bankrolled ultimately from Belize. Mr Cameron says the Conservatives have changed, but what we are seeing is an attempt by his party to buy the next general election.

Senior politicians often seem think that voters are very dumb. I don't remember him speaking out against all the donations that rolled into the Labour Party's coffers in the second half of the 90s and the first few years of this decade. I, and I suspect many others can recall those days and how Labour lapped up the largesse bestowed upon them and thus, this opinion piece seem very hypocritical to me.

Also, Labour have now been in power for nearly 13 years. If they felt so strongly about this funding issue, why have they not legislated to fix what they now appear to perceive as the problems with it?

For what it is worth, I think we would be much better off if parties got many more small donations from lots of people. It worked for Obama and it is a great way to connect with the electorate. I also think the amount of money spent on silly, negative adverts at election time is way over the top but it was ever thus.

Cabinet ministers cannot credibly write these sort of opinion pieces now. They had their chance to change things and chose not to because it was politically expedient to not do so at the time.

They are now reaping what they have sewn.

The Two Saras take Daily Mail apart on drugs and death penalty

The Daily Mail published a disgusting comment piece yesterday by Leo McKinstry accusing people who thought that Akmal Shaikh (the man executed by China yesterday morning for alleged heroin smuggling) should not have been executed of being "wailing liberals" and suggesting it was correct that he should have been executed, despite the many claims that he was mentally ill. (As is becoming standard policy on this blog I have not linked to the Mail piece - I am not giving them any more traffic directly from here).

I was going to try and find some time to have a crack at a fisk of McKinstry's piece today but I find that there is no need as the two Saras (Scarlett and Bedford) have already done a great job of this separately themselves.

Please read their thoughts here and here.

How did I do with my 2009 predictions?

Overall, not very well!

Here they are along with the verdict:

  1. Gordon Brown will not call a general election this year. I do not think he has the courage and he will run down the clock. Spot on with this one!
  2. Labour's poll ratings will nosedive again in the first half of the year as the recession really starts to bite. They will not recover. Also spot on with this.
  3. Peter Mandelson will be out of the cabinet again within the next 12 months. Wrong! If anything he has gone in the opposite direction and after saving Brown's skin in June is now more powerful than ever.
  4. Ireland will again vote "No" in the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. Wrongamundo!
  5. DD will be back in the shadow cabinet but not as Shadow Home Secretary. Wrong again. I think Cameron is missing a trick here though keeping him on the back benches and that he really should be Shadow Home Secretary again. Grayling has been a disaster.
  6. Lynne Featherstone will be promoted to a high profile role on the Lib Dem front-bench. This has not happened (yet). I still think it will though perhaps after the election now.
  7. Eddie Mair will become the new host of Question Time. There were rumours that Dimbo was going to step down this time last year but this aint happened yet.
  8. Jonathan Ross will leave the BBC. No sign of this happening any time soon. He seems to have survived the Andrew Sachs phone call scandal.
  9. The US will make great strides in shifting their economy to low carbon. Hard to judge but I do think they have done much better recently on this.
  10. Solid state hard drives will start to become standard in laptops by the end of the year. This has also not happened quite as I envisaged yet. I expect it will do in the next year or two though.

I will do my predictions for 2010 soon....

UPDATE 07/01/2010: Rather annoyingly, Jonathan Ross has just announced he is quitting the BBC just a week into the new year! So I was 7 days out with my prediction!

Tuesday 29 December 2009

The North West Leicestershire by-election should not be delayed

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

There have been reports today that the Labour Party has reacted with outrage to the discussions that are taking place about the potential timing of a by-election trigerred by the untimely and unexpected death of Leicestershire North West MP David Taylor on Boxing Day. Labour have been quoted as saying that it is "completely inappropriate" to be talking about an election so soon after his death. The source also said "Our thoughts are completely with David's family. So should everybody else's be."

I am very sorry for the loss that Mr Taylor's family have suffered. However I disagree that the by-election should not be being discussed. I am certain that behind the scenes, election strategists from all parties (including Labour) will be mulling over the possibilities.

One thing that cannot be allowed to happen is for the timing of the poll to be pushed back and back until it coincides with a general election in April, May or June next year. This would probably be in the Labour Party's electoral interest (in order to avoid a potentially embarassing by-election loss soon before the general election) but certainly not in the interests of the constituents of Leicestershire North West.

The average time between a parliamentary vacancy arising and the day of the resultant by-election in the current parliament is just over 48 days. Even this is slightly skewed because of the 143 day wait to elect Michael Martin's successor in Glasgow North East (mainly delayed due to the proximity of the summer recess). If that is excluded then the average comes down to 41 days.

There is no reason for this to be any different. The writ should be moved within a few weeks of the New Year.

Monday 28 December 2009

David Cameron contradicts himself in the same sentence

I've been away for a few days relaxing over Christmas so I am just catching up with the political news. Apparently David Cameron has released a new year message where he appears to be trying to "love bomb" potential Liberal Democrat voters. He says:

I don't think we should invent differences where there aren't differences. There are many more areas where Liberal Democrats and Conservatives agree and that's a good thing but we need to have a decisive election. A hung Parliament would be bad for Britain, would be bad for the sort of strong united determined leadership that we need, but we shouldn't invent differences where they don't exist.

I have highlighted the most brazen bit. So he reckons there are loads and loads and loads of areas where the Lib Dems and Tories agree. If he truly believes that then how can he possibly consider a hung parliament to be such a bad thing? Surely his bestest buddies the Lib Dem MPs who agree with loads and loads and loads of his policies will be queueing up to vote for them in the division lobbies?

This is a pathetic and transparent attempt to peel off Lib Dem voters. He must think the British public are stupid. He has of course tried this sort of thing before too.

Also, as Liberal Neil points out, this "tactic" (if you can even call it that) could easily backfire for Cameron as it will make it easier for Lib Dems to persuade wavering Tory voters to vote Lib Dem.

Look, even Dave says it's OK!

Thursday 24 December 2009

Merry Christmas!

I just wanted to say Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to all my blog readers and commenters!

Blogging will be light to non-existent for a few days whilst I over indulge!


Wednesday 23 December 2009

Letter to myself at 16

I've seen a few of these so far and Jennie Rigg has tagged everyone who wants to be so I thought I'd have a crack myself...

Dear Mark,

I know things have been going quite well for you recently. You have just started at sixth-form college and have already made some good friends. However you will go through some difficulties over the next couple of years. Although it will be very hard, as you will find with all adversity it will ultimately make you a stronger and more resilient person.

Part of the fallout from this will be that you will think you don't want to go to university and instead will go and get a full-time job as a software engineer at the age of 17. Again, this is something you need to go through but rest assured you will go to university eventually and it will be one of the best things you ever do. You will meet people there who will still be some of your closest friends 19 years on (exactly as your mother and father predicted) and once you get a taste of independence there will be no going back!

On the subject of Mum and Dad, try to listen to them a bit more and be a bit fairer to them. They were right about education and only want what's best for you. In time they will become some of your closest confidants and they will support you unconditionally through thick and thin.

Try to spend as much time as you can with your grandparents. I'm sure you are mindful that they will not be around for ever but just try to bear this in mind when planning how to spend your time. They love the bones of you and at this stage in their lives they are largely living vicariously (look it up) through their children and grandchildren. This especially applies in a few years time when you will be living in Liverpool just a few miles away from them. You should make more of an effort at that point. It will not always be as easy to do so.

Don't worry too much about finding a girlfriend right now. There is a danger that you will get a bit obsessed with trying to find someone. Ironically, that will actually make it less likely to happen. You will have the odd girlfriend over the next few years (in some cases very odd!) but it will take time and more maturity from you before you are in a position to enter into a proper long-term relationship.

Try to get over your hangup about going to the Cinema, Theatre, music and comedy gigs etc. on your own. It will hold you back from doing what you really want to do unnecessarily.

Don't ever allow yourself to get bored. There is no need. There are a plethora of subjects to read up on and research. You already have interest in politics, comedy, Theatre/acting and various other areas. Join a library in every area you live in and make very good use of it.

Finally, try to stop worrying so much. You are on course to have a rich life with wonderful experiences and friends. You will be successful in a number of different areas. Try to channel that worry into more constructive things.

See you in 2009.


PS: In 1994, you will come across something called the "Internet" for the first time. You will initially be frustrated at how difficult it is to find things on it but won't give it too much thought. Try and solve it yourself! You will definitely have the skills to be able to at that point. You will have 4 years before anyone else does it and founds what becomes one of the biggest companies in the world....

Excellent post on climate change from Conservative Graeme Archer

So many of the blog posts about climate change end up becoming partisan mud slinging contests so it was very refreshing yesterday to come across this little gem from Graeme Archer on Conservative Home.

Graeme is a statistician and has some experience of working with atmospheric modelling as part of his post-doctoral work. His considered view is that there is a problem relating to man-made climate change and he was surprised at how quick others were to tell him that he did not know what he was talking about when he tweeted a link to some work questioning the veracity of some of the evidence (specifically relating to the "hockey stick graph"). It's well worth reading the whole piece - he covers a lot of ground.

He ends with a clarion call for the right to listen to scientific evidence and never to sack scientific advisers for "speaking as their integrity dictates they must".

I think that message should be heeded by all sides.

Monday 21 December 2009

Sunday 20 December 2009

The rest of us might as well pack up and go home then

The blogging Labour MP Tom Harris had a rather uncomplimentary piece about the Lib Dems yesterday entitled: "LibDems to retain meaningless promise". In it he claimed that the pledge to abolish tuition fees is meaningless:

“LibDems keep tuition fees pledge”? Now, technically, the headline is correct. The Liberals have decided to keep their tuition fees pledge in their party’s programme.

But away from the Liberals, back in the real world, the phrase about “keeping” a pledge would normally mean “honoured”. In other words, parties can “keep” their promises by enacting in government whatever promises they made before polling day.

Given that the Liberals will not win the 2010 general election, the headline would have been more accurate had it read: “LibDems to retain meaningless promise to scrap tuition fees”.

I hear/read this line of reasoning from members of the two main parties frequently. That any pledge from the Lib Dems is pointless because they are very unlikely to have enough seats to form a majority government after the next election.

Of course Tom is technically correct about the last point. We currently have 63 seats and we would need 326 after the next election to form a government on our own. Barring a political earthquake it is not going to happen. However he is being extremely dismissive and in fact contemptuous of our political system in this country.

Just a few months ago, the government reversed its decision on allowing the Gurkhas to remain resident in this country. It is unlikely that would have happened without the Lib Dems championing their cause both inside and outside parliament. Is it really very far fetched to think that if the tuition fees policy proved very popular and starting moving serious numbers of voters towards the Lib Dems that one (or perhaps both) of the two main parties would modify their own policies to counter that trend? It's not like it hasn't happened before.

Perhaps even more importantly though given some of the recent polls it is also not beyond the realms of possibility that there could be a minority (or even coalition) government after the next election. In that situation the Lib Dems could have even more influence and perhaps even some of the party's policies could find their way into a Queen's Speech. That possibility surely calls into question Tom's "meaningless" charge.

Of course if Tom is so dismissive of the Lib Dems as they are unlikely to form a government on their own any time soon then that must equally apply to all other political parties except Labour and the Tories. So by that reasoning, the Greens, UKIP and all the other UK-wide parties having policies is even more pointless.

Tom's message is clear. No matter how poorly the two main parties represent your views you should just pick the least worst one and vote for them. Never mind if you find yourself ideologically much closer to one of the other parties.

They are meaningless.

Friday 18 December 2009

Rage Against Simon Cowell

I haven't paid much attention to the music charts for well over a decade now (I'm in my mid-thirties). Nevertheless I have been following the viral internet campaign to get "Killing in the Name" by Rage Against the Machine to No 1 for Christmas instead of the latest X Factor winner's single with interest.

I have read some comments pointing out that RATM's record label is also owned by Sony (which owns Syco, Cowell's label) and therefore it's ultimately just giving more money to the same massive company. There are also other comments that it would be better to give the 29p or 79p or whatever you spend on the song to charity. These points and others are fair and well made, however I hope that the campaign succeeds.

For the last 4 years, whoever wins the X Factor has gone to No 1 with the single released. In the past there was sometimes a genuine race to be the Christmas No 1 (most recently in 2003 when Gary Jules won with his cover version of "Mad World"). I don't think it would be an exaggeration to say that Simon Cowell has taken over the Christmas No 1. The more I read and hear as well, the more that the sense of entitlement from Cowell and his acolytes comes through. Have a look at this strop from X-Factor judge Cheryl Cole who mentored the eventual winner Joe McElderry:

I would be devastated to see Joe lose possibly the best thing that could happen to him in his life. Every aspiring pop star dreams of a number one record.

It is a beautiful song. He put his heart and soul into every single week of The X Factor and I cannot bear to see him lose out to a mean campaign that has nothing to do with his efforts.

If that song, or should I say campaign, by an American group is our Christmas number one I'll be gutted for him and our charts.

A "mean campaign that has nothing to do with his efforts"? "devastated"? "gutted for him and our charts"? Like the X Factor winner getting to Christmas No 1 has anything at all to do with "our charts". It's all to line Cowell's pockets and keep the X Factor bandwagon rolling. Also, as if a life beyond Joe's wildest dreams is not already awaiting him! And her attempt to rally us round by appealing to our sense of patriotism by referring to RATM as "an American group" is frankly pathetic. It makes me wonder what "line" she would have taken if the campaign single had been British which I am sure there would have been. That response has clearly been carefully planned.

If there's a campaign, and I think the campaign's aimed directly at me, it's stupid. Me having a No 1 record at Christmas is not going to change my life particularly. I think it's quite a cynical campaign geared at me that is actually going to spoil the party for these three (the X Factor finalists).

The thing is, I bet Cowell is really, really annoyed about this. The fact that he is making statements about it and getting his employees to do so shows that he is rattled. He has good cause to be too. His comment about the record not getting to No 1 not particularly changing his life is disingenuous. The "guaranteed" Christmas No 1 has become part of the X Factor "package". It has become expected and feeds into the whole supremacy narrative that Cowell has built up for himself during this decade. If Rage Against The Machine get to No 1 instead of Joe's single then that supremacy and most importantly the momentum is damaged. It will affect Simon Cowell and although I expect X Factor to be around for a good while yet we may well find that when it eventually dies, this was the first cut. Cowell is shrewd enough to understand this intuitively.

Now I know there are much more important things going on in the world at the moment and that in the grand scheme of things this is a silly little spat. Notwithstanding that, I bought a copy of the RATM single this week. I am happy to be part of a campaign to send a message to Cowell that the charts are not his to do with what he wants.

Oh, and aside from all of that I have very fond memories of "Killing in the Name". It was one of the songs of my university years and I spent many a happy 4 minutes in clubs thrashing around on the dancefloor to it. Irrespective of anything else I would love to see it at No 1 anyway.


Wednesday 16 December 2009

Taxation without representation

Harriet Harman stood in for Gordon Brown during PMQs today. There was one point where she decided to turn a question from Vince Cable about tax evasion into a jibe against the Tories' non-dom problems regarding tax and Michael Ashcroft. Here is what she said (taken from Hansard):

We have been determined to take measures to stop tax avoidance, and we think it important that an example be set not only in this House, but in the House of Lords. According to an old saying, there should be no taxation without representation. What about no representation without taxation? We will introduce legislation to ensure that people are domiciled, resident and ordinarily resident in order to sit in this House or in the House of Lords.

Now I don't disagree with her point here (although she made it at the expense of avoiding answering Vince Cable's question) but she needs to be very careful how she makes this point. Let's just examine part of what she said again:

According to an old saying, there should be no taxation without representation.

She then goes on to talk about the House of Lords. That would be the unelected House of Lords. The one that Labour have had nearly 13 years now to reform and make elected. The House of Lords that in spite of some loosely observed conventions still often legislates on and amends legislation relating to finance and taxation. So in other words an example of taxation without representation in a chamber just across from the Commons where Harriet was standing that is her government's responsibility.

Perhaps Ms Harman should try to use a different form of words next time she wants to attack the opposition for fear of drawing attention to her own government's manifest failings.

Tory Rascal on House of Comments Podcast - Episode 7

The latest "House of Comments" podcast with myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion political blog is now live. The website for the podcasts is here and the eighth episode which we recorded on Monday 14th Dec is available to download via this page here (raw mp3 file here if you prefer). You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

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

This week we were joined by Tory Rascal and covered defence spending cuts, general election timing, sympathy for Gordon Brown, Blair's recent Iraq comments, the poll gap, Cameron legislating for parliamentarians to be domiciled in the UK for tax and some silly season stories including a new system of maths...

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

Gary McKinnon protest report (Guest post)

This is a guest post from Judy and Kalvis Jansons

On the cold but dry afternoon of Tuesday, 15 December, a protest against the proposed extradition of Gary McKinnon by the US government was held outside the Home Office in London by Janis Sharp, Gary's mother, and other supporters. The protest lasted from 12:00 until 14:00 and when we arrived at 12:30, there were about 50 people present. Most of the people were enclosed in a kind of pen on one side of the Home Office, and two police officers stood behind this enclosure throughout most of the protest.

MPs from all political parties joined the protest. Nick Clegg, the Liberal Democrat leader, was already there when we arrived speaking to the press, and later joined us in the pen. Keith Vaz, Labour MP for Leicester East, also came along to show his support, and spoke with a number of the protestors. He told us that this kind of demonstration really does help to send the message, and thought that there was a glimmer of hope for Gary. Kate Hoey, Labour MP for Vauxhall, and David Burrowes, Conservative MP for Enfield, Southgate were also present. Representatives from Liberty were at the protest too.

Many of the people attending the protest had heard about it and been interacting with each other on Twitter, and while the protest was going on, some people were tweeting on their mobiles. People held posters with slogans on such as "Fair UK trial for Gary McKinnon", "UK
law for UK citizens", "No extradition for Gary McKinnon". Janis Sharp led chanting, which everyone joined in with, of "UK trial or no trial", "No way to the USA" and others and this was continued by other people when she became hoarse.

We had written a letter to the Home Secretary, Alan Johnson, which we wanted to hand in to the Home Office while we were at the protest. This proved to be much more complicated than just delivering it to the Home Office reception desk. One of the police officers arranged for
some Home Office officials to come out to the front of the building and receive the letter from us to give to Alan Johnson.

Janis Sharp made a very good effort to speak to protestors individually and thank them for their support, and everyone present conducted themselves impeccably throughout the protest. This includes the two policemen present, who were courteous and helpful in the way
that people used to expect of police officers.

None of the people that we spoke to would condone criminality of any kind but merely wished to protect a vulnerable man without any ill intent from a disproportionate response to things that he foolishly did driven by his Asperger's Syndrome. The Americans are fortunate that the person who got into their military computer systems was such a person as Gary McKinnon, someone who had no malicious intent, but was simply following an interest too obsessively. The protestors, quite reasonably, simply request a fair trial in the UK for this vulnerable person and for due consideration to be given to the extraordinary stress that he has been under for so many years.

Gary McKinnon has become a pawn in a political game which is played by people with no compassion for one of their more vulnerable countrymen. As Nick Clegg says, "It is the basic duty of a Government to protect its citizens." And the common sentiment expressed by so many of the protestors is that the Home Secretary has taken away any pride that we
could have had in this country. We think that Britain should stand for more than this. Very few countries would betray their citizens in the way that Gary McKinnon has been betrayed by ours, and the USA certainly would not. So how did this country become part of such an asymmetrical extradition treaty?

We know from his mother that Gary is in an extraordinarily stressed out state, and what he has been subjected to is an extreme form of mental torture. Our personal feeling is that if a British court actually looked at what Gary McKinnon really did, and gave due consideration for his medical condition and the extent to which he and his family have already suffered, they would surely think that this suffering has already been far too great a punishment and would hopefully conclude that no further action against him was necessary.

If Gary McKinnon's diagnosis with Asperger's Syndrome had occurred earlier, his family would have known to look out for possibly obsessive behaviour and avoided this current situation. So Gary McKinnon has been failed by this country in many ways over a long period.

Surely it is time for Gary McKinnon's nightmare to end.

We finish by wishing Gary the best of luck and we pray that the Home Secretary remembers who he is there to serve.

Judy and Kalvis Jansons

Tuesday 15 December 2009

Do you have to be well off to be a parliamentary candidate?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

There is a bit of a hullabaloo at the moment regarding the revelation that Zac Goldsmith has contributed £260,000 out of his own pocket since 2007 to his attempt to win Richmond Park from the Lib Dems at the next election.

This got me doing a bit of reading around though and I came across a very interesting article on ConservativeHome from August 2006 entitled "The costs of being a candidate". It focused on the experiences of Conservatives trying to get selected/elected (17 A-listers and 20 other candidates) and analysed the amount of expenditure to incurred in trying to become a candidate and then win a seat. They also looked at lost earnings and opportunity costs and tried to factor those in too. The information was then analysed and averages were taken. Here are some of the headline figures:

  • Total costs for winning candidates (including lost earnings): £41,550
  • Total costs for losing candidates (including lost earnings): £34,392
  • Direct costs for winning candidates: £22,020
  • Direct costs for losing candidates: £16,070

The article itself is well worth a read to see some of the experiences of the candidates involved.

It is not totally clear over what exact time-frame these costs were incurred (perhaps I missed it in the article) but I am assuming it is over say 2 or 3 years in the run up to the 2005 election. Now firstly I should just say that this is a snapshot of the specific experiences of Conservative candidates and the sample may to an extent be self selecting (ConHome asked for candidates to come forward to discuss how much it cost and it may be the ones who spent the most felt most motivated to come forward). It is also not clear how much of the expenditure would apply to candidates for other parties.

Notwithstanding all that, I still think this is a fascinating piece of research and one that should give pause for thought. Can it really be right that we are expecting candidates seeking election to become an MP to spend tens of thousands of pounds of their own money whilst seeking to do so? Surely that will mean that some (perhaps quite a lot of) people will be excluded from the process altogether. Well off people will not need to worry too much about this but for anyone on say average salary (c£25,000 - take home much less than that) you could be looking at spending up to two years worth of take-home annual salary just to be in with a shout.

I know from discussions I have had of people who currently cannot consider trying to become an MP purely for the financial cost and these sorts of figures could be an indication of why.

All of this can only mean that some people who would make great MPs are being filtered out of the process before they even get to try and be a candidate.

The ConHome article does suggest a few measures that might help:

  • A reduction in the cost of attending a Parliamentary Assessment Board (candidate approval process).
  • An emergency access fund run by a small committee – including an MP and candidate - that can release money to a struggling candidate in particularly pressed circumstances. One candidate who replied to the ConservativeHome survey literally ran out of money ten days before the 2001 polling day. They maxed out their credit card and were afraid to ask local Conservative officials for help. The Conservatives introduced an access fund system at the same time as they introduced student loans in the early 1990s.
  • The appointment of a ‘candidates’ protector’ in every Association. The protector would be jointly appointed by the candidate and Association Executive and would be, for example, responsible for prioritising the Conservative functions that the candidate attended so that he/ she had more time for campaigning. Just having such a role should improve activists’ understanding of the costs of being a candidate. CCHQ or the Candidates’ Association might like to consider preparing a briefing paper for Conservative Association executives to alert them to the cost pressures facing candidates.

I'm not sure how many of these suggestions have been taken up by the Conservative Party and even if they have been, how much difference they have made.

I would be interested to hear about the experience of candidates from other parties, how much cost they have incurred and how this compares with the Conservative figures.

Anyone who wants to contact me about this can at the e-mail address in the sidebar near the top of this blog. I will treat anything sent to me on this with discretion.

Perhaps Lib Dem Voice and/or LabourList might want to think about doing something similar?

Monday 14 December 2009

Gary McKinnon protest tomorrow

I have blogged about the Gary McKinnon case before and support the campaign to get him tried in the UK.

There is a protest outside the Home Office tomorrow from midday organised by the "Free Gary" campaign which is seeking to have him tried in this country. The more people who attend this, the more the government is likely to sit up and take notice of how lots of people in this country feel about this case.

Sunday 13 December 2009

"Vetting and Barring" scheme modified slightly

There is a post from Iain Roberts on LDV today which explains how the Vetting and Barring scheme (which I have blogged about previously here and here) has been modified slightly. Iain describes it as the government "backing down". I am afraid I cannot really agree. Iain quotes from a Telegraph report:

It will now be a much more common-sense regime.

Under the new scheme, the definitions for whether or not an adult must register have been loosened.

Any activity that brings an adult into contact with children for four or more days a month, or involves any overnight contact, will be branded “intensive” rather than at least three days under the original plan.

Similarly the test for “frequency” will now mean an activity taking place at least once every week. Previously, the category included adults in contact with children only once a month. Both “frequent” and “intensive” categories require registration.

This is not backing down, it is merely tinkering at the edges. The fundamental problems with the scheme still remain and I suspect the “unintended consequences” will still remain as before. I put that in quotes because I am tired of giving the government the benefit of the doubt for things which many people warn them about long in advance and I can only really assume that they are actually intended or at least considered a price worth paying. These measures will still cause many people for one reason or another to not volunteer for things. Also, if it ends up like the CRB checks then organisations will end up insisting on V&B checks just to be on the safe side as they would not want to fall foul of the law.

Measures like this foster the feeling of suspicion within our society and force a wedge between children and the adult population, giving the perception that the only adults to be trusted are those predetermined as worthy of this trust by the state.

I've been interviewed by Matt Wardman

Back in September, I was interviewed by Matt Wardman of the Wardman Wire blog over the phone. It has taken a little while but Matt put the interview online in audio form on Friday. You can access it here.

We discussed various subjects but the main focus was on getting wider coverage (including mainstream media) for blogs and what can happen to nuance when blogposts get mainstream coverage.

Friday 11 December 2009

Mobile phones and cars

I was not particularly surprised to read earlier today that the number of people using hand-held mobile phones in cars is now higher than it was two years ago before the new legal penalties for doing this came into effect.

I always thought the way that this law was configured was odd. It is illegal to use a hand-held mobile phone whilst driving. It is however legal to use one as long as you have a hands-free kit. However there is no evidence that using a hands-free kit is any safer than using a hand-held phone. It's the fact that you are making the call at all that is the distraction.

So the first problem with the law is that it seems a bit arbitrary.

Secondly, the type of hands-free kit that you can use is quite specific. I have an iPhone which comes with a pair of headphones with a control on them that allows me to take calls, speak into the control (which is hanging on the wire just by my mouth when I have the earphones in) and I can hear the call through the earphones. To all intents and purposes it is a hands-free kit. However because it is in physical contact with the phone, if I use this whilst driving then I am technically in contravention of the law. If I had some sort of bluetooth or other wireless earpiece then this would be OK though. However that, or other "proper" hands-free kits are more expensive and may involve cumbersome installation as well for the car. The headphones I referred to came with my iPhone for free.

So the second problem with the law is that it appears for no good reason designed to make money for the manufacturers and vendors of the specific, more expensive hands-free kits.

I think it is these two factors that bring the law into disrepute and have brought us to this situation. Like numerous laws brought in by this government it was ill thought through and there are at least two factors that allow the perception of it being arbitrary and/or unfair.

Perhaps this is why people like the Leader of the House of Commons and Deputy Leader of the Labour Party Harriet Harman felt free to disregard it.

I am on John Pienaar's podcast this week

I was invited to be the guest on John Pienaar's weekly political review podcast this week. We discussed the pre-Budget report and the continuing saga of MPs' expenses.

You can download the podcast from here. You can also subscribe to it on iTunes via this link here.

Darling should have called Brown's bluff

So it turns out that Alistair Darling and the Treasury wanted to go much further in terms of steps to control the deficit in Wednesday's pre-Budget report but Gordon Brown (with more than a little help from Ed Balls) overruled him.

Now of course we don't know the full story here. It could be that Brown had actually wanted an even more profligate PBR and that Darling managed to win a few skirmishes to get us to where we are but frankly he could have and should have done much better.

Let's just have a quick look at the political realities of Darling's situation. Everyone knows that Brown wanted to move him from the Treasury and replace him with Balls in the reshuffle earlier this year but was too politically weak when Darling dug his heels in and threatened to leave the cabinet altogether. That showed how powerful his position was. If anything, his position now is even stronger. We are only a few months from an election and a principled resignation on economic policy at this stage would be devastating for Brown. Darling could and should have insisted on pushing his tighter PBR through. What was Brown going to do? Fire him?

Alistair Darling had nothing to lose. After the next election, one of two things will happen. Either Labour will be out of power and hence Darling will no longer be Chancellor of the Exchequer (most likely). The second possibility is that by some dramatic turnaround, Brown actually manages to remain Prime Minister (pretty unlikely, but possible). If that happens then with a fresh mandate, you can bet that item number one on his agenda will be to get Balls into No 11. Therefore Darling has at best another few months as Chancellor.

He should have called Brown's bluff on the PBR. I suspect Brown would have folded faster than Superman on laundry day. Had he done this, Darling would have been doing the country (and incidentally his place in history) a big favour.

Instead he is now as guilty as Brown for not taking the necessary action when he had the chance.

Thursday 10 December 2009

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 10th December 2009 - #bbcqt

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

The show is coming from Wootton Bassett today, the Wiltshire town which has become the national focus for honouring our fallen soldiers.

The panel will include the former head of the British Army General Sir Richard Dannatt, the Minister of State for the Armed Forces Bill Rammall MP, the shadow foreign secretary William Hague MP, the former Liberal Democrat leader Lord Ashdown, the former newspaper editor Piers Morgan and the Respect Party's Salma Yaqoob.

I cannot make the start of the chat tonight, I will however try to join in later on if I can. Dazmando from Bracknell Blog will be in charge of proceedings in my absence. Play nice!

Join him from 10:30pm below.

Interview with Esther Rantzen, independent candidate for Luton South

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

The TV presenter Esther Rantzen is trying to get elected as MP for Luton South during the next general election. I well remember her TV programme "That's Life!" from when I was growing up as a kid and after she started following me on Twitter I thought I would try and find out a bit more about her campaign and what is motivating her and she very kindly granted me an interview.

My questions are in bold and Esther's answers are in italics:

You expressed an interest in running as an independent anti-sleaze candidate in Luton South earlier this year after Margaret Moran, the Labour MP found herself embroiled in the MPs expenses scandal. Initially you suggested that you would stand against Margaret if she decided to stand again but she has announced she is standing down. Why are you still standing given that your initial reason for doing so is no longer applicable?

I was outraged when I heard about the abuse of expenses. Especially Margaret Moran's. When I said I'd stand against her at the General Election, there was a great deal of support among the people of Luton who encouraged me to stand. I heard their complaints, her absence from the constituency for long periods of time, the lack of response to constituents when they called on her for assistance. I was greatly saddened that so many people felt utterly unrepresented and I realised I had fallen in love with Luton, and Lutonians, their warmth, their energy and the unfairness they had suffered. People in Luton South felt abandoned by their MP and had lost confidence in our democratic processes. They told me they need someone they can trust and I hope to be that person: someone who can carry their constituents' issues forward rather than a party-formulated agenda, someone who can listen to reasoned argument and form an opinion, someone with the life experience to take a view on matters of national importance, like child protection and who will serve the interests of Lutonians.

You have spoken out about professional politicians and questioned why people from a non-political background cannot become MPs. Why do you think this rarely happens these days and given your views on this, do you think it is right that it often seems to be people who are famous for other reasons (e.g. Martin Bell, yourself) and also who are relatively well off from these previous careers who are in a position to be able to run as independents and have a realistic chance? What would you do to change this?

The idea that career politicians know best and that people from all walks of life don't or can't understand what is best for their community seems high-handed, pompous, arrogant and out of touch. Martin Bell and I might attract the most publicity because we are already known to the electorate but financial status should not and does not have anything to do with our standing as Independent candidates. For us both it has been a matter of principle.

This Election may surprise people who believe that politics should be reserved only for politicians. I hope a number of well-qualified Independents are elected. If we want apathy to be transformed into active participation, that is one of a number of things that can be done to encourage more people to vote and take a role in local and national politics. Transparency is another long overdue reform. Parliament should never have become a club whose members made up the rules, a system that permitted people to submit fraudulent expense claims without any apparent safeguard or accountability. The House of Lords should be a wholly elected chamber, with plenty of cross-benchers with a strong track record in public life. And yes, Parliamentarians should be paid a decent but not overly generous salary, set by an Independent body.

I believe in the party system, but I also believe Independent MPs and peers would act as a constant reminder that they cannot be used as lobby fodder, that debates are impotant, that issues should be considered carefully on their merits, and that good judgement is more important than unquestioning party loyalty.

You say: "Martin Bell and I might attract the most publicity because we are already known to the electorate but financial status should not and does not have anything to do with our standing as Independent candidates." but realistically the ability to garner publicity and a sound financial basis are things that go very strongly in favour of an independent candidate who would not have the backup of a party machine to fall back on. Given that you evidently would like to see more independent MPs, what would you do to improve their chances? For example, do you favour any sort of electoral reform to our system for Westminster?

Of all the Independent candidates who stood at the last Election, Richard Taylor was the one with the greatest success but he was neither well-known previously nor especially well-backed financially. He captured the imagination of the constituents by being aware of the local, as well as national issues, gaining the trust of local people by being visible and seen to care. These qualities are much more important than notoriety or money in establishing a successful campaign and so they should be.

You have been maintaining a blog about your experiences as a candidate but it only seems to be updated relatively infrequently (e.g. only 4 posts in the last 2 months). How are you finding blogging and will you be upping the rate of posting as the election moves closer?

I have been experimenting with a number of communication tools, most recently with Twitter (@Esther4Luton). My blog is really my diary of events in Luton and my experiences with the electorate, but more recently the concise and interactive nature of Twitter has caught my attention as a way of getting across who I am and what I think. Certainly in the couple of weeks or so that I have been using Twitter, I have attracted over 600 followers and many of them have engaged me in lively debate online. Most definitely, once the election has been called, there will be much more on which to report and I will be looking at a number of ways in which to get my message across.

Twitter was the mechanism through which I got in touch with you in the first place and you seem quite active on it. Do you know roughly what proportion of your followers are within the Luton South constituency?

Twitter is a global phenomenon and represents a worldwide community, so it is only natural that those from the Luton South constituency would make up a very small percentage of the total. What I find interesting is that comments made to me on Twitter are remarkably consistent, regardless of where the sender is located.

As a long standing high-profile figure at the BBC and given your initial reasons for getting involved in this campaign, would you be happy to see the expenses and remuneration of BBC employees subjected to the same level of scrutiny as MPs? Some would argue after all that BBC employees are also paid from the public purse. Also, would you be happy for your own expenses and remuneration from years gone by to be released into the public domain?

I didn't claim expenses while I worked at the BBC and the salary they paid me was always far less that I was offered by ITV. The BBC do now seem to have started the process of greater transparency, which is right and proper. However, unlike Westminster, there are private sector equivalent markets so they argue that commercial sensitivity might mean they lost out and talented artists would desert them for commercial TV stations.

If you were elected and came top of the ballot to introduce a Private Members’ Bill what would you want to do?

What to choose? I’d like to make so many changes in child protection legislation. For instance, I would increase the maximum sentence for dangerous murderers like the killers of Baby Peter. I’d like Parliament to create a new Commission into the treatment of child witnesses in our courts, at the moment children are not protected adequately in our adversarial system and far too many abusers walk free. I would legalise assisted suicide, with careful legal protection for the vulnerable. I would deal with crazy awards of compensation in negligence cases, by creating a legal defense of acting in the best interests of a patient or a client. I would make it a legal obligation for local authorities to provide sufficient safe play areas for children. I would make it illegal to prevent adult taking photographs unless there was evidence that it would cause harm, (why shouldn’t Granny take a picture of her grandchild in the Nativity play?). I could go on…

Have your experiences of campaigning so far and the work that candidates/MPs do made you any more sympathetic to them?

I have enormous respect for the work many MPs do and the demands upon an elected MP. Anyone who believes otherwise does not understand my intentions at all. I have friends in Parliament, I have met and worked alongside a number of MPs who deserved the utmost respect. But we have heard of way too many MPs over the past 20 years or so, who have seen the role as a free ride on a gravy train. And they have disgraced Parliament and the standing of MPs generally. But there are many who work hard for their constituents and I don't have to look too far to find someone like Kelvin Hopkins, who has represented Luton North since 1997, to know that there are some who are exemplary, regardless of their political affiliations. As an Independent MP, I would hope to follow their example.

If elected, it is traditional for a new MP to pay tribute to their predecessor in their maiden speech. What nice things are you planning to say about Margaret Moran?

During her time as MP for Luton South, Ms Moran commissioned a useful report on domestic violence. She also had very good taste in hats - though Luton did provide her with excellent options from which to choose!

Wednesday 9 December 2009

PBR shows Labour think they will soon be out of power

I have been in a meeting for most of the day and so am only just catching up with the PBR now. However my first impression rattling through the headlines on the BBC News website and reading initial reaction from blogs and commentators is that there is a lot less here than I was expecting.

All the measures announced will make a smallish difference in each case and they do not seem to add up to anything substantial. It certainly does not feel like a government getting a firm grip on public spending and revenue raising/budget reduction to try and get us out of the worst financial crisis in working people's living memory.

What it actually seems like to me is doing the bare minimum in order to try and shore up their political position and leave whoever is in government after the next election to pick up the pieces.

If I appear to be unfair here, ask yourself this. Given the state of the finances, would this PBR have been the same if the government still had say 3 or 4 years to run? I suspect not and that they would have been trying much harder to get a grip now. Therefore I think it is only fair to conclude that they do not expect it to be them doing that picking up after June 2010.

Tuesday 8 December 2009

Has David Cameron got it wrong on Lisbon and UKIP?

I've just been listening to Iain Dale on Simon Mayo's show discussing the Tory slip in the polls with Peter Riddell. Iain stated that he thinks the main reason why the Tory lead is now averaging in the low double digits rather than the high teens as per a couple of months ago is largely attributed to David Cameron's decision not to have a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.

Now we have already established that I am no Mike Smithson, but I did decide a few weeks ago to have a small flutter at 10-1 that there would be some sort of referendum on Lisbon by the end of 2010. Of course now that is looking very, very unlikely but when I put the bet on, I tried to think if there was an upside if the bet did not come in. I thought there was and that it would be an entertaining spectator sport to watch the Tories tear themselves apart over this issue if Cameron dared not to have a referendum.

The thing is that although there were (and are) plenty of Tories who were deeply unhappy about Cameron's Lisbon decision, the media side of this was handled very well. Expectations were managed and although people like Daniel Hannan and Roger Helmer were mightily miffed, as a story it was all over within a few days and the narrative moved on. So you might think job done.

I don't think it's that simple though. For a start, Cameron's supposed way of making sure "matters do not rest there" are widely recognised as very insubstantial and some think they are almost meaningless. A law to ensure any further cessation of powers to Brussels is deemed by many to be too little too late and all the indications are that this and the other measures will be kicked into the long grass anyway.

So if I was a Eurosceptic Tory (and the term nowadays is almost a tautology) then the only party truly representing my views on Europe would be UKIP. I am sure there will be plenty of Tories who for the sake of putting in the most Eurosceptic of the main parties will still vote Conservative but I am sure there will be some who feel so strongly that they cannot stomach doing so and will vote UKIP, whatever the consequences. The question is how many.

I wonder if Cameron will eventually rue his decision on Lisbon. I know that he wants to be able to focus on more important and substantive issues if he becomes PM and in a way I admire him for facing the Eurosceptics down but in order to be in any position to focus on anything he actually has to be in power.

The risk is that by going against what many in his party feel so strongly about, he jeapordises his chances of ever actually being in that position.

Tom Harris MP and Charlotte Gore on House of Comments Podcast - Episode 7

The latest "House of Comments" podcast with myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion political blog is now live. The website for the podcasts is here and the seventh episode which we recorded on Monday 7th Dec is available to download via this page here (raw mp3 file here if you prefer). You can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

The format is to invite one or two other political bloggers each week and discuss a few of the stories that are making waves in the blogosphere. This week we decided to make things a bit less formal and just see where the conversation took us. I thought things flowed nicely and it went well.

We were joined by Labour MP Tom Harris (who blogs at "And Another Thing...") and the former Lib Dem blogger (now independent blogger) Charlotte Gore. The discussion was wide ranging and encompassed polling, PMQs, Charlotte's decision to become an independent blogger, Rodney Liddle, electoral reform, class warfare and The Thick of It.


Monday 7 December 2009

BBC responds about dropping Jo Swinson from BBC Question Time #bbcqt

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

A couple of weeks ago, Jo Swinson was dropped from BBC Question Time at 48 hours notice. A number of Lib Dem bloggers were very unhappy about this, indeed Caron Lindsay even started a group on the Lib Dem ACT system to protest about it.

Some people (including myself) contacted the BBC to complain about this decision. It seemed a particularly bad decision given that was the week that Iraq war inquiry started (Lib Dems were the only major party to oppose the war) and it was the second time in four weeks that there had been no Lib Dem on the panel. There were some suggestions that Jo was dropped to make room for the SNP as the show was broadcast from Scotland but the Lib Dems have 12 times as many MPs in Scotland as the Tories and they still had a representative on the panel. Also, there were two non-politicians on the panel. Why could one of them not have been bumped.

Anyway I have not received a response to my complaint yet but Daisy Benson, a Lib Dem councillor from Reading (who blogs here) was one of the other people to complain and she mentioned on Twitter that she has received a response today. Here it is:

Thank you for your e-mail regarding 'Question Time':

We forwarded concerns on this issue to 'Question Time' Executive Editor Gavin Allen who explained that we constantly monitor the balance of the panel and that in light of their national electoral strength, the level of representation for the Liberal Democrats on the programme remains very strong. He added that on this occasion the panel was rearranged to reflect a change in the prominence of some of the issues due to be discussed on the programme and in order to facilitate debate by having representatives willing to question the central political consensus on these issues, of which the Liberal Democrats are a part. He also added that: "It was regrettable - but necessary - that the decision to replace Jo Swinson was taken relatively late, but we have to keep a constant editorial eye out for the best possible panel and this can of course mean last-minute alterations.

To ensure the widest range of political views are heard there are occasions across the series when nationalists or minority parties are invited onto the panel". We'd like to assure you that we've registered your complaint on our audience log.

This is a daily report of audience feedback that's circulated to many BBC staff, including members of the BBC Executive Board, channel controllers and other senior managers. The audience logs are seen as important documents that can help shape decisions about future programming and content. Thanks again for taking the time to contact us. Regards BBC Complaints

The bit I have highlighted in bold seems to be their main justification and yet it seems very vague and generic. Has anyone got any idea what he's talking about? The fact we opposed the Iraq war and a question on that was almost bound to come up strongly rebuffs his point about Lib Dems being "part of the central political consensus".

Anyway, I doubt the people who complained will be satisfied with this but hopefully the complaints will make this sort of thing less likely to happen in the future.

It's also worth noting that when I lodged my complaint with the duty log, the fact that there were two non-politicians on the panel when Jo was being dropped seemed unfair even to the chap who was logging it!

Sunday 6 December 2009

The case against Tom Harris' case for first-past-the-post

Tom Harris, the leading blogger and Labour MP has done a blogpost today which I feel needs a riposte. I know some people think I bang on about electoral reform too much but today I can honestly say a bigger blogging boy made me do it.

I have quoted his main points along with my thoughts below:

...even those of us who aren’t brainy enough to understand the arguments in favour of ditching first-past-the-post (FPTP) have valid reasons for keeping the system the way it is. And yes, one of those reasons is that it benefits the Labour Party – there, I’ve said it.

(”What?!” I hear you say, spitting your muesli onto your laptop screen. “A Labour MP wants a system that will benefit his party? Outrageous!” Yeah, and the LibDems support STV for entirely altruistic and principled reasons…)

I would not use the word "outrageous" but it hardly a good argument for someone to openly favour an electoral system that disproportionately benefits their own party for that reason. It's a bit more than this though because Tom is MP for Glasgow South which is a pretty safe Labour seat and hence he is personally also a strong beneficiary of the current system.

As for his comment about the Lib Dems not supporting STV for entirely altruistic reasons well I can't speak for the party as a whole but I was in favour of a proportional system for the Commons for many years before I joined the Lib Dems. Indeed it was one of the things that attracted me to the party in the first place. I know that there are certainly plenty of other members of the party for whom electoral reform is a point of principle. There are more than a few within Tom's own parliamentary ranks too.

One of the reasons (but not the only one) I support FPTP is that it enforces the two-party system, and that, as far as I’m concerned, is A Good Thing. FPTP forces the parties to make an effort to be as broad a church as possible and to try to include an impressively wide range of political views within them. That means having a degree of collective discipline, which I know is frowned upon these days. But that’s preferable to having a new party formed every time a party member goes in a huff at every policy decision he disagrees with.

Whilst the parties themselves may have a broad range of opinion within them, what FPTP actually does is make the party leadership focus on the 100,000 or so swing voters in marginal constituencies. These floating voters in those seats are not hugely interested in politics and tend to be part of what is often termed "Middle England". Therefore the parties are trying to crowd in on that territory and the needs and concerns of the millions of people who are not floating voters in marginal seats get sidelined. This is why our politics has become so anodyne and speeches by government ministers or opposition spokespeople are almost interchangeable. Then, of course once a "strong" government is elected with a sizable (and disproportionate) majority, then the concerns of these voters can be actioned because of course their votes will be needed again next time round. So the "broad church" is neutered as whipped vote after whipped vote is pushed through to satisfy this tiny minority. The bigger the parliamentary majority, the easier this is to do. For example in 2005, Labour got 55% of the seats on around 35% of the vote.

FPTP is also the best way of electing governments. Yes, of course general elections are about electing 646 constituency representatives, but it’s also about much more than that. Most people, I think would prefer to know exactly who is going to form the government and which manifesto they should hold them to.
Which brings me to the main point: PR (so not AV, usually) would give the smaller, annoying parties a proportionate number of MPs (which is bad enough) but an entirely disproportionate amount of power in the hung parliaments PR is designed to produce. I’ve seen it happen at Holyrood: the parties stand for election on their own manifestos and then, as soon as the electorate have their say, the leaders go behind closed doors, away from the cameras, and thrash out a deal without any reference whatsoever to the public or to the manifestos they’ve just voted on, bargaining away policy after policy in return for ministerial cars. That is not democracy: it’s the precise opposite.

This presupposes that what the electorate want is a manifesto that only just over a third of the country has voted for pushed through completely unopposed. What on earth is wrong with the idea that there may have to be some compromise? The manifestos of the parties are decided behind closed doors and presented to the electorate as a "take it of leave it" option at the moment. With coalition or minority governments, more interests are taken into account in decision making. That is more democratic, not less.

And while PR might well ensure that you can keep a particular party out of government, wouldn’t it be better to argue positively for a particular platform rather than rely on shifty electoral calculations to stymie a particular viewpoint? Had PR been introduced in the ’80s or ’90s, Tony Blair would not have had to argue that Labour should change; he would simply have phoned Paddy Ashdown and asked him how many Cabinet seats he wanted. Job done. And it was dashed inconvenient, afer all, having to ditch Clause IV and actually make an effort to engage with the views and aspirations of ordinary people…

That is just not true. If PR had existed in the 90s, Blair would still have wanted to reform his party. Just because a party is unlikely to achieve a majority of seats does not mean that it does not want to increase its vote. It's just that under PR, it will be able to do this without having to focus on a very narrow section of the electorate.

The Tories won more elections than the Left in the 20th century, not because of the electoral system, but because the public voted for them. They voted for them because they preferred Tory policies and politicians to ours. Democracy sucks, doesn’t t? Maybe if Labour had better policies they might have won more elections, yes?

As to the argument that electoral reform improves engagement and turnout, how much higher is turnout in the European elections now compared with the last time we used FPTP?

I don't know the answer to Tom's question about the European elections but the turnout for those has always been relatively low anyway. The more pertinent question is about turnout for national parliamentary elections and on this subject I saw research back in 2007, presented Steve Fisher of Oxford University which used a comparative study of electoral systems data across a number of different countries to show that changing from FPTP to other, more proportional systems does have a positive effect on turnout. What's even more important though is that the research showed that it is the least politically engaged who are disproportionately less likely to vote under FPTP. The gap between voting levels for the least and most politically engaged closes when we move away from FPTP systems (by 16 percentage points!). This demonstrates to me that a move from FPTP would help with the political engagement of the most marginalised in society, an outcome that I suspect Mr Harris would wholeheartedly approve of.

This whole debate reminds me of a story Tony Blair tells when explaining the evolution of his own particular brand of politics. He says when he was a local activist in London, he joined other party members distributing a local Labour newspaper to the residents of a godawful sink estate with huge levels of crime, unemployment and ant-social behaviour. What was the central message of the newspaper to its readers? “Join CND”.

There will always be "more pressing things" to focus on than the electoral system if such a narrow view is taken. This comment from Tom completely fails to take into account how much better all the other issues that people are concerned about could be represented under a proportional system.

AV would, I grudgingly accept, change precious little, but some of its advocates in my party want it simply as a stepping stone to further reform – a halfway house between FPTP and (shudder) STV. They actually see nothing wrong in spending the next ten years arguing about electoral reform, failing to see that such a debate will do precisely nothing to “engage” the electorate. Rather, the public will see it (rightly) as a vanishingly small political elite self-indulgently discussing the number of angels dancing on pinheads.

I hope some of the points I have made above address Tom's concerns about this being a self-indulgent political elite issue. It is fundamentally about how we are represented.

Also, there is by no means a guarantee that if we were to get PR, that the Lib Dems would always be king-maker and hence permanently in a coalition. This has not happened in either Scotland or Wales. Once people got more used to the fact that their votes really counted we would see all sorts of changes in voting patterns. I suspect that both UKIP and the Greens would get much higher vote shares and hence a decent number of MPs and we could end up with a realignment of politics. The point is it would be the people who decide.

What Tom seems to want to to preserve in aspic our current 2 party system when it is clear what the public wants is a more pluralistic system. I blogged back in July how in 1951, 93% of people voted either Labour or Conservative but how by 2005 this combined total was down to less than 68%.

Our current system is no longer fit for purpose.

Friday 4 December 2009

Pod Delusion Podcast - Episode 12

This week's Pod Delusion podcast is out and is well worth a listen as usual. I appear as part of an ensemble in the final item....


My Gay Straight Wedding (0:37) by Salim Fadhley
50 for 10: Support The Guardian (7:19) by Jon Treadway
Drugs and Steroids (14:40) by Owen Duffy
Simon Singh: The Movie (22:14) by Crispian Jago and the Pod Delusion Players

Thursday 3 December 2009

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 3rd December 2009 - #bbcqt

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

The panel will include the former foreign secretary and Labour MP Margaret Beckett, the shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley, the Liberal Democrats' treasury spokesman Vince Cable MP, the writer Clive Anderson and TV presenter Kirstie Allsopp.

Join us from 10:30pm below.

Sally Bercow is only human like the rest of us

The wife of the Speaker, Sally Bercow has given a fairly candid interview where she talks about some of the things she did when she was younger. Get ready to be completely and utterly shocked:

  • Apparently, when she was younger, she used to drink a bit too much. It started when she was a student and continued until her early 30s when she decided it was causing problems for her and she stopped.
  • She also, occasionally used to go home with men she had met in bars. That's right! A woman, used to indulge in casual sex. What's worse is that she found it quite exciting and does not appear to be utterly ashamed of her behaviour.
  • She has political opinions! I know! A Labour politician, a Labour politician has views about David Cameron and that his party is for the privileged few!


Unsurprisingly Nadine "I block people who disagree with me on Twiter" Dorries has waded in:

We desperately need to restore both authority and respect to Parliament. What this interview has done is remove any painstaking progress Parliament has made and reduced the Speaker and his office to that of a laughing stock. How can we ask the people to trust us, when the man who holds us to account has such poor judgment that he allowed his wife to give such an appalling self obsessed interview?

So apparently the fact that the wife of the Speaker has the temerity to have had a life when she was a bit younger has removed "painstaking progress" from parliament. WTF!? I know Nadine rarely engages brain before mouth but this is complete nonsense. There is a real vein of misogyny running through Dorries' comments here. A man has "allowed" his wife to do an interview. I'm sure in many other contexts the idea of a man trying to shut up a woman would appal her but in this case because she hates John Bercow he and his wife are fair game for comments like this.

Sally Bercow can do what she likes. She does not need permission from her husband. She is an active Labour politician and nothing I have seen from her past is any different to the experiences of millions of people in this country.

I for one am grateful that she feels able to speak out like this and I very much hope it does not affect her political career one iota.