Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Thursday 29 January 2009

How PMQs appears to most people

I was struck by this post by Ol from Cardiff Student Lib Dems who has written about a trip him and his fellow members took to the commons yesterday to watch PMQs as a guest of Jenny Willot.

He relates how a fellow student described the "baying crowds" of MPs as "so rude". Shouting down others and laughing, talking during questions and "essentially showing the worst elements of humanity". He also makes a very valuable point about how the government and parliament on the one hand wish to try and influence younger people to have respect for one other and society and yet on the other hand behave like the most juvenile pack of imbeclies.

This is something I used to think myself but over the years I have become so inured to the way PMQs and parliament in general works that I don't really even think about it any more. Indeed occasionally I have found myself chuckling at some of the jokes bandied across the despatch box and generally gettiing a bit too into it. I am not proud of this to be honest. This is no way for a modern democratic chamber to behave and it is sad that it takes a young student to point out what should be obvious to all in politics, that the behaviour of MPs in the chamber falls well short of what is should be.

The treatment of Ming Campbell when he was Lib Dem leader by the house during PMQs was appaling. It seems that he made a slightly misjudged comment on his first outing and after that, every time he stood up it was to a chorus of howling trying to drown him out and humiliate him. This is one of the reasons he ended up resigning as he could not get his points across properly in the chamber. This behaviour by MPs is absolutely reprehensible and yet you do not often hear or read any commentators condemning it and calling for change.

Sadly, I can't really imagine it changing any time soon as the protagonists like it this way. Cameron claimed when he first became Tory leader that he wanted an end to "Punch and Judy politics" but alas he is now as bad as the rest of them.

MPs will however eventually reap what they sew and the disengagement of the general population with politics will sadly continue fuelled by these sort of anachronistic displays in the chamber. Remember this the next time you hear a senior politician bemoan the general lack of engagement with politics - the systems they support cause it!

Wednesday 28 January 2009

Labour MP thinks tribalism is more important than principle

The government squeaked through today in the third Heathrow expansion vote. It was touch and go and according to Jon Craig from Sky News, it was down to Brown effectively begging the rebellious MPs to back down and also by relying on support from DUP MPs.

What I found interesting is the attitude of Labour MP Alan Keen who despite opposing the expansion said he would vote against the Tory amendment motion to rethink the plans because it was "party political".

That seems incredibly cynical to me. So he agrees with the amendment but votes against it because he wants to stick with his tribe. I hope the voters in the Feltham and Heston constituency (which is actually very near Heathrow) remember this at the next election. It appears that whilst they might have thought they were electing a representative, they were just electing lobby fodder for whatever Brown decides he wants to do.

As I blogged about recently, the vast majority of respondents to a survey who expressed a preference did not want the expansion to go ahead. I suspect more than a few of them live in Mr Keen's constituency.

Although his majority is 7000 or so, with a collapse in the Labour vote at the next election, this may not be as safe as it seems. He may come to regret his actions and comments in 18 months time.

Edit: More Blog reaction here.

Tuesday 27 January 2009

John Prescott has a blog!

The former Deputy Prime Minister has taken the plunge and started a blog. A proper one and everything.

He made a posting on Labour Home in July last year which although I disagreed with, was well written - he comes across a lot better in writing!

This latest blog is part of Labour's campaign for a fourth term. A long shot looking at the polls but fair play to him for trying to engage with the new media in this way.

Brown has shot himself in the foot

There is a perceptive comment piece in the Times today by Rachel Sylvester.

This part in particular stood out for me:

In truth, it is too soon to tell whether the Government's rescue package has worked. Indeed, success will itself be difficult to define. “If we are back in growth by the first quarter of next year then I think you can say it has worked,” a Cabinet minister says - but even that relatively benign outcome could be classified as failure, as the Chancellor predicted in his Pre-Budget Report that growth would resume in the second half of 2009.

Mr Brown's problem is that he has - for noble economic reasons, as well as less noble political ones - downplayed the likely impact of a recession while talking up his own ability to tackle it.

Brown has a long history of doing this sort of thing, leaving himself exposed to hostages to fortune for short term political expediency. It is exactly this sort of attitude that led to him claiming to have abolished "Boom and Bust". It sounded good to him at the time and allowed him to paint himself as being the answer and the opposition as linked to the old way of doing things. Of course now we are in a bust and it is clear that we were previously in a boom engineered by Brown, his former statements on this look ridiculous. It is made worse by his absolute inability to admit his mistakes or even that he said those words previously.

The same problem will happen again with his and Darling's predictions for the economy this year. It doubtless seemed politically expedient to say in the PBR last year that they thought the economy would start to recover in Q3 this year. I am sure there were many treasury man hours taken up putting the bess gloss possible on the figures and being as optimistic as they could get away with to achieve this end. And whilst it may have made some people feel slightly better on the day, no serious economists or commentators believed that this would be the case. Now it is looking extremely unlikely that there will be any recovery before 2010 at the earliest but the government will struggle to take any credit for this (even if it is due) because of the cack-handed way they have spun this situation against themselves.

For a supposed political genius, it seems to me that Brown is far too often found with the gun pointing directly at his own foot and he seems unable to stop himself pulling the trigger.

Monday 26 January 2009

Brown not answering the question

Lee Griffin had a good post yesterday about Brown not answering most of the hostile questions put to him during PMQs and his habit of responding with another question. I have found this very annoying myself, especially given that he has used the excuse that PMQs exists as a way of avoiding a proper debate at election time (although it is looking like this might happen now as he will have little to lose).

Anyway, LabourBoy responded to him and then an interesting an actually very constructive debate followed on LabourBoy's blog here.

My view is that questions should be answered properly unless there is a very good reason. "We think it is frivolous" is not a good enough reason in my view and betrays the arrogance of having been in power for too long.

UK bank payments system is still too slow

This article from Dear Anna in the Guardian a couple of weeks ago illustrates something that has been frustrating me for a very long time.

The banks in the UK have dragged their feet for years in implementing a system for ensuring that bank payments (standing orders, direct debits, online transfers etc.) are paid within a reasonable amount of time - e.g. a few hours.

I have been following this for a number of years. I remember listening to Money Box on Radio 4 several years ago and hearing a report from Sweden about how they had a system back as long ago as 2002 implemented whereby payments were processed the same day. I have found an article relating to that Money Box programme here and I can still remember how frustrated I was with the response of the APACS spokesman Paul Rider who was trying to claim that there was very little demand for this sort of thing in the UK. I recall thinking at the time that's because in the UK there was no alternative and all banks used the same system - how were the consumers supposed to express their displeasure? I remember one day a few years ago I needed to make a transfer of about £5000 from my account to my wife's and it needed to be in within a couple of days. I went into my branch with all sorts of ID and was bluntly told that they could not do what I wanted unless I was willing to pay £25. Otherwise it would take up to 5 working days. The advice I was then given was to withdraw the money in cash and go to a branch of my wife's bank to deposit it there. I expressed my incredulity at this (not least due to the security implications of being advised to carry several thousands pounds around in person) and demanded that they make a note of my complaint about the system. The teller looked at me as if I was from another planet. I am certain that many if not most people in this country at one time or another have been caught short by the UK system's inflexibility in this regard.

Anyway, last year I heard the news that a new fast payment system was being introduced in the UK. "Hurrah!" I thought. Finally a solution to my money transfer woes. This report from the BBC website shows the sort of timescales they were talking about which seemed a bit long and vague, but hey-ho at least there would be a comprehensive soultion by the end of 2008.

Of course it didn't happen. According to the most recent edition of Money Box and the responses on this thread on their website the system is still a complete mess. Some payments go through quickly but many do not and there is as of yet no real indication of when it will all be sorted out.

The problem with a partial solution (as Paul Lewis pointed out on Money Box this week) is that if the customer cannot be confident that their payment will go through quickly then they have to assume it will not, erring on the side of caution and ensure they have 4 or 5 days leeway - exactly the same as it used to be. Basically a partial solution is next to useless. This is illustrated by the Dear Anna article I linked to at the start.

The banks need to pull their collective fingers out. I am sure they feel they have higher (self inflicted) priorities but they have had years to do this. I am sure that if there was a financial incentive for them to do it, they would have done but it is in fact the opposite. They actually make money out of the current confused system (through late payment charges and fines).

Drug Classification Confusion

Sunder has posted something interesting on Liberal Conspiracy about how the Deputy Chair of the Association of Magistrates who have been campaigning (now successfully) for cannabis to be restored to a class B drug could not name any other drugs that are class B.

I was listening to "More or Less" on Radio 4 from 16th January when the guests were Fraser Nelson, Vince Cable and Charles Clarke. They had been talking about evidence based policy and particularly drugs and towards the end, Tim Harford did a quick quiz where he asked each of them which category certain drugs were in (A, B, C etc.). They mostly got them wrong. I think he spared Charles Clarke's (a former Home Secretary lest we forget) blushes but he admitted that he would have done no better than Vince.

If even some of the most senior people in public life who really should know about this sort of thing do not know which category drugs are in, what hope is there for the rest of us? This really exposes the nonsense of the current system. And to make things even worse, the last two times that the ACMD has advised the government about what they think, they have been ignored (see here and here). The government has now effectively abandoned evidence based policy in this area in order to politically posture.

The organisation Tranform Drug Policy Foundation has some interesting information on this debate and is well worth a visit if you are interested in this area.

Sunday 25 January 2009

The Brown effect - Labour 15 points adrift

According to the latest ComRes poll (due to be published tomorrow in the Independent) the main parties are as follows:

Conservatives 43% (+2)
Labour 28% (-4)
LibDem 16% (-1)

I have got this information from Political Betting and Iain Dale's Diary.

I am inclined to agree with Iain when he says that this is likely a reaction against Gordon Brown. I was struck at the weekend when I discussed the current state of the economy with a number of relatives, many of whom do not follow politics very closely just how badly Brown is perceived. Especially after this last week where he has had to come up with another bail-out package just 2 months after the last one and all the spin and nonsense that has gone with it has triggered this anger.

His performance on the Today programme on Friday morning was little short of pathetic. I heard him over and over again claim that it is a global problem i.e. "nothing to do with me guv" and almost in the same breath he pulled out his old "10 years of continuous growth" claim. How the hell he thinks that he can take the credit for the good times and yet shirk all responsibility for the problems is beyond me. He was given several chances to respond to Evan Davis' question about whether he regrets having claimed to have abolished "boom and bust" and to acknowledge that on his watch we had now had both. He refused to answer the question over and over again and instead just repeated his "global crisis" mantra ad nauseum.

Another trick he is now trying to pull is when he is asked about whether the UK will be coming out of recession by the middle of this year (as Darling claimed only a couple of months ago) he says it depends on whether we can get the global cooperation necessary. This is a complete confidence trick. It allows him to be the sole arbiter of whether the international cooperation was good enough and then to use this as a way of wriggling out of his responsibilities yet again. It reminds me of the sort of claims you often get from faith healing practitioners who insist that you "have to be in the right frame of mind" to get the benefits and of course they then use this excuse when their mumbo jumbo fails. This is exactly the same sort of trick and it needs to be exposed for what it is.

I strongly suspect that the electorate are wiser than Brown gives them credit for and they are starting to tumble his game.

If he showed more humility, accepted some responsibility for what has happened and openly identified where things have gone wrong the country would have more respect for him and although he will still likely lose the next election, at least he would have tried to do the right thing and make amends.

As it is he is starting to look like a hopeless political case.

MP's Salary Dilemma

The story today about Labour peers allegedly being paid for influencing legislation which I have posted about separately here has reminded me of something else I have been meaning to post for a while.

MPs are allowed to have interests outside the house and are allowed to hold down other jobs, consultancies, directorships etc. as long as they declare everything. To many "ordinary" people this seems quite odd as they already have what would appear to be at least a full time job in representing tens of thousands of constituents and also holding the government to account and debating and voting for legislation in the chamber.

The dilemma that many of these MPs face is that although they are currently paid £63,291 (see here for source) this is absolutely huge compared to the average salary (around £25,000 - see here). MPs know this and so they are generally fairly muted when it comes to complaining about their salaries and they daren't try to push it up too much for fear of a voter backlash when they already earn more than 2.5 x average earnings.

The big difference though is that MPs are not really drawn from the "average" population. They are disproportionately represented by lawyers, barristers, business leaders and people from other professions and backgrounds where they could command a salary much higher than £63K. It is unsurprising therefore that there is a feeling amongst some MPs (albeit as I said largely hidden) that they are not very well paid.

They do of course get very generous expenses which to an extent compensates for this. I fully concede that there is a justifcation for some and perhaps a lot of the expenses they are given as it pays for research and admin staff and also accomodation in London which is of course important if the MP does not represent a London seat. However the expenses should only be used for what is necessary. they should not be used to buy plasma TVs and to refit kitchens. The rest of us have to pay for this sort of thing, why should MPs be any different?

My view is that MPs are paid more than enough for the job they do. If they want to earn the sort of money that they could earn outside the Commons then they should apply to be appointed to the office of the Chiltern Hundreds or the Steward of the Manor of Northstead and allow somebody who really wants the job to take their place - there are no shortage of applicants!

I also think that although it is important for MPs to have experience outside the Commons, this should come before they take their seat, not during. This may make it less likely that very young people would become MPs but that may not be such a bad thing as a bit of life experience first is warranted I feel. There would still, I am sure be exceptional politicians who make it there very young.

As for expenses, well I have a few ideas in this area too:

1) MPs researchers and assistants should be paid for directly by the state. There should be monitoring of this to be sure that this is done fairly (e.g. MPs with a particularly "busy" constituency may need more help than some others). The jobs should be given to the best candidate in an open process, not necessarily given to wives, children, friends etc. unless they happen to be the best qualified.

2) The state could purchase (or build, or adapt one or more of its existing buildings) into a large accomodation block for MPs. They would be able to use their flat within this to live in when they needed to be in London and it could operate like a military baracks or halls of residence whereby meals etc. were provided, thus allowing them to concentrate on the busy job in hand that they have. The flats would be furnished to a reasonable standard already. There would be no need to provide money to them for accomodation and they would not realise any capital gains in the end as the property would revert to the state. I understand there are practical problems with this but with the political will they could be overcome.

3) MPs would still be given expenses for things like travel to and from their constituency etc. but all receipts will need to be kept and they would need to put in a expense claim which if necessary may require justifcation like us mere mortals have to.

I realise this may not make me very popular amongst MPs (of all parties) but they have to realise how bad they look to the public and it will take some sort of radical reform like this to restore public confidence in this area.

Something Smells Rotten in our Political System

The news reported in today’s Times that 4 Labour Peers have been allegedly taking money in order to influence legislation is just the latest in a long line spanning many years of similar stories. I bet that the vast majority of people hearing this story are unsurprised and that includes me. I would also be very unsurprised is it turns out to be true.

I very much regret the fact that many people today think that politicians are just in it for what they can get for themselves. Friends and associates of mine have expressed this view to me on occasion and they have sometimes expressed surprised that I am interested and involved in politics. In my experience, most politicians are extremely hard-working and genuinely dedicated to trying to make their area, the country and the world a better place.

The problem as I perceive it is that the political system is structured in a way that puts temptation in the way of politicians and the line between what is and is not acceptable is sometimes so blurred as to be almost impossible to pin down. In this particular case, from what I have read it seems that peers are allowed to take fees as “consultants” and to advise companies or individuals but not to then subsequently influence any policy. Well, I have to say that seems to be a rather elastic distinction. Politicians come under all sorts of influence and if they have a highly paying corporate client who wants something to change with whom they have spent many long lunches and been in close contact with, is it even possible for the politician to completely divorce his or her decision making from this influence? In the case from today’s Times it seems that there may have been something more blatant than this going on but the system subtly encourages this sort of behaviour implicitly anyway. This is completely wrong in my view.

The allegations about cash for honours which plagued the fag-end of the Blair administration and for which there was never enough evidence to prosecute is another example. The police could not find a smoking gun but the very strong correlation between donations to the Labour party and honours bestowed on individuals left many people feeling that there may well be a link. Proving it is of course very difficult but that goes to the heart of my point. The system should not allow even the suspicion of this sort of thing. It should ideally be as sleaze proof as possible and I am sorry to say that we are very long way away from this.

I was bitterly disappointed with the Blair government after a number of years when it became clear that they were as bad if not worse than the Tory government that they had so assiduously taken apart largely using the chant of “Sleaze”. The fact is that I am sure most of the people in the Blair government wanted to do the right thing, as was undoubtedly the case with the Tories that went before them. It is this sort of thing that causes some of my friends to come to the conclusion that they are all in for themselves, wrongly in my view.

Nick Clegg wrote a fantastic article for the Independent last year about democracy which was very wide-ranging and specifically referenced these sort of problems and how they should be dealt with. He is the only one of the main party leaders who is advocating fundamental reform in this way and it is absolutely necessary. I don’t pretend to have all the answers myself but some of Nick’s ideas in that article are a very good starting point.

Something will have to change and soon, otherwise I will eventually come to the conclusion that the politicians in power actually want the system that we currently have, and then the comments of some of my friends will start to sound more and more convincing.

Some reaction to the current story from Labour Home here. They are not happy!.

Saturday 24 January 2009

BBC are plain wrong in DEC Row

I have been away for a day and a half but as soon as I heard the news about the DEC advert not being shown by broadcasters in this country I straight away thought this was a bizarre decision. There is no reason why screening an advert asking for aid for Gaza need imply partiality of any kind.

I also suspected that the other broadcasters and the BBC would pretty quickly have to backtrack on this. Having heard Any Questions today on this subject, the panel and the entire audience (except one person) seemed to agree with me. With this sort of public feeling, I am certain that they will all screen it.

Indeed according the BBC News website, ITV, Channel 4 and Channel 5 have already changed their mind.

I suspectMark Thompson (no relation!) is currently trying to find a form of words to get him and the BBC out of this without it looking too embarrassing but he needs to get on with it.

I fail to understand how they could have come to such a perverse decision and once they do change their mind, I hope they are a lot more circumspect about this sort of thing in the future. Tony Benn on the news earlier stated baldly that this decision will cost lives. If they act quickly enough that need not be the case.

Further blog reaction on this here:

Iain Dale's Diary
Liberal Burblings

Thursday 22 January 2009

Peter Hain's Serious and Substantial Failures

So Peter Hain has been found guilty of "Serious and substantial failures" by the parliamentary watchdog.

I really felt that when the police decided not to prosecute him last month due to insufficient evidence over this and he and his Labour colleagues then went around the studios claiming that he had been cleared that it left a bad taste in my mouth. He had not been cleared at all but there was simply not enough evidence to prosecute. Of course in true New Labour style, the claim was repeated so much that in the end it became the story. Indeed the BBC News itme about today's development above states that he was cleared last month.

I feel a bit sorry for Peter Hain and I am aligned with some of his policy positions. He is an advocate of electoral reform as am I and I attended an event where he spoke at the Houses of Parliament last year where he made a very strong case for the Alternative Vote which he thought could be adopted before the next election. AV is not proprtional and I had been against it but in the course of that meeting he persuaded me that pragmatism should mean that proponents of STV get behind a push for AV as a first step. He is a very good public speaker.

However he has to hold his hands up here and genuinely apologise without making excuses. Politicians take all the glory when things go right and they have to take the flak when things go wrong. He is ultimately responsible for what happened with his campaign team and no amount of spin will change that.

We should also remember that these reports are always couched in diplomatic language so I think we can assume that "serious and substantial failures" is as close to excoriating as you can get with this sort of thing.

He should also not expect to return the the front-bench any time soon either. It would be unacceptable for this to happen after such a critical report.

Obama is Naturally Funny

One thing I have noticed over the last few months is that Barack Obama seems to have a very good and well developed sense of humour. Some senior politicians can be amusing (although it is usually the ones who will never get near real power who are the funniest, e.g. Dennis Skinner). It is unusual for senior politicians to be genuinely funny.

Margaret Thatcher famously did not really understand humour even though her speechwriters would insert topical gags which she would repeat. Tony Blair and William Hague are examples of recent front-line UK politicians who seem to be naturally funny and understand how to interweave humour with debate. Vince Cable is also in this category as I saw first hand at the weekend.

I think Obama is clearly one of the best at this. During an event in the Waldorf Astoria in New York he commented:

“I do love the Waldorf-Astoria, though. You know, I hear that from the doorstep you can see all the way to the Russian Tea Room.”

This instantly showed his ability to gently chide his opponents (it was a reference to Sarah Palin's comments about being able to see Russia from Alaska). But it was also subtle and made the audience think briefly as it was not on a plate. Most polticians bash you over the head with their "jokes" as they want to be sure you get it. Obama is clearly comfortable crediting his audience with some intelligence.

There was another example yesterday where after he did his "swearing in" for a second time he made a couple of quips:

"We decided it was so much fun...." before adding: "We're going to do it very slowly."

And at the end he joked to the press that the bad news is "there will be 12 more balls!".

Genuinely funny and self-deprecating. I am very much looking forward to following his presidency.

LDV Post on One Day Conference

I have written a post for Liberal Democrat Voice that they have very kindly published here.

It is about my thoughts on the One Day Conference at the LSE that I attended on Saturday as a first timer.

Wednesday 21 January 2009

Northern Rock 10% Bonus!!??

I don't know how the Northern Rock management think that it can be appropriate to give their staff a 10% bonus.

I know that it is not the ordinary members of staff who are to blame for the problems but everyone is having to tighten their belts at the moment. If the callers to Nicky Campbell this morning on 5 live are at all representative of the population then there are a lot of people having to take pay cuts or reduced hours or both and jobs are under threat all over the place. I run a business and we are having to be very careful about expenditure.

Northern Rock is now owned by the tax payer and it is not acceptable for largesse like this to be thrown about. I am please to see Vince Cable has come out strongly against it too.

Even if a 10% bonus was a standard part of the package previously, the world has changed and the management of Northern Rock need to recognise this. Quickly.

*Edit - Iain Dale has posted a very similar view to mine here.

Tuesday 20 January 2009

Obama's Inauguration

Well, apart from the initial fluffed lines (how long before someone claims he is not really President because he said the words in a different order to those said to him?) I thought the ceremony went very well today.

I agree with Iain Dale that it was not his best speech by any stretch but perhaps that was deliberate as there needs to be some serious expectation management after all the hype.

It is so good that as of 17:05 UTC that bumbling right-wing idiot is no longer the President of the USA and we can hopefully finally get some progress and solid leadership on issues like climate change.

I don't envy President Obama's (it feels great to type that!) inbox but of all the candidates we saw paraded in front of us at various points over the last two years, I am sure that the American people have chosen the right one to lead them and the world through this tricky time.

Monday 19 January 2009

My anger at Department for Transport Spin on Heathrow

This story in the Independent on Saturday contains an example of the sort of thing that makes my blood boil.

Apparently there was a "consultation" about the third runway at Heathrow and 70,000 responses were sent back to the DfT. There was no question on it about whether the respondents actually wanted the runway, however of the almost 70,000 responses, 25,337 (36.1%) voluntarily noted that they opposed expansion. 8,128 (11.6%) volunteered that they supported it.

The DfT issued the following statement regarding this:

"The Heathrow consultation did not ask people whether they were in favour of a third runway or not. While more were opposed than in favour, the majority of people expressed no view either way on expansion."

There are a number of things that I think are worth looking at about this:

1) Why the hell in a so called consultation about a third runway at Heathrow was the question "Are you in favour of a third runway at Heathrow" not asked?

2) The DfT are now using the fact that the question was not asked to obfuscate the results of the "consultation". I am convinced (and I am sure they are too) that if the remaining 36,000 or so respondents who had not expressed a preference were asked, a majority would also have said no. It is a statistical certainty.

3) In the General Election of 2005, Labour got 35.3% of the votes cast. That was enough to elect them with a decent sized majority in the House of Commons for the next 5 years. Yet when, despite the DfT's best attempts to queer the pitch, 36% of respondents state that they do not want a third runway, that is not enough and the clear will is ignored.

4) The figures could be looked at another way too. Of those who expressed a preference, 76% stated they did not want a runway and only 24% said they did. That is a majority of over 3/4.

When this government is finally consigned to the grave of political history it will be buried under a pile of all the thousands of times it has used pathetic tricks like this to obscure, distort and mislead. We will not easily forget or forgive the way they have misused their supposed "skills" in this sort of area.

*Edited to tone it down a bit. I was pretty angry when I posted it!
** Edited agin to correct the figures in 4).

Ken Clarke's disingenuity on VAT cut

I just heard Ken Clarke being interviewed on 5 Live on my way home.

He came across pretty well as always and was able to bat away the questions about the Euro as I would have expected.

He was challenged about his apparent support for the 2.5% VAT cut which he had advocated prior to Brown/Darling announcing the policy themselves and his defence was that he said he had been in favour of it if we could afford it which he then went on to say we could not. He then pointed out that he did not vote for the change in the Commons. He blamed the Labour spin machine for the misrepresentation.

This is fair enough as far as it goes, however this is pretty disingenuous. Cameron and Obsorne's main objection to the policy has been that it would not work (which I agreed with and posted about here), and as that has started to be proven they have been pushing this point over and over again. So in fact this is in direct contrast to Clarke's position which is that he thought it was the best option for a fiscal stimulus. Even if it could have been afforded, Cameron and Osborne would have been against it. So the new Shadow Business Secretary is diamatrically opposed to his leader and Chancellor's policy on a major plank of the response to the economic problems and has not backed down from the position, just deflected it on a technicality.

I look forward to further contortions!

Shadow Cabinet Reshuffle

I have just seen the full list for the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle on LibDem Voice.

Here they are along with my thoughts:

The Rt Hon Kenneth Clarke QC MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Business, Enterprise and Regulatory Reform

See here for my thoughts on this

Mark Francois MP
Shadow Minister for Europe


Alan Duncan MP
Shadow Leader of the House of Commons

I am not convinced he would make a good Leader of the House. He always seems too smug and self-satisfied to me.

Chris Grayling MP
Shadow Home Secretary

Grayling is a very effective and hard-working parliamentarian. However I think Cameron has missed a trick here. He should have taken the plunge and brought DD back into this role (even though I predicted here that he would not be).

The Rt Hon Dominic Grieve QC MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Justice

This is a better position for him. I bit less high profile than his previous role and also as a QC he is very well qualified.

Nick Herbert MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs

Not sure about this one.

The Rt Hon Theresa May MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Shadow Minister for Women

So it's May vs Purnell and May vs Harman. I am looking forward to the second one. But which one is better? There's only one way to find out.

Eric Pickles MP
Chairman of the Conservative Party

Natural choice for this. Seasoned campaginer and very popular with the grass roots.

Caroline Spelman MP
Shadow Secretary of State for Communities and Local Government

Hmm. Not too sure about this one.

Bank Bail-out Mark II

The announcement this morning about the further bail-out of the banks has left me thinking about the political implications of this and that how the ordinary rules of politics seem to have been suspended in this area.

Over the last few years, whenever any of the opposition parties came up with any idea that would reduce tax, in any area, the government would instantly go away, run through some figures on the back of a fag-packet that made the worst possible case for where the "public service cuts" they deemed necessary for the tax reduction.

Now, this was often in the order of a few hundred million pounds or a few billion which is obviously a lot of money but compared to the amount of money that is now being thrown at the banks and at other things like the VAT cut etc. it seems like piffling amounts.

The thing I don't understand is that the government still seems to be able to get away with this sort of behaviour and still claims that opposition proposals are "uncosted" and align them directly with how many schools or hospitals will "have to close". How can this be when the sort of money they are now throwing around is equivalent to more than the entire budget of the NHS!?

I understand that we are in difficult times and the bank recapitalisation is probably necessary but it is sheer hypocrisy for the government to then carry on with its tired old "cuts" claims when they are simultaneously doing this.

At a time when households and businesses are having to tighten their belts it would be perverse if government (both national and local) did not also do their bit. The government cannot credibly claim that any reduction in taxes will automatically lead to the closure of schools and hospitals etc. The public sector cannot be completely insulated from the downturn and they must do their bit.

Sunday 18 January 2009

Ken Clarke is back!

So Ken Clarke is going to come back into the Shadow Cabinet as Shadow Business Secretary (although I saw on the ITV news he was described as Business Secretary - a bit premature I thought!).

There is already reaction here from Iain Dale and here from LabourHome.

I think this is a good move for Cameron as it brings a heavyweight (in more than one sense) back into the Shadow Cabinet and lord knows they need them. It is of course a risk as his views on Europe are out of step with the majority of the party to put it mildly but you have to assume that Cameron will have had some sort of assurance from him that he will not stir things up - time will tell.

I do agree with one of the comments on LabourHome however that bringing him back will undermine George Osborne as having a former (and fairly successful) Chancellor in the Shadow Cabinet can only diminish his status surely.

Blair holds the whip-hand over Brown

A couple of years ago, More 4 broadcast a drama called “The Trial of Tony Blair”. This was set in 2010 when Blair had supposedly clung onto office until the dying days of the parliament before resigning. There are a series of events which culminate in Brown winning the subsequent election but only with a very small majority.

Aside from the fact that nothing like this has actually happened, there were some things about the drama that always bugged me and suggested to me that writer did not really have a proper feel for the dynamics in the upper echelons of power. Or if he did, he chose to ignore them as he thought it would make better television. I disagree with this and I felt that parts of the resultant programme just came across as plain silly.

The reason I am writing about this now is because I was reminded of how sharply the dynamic between Blair and Brown has diverged from that assumed by that programme in recent days. I will come back to this in a minute but first I wanted to cite a couple of examples that I can remember of where the drama did not seem to get “it”:

  1. Blair gets very hurt and cannot understand why he is not wanted to be associated with in the election campaign. This is absolute nonsense. Tony Blair is the most gifted politician of his generation and although his antennae was losing its precision sharpness towards the end of his premiership, there is absolutely no way that he would not understand the political realities in the situation as depicted. No way. And the credibility of the programme suffered almost from the outset.
  2. Blair and Cherie are supposedly having financial problems. How any writer could think that we would credibly believe that a UK PM would be in anything other than a robust financial position soon after leaving office is beyond me, as has indeed proved to be the case. I seem to recall this was supposedly fuelled in part by his publisher (for his memoirs) not wishing to pay very much money. Again, a load of bollocks.

The final thing which to be honest totally ruined the programme for me was the assumption that once Blair was no longer PM, that he would be beholden to Brown in some way and that Brown would hold power over him. That seems to be to betray a fundamental misunderstanding of the interplay between current and former premiers of the same party. Had the author not followed the saga of Heath trying (unsuccessully) to damage Thatcher or Thacther trying (somewhat more successfully) to undermine Major’s leadership.

The truth is (and was always bound to be) that Tony Blair is in an incredibly powerful position right now with respect to Gordon Brown and the Labour Party’s prospects at the next election. He has taken a decision to not publish his memoirs until Gordon Brown has left office and has (mainly) been guarded in what he has said in public about his successor. There has been the odd exception such as this last week where he let slip that the decade of economic growth may have been down to “luck”. This was probably an ill-judged joke rather than an attempt to damage Brown but the hoo-haa that has followed underlines what I am talking about. If Tony Blair wished to he could effectively destroy Brown’s chances of winning the next election. Of course his own reputation would be severely damaged as well and doubtless this is the main part of the calculation as to why he will not do it.

I just wish that dramas like this were a bit more in tune with this sort of reality. Although many in the public may not instinctively understand this, I am sure there were many who found the narrative structure jarring even if they did not exactly know why and as a result it felt lightweight.

Ah! That feels better. That has been in the back of my mind for 2 years now!

The Regrets of Digby Jones

The comments from Digby Jones a couple of days ago underscore something that I have thought about many senior politicians (especially those in government) for some time now. They often become automatons just talking within very narrowly defined constraints and as frustrating as that can often be for the rest of us, Jones has pointed out how soul destroying it can be for those actually directly involved in it.

I can't really imagine what it must be like to have check your every thought and utterance against a huge list of things that must not be said or even hinted at and to consider how everything you may say could be (mis)interpreted before opening your mouth. After a year or so Digby Jones had had enough and who can blame him?

I have to say though that politicians have made this bed for themselves. As I blogged the other day, Shriti Vadera's comments have been leapt upon by opponents such as Alan Duncan to make political capital. I wonder if Alan Duncan will reflect on this the next time he says or does something that is used against him by his opponents. I doubt it. I suppose to them it is all just part of the game. Never mind that it is exactly this sort of thing that makes people like a good friend of mine feel that "They are all the same".

Of course politically, they are not all the same. There are often distinct positions being carved out by the different parties but it often ends up obscured by nonsense like the nuances of what was meant by "Green Shoots" and the manufactured outrage that accompanies it.

I am grateful to Digby Jones for giving us his inside view from the very recent past. I would hope that his comments would give some of his former colleagues pause for thought but I suspect they are too busy deliberately misinterpting their opposition's latest position to even really notice.

Oh, and in case anyone is thinking that as a Lib Dem I am being hypocritical, I know that we are not immune from this (it is after all a deeply entrenched part of the political psyche) but I genuinely feel that we are not as guilty of it as the other parties and we usually try to engage with the issue at hand.

Wednesday 14 January 2009

Green Vadera Shoots Her Mouth Off

Here we go again.

Apparently Lady Vadera the business minister has made a "gaffe" by indicating that she thought she was seeing some "green shoots" with respect to the economy. In fact here is exactly what she said:

"It's a very uncertain world right now globally... I wouldn't want to be the one predicting it. I am seeing a few green shoots but it's a little bit too early to say exactly how they'd grow."

It was in response to a question from seasoned pro Alistair Stewart who actually asked her is she could see any "green shoots".

Now political historians will remember Norman Lamont making a similar "gaffe" during the recession in the early 90's and he was crucified for it. Time and again, opposition Labour politicians threw this back in the faces of the Tory government as they announced job losses and all the other bad news that goes with recessions. Therefore we have to expect something similar to happen with this. Indeed I heard Alan Duncan on the news on the way home summoning up all the manufactured outrage he could muster to insist on an apology from Lady Vadera.

Right, to the average person on the street this is complete nonsense. A government minister who is not a politician by background but an economist fell into a semantic trap laid by an experienced political journalist. In retrospect I am sure she regrets falling into that trap but does it really warrant all the hoo-ha that is blowing up about it? At the time she probably thought she was doing the right thing in trying to talk up prospects. What she did not realise is that political discourse is conducted within such narrow parameters that anyone who strays even slightly outside of ends up thrown to the wolves.

This is exactly the sort of thing that puts "ordinary" people off getting involved with politics. There is the impression that it is a closed club for people who have spent their entire working lives as a wonk or apparachick of some description. They talk in an excluding language and there are all sorts of bizarre rules like this that outsiders do not understand.

The next time you see a politician of any hue lament that there are not enough people with outside experience in parliament just remember how Lady Vadera was treated by the media and political classes today.

The 15 Year Itch?

I am all for opening up government. Indeed I think that the way this current Labour administration has done its best to go against the spirit of its own FOI legislation is a sad indictment of them.

At the weekend there was a report in the Independent on Sunday which indicated that the 30 year rule which has been in place for many years and prevents the publication of sensitive government information for 30 years (when presumably the protagonists will have retired or passed away) may be changed to 15 years. I personally think this is a good move and will lead to more open government.

However I have to question the motivation behind this move. The government must be aware that if this was to be brought in, say next year then all of a sudden we would have 15 years of the Tory administration's most sensitive details running from 1979 - 1994 suddenly released into the public domain in the run-up to a general election. There will doubtless be all sorts of juicy details that political junkies like me would love to be able to get hold of. However would it be fair for all the information to come out like that so close to a general election given that "sensitive" often means "potentially embarassing". Sure, most of the key players are no longer in senior positions in the Conservative party but e.g. Ken Clarke may well be back in the shadow cabinet next year and he was a minister throughout both Thatcher's and Major's time at the helm.

Now I do not want to seem partisan in favour of the Tories, I most certainly am not. However this proposal seems to be unfair were it to be implemented in a blanket way in the near future. It would be better to wait until after the next election, and then perhaps decrease the time gradually, say 3 years every year so after 5 years we have the 15 year limit.

I fear that this very tribal Labour Prime Minister is making precisely the calculations described above and may well conclude that he can appear to be opening up government whilst at the same time getting one over on the opposition by forcing the airing of a large chunk of their dirty linen. I hope I am wrong about this.

Finally, if this does go ahead then it could eventually backfire on the government. Imagine if Brown was to win the next election (I know it seems unlikely) but with things quite volatile as they are at the moment, you never know. If this did happen in an election called next year, he could still be PM in 2012 when the dirty linen of the 1997 Labour administration would be being aired. There may well be some things that come out that would be very embarrassing for Brown, especially if some of the things I have heard alleged about his appalling behaviour towards Tony Blair when he was Chancellor turn out to be true.

I wonder if Brown has thought this through properly. He would do well to stem the urge to scratch that itch for now.

Tuesday 13 January 2009

Prime Ministerial Prerogative

With all the on and off speculation there has been ever since Gordon Brown became Prime Minister about whether and when he will or won't call an election, something has been bugging me.

We don't have a presidential system in this country and yet it is the PM and him/her alone who is tasked with taking the decision about when an election should be. Now I personally think that we should at least try and have some sort of fixed term parliament such as this campaign is trying to achieve. There are all sorts of practical barriers to this with our current system but I think they could be overcome with the political will.

Anyway, given that we do have a situation where the party in power via the PM can bacially dissolve parliament whenever it wishes I do wonder about the wisdom of allowing that power to reside in the hands of one person. I am not talking about this from any sort of partisan perspective, it is just from the perspective of trying to achieve a balance within democracy and not allowing one party to hugely dominate the House of Commons.

The problem as I see it is that because the Prime Minister can call the election whenever (s)he wishes, they are going to do so at a time that is best for them. Sometimes (often?) their own interests will coincide with their party's interests. However that is not always the case. I would suggest that the situation that Gordon Brown finds himself in now, or will do very soon as the recession bites is that Labour's poll ratings will keep sliding. If he was to go to the country right now, judging by the polls we may have a hung parliament and Labour may even be the single largest party despite being several points behind (due to our iniquitous electoral system which I have blogged about previously). The point is that most commentators think that Labour's position will worsen as the recession gets worse, indeed that seems to have started happening already.

I think that in say 6 months time, the polls could be getting pretty bad for Labour and it will look unlikely at that point that Labour could win. However it is likely that at that point, the Tory majority might only be a couple of dozen seats meaning that the subsequent election would be up for grabs. In 18 months time from now after the battering the country will likely take, when Brown will be forced to go to the country, the Tory majority could be 100+ meaning that Labour would likely be out of power for a decade or more.

Now I hold no candle for Labour and in a way they deserve many years in the wilderness after some of the things they have done in power. However after having seen the damage wreaked by both major parties when they have huge majorities and can push legislation through unopposed, I would much prefer there to be a strong, robust opposition challenging for power. It strengthens democracy and causes there to be better laws and better thought through policies.

But put yourself in Gordon Brown's position in both of the scenarios I highlighted above. In both cases in 6 months time and in 18 months time he loses and resigns as Labour leader (these days it is inconceivable that a PM will stay on after an election defeat - I still cannot understand how Wilson managed it in 1970). So for him in 6 months time the choice is to lose now or have one more year as PM. It is very difficult for those in positions of ultimate power to relinquish that power (look at how John Major clung on by his fingertips right to the very end and even had a 6 week prorogation of parliament just to eke out that little bit more time). As a commentator said in the weekend press, there always seemed to be something deep within Jim Callaghan that said 1976 - 1979 looks better in the history books than 1976 -1978. Brown may well be thinking the same thing.

Now put yourself in the position of someone like James Purnell or Ed Milliband, both able and gifted Cabinet Ministers who are young and in the ascendancy. They have been talked about as future leaders of their party. Which of the two scenarios (6 months or 18 months) are they likely to opt for given the choice? I am certain they would happily give up an extra year of power now in order to mitigate the scale of a defeat and leave them to regroup and be seriously challenging for power in 4 or 5 years time. Rather that than the best years of their political careers spent in opposition they will doubtless think. I suspect much of the Cabinet feels the same way. But of course they do not get a vote. It is a situation where the wishes of even very senior members of the governing party could diverge in the most fundamental way from its leader.

I don't suppose there will be a change any time soon with the current state of affairs, however if things start to get really bad again for Labour, the problems Brown suffered last summer could come back, fuelled by the knowledge of Purnell, Milliband et al that the only way to remove the prerogative from Brown's hands is to remove him from the premiership altogether themselves.

Wednesday 7 January 2009

Drug Policy Nonsense - Skewered

There's a fantastic, well researched blog post/article on Ministry Of Truth here which skewers the government's completely non-evidence based approach to drugs policy and the unhealthy alliance of the media and politicians who collude in this.

Towards the end there is also an analysis of the frankly astonishing claim by a parliamentary committee that the whole drugs policy framework in the UK is essentially a complete mess and unfit for purpose.

It's well worth sticking with it even though it is the longest blog post I have ever read!

Monday 5 January 2009

William Hague's Outside Interests

I have been following the story about shadow cabinet "extra curricular activities" and in particular Shadow Foreign Secretary William Hague's attempts to spin this fact in his favour.

He has claimed that pursuing outside interests makes him a better politician (see here). I have also heard others make the point that the end game of banning MPs from having outside interests is the sort of anodyne automatons you get such as David Milliband who have never done anything but politics. I do take this point to a certain extent. However I have to say that the way some of the shadow cabinet (including Hague) are behaving makes it look like they are not hungry for power. As an active campaigner myself, I know there are thousands of people in this country who would give their eye-teeth to be in a position where in 18 months time they have a reasonable chance of being in the cabinet and they would be doing everything in their power to prepare for that. Not swanning around giving after dinner speeches at £15K a pop.

Now I like William Hague, a lot. He is one of my favourite Tory politicians. I think he was dealt a terrible hand in acceding to the leadership when he did (although he was warned) and deserved a better result in 2001 than he got (although as he drifted to the right, forced by his rump of a party it was inevitable). He is a fantastic commons performer and seems naturally funny at the despatch box which you cannot say about most MPs. However he is damaging his party and politics in general by making it seem like it is not that important. Aspiring to the third greatest office in the country should not be trivialised in this way.

My view is that of course I want to see MPs with more rounded experience - indeed I have only just got involved at the age of 34 after many years in industry and having started and run my own business for several of them. However I feel this would be better achieved by encouraging local parties to ensure that having life experience was a more important part of the selection criteria for parliamentary candidates. Also, perhaps raising the age at which people can become MPs to ensure there will be more experience is an idea that I think warrants some debate. Overall I think the experience should come before the MP gets into parliament. Once he or she is there, they should be concentrating on the job. They still very much keep in touch with things on the ground through constituency work but a strong grounding through having had a non-political job for a number of years first (and by this I don't mean working as head of PR for Carlton TV!) will be a great foundation for most people aspiring to become MPs.

I am sorry to say that I do not buy Hague's "it makes us more rounded" argument. I think he is mainly doing it for the money and that saddens me. He will have plenty of opportunity to make money after he leaves office. Most senior politicians (especially of his calibre) can look forward to all kinds of non-executive directorships, speeches on the after-dinner circuit, money for memoirs etc. and a big fat parliamentary pension. They do not need loads of extra money earned whilst in office or parliament.

If Willaim Hague wants to prove me wrong, there is a simple way to do this whilst still maintaining what he claims is the necessary outside experience. I have not heard any commentator or interviewer suggest this but he could donate all the money he makes from these outside interests to charity.

I won't hold my breath though.

Cameron's Tax Cut - Good Move

Well, I have to say that David Cameron's latest idea about abolishing tax on savings for basic rate tax payers seems to me to be a very good idea.

In the last few weeks as base interest rates have plummeted and I have seen the rates on mine and my wife's various savings accounts commensurately reduce I have started to wonder if one of the parties would advocate this.

The response of the Labour Party has been unsurprisingly to scream about how this is uncosted and I heard Yvette Cooper describe it as "economic madness". I don't know how she can have the brass neck to describe it as uncosted (it will cost about £2.4 billion by the way) when they are borrowing £118 billion next year. Also, they just pissed away £12.5 billion on the totally ineffectual VAT rate cut (see here for my previous thoughts on this before it was even announced which I fear are proving correct). Absolute hypocrisy.

Iain Dale also makes a good point here that Cameron is starting to turn the "do nothing" charge back at the government. It really seems to me that the government has got itself into a position now where unless you agree with them entirely and without question then they just go for your throat. They have no self confidence and have to shout everyone else down (using the bully pulpit of office and incumbency) and just repeat the same nonsense over and over again. They will come to regret this when they are finally chucked out of office as that is how they will be remembered by the electorate for many years to come.

Thursday 1 January 2009

My Predictions for 2009

Here are my predictions for the coming year:

  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.
  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.
  3. Peter Mandelson will be out of the cabinet again within the next 12 months.
  4. Ireland will again vote "No" in the second referendum on the Lisbon Treaty.
  5. DD will be back in the shadow cabinet but not as Shadow Home Secretary.
  6. Lynne Featherstone will be promoted to a high profile role on the Lib Dem front-bench.
  7. Eddie Mair will become the new host of Question Time.
  8. Jonathan Ross will leave the BBC.
  9. The US will make great strides in shifting their economy to low carbon.
  10. Solid state hard drives will start to become standard in laptops by the end of the year.

Happy New Year!