Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Tuesday 30 June 2009

If Jeni Barnett's MMR show is within Ofcom rules then the rules are broken

I have just read through Ofcom's ruling of the disgraceful Jeni Barnett LBC radio phone in show on MMR from January this year. The ruling is here (you need to scroll down to about 80% of the way down to read it).

I blogged about this show earlier this year with respect to Ben Goldacre's coverage of it and also gave my views. Basically a totally ill informed woman allowed her prejudices about a (non-existant) link between the MMR triple vaccine and autism to overtake her professional judgement. She was hectoring and rude to the callers who disagreed with her. I am convinced that this show and other ignorant media coverage like it are responsible for the drop in immunisation coverage for measles below the herd immunity required level and hence outbreaks on a scale not seen for years. Utterly, utterly irresponsible.

Yet Ofcom feel that LBC and Ms Barnett are not in breach of their rules.

The rules need to be changed. The problem that I can see with the ruling is that it all seems to pivot around the need for "balance". But this is not a political debate. It is about whether dangerous scientific illiteracy should be given equal weighting with properly researched views backed up with scientific evidence as this show did. Balance doesn't come into it.

Barnett and her ilk will always claim that "more research is needed" but the MMR/autism hypothesis has been tested to destruction. There is no link. The original "study" that much of this hysteria is based on was flawed in a number of fundamental ways.

People like Barnett (and Melanie Phillips, Peter Hitchens etc.) need to shut up about this now and accept the evidence but I fear that the fact that Ofcom has effectively exonerated Barnett will only give succour to their anti-scientific nonsense.

Fraser Nelson accuses Ed Balls of lying - Balls explodes!

It looks like this article by the always excellent Fraser Nelson on the Spectator blog this morning which accused Ed Balls of lying about the government planning to reduce national debt over the next few years has provoked a strong reaction from Mr Balls. He rang Fraser and "demanded" that he should take the article down!

There is a good summary by Fraser himself in this subsequent blog post.

I just wanted to briefly focus on one aspect of this spat that Fraser sums up here directed at Mr Balls:

Five years ago, you could lie like this on the radio and get away with it. Space is tight in newspapers, no one would devote hundreds of words and graphs - as we did - to expose a lie for what is. But the world has changed now. Blogging has brought new, hyper scrutiny. Blogs have infinite space, and people with endless energy, to expose political lying - no matter how small. Your claims can be instantly counter-checked, by anyone. If you stretch the truth, you can be exposed - by anyone. And if you plan to base a whole election campaign on a lie, as you apparently intend to do, then you're in for a rude awakening.

Fraser is bang on here. I don't think that team Brown have yet twigged how this new media world works despite having been burnt by Smeargate. They can't just swagger around bullying a few political journalists and get the line they wish out there. There are countless thousands of us now, bloggers, citizen journalists, call us what you want and we WILL hold them to account for what they say and do. We are not reliant on the lobby system for favours and we will tell it as we see it.

Even if Fraser had have been forced to take his post down you can bet that there would have been mirrored copies of it up straight away along with lots of blog posts referring to it. Trying to get the article taken down like this is politically cack-handed.

And finally, if Mr Balls does not like being called a liar, he and his colleagues should stop lying. It is as simple as that.

Outside jobs for MPs

There has been talk in the last few days about outside jobs for MPs and how there is likely to be a clamp-down on them. I knew this would come; after the MPs expenses scandal it was a natural follow up.

Some Tories seem to be complaining that any restrictions in this area would disproportionately affect them and that Labour is politicking on this issue. They are probably right but I have little sympathy with them. Being an MP should be more than a full time job. There is so much to do that my mind boggles when I hear that some MPs have second, third, fourth, fifth and so on jobs. I simply do not believe that they are doing their job as an MP to their fullest capability if they have outside commitments like this.

The argument that MPs should have outside jobs in order to allow them to keep in touch with the outside world does not really wash with me either. I fully agree that MPs should have outside experience but that should come before they enter parliament. It is one of the reasons that I think it is a good idea for people to wait a while and live in the real world for say 10 or 15 years before they try to get into parliament. There are lots of other ways for MPs to keep in touch with the outside world once they are there.

It looks like this sort of activity is going to be curtailed now. However I have a suggestion for the MPs who try to defend their outside interests on the grounds of "keeping them engaged with the outside world". If that is truly the reason why they feel the need to do it then they should give all the money that they earn in this way to the exchequer or charity. If they did this, I would still consider it an unneccessary distraction but I would be more inclined to believe their claims.

Other Reckonings - 29th June 2009

  • Rob Fenwick asks where all the MPs are when they are supposed to to be considering the Parliamentary Standards bill.
  • Peter Black AM thinks that Gordon Brown is in denial about spending cuts.
  • Donal Blaney says that given that a policy that he espoused 10 years ago and caused much opprobrium to be heaped upon him has now effectively been adopted by the Labour government that he is owed an apology.
  • Douglas Carswell thinks that the PM's plans are "washed up and knackered". Plus ca change Douglas.
  • And Paul on Liberal Burblings has an interesting insight into South Carolina politics.

I am thinking of changing the format of these and doing them weekly in the future although I haven't decided yet.

Monday 29 June 2009

Gordon Brown is unfit for office

As usual Andrew Rawnsley's piece in the Observer yesterday is good reading. It asks how public services can be made more accountable.

What I want to focus on though is something that is covered almost as an aside in Rawnsley's piece as he discusses the history of Labour's attempts at public service reform. It is this:

Another problem was that his (Blair's) idea of devolution was limited to handing down power to head teachers or hospital managers. Choice remains an empty word for many parents, pupils and patients. Then there was the huge obstacle of his chancellor. Gordon Brown constantly and often very effectively used his power at the Treasury to sabotage the reforms pursued by his next-door neighbour. It never struck me that the Mr Brown of those years really had a theory of his own about how to reform public services. He simply knew what he didn't like. What he didn't like was anything proposed by his rival. As a senior member of the current cabinet says: "Gordon wasn't necessarily against reform, he was just against any reform proposed by Tony. It was about authorship as much as anything." As a result, reform happened in a compromised and cramped way.

I have heard and read this description of the dynamic between Prime Minister Blair and Chancellor Brown many times before. The thing is though, why the hell did anyone (including Blair) put up with this? And how the hell can Brown reconcile this sort of petulant, childish, pathetic behaviour with all the rhetoric he spouts about his moral compass and doing the right thing. It seems to be just accepted by their colleagues, commentators, civil servants etc. that Brown had a massive strop for 10 years and during that time tried to block much of what Blair was trying to achieve, not through ideological differences (which would have an honourable motive) but through sheer petty jealousy that it wasn't him making the decisions.

The more I hear about Gordon Brown's real behaviour (as opposed to the image he tries to project) the more sickened I am. The man has no moral compass or scruples as far as I can tell, he is only motivated by the pursuit and retention of power.

I for one am very pleased that in a few months time he will be consigned to the political history bin. It cannot come soon enough. The man is unfit for office.

Sunday 28 June 2009

Why do Charlotte and James feel they cannot stand?

There has been a lot of response to Charlotte Gore's post last week where she ruled herself out of standing as PPC for Halifax and gave a number of reasons why she felt she was not suitable to be one ever. Here is a flavour:

Amongst the many reasons why I would make a terrible PPC my personal favourite is this blog. Oh, it’ll take a day or so, but any campaign run by me could be derailed very quickly by finding a few choice quotes. Charlotte Gore wants to axe the welfare state! Charlotte Gore wants to cut spending! Charlotte Gore is pro Business and anti Union! Charlotte Gore wants to legalise drugs! Charlotte Gore thinks the BNP should be allowed on television! That’s just the start of it. There’s enough in this blog to kill any political career one hundred times over.

she also drafts the following letter:

Dear Halifax,

I’m looking for someone. It might be you. It might be someone you know. This is someone who’s sick of politicians and sick of mainstream politics. That’s most of us these days, and who could blame us?

The person I’m looking for gets angry that the Government takes £10 billion pounds - more than twice as much as the once mighty HBOS ever earnt before tax - from cigarette duties alone. They get furious that £30 worth of petrol includes £20 of tax… and for what? This person feels ill when they discover the Government is now spending more than the entire British population takes home in wages, and they ask: For what? Where is the money going?

This person looks around and sees a country brought to its knees, surviving only on loans from the rest of the world. This person knows that Halifax’s biggest employer is the council, and it makes this person angry to think that a town that was at the very heart of the industrial revolution could be sunk so low as to survive only on scraps from the Government table. This person thinks we should be better than this.

But that’s not all. The person I’m looking for looks around and sees a country where trainspotters - of all people - are arrested under anti-terrorism laws and where it has become illegal to take photographs of the police. They see a Government determined to censor the internet, to monitor their emails and internet use. They see more and more rules and laws telling people how they should live and behave: Don’t eat. Don’t smoke. Don’t drink. Don’t drive. Don’t say this. Don’t say that. Don’t vote for them. This person thinks Governments are supposed to be servants of the people, not the other way around.

If you see this person, will you pass on a message? I’d be very grateful. The message is this: “You are missed. Please come back.”

Yours Sincerely,

Charlotte Gore

I posted the following in the comments on the thread:

Charlotte. I feel very strongly that people like you should stand. The very fact that you have the guts and integrity to make your strongly held views known and back them up with robust argument and intellectual rigour makes you an ideal candidate to run for parliament and hold the government to account when you get there.

I understand where you are coming from but I absolutely hate, repeat HATE the fact that many people by the time they get into parliament are anodyne speak your weight robots who speak an almost unintelligble language and appear to have no serious beliefs or underpinning to their views.

So what if you have said a few things that would get the Daily Mail riled? They need to be taken on. It is only through people like you that it will ever happen.

I understand that this is a difficult seat to fight and it would likely be for naught so I am not even necessarily saying you should go for this one but please, please do not rule yourself out from ever standing which is what you seem to be saying.

Later on James Graham of Quaequam Blog fame posted the following comment:

I think you are right and that some of the people on this thread are quite naive: you are totally unsuitable candidate material. If it is any consolation, I am too.

While I think it would be a nod in the right direction, a change in the ‘boring’ electoral system ultimately won’t make either of us more electable either.

I don’t actually think it is that bad that the people who tend to rise to the top of politics have relatively porous views. MPs have to be all-rounders. What you haven’t addressed is how frustrating your life would be battling away at your libertarian agenda in a Parliament where the vast majority of MPs were at best indifferent. How long would it be able to maintain your interest? It would certainly bore me. Why else do single issue political parties like UKIP adopt stance that they won’t actually do any work in the Parliament they are elected to, and just hoover up the expenses for five years?

There are hundreds of different ways to make a difference in politics. Just concentrate on those.

Just to quickly summarise:

Charlotte's argument against herself being suitable seems to be twofold. Firstly she thinks that her views are too extreme and could easily be used against her. Secondly the fact that many of her views are stridently set out on her blog for all to see means that she can't even use the time honoured method of keeping quiet about her real views on things.

James' argument is that MPs have to be good all-rounders (Jacks of all trades, Masters of none?) and that someone like Charlotte with very passionate views on civil liberties for example would quickly tire of the drudgery of the day to day life of an MP dealing with myriad important but often unexciting issues.

I completely and totally disagree with James' and Charlotte's assertions that they are unsuitable to stand as parliamentary candidates. I have not met either of them (yet) but I have interacted with them online and read enough of their blog posts to be able to say with confidence that our parliament would be enhanced were they to be elected MPs. Of this I am sure.

I am 34 years old. I only joined a political party (the Lib Dems) a year ago. I have been fascinated with politics for as long as I can remember but I sated my political appetite by hoovering up political newspaper comment (and latterly political blogs) as well as watching all the TV programmes and analysis. For years I thought that I did not want to get directly involved in politics itself and was happy to sit on the sidelines.

However I decided last year that I had had enough of doing this and I wanted to get involved. I was so tired of seeing politicians not answer questions and not engage with issues properly when involved in "debate". I cannot express how strongly I feel that politics should be open to everyone and not conducted in a secret code only accessible to people who have followed it closely for 20 years and who are able to parse things to understand what is really meant. I find it absolutely infuriating that most politicians find it impossible to be straight with people.

So what if someone thinks that the current drug laws are not working. To me that is self evident from looking at the objective facts. It should not be a political career destroying taboo to talk about this. It should not be off-limits to be honest about what we think should happen with public spending or taxes either. These issues are central to any serious debate about the political direction of the country and we have allowed our senior politicians to reduce the issues to a preposterous game of "YOU WANT TO CUT X THOUSAND TEACHERS!!1" and "YOU WANT TO INTRODUCE A TAX BOMBSHELL!!!11".

I am utterly, utterly sick of this way of politics being played out. UTTERLY. This is why I got involved and I refuse to play the game by these pathetic rules. I do say what I really think about things, I agree with much of what Charlotte says and am delighted to see her saying it.

I am distressed to see James also ruling himself out. His blog-posts are meticulously and precisely crafted to communicate whatever message he wishes to get across and are often persuasive in a way that I myself aspire to on here. James is one of the reasons I both joined the party and got more heavily involved in blogging. If there was any justice, James would already be an MP!

He makes the point that there are other ways to contribute and of course he is correct. Most people involved do not end up as MPs and there are councils and all sorts of other positions within and outside of the party from where people of passion and commitment can contribute. But I still think that the fact that both of these extremely talented people feel they are unsuitable for our primary political chamber speaks volumes not about them, but about how completely bereft the system that we, the people of this country have allowed the political class to construct.

I am not really sure what else to say about this now other than I am determined to do what I can from my little corner to push for politicians generally and Lib Dems in particular to hold themselves up to a better standard. This might sound like a platitude but it is not. I have been banging on about this sort of thing ever since I started blogging.

I will continue to be honest about my views on issues and if/when I find myself a victim of smears from things I have said or written about I will defend myself to the utmost. I am not going to take this lying down because if I do I will be letting this tired and discredited way of doing politics win.

I didn't get involved after all those years on the sidelines to allow that to happen.

Classic blog posts for Martin Bright of The Spectator

Last Monday I attended the "Commentariat vs Bloggertariat" event organised by Editorial Intelligence as I blogged about here. during the event, Martin Bright of The Spectator claimed that he had never read a "classic" blog post. I suggested that he might not have been looking in the right places and I promised that I would send him some. I then created a thread where I asked for suggestions. Some of you have responded to this and I have also received some suggestions in private. I have a couple of my own too.

Exactly what constitutes a "classic" blog post is open to a great deal of debate. I suspect that Mr Bright is looking for something that looks and reads like a traditional newspaper comment piece but is then as good as the best of those. I am not sure this is a valid comparison as the medium of blogging is more immediate and open. Great blog posts can be short and punchy, they can be hugely long and rambling as well. The format and length of them is almost entirely in the hands of the author. There is no word limit or format that they have to squeeze into and this gives freedom that newpaper comment writers cannot have.

Anyway, What I have decided to do is list everything that was submitted to me along with a brief description for each. I will Make Mr Bright aware of this post and he may wish to respond either here in the comments or on his own blog. They are in no particular order.

I think in their different ways all these posts listed above demonstrate the strengths of the blogosphere in different ways. Doubtless people will have views on their relative merits but I think this provides evidence that there are indeed "classic" blog posts out there and doubtless we will continue to see many more.

Please feel free to continue to nominate other classic blog posts in the thread below.

Thursday 25 June 2009

Michael Jackson RIP

According to BBC News and various other sources Michael Jackson died earlier today of a heart attack.

It seems like a very sad end to the life of an amazingly talented man. He was only 50 years old.

I will always have fond memories of his earlier music; I grew up during the Thriller and Bad eras and they were both fantastic albums.


BBC Question Time Live Chat - 25th June 2009 - #bbcqt

Give me a "Q"! Give me a "U"! Give me a "Estion Time"! Yes, it's that day again and the Live Chat on this blog will start at 10:30pm.

The panel will include Employment Minister Jim Knight (of @jimknightmp fame), Conservative shadow security minister Dame Pauline Neville-Jones, Liberal Democrat local government spokesman Julia Goldsworthy, Plaid Cymru Welsh Assembly Member Leanne Wood, and columnist and commentator Kelvin McKenzie (why do we have to endure this idiot?).

You can also follow people's comments on Twitter via the #bbcqt hashtag (you can also follow me here on Twitter by the way). I wonder if Jim Knight will tweet during the broadcast. It's pre-recorded an hour or so before so he might well do.

Liberal Democrat Voice also always have an open thread for BBC Question Time which is usually posted just before the start of the programme.

The chat starts from 10:30pm this evening:

Commentariat vs Bloggertariat - Video - #eiblogger

Editorial Intelligence have just released the video for the "Commentariat vs Bloggertariat" event that I attended on Monday and that I blogged about here.

The video is just snippets from the opening speeches by the panel interspersed with interviews with them. No yours truly asking his question unfortunately.

Video below:

Why is Andrew MacKay paying back nothing?

Paul Waugh has pointed out that my local MP Andrew MacKay is not paying back anything following the release of the "payback" list of Conservative MPs today.

I find this very surprising. I attended Mr MacKay's public meeting a few weeks ago that he called here in Bracknell and it seemed from what he said that he had submitted himself to David Caemron's process and they would decide how much he had to pay back. There were figures mentioned by people during that meeting well in excess of £100K.

Further information from Paul including the Tory line:

The explanation that his case is to be considered by the Legg review is singularly misleading because EVERY MP will have their cases considered by the independent regulator.

The fact is that the Tories' own scrutiny panel has decided not to take any action. If the Legg review concludes that Mr MacKay has not broken any Commons rules because his claims were signed off (amazingly) by officials, then he may escape paying anything at all.

Yet the whole point of the scrutiny panel was to get money back from those MPs whose conduct may not have broken the rules but which failed the famous "smell test" set by Cameron. If it looked dodgy to the public, then cash should be paid back, whether it is Steen's gardening or Vigger's duck house.

Tory aides say that MacKay is not being let off the hook and his case is so serious and complicated that it was felt best to leave it to Legg. But if he fails to payback the money he wrongly claimed from the taxpayer, it will leave Cameron wide open to the accusation that he feels his former adviser has suffered enough.

I agree this does seem very strange. It almost feels like because Mr MacKay has announced he is standing down that the Tories feel the heat is off him and they don't need to focus on him so much. I bet if he hadn't have stood down he would have been included in today's list.

I hope Mr MacKay will pay back the money that was wrongly claimed (whether or not it was within the rules). The fact that he has stood down should make no difference to this.

Lib Dem Voice post about meeting Vince Cable

The good people of Liberal Democrat Voice have very kindly posted my synopsis of last night's Guildford Lib Dems Summer Supper where the guest of honour was Vince Cable here.

Wednesday 24 June 2009

Me saying words on the wireless. Sort of.

I seem to be making a habit these days of calling into Iain Dale's internet radio show. I was at it again this week.

I called in to pick up on a theme that Jonathan Shepherd of Tory Radio had started earlier on in the programme about MPs expenses. He felt that the MPs expenses thing has now gone far enough and MPs have become an easy target (he has blogged about it here). He felt that there are very few if any MPs who will try and defend their colleagues for fear that something will be found in their expenses.

I spoke in agreement with Jonathan's views but I went further and suggested that there will be something in the expense claims of all MPs that can be spun negatively. Whether it’s a paper clip, bath plug or in the case of Jo Swinson, nothing but a receipt that happened to have make up on it (which she never claimed for - it was on the same receipt as something else legitimate). That didn’t stop The Telegraph the Guardian and the BBC from smearing her.

The time has come for this to end now. the Tax Payer’s Alliance was going after someone recently because of claims for a training course for a member of staff. Are we now saying that MP’s staff should not be allowed to go on training courses? Are we trying to turn MPs into the worst employers in the country? Enough!

You can hear me on the podcast of the show here. I am on around the last 20 minutes.

John Bercow - First #PMQs review

Well that was the first PMQs of John Bercow's time as speaker. I thought he did OK. Here are my highlights:

  • He got in early by cutting short a planted question stating "We got the jist of it!"
  • When there was continual barracking during the Cameron/Brown exchanges he interrupted and insisted that the public do not like it "and I do not like it!". Things were a bit quieter after this.
  • He chided Michael Fabricant the Tory MP saying that he must calm himself "It's not good for your health!".
  • The best bit for me was a slap down to another Labour back-bencher who started trying to tack on slating of opposition policies to his question. Bercow interrupted and said that the PM need not concern himself with opposition policies. If Bercow sticks to this then it could eventually make life difficult for the PM as that's half his question answering strategy out of the window.
  • He made a brief statement at the end firstly insisting that ministers must make statements initially to the house not the media, must keep questions and answers relatively short and that those speaking must be able to be heard.
There was however no attempt to stop the planted questions. There was no rebuke for Mr Brown given how he trampled all over Harriet Harman's statement to the house yesterday as Paul Waugh commented on. There was also no attempt to get Gordon Brown to actually answer the question as he reeled off tractor statistics and made reference to David Cameron times in the Treasury 17 years ago when he was about 25 and in no position of power at all (I always find this pathetic).

So, there is a lot more he could and should have done. However I suppose if he had tried to do all of this it would have meant all the headlines would have been about him playing to the gallery and trying to personalise the Speakership. One step at a time.

I very much hope he does try to address some of these other points though in the coming weeks. Let's see.

Should David Tredinnick MP be spending our money on nonsense?

I have really been trying not to post about MPs expenses any more but I could not let this one pass by.

Apparently Conservative MP David Tredinnick has spent £510 of taxpayer's money on "Astrology software" and training on how to use it. I am afraid this is where my liberal self clashes with my extreme dislike of nonsense.

Astrology is to me self evidently nonsensical. If Mr Tredinnick wants to spend more than £500 of his own money and waste his time on this sort of thing then that is up to him but I resent having public money spent on software to teach an MP about utter bilge like this.

This money should be repaid by Mr Tredinnick immediately.

Dale's Norwich North Scoop

Iain Dale has a bit of a scoop regarding the Norwich North selection.

Apparently Nick Clegg approached Martin Bell and also the editor of the Eastern Daily Press both of whom turned him down.

I was going post my thoughts on this but Nich Starling has said pretty much what I was going to.

I will just add that I seem to recall 18 months ago that there were lots of people approached about the Conservative London Mayor candidate position before they finally accepted Boris as the candidate. It is by no means unusual during a high profile election (like any by-election) for parties to try and raise their profile by going for a well known national or local figure.

I am sure the Tories will try and use this against April Pond but I am really not sure there is much mileage in this story.

Tuesday 23 June 2009

Martin Bright wants to know about "Classic" blog posts

At the "Commentariat vs Bloggertariat" event last night that I have already blogged about, Martin Bright of the Spectator said that he has not yet come across what he would describe as a "classic" blog post.

I disagree with him and have a few in mind that I intend to forward to him. However I thought it might be a nice idea for others to nominate what they consider to be classic blog posts. I think he is talking about posts that can compare with the best newspaper columns but feel free to nominate blog posts in the comments below that you think are particularly special for whatever reason perhaps explaining why you think so.

I will pass on the information to Martin.

"Commentariat vs Bloggertariat" event review - #eiblogger

I was invited to attend an event yesterday called “Commentariat vs Bloggertariat” organised by Editorial Intelligence. It was an attempt to bring bloggers and newspaper commentators together and discuss the relationship between blogging and newspapers and to speculate on what the future may hold.

It was nice to be treated as a "proper" blogger like this! I have only really been seriously blogging since last November and I think this invitation was a result of the well publicised posts I did last month about the link between the expenses scandal and safe seats which got me lots of visits and coverage.

The panel consisted of Anne Spackman Comment Editor of the Times, Iain Dale, Martin Bright of the Spectator, Mick Fealty of Slugger O'Toole blog and David Aaronovitch of The Times. It was chaired by Julia Hobsbawm, Chief Executive of Editorial Intelligence.

Here is a quick synopsis of what each said in their opening speeches:

Anne Spackman is concerned that there is no business plan or commercial underpinning for online journalism. She feels that newspapers are a very powerful medium but online it is a real struggle to get the readership. The worlds of blogging and journalism are converging with bloggers writing for papers and journalists blogging but Guido was able to do what he did with Smeargate precisely because he sits outside the mainstream.

Martin Bright thinks that the most important medium is broadcast but mentioned that Downing Street are absolutely obsessed with his Spectator column. He said that one of the good things about blogs is the instant feedback but the problem is that it is hard to comment well on fast moving events and this can be a weakness of blogs. He suggested that he has never yet read what he described as a "classic" blog post. He also felt that Twitter was threatening blogs.

Mick Fealty said that 5 or 6 years ago, bloggers were held in comtempt and it is telling that now events like this are trying to invite them into the "inner circle". He thinks that shows that bloggers have won. He argued that far from it being blogs that are damaging journalism it is Google. He said that big bloggers are social entrepreneurs and one of their big advantages is that their sources are usually not within the "golden circle". He also felt that bloggers do not generally need to earn money from the activity and they often have "normal" jobs like Policeman, Doctor, Teacher etc. and see blogging as a side line.

Iain Dale began with a strong attack on newspapers who damage or destroy blogs. He singled out The Times for its recent treatment of the formerly anonymous blogger Night Jack whom they outed and therefore ended. He suggested that newspapers are dying because they don't know where they are going. He singled out mainstream media bloggers Paul Waugh and Ben Brogan as excellent examples of where the media cross-over well. He explained how he will often get bombarded with e-mails asking why he has not covered some or other issue within a few hours or sometimes minutes of a story breaking! He found doing his Telegraph column that he used to do very difficult because he had too much time and found he did it best when he just banged it out in 20 minutes like he does on his blog. His said his readership has doubled in the past 4 months.

David Aaronovitch accused Iain Dale of "idiocy" with his comments about Night Jack. He said that his biggest problem with blogs is the rudeness and that he has seen himself being called a c**t 15 times in a single thread on blogs such as Guido Fawkes. He thinks that Twitter is very powerful and that the commentariat will still be here in 25 years time but he said that the bloggertariat will have changed beyond all recognition. He questions why Iain Dale's frequent media appearances often include analysis of the Labour Party which he felt is usually wrong because Iain's specialism is the Tories. He also felt that there is not a level playing field between blogs and newspapers because papers can be sued and generally blogs cannot because they usually don't have much or any money.

Because I had rather cheekily plonked myself in the middle of the front row, I got to ask the first question. I suggested that many people by default go to the mainstream media at the moment but there is a generation coming through now who get their media mainly via the internet so in 10 or 15 years time the demographics could give blogs the upper hand. I also explained how my experience shows that a single person sitting in his bedroom with an idea can now get widespread coverage (I cited the safe seats, expenses analysis as an example). I also questioned Martin Bright's assertion that he has not come across a "classic" blog post and promised to send him some links. I concluded by suggesting that some members of the panel needed to start looking more widely at blogs because most of them are not full of vituperative comments in my experience.

I didn’t really feel that my questions or points were properly picked up on by the panel but there was still plenty of debate to be had. I was quite surprised at how many of the audience were famous journalists. People like Suzanne Moore of The Mail and Anne McElvoy of The Evening Standard asked questions. In fact I seemed to be the only one called to ask a question who the chair didn’t actually know!

There were a couple of notable moments:
  • There were screens all around the room that were displaying tweets containing the hashtag for the event #eiblogger streamed directly from Twitter which cycled around and about 5 minutes after D. Aaronovitch's comments about being called a c**t there was a tweet scrolling past several times that said "But David Aaronovitch IS a c**t"! This actually went some way to proving his point and Martin Bright commented on this afterwards.
  • Mick Fealty mentioned that Guido is actually making very good money from his blogging. David Aaronovitch said he was pleased to hear that because his lawyer had previously claimed the opposite and that therefore there was no point in suing Guido. Now he said he would need to rethink this. Mick cursed himself at this point.
Guido texted to Iain (and tweeted) during the event that as a rule he does not swear on his blog and it is the commenters who generally do this. I also managed to tweet a few times myself during the event.

All in all it was a very enjoyable event and it was useful to hear the contributions on this subject from some of the most prominent in both fields.

UPDATE1: Edited to correct a couple of mistakes and add a few more links.

Also there is now a podcast of the event available to download here. My dulcet tones can be heard with my contribution from about 45:30 for about 2 minutes.

UPDATE2: I have started another thread here where you can submit your suggestions for "classic" blog posts that I will pass onto Martin Bright to hopefully answer his question.

UPDATE3: There are further threads on this from Charles Crawford who thinks there is a "long tail" scenario in play, Alex Smith on Labourlist and Iain Dale himself who suspects he might have blown his chances of a Times column with his comments last night. I think he might be right!

Chris Applegate also has an excellent analysis of the event on "We Are Social".

UPDATE4: Mick Fealty has now put a detailed post from his perspective of the important points to take from last night. Mick was a very thought provoking panelist who has a very clear passion for the subject. His take on it is well worth reading.

Mick has also reminded me that Editorial Intelligence also announced last night that they are now looking for nominations for their Comment Awards.

Monday 22 June 2009

John Bercow should stamp his authority on the Commons quickly

So John Bercow is now the Speaker of the House of Commons. I am still unsure whether they have made the right choice but he could do a few things in his early days to help answer that question.

The first thing he should do is make Gordon Brown actually answer the questions at PMQs. For far too long we have had to put up with either blatant side-stepping usually involving a variation on accusing the questioner of not asking important questions of policy. And then when questions on policy are asked we uaually get a load of tractor manufacturing statistics and distorted nonsense about what the questioner would do. This needs to change and the time to do it is straight away. I suspect Cameron won't like this because it will not bode well for him being able to pull the same tricks in a year's time but it must happen anyway.

Secondly he should stop all the stupid barracking and heckling from all sides. It is childish and really turns people off politics. Questions and answers should be heard properly and MPs who make noise when others are speaking should be ejected from the chamber.

Thirdly he must put a stop to ministers announcing policies outside the Commons and/or leaking or trailing the information beforehand so that the Commons is the last to hear it. The Speaker must have the power to enforce the old principle of the House hearing first.

There are many other changes that need to come but if we see proper movement in these areas then we will know we are moving in the right direction.

I am in the "Anyone But Margaret Beckett" lobby

There are a number of other bloggers (e.g. Bernard Salmon, Stephen Glenn and Caron Lindsay as well as others on this Lib Dem Voice thread) who have pointed out that Margaret Beckett, were she to be elected Speaker of the House of Commons today would be the worst of all worlds. She is an establishment figure who is far too closely associated with the government and would do nowhere near enough to refom parliament.

MPs today have a once in a political generation to do the right thing and elect somebody who will truly reform the House. Margaret Beckett is not that person and if they choose her, they will be sending a very clear signal to the electorate that despite all the words about "change" and "reform", they intend to do diddly squat.

I am willing to go with Douglas Carswell's choice of Richard Shepherd as a reforming Speaker although I fear he will not make it through the rounds.

Douglas Carswell announces for Richard Shepherd for Speaker of the House of Commons

Douglas Carswell MP has announced that he will be voting for Richard Shepherd as Speaker of the House of Commons.

This is important because Douglas is the MP who started the campaign to get rid of the previous Speaker Michael Martin and his opinion counts for quite a lot on this subject in my view.

Douglas says:

Firstly, his own expense claims have been very modest. Secondly, he campaigned for Freedom of Information law years before it became fashionable. Together that gives him the moral authority to force transparency on an unwilling tribe in SW1.

Better than anyone else I’ve met in four years in the Commons, Richard understands that sovereignty of Parliament is shorthand for sovereignty of the people.

Too many in Westminster see the Speaker’s contest through the prism of self-interest. They seem to want to elect a shop steward for politicians, rather than a Speaker able to restore public faith in the political process.

Richard grasps that change must also mean making those we elect effective at holding government to account. Parliament needs back its purpose. He’s ideas on how it is to be done.

Speaker Shepherd would be no apologist for indolent politicians blinded by a sense of entitlement – but he would make them answer properly to you.

I have to say that when I saw Mr Shepherd on the Newsnight hustings he did not impress me but perhaps that was not the best medium for him. I have to say that I am fearful from the latest reports that Margaret Beckett will be elected and I am not sure she is the right person for the job at all having been so closely associated with the incumbent Labour government.

We shall see later today of course.

Sunday 21 June 2009

Val Swain and Emily Apple - Shocking police footage

The Guardian has shocking footage here of two protesters being manhandled for what appears to be no good reason during the Kingsnorth protests last year. Here is the footage from Youtube:

Val Swain and Emily Apple were apparently arrested for trying to identify the officers involved. What seems to spark it off is when they try to photograph an officer who has refused to identify himself. They are grabbed and bundled to the floor. Pressure is applied to their necks and Emily has her foot stood on, is bound and thrown into the back of a van.

They were then held for 4 days after which they were released without charge. By then the protests were over.

Now I have written about this sort of thing before. The Ian Tomlinson case where a man died some time after being pushed by a police officer during the G20 protests sparked a great deal of public concern and anger. I said not long after that that the use of new technology would eventually force the police to change.

Now the events shown here took place last year before the repercussions of the Ian Tomlinson case had been felt but I think it is a prime example of what the public is concerned about. It certainly shows that the sort of things we saw at the G20 were not isolated incidents or indeed confined to the capital (Kingsnorth is in Kent and the police officer who refused to identify himself was apparently from West Yorkshire according to the footage). There are distinct parallels with the sort of things we saw at the G20 protests, refusal of officers to identify themselves, disproportionate force seeming to be used when it seems unwarranted etc. I hope this footage gets wider coverage and other abuses like this come out into the open.

Emily and Val are members of Fit Watch, an organisation which aims to film and record police officers as they record the public at things like demonstrations. This is exactly the sort of thing the public should be doing and as long as the police are acting correctly then there should be no problem with people doing this.

As I said before, the technology will eventually force the police culture to change. This is another example that will hopefully contribute to this.

UPDATE1: Updated to include the Youtube footage. Hattip to Fausty for this.

UPDATE3: The original Youtube footage I embedded has been removed so I have replaced it with another version which is the same footage (I think, from memory).

We need a prime-time TV programme on electoral systems

I had an interesting phone call from an old friend this week. He isn't really very interested in politics but he is university educated and follows the news. He has been following my blog and he suggested something that would really help educate people like him about electoral reform.

He asked why there hasn’t been something like a half hour or hour long programme on the BBC or Channel 4 in prime time (e.g. Panaroma or Dispatches) which examines in detail the different possible electoral systems. He said that he listens to Radio 4 every day for an hour and a half and watches lots of documentaries (i.e. he is engaged with the news agenda) but he does not understand about the different systems available for electoral systems as they have never been properly covered. He strongly feels that given how high up the political agenda this issue now is that it at least warrants a proper analysis so the public can be better educated.

I very much agree with him and have been disappointed to see and hear whenever the subject is brought up on Newsnight or Today for example that the presenter is very quick to step in as soon as anybody even tries to explain how the systems work. It seems to be deemed too esoteric or not engaging enough. But we are talking about the systems that we may be asked to choose to select our leaders for many decades to come. Surely the public should have easy access to the information necessary to help them decide which system would be best?

God knows there is enough rubbish on in prime-time about how to look good naked, or celebrity cooking programmes. Surely there is room somewhere for a programme like this that would properly educate about the different systems?

I am sure in the past this could have been easily dismissed by TV executives but all 3 of the main party leaders have talked at length about this issue recently. The Prime Minister has called for a national debate. How can that debate be had properly if most people do not understand what the politicians are talking about?

We need a programme like this in the next few weeks or months to ensure that the debate is properly informed.

Gordon Brown is now seriously damaging his colleagues

There have been a number of occasions recently when I have heard cabinet ministers on TV and/or radio making complete idiots of themselves.

The reason seems to me largely because of Gordon Brown's incompetence or ridiculous political posturing. Here is an example:

On Radio 4's "Any Questions" this week there was a question about the Iraq Enquiry and Tessa Jowell tied herself up in knots. When questioned about why the government couldn't have taken the decision to hold it in public she insisted that it is not the place of a Minister to decide this and it must be for the inquiry head. However Jonathan Dimbleby pointed out to her that Gordon Brown had indeed decided on Monday that the inquiry had to be held in secret for "national security" reasons making a mockery of her statement that ministers cannot decide. The audience were unimpressed with jeers and even an attempt to start a slow hand clap. Jowell looked ridiculous and all because the truth is that Gordon Brown blundered by making the inquiry secret at a time when secrecy is a massively hot political topic. It should have been obvious to anyone advising Brown and Brown himself that a secret inquiry would never wash. It is political ineptitude of the highest order that this was allowed to be presented as the solution.

There are other examples too. Liam Byrne and Andy Burnham have both come across as blithering imbeciles in recent days as they have tried to argue that spending cuts are not spending cuts and refusing to answer straight questions. The reason for this is because Gordon Brown wants to be able to claim that the Tories will cut 10% whilst Labour will increase spending. The truth to anyone who spends more than 30 seconds with the figures is that Labour will have to cut heavily as well. In fact the 10% is from Labour's own figures! And yet Byrne and Burnham have been forced to go on air to argue that black is white and end up just looking silly.

And on and on it will go as Brown continues to blunder and try to map out non-existant dividing lines. Liam Byrne, Andy Burnham and many other cabinet ministers will be hoping to have long futures as politicians. But what I can see happening over the next year is what happened to almost all of John Major's cabinet. The stench of decay that pervades this administration will cling to all who are in it, especially the ones brave enough to go onto the media and argue Brown's distorted nonsense. The public will associate them too strongly with this rotten government and it will be impossible for them to dissociate themselves from it.

Brown will have no significant political future after the next election but by his actions he is now condemning the next generation of Labour politicians to many, many years in the wilderness as he taints them all with his poisonous politics.

It actually makes me wonder if James Purnell is smarter than the lot of them put together.

Saturday 20 June 2009

LDV readers vote for AV over FPTP!?


A surprising result from the Lib Dem Voice poll on whether we should back Alternative Vote over First Past the Post (assuming it was to be on offer). Apparently 51% (out of 345 votes overall) think that we should.

As I have blogged about before I want Single Transferable Vote. I was dubious about Alternative Vote Plus (AV+) as are a number of other Lib Dem bloggers (e.g. here and here) but at least that would be more closely proportional than FPTP. There's no such guarantee with AV. It may even end up being less proportional than FPTP. It can exagerate landslides if the second placed party is unpopular. It would have given Labour an even bigger majority in 1997 for example.

So why would LDV readers support it? Here are a few theories:

1) They think that it would be a "step in the right direction". AV does at least have the distinction of ensuring candidates get 50% of the vote in their seat after all the transfers are made. And it gets the electorate used to listing preferences. The reasoning would be that after this move, it would make campaigning for a further move to STV easier. I think this is completely wrong. The electorate would not stand for further changes after a change to AV for a very long time probably decades. It would actually set back the cause of those of us who want a proportional system.

2) Perhaps lots those who responded are not Lib Dems. This would make sense as I am sure LDV is much more widely read than just the party membership and there was no restriction on who could vote. It would be interesting to see what the results of a similar poll that was only open to party members (as LDV have the ability to do I think) would be.

3) Lots of Lib Dems favour a system that would likely work against the party's interests. Whilst I like to think that we Lib Dems are not as brazenly partisan as other parties but I very much doubt they would actively vote to make the situation any worse for us!

4) Perhaps not all respondents understood the distinction between AV, AV+, STV etc. It can get very confusing and sometimes politicians deliberately obfuscate by for example saying AV when they mean AV+.

Or maybe there are other reasons. What do you think?

Twitter and the rise of the new media (LDV article)

I have written an article which Lib Dem Voice have very kindly published entitled "Twitter and the rise of the new media".

Interesting new political podcasts from The Wardman Wire

I have just started listening to the Politalks podcasts from The Wardman Wire. I am always on the lookout for good political podcasts and the two I have listened to so far are of a good standard. They are interviews with a UKIP candidate and Tom Harris MP. The interviewer (from Charon QC, the UK law blog) is focused and gives the interviewee proper time to explore issues which is something I often find is lacking in the mainstream media.

Try them out for yourself. The main link is here and the iTunes link is here.

There are 3 so far and Matt Wardman assures me there will be plenty more to come.

Friday 19 June 2009

Is this proof that Gordon Brown lied to the House of Commons?

Alex Singleton on the Telegraph Three Line Whip blog has a short piece today which reveals that a Downing Street staff member has said that Gordon Brown was briefed by Damian McBride just before going onto the Andrew Marr show on 31st May less than 3 weeks ago and well after he was sacked due to Smeargate.

Alex goes on to say that this contradicts Downing Street's assertions to Scotland on Sunday that McBride had not returned as a spin doctor.

However it's worse than that. I knew I recalled him denying this at PMQs and sure enough, according to Hansard from this week, during PMQs Gordon Brown denied having had informal briefings from McBride. Here is the excerpt:

Q7. Mr. Lee Scott (Ilford, North) (Con): Will the Prime Minister tell the House whether the Government have received any informal briefings from Damian McBride?

The Prime Minister: I have not.

No equivocation and as far as I can see, wiggle room. So, can anyone explain to me how this is not lying to the House of Commons?

UPDATE: Constantly Furious has also picked up on this and blogged on it now. It would be good if others could too and also tweet about it. He should not be allowed to get away with this.

Is this an off the record briefing from David Miliband?

Paul Waugh has highlighted something interesting. Apparently there has been an off the record briefing by "allies of the Foreign Secretary" in The Independent which rubbish Ed Balls in relation to his comments about the Iraq inquiry.

Now I am not saying that Ed Balls does not deserve this, he is a big boy and can doubtless take it as he so often dishes it out, but the comments contrast sharply with David Miliband's calls last week for the media to:

abandon unattributable briefings, saying all politicians’ spokesmen should be named, or not quoted by media outlets. "The gotcha culture of politics is not in anyone’s interests"

So presumably Mr Miliband is not happy with this latest development and will insist that the person involved be named. And if the Indy will not name them, Mr Miliband should name them himself in order to strike a blow against the spin and counter spin culture he clearly wants to change.

Oh, and if it turns out to have been Mr Miliband himself then surely his commitment to what he said last week is shot to ribbons?

Thursday 18 June 2009

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 18th June 2009 - #bbcqt

Thursday, Thursday, Thursday, is BBC Question Time day. OK it doesn't scan as well as the Tiswas theme. Anyway, it's that day again and the Live Chat on this blog will start at 10:30pm.

The panel will include Labour peer Lord (Charlie) Falconer, Conservative shadow secretary for business and regulatory reform Kenneth Clarke, Liberal Democrat foreign affairs spokesman Edward Davey, political commentator and sometime linker to this blog Polly Toynbee, and journalist and campaigner and self publicist and putative MP Esther Rantzen.

Liberal Democrat Voice also always have an open thread for BBC Question Time which is usually posted just before the start of the programme.

The chat starts from 10:30pm this evening and all are welcome.

Black ink blindness

I have been busy working today so have not have much of a chance to look at the expenses released today. However I have read a number of blog posts where others have posted pictures of them and the main thing I have noticed is just how much has been blacked out. In some cases it is virtually the whole receipt.

I have to say that the approach taken by the authorities seems to have been, if in doubt redact it which surely goes against the spirit of what this was intended for? I thought it was just supposed to be for sensitive things like addresses and credit card numbers. They seem to go much further than this blacking out comments written by the claimants (and we all know how embarassing some of those were - Andy Burnham's marriage anyone?) as well as all sorts of other information that really should be in the public domain.

In fact there is so much black ink being liberally splashed about that it actually seems to be causing confusion about what was and wasn't being claimed. In a blog post today, Paul Waugh is asking if Jack Straw claimed for Christmas cards which is verboten. The response has been that Mr Straw always pays for his Christmas cards and his office are trying to get hold of an unredacted copy of the receipt to check whether he made this clear. You can't tell because his comments have been excised.

So they appear to have been redacting information that would clarify whether claims were or weren't within the rules!? That seems crazy.

In some ways I am glad I have been busy today as I think wading through all these partially obscured receipts would have driven me a bit peculiar!

Wednesday 17 June 2009

What does Gordon Brown think he sounds like?

Having seen and read the reports and highlights from today's PMQs and read a fair few blog posts about it, I just wonder what Gordon Brown think he sounds like when he relentlessly drivels on about Tory cuts vs Labour investment insisting that Labour will increase spending in real terms in the next few years.

It is so manifestly untrue that Tom Bradby ITV's political editor as good as said so on the report tonight. I am sure a few years ago that political editors did not feel that they could basically state that the Prime Minister of the day was a liar but it seems par for the course these days because it is true.

This recent Politics Home opinion poll shows that Labour is the least believed of the 3 major parties on spending on frankly I am not surprised.

I just wonder what he thinks he sounds like because to me it seems mendacious and politically tone deaf.

Phone line Poll Tax?

Costigan Quist has an interesting post about the Digital Britain report from yesterday.

In it he argues that the 50p monthly tax on every phone line in the country that is proposed is effectively a poll tax. I agree with this. It is not based on ability to pay and is simply levied on every single phone line. This money will then be used to pay for broadband to be extended to hard to reach parts of the country.

I guess when they drafted this proposal they thought that the amounts involved are so low that it doesn't really matter. But virtually the entire current cabinet would have been viscerally opposed to the Community Charge in the late 1980s and although the amount here is much lower the principle is still the same. Why should very poor people be paying much more of their income proportionally than very rich people to pay for the extension of broadband?

This strikes me as an ill-thought through gimmick.

Other Reckonings - 16th June 2009

  • Sunder Katwala has a one stop shop for blog comment about the shameful outing of Orwell prize winning blogger Night Jack
  • But Alix Mortimer deserves special singling out for an excellent post on this subject which declares it a sad day for investigative journalism
  • Lib Dem in Hackney advocates tactical play to try and ensure we get as close to hung parliament as possible. That could be a very dangerous game...
  • Tom Harris explains a temporary shift in his support for John Bercow to allow Parmjit Dhanda to address the house
  • And Dizzy has an interesting post about how a teenager has found a way to cause plastic bags to decompose in a matter of months

Tuesday 16 June 2009

Is Damian McBride Back?

There are reports that Damian McBride is back working for Gordon Brown only a couple of months after he was forced to resign in disgrace following the Smeargate scandal.

I agree with Fausty that if this turns out to be true then it is completely unacceptable. This government has a long track record of reinstating people who have previously been forced to resign (in fact the second most powerful person in the government is one such person). This time it will not wash though. The only reason Brown was able to move on from that scandal is because McBride went (remember how he tried to several days to prevent this from happening?). If McBride is back working for the Labour Party in ANY capacity then as far as I am concerned they are condoning what he did and his general working practises which have been very well documented elsewhere.

The Labour Party should clear up the confusion here instead of obfuscation and unattributed briefings. Is he working for the party again? If so he should go right now. Unless they are happy for the whole Smeargate saga to be opened up again which will inevitably happen if he is back in the fold.

Counterfactual - What if Gordon Brown had stood against Tony Blair in 1994?

I have wondered for a long time how very different history may have played out had Gordon Brown have stood against Tony Blair for the leadership of the Labour Party in 1994. Given how hugely things could have differed this might seem like a bit of an invidious task but I will have a stab at what I think some of the most important consequences might have been.

I think Gordon Brown would have lost and lost quite heavily. This would have been a good thing for a number of reasons.

Firstly it would have meant that Gordon Brown's sense of injustice and entitlement that festered within him for the entire time Blair was PM would not have been there (or at least nowhere near as much). I still think Blair would have won and the modernisers vote would not have been split allowing a left-winger to win. You only have to look at the results of what actually happened to see that Blair won convincingly enough to make that possibility extremely unlikely.

Secondly I think that Tony Blair would not have been PM for as long as he ultimately was. This might seem a bit of an odd thing to say but one of the reasons I think that he kept going as long as he did is because Brown kept scupperring his plans. He was constantly having to fight a rearguard action against him and a lof of his energies were put into managing the Gordon problem. As an aside it is ironic that if Brown had been a more concilliatory Chancellor he could have succeeded earlier and perhaps at a time when he would have been more able to enjoy his time at the helm.

Thirdly I think it is now pretty clear that during the reign of Blair and Brown it has been very difficult for other Labour politicians to carve out a distinctive place for themselves in the senior echelons of the party. Everything has been filtered through the prism of the Blair or Brown factions. If Brown had been a diminished figure through having been defeated for the leadership then he would not have been such an obvious person for a faction to coalesce around and be so sublimated by. The consequences of the TB GBs has been to poison the well for the next generation of Labour politicians. This is part of the problem they are now facing helmed largely by technocrats without a real vision as the figures that could have come through were all marginalised.

Finally, Gordon Brown would now not be PM. The only reason that he was able to remain the "person most likely to succeed" for so many years was because of the way the story that he "stood aside" was disseminated over the years. A strong feeling was fostered that he was entitled to become the next leader after Blair and indeed Blair himself never managed to change that narrative in spite of trying.

The truth is that we can never know what would have happened for sure but I do think that Labour would have been in a better position now if the internecine squabbling between the two factions had not dominated the party for so long and Brown's defeat at the hands of Blair would have made it a lot less likely to have occurred in the first place.

As an aside (and perhaps this is a subject for another counterfactual) it is instructive to see what has happened to David Davis following his defeat by David Cameron in 2005 for the Tory leadership. In spite of having been the front runner he lost quite heavily in the final round and although still a strong figure as Shadow Home Secretary he was never part of the inner circle and has diminished in importance to the point where now he may not even feature in a future cabinet (although that is partly down to his own rather quixotic decision to stand down last year). My point is that leadership contests can massively change the political narrative.

Perhaps that's why what could have happened can be such a fascinating subject for political enthusiasts such as myself.

Other Reckonings - 15th June 2009

  • Paul Canning on The Wardman Wire has raw video linked from yesterday's Tehran rally and points out how vital Twitter has been in getting information out
  • Paul Waugh has an excellent summary of the mess Ed Balls has managed to get himself into
  • Mark Wadsworth questions whether the car scrappage scheme will have much or any effect at all in the end
  • Prof. Paul Reynolds admires Gordon Brown's ability to utter "brazen untruths". I can't say admiration is my first response...
  • And Heresy Corner thinks Brown's decision to hold the Iraq inquiry in secret is misjudged

Monday 15 June 2009

Is public opinion way ahead of MPs on drug policy reform?

I have been an advocate of a more progressive approach to drug policy in this country for a long time. The current laws just aren't working and the fact that there are about 100,000% more heroin users now than in 1971 when the current drug laws came into effect is but one of a myriad of facts that prove this.

However this is one area where politicians are terrified to say anything for fear of being painted as "SOFT ON DRUGS" by the press and their parliamentary opponents who seemingly never fail to oblige whenever one of them does briefly pop their head above the parapet. This all seems to stem from a perception that the public will not stand for any sort of liberalisation. But I wonder if that is the case.

I have noticed a number of times recently when I have heard or seen this issue debated that the majority of people taking part seem to agree that the current system has utterly failed and a significant number seem very open to (or even fully advocating) the idea of liberalisation of the laws. I am talking about looking at the comments posted after articles in newspapers and listening to debates on the radio. I recall one such debate on Victoria Derbyshire's Radio 5 phone in show last year which was ostensibly about the reclassification of Cannabis from class B to class C and virtually every caller said that was a stupid debate, that the real debate should be whether they are legalised and in their view they should. There were numerous different people of different ages in the space of about 20 minutes on the phone in. Something similar happened on an "Any Answers" phone in on Radio 4 last year.

I came across this article today by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times, a very well respected journalist who is asking if it is time to seriously discuss legalising drugs. I mention it not so much for the article (which is good and worth reading) but for the comments below it. I have only had time to read about the first 100 or so (out of 400-odd at last count) but they are overwhelmingly in agreement that drugs should be legalised. There are lots of very well thought out and argued reasons for this. I would say 70% or 80% of the comments are in favour.

Now of course this is just a few anecdotal instances I have noted but I think this could be significant. Politicians act as if there is a huge groundswell of feeling against even talking about the potential for reform in this area and I am just not seeing it. This seems to be a classic case of the political and media classes conspiring with each other to keep debate about a particular issue completely under wraps and I cannot for the life of me fathom why this should be.

I accept there are arguments on both sides for this but the argument never seems to be had. When was the last time you heard a senior politicains seriously engage with the issues on this subject? The last time I recall the question being raised on BBC Question Time, Liam Byrne responding for the government came out with a load of nonsense about how ecstacy is dangerous because he is a father or something along those lines. Completely failing to engage with the issue and appealing to emotion, a classic non-argument. The only person on that panel who actually engaged with it was Monty Don, a TV gardener!

I wonder when politicians will realise that public opinion has already moved way outside the confines of the narrow strictures they have imposed upon themselves?

Sunday 14 June 2009

Other Reckonings - 14th June 2009

  • Costigan Quist writing on LDV has an excellent post advising on the 4 steps that the Lib Dems need to follow to replace Labour
  • Rene Kinzett thinks Ken Clarke was speaking sense today about the Lisbon Treaty
  • Tim Worstall answers the question "Can anyone seriously maintain that stopping mass murder is less important than violating that legal principle?" definitively
  • Peter Black is hopeful that Alan Johnson will ditch ID cards
  • And on a sombre note, Cicero thinks that people who legitimately win elections by a huge margin do not normally need to arrest their opponents

Another Gordon Brown wager!

During the BBC Question Time Live Chat on here on Thursday, I had a £10 bet with fellow blogger Constantly Furious (who always seems to be quite irked about something) that Gordon Brown will not be PM by the end of the year. I feel that the only reason he survived this time round is because of the fear that a General Election would have to be called in short order. However come the Autumn I reckon that a new PM could credibly announce upon accession that the General Election would be held in early spring which is almost when it would have to be held anyway, i.e. Labour would have nothing to lose and perhaps much to gain by plunging in the knife at that point.

Peter Hoskin seems to agree that Brown's position is now exceptionally fragile and with the 2 upcoming by-elections and various other things in the pipeline the fatal blow could come at any point. Apparently Ed Balls might even play the part of Brutus which would have been unthinkable until recently and does illustrate how far we have come.

Anyway, I just wanted to record here the fact of this latest bet. Although it looks like I have almost certainly lost my other wager, I look forward to taking the money off my perpetually irascible friend...

Politicians will be held to account more easily in the future

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Fraser Nelson wrote an excellent and widely praised blog post on the Spectator blog on Thursday entitled "Why Brown will get caught out this time round". In it he argues that Brown's usual trick of completely misrepresenting his opponent's position and then hammering away at it until it seeps into the public conscience is going to be much more difficult to achieve with hundreds or thousands of citizen journalists in the form of bloggers pulling apart his terminological inexactitudes.

An aspect of the future of politics and holding politicians to account though that Fraser did not highlight is the wealth of on the record data that is available through search engines to ordinary people.

I remember when Brown first became Prime Minister in 2007 and Cameron was asking if he would agree to a televised debate during the eventual General Election campaign. Brown high-handedly dismissed the idea claiming that we do not have a presidential system in this country. Unfortunately for Brown he was on the record in an interview on BBC Breakfast Time from 1987 calling for Margaret Thatcher to do exactly what Cameron had been arguing for. This was embrassing for the PM and I think is one of the things that helped propagate the idea that he is not straightforward with people as it was widely reported.

The thing is though that finding that clip must have been quite difficult. I have just tried to find it on Youtube and was not able to for example. It probably took a researcher to trawl back through restricted archive footage to get hold of it because it was from 1987 when the world wide web was a still a twinkle in Tim Berners-Lee's eye.

I had a similar problem a few days ago trying to find a source for something I recall happening duirng the dog days of the John Major administration in about 1996. I remembered an advisor or somesuch having resigned and claimed that the government of the time acted "as if they had a divine right to govern". I remembered the exact quote but could not find an online source for it. I guess 1996 is too early for it to have been put on websites as a matter of course.

The thing is though that most of the main politicians of the present and certainly over the next few years (Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, David Miliband, Alan Johnson) have all come to prominence during a period when everything that they have ever said or done on the record will be recorded somewhere on the web (newspaper web sites, blogs, Youtube etc. etc.) and therefore in say 5 or 10 years time it is going to be very difficult for any of them to say or do things that go against firmly stated previous positions which may have been done for positioning purposes at the time but come back to haunt them without good and well explained reason.

But the most important aspect of this ties in with what Fraser was saying. Everybody has access to this information, not just journalists or TV archivists. If for example David Miliband is PM in 10 years time we bloggers would have instant access to all of his previous utterances and he will know that any position he takes will have to be able to be reconciled with this. We, the public will hold him directly to account; he will not be able to control the agenda through friendly journalists.

I think that the eventual effect of this will be more honest politics. The politicians who are more honest and are not easily able to be taken apart and hung by their own previous words will prosper in this new environment. The internet will be a liberating influence in a plethora of ways. Dinosaurs like Gordon Brown just don't get this but he will be part of the past soon enough partly undone by the new technology.

If David Cameron became Prime Minister next year, an interesting situation will arise in the run up to the subsequent General Election. Mr Cameron is on record thousands of times all archived across the web calling for a televised debate between the leaders. It would be almost impossible for him to credibly refuse it when the boot is on the other foot. That is one small example of how the technology will change the future of politics.

I for one am very much looking forward to this.

Saturday 13 June 2009

Other Reckonings - 13th June 2009

  • Letters From a Tory asks if Hazel Blears has lost her appetite
  • Leo Watkins writing on LDV has a very well considered post about political reform
  • Nich Starling has evidence that the Conservatives are being "flexible" about the size of their bars in Norwich North by-election leaflet bar-chart
  • Mike Smithson thinks that John Bercow could be a formidable Speaker. And thinks that is why he won't win.
  • And Ben Goldacre again proves why I love him so much (platonically of course) with an excellent post about how drugs policy is almost never based on the evidence.

Saturday Rant - Supermarkets

I did a big shop in our local Tesco yesterday. It had been a little while since I had gone in there for anything more than a pack of yoghurts so I had expected it would take maybe 45 minutes to go around and get all the fruit, veg, meat and other things that I needed. However in the end it actually took almost an hour and a half.

The main reason is that since the last time I went there, they have moved half the products to completely different shelves and in some cases to the opposite end of the store. I had noticed this previously on occasion but given the amount of items I needed to buy yesterday it really brought it home to me.

Years ago I had naively assumed that the supermarkets did this in order to optimise the use of their shelves but I watched a TV programme a few years about the psychology of supermarket layouts and learned that that is not the reason. They do it because they know that shoppers fall into a regular pattern if the layout stays the same and will generally just buy the same things. So in order to disturb this pattern, they move a lot of things around so that shoppers will come across items they might not have previously purchased and be tempted to buy them.

Now that I understand this, it makes me more and more angry when I find that I have to criss-cross the store several times in order to find the one item I want. I virtually had to run the entire length of the very large store in order to find a tin of beans as they had moved from the last two places they had been in the last year. The frozen section had been completely changed too so getting a bag of ice took about 3 minutes and a full circuit of the section rather than the 10 seconds it would have taken. And so on and so on. What made it even worse is that some of the aisle descriptions hanging from the ceiling had not been updated so were still saying the wrong thing.

I guess they can get away with this because most people don't realise that their heads are being messed with in this way. If they did I suspect there would be a backlash against this sort of thing. Time is precious and supermarkets are deliberately sapping it from their customers in order to make a little bit more profit on top of the billions they already make.

I did think about complaining but this is a corporate level policy that the local managers will have no power over so I did not see the point. If I can summon the energy later I might write to the CEO of Tesco about it.

I wouldn't be surprised if in the next years or two there is a big expose of this practise and we start getting supermarkets pledging not to do it any more in their advertising.