Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday 31 July 2009

Gary McKinnon's extradition would be a disgrace

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

I was very disappointed to hear today's news that Gary McKinnon has lost his latest court bid to avoid extradition to the US. I completely agree with Chris Huhne's comments that Mr McKinnon should be tried in a UK court.

The BBC News story linked to above has something very interesting in its synopsis of the UK-US extradition treaty that was agreed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks:

US courts have granted about 70% of UK extradition requests, while nearly 90% of US requests have been granted

Why is there such an imbalance between the extradition traffic? It feels like the US is better at looking after its own citizens than our own government is of ours. Can that be right? I would be interested to hear anyone who has a better explanation.

Also, does anyone seriously think that this case is the sort of thing that those drafting the treaty were expecting it to deal with? A man with Asperger's Syndrome obsessed with UFOs did something very silly for which he is doubtless very sorry and as a result he could be carted off to a foreign country and treated like a terrorist with a potential sentence of 70 years. Our government should be ashamed of itself and should do something immediately about the "unintended consequences" of this badly drafted treaty.

If they had the will they could do it. Andrew MacKinlay the Labour MP who announced he was stepping down last week spoke a lot of sense about this on Radio 4's PM earlier. He said that the very least that should happen is that the Home Secretary should indicate that he will take his time processing the extradition (basically stalling for time) whilst the government raises this issue through diplomatic channels with the US. They are embarrassing us with this now in a way we would never do to them.

This mess needs to be sorted out now and our Prime Minister needs to show some back-bone.

(Hattip to @sw1lobbyist on Twitter for pointing me towards the imbalance figures)

The polls close at midnight!

As today is the last day of voting, just a quick reminder that if you haven't already done so it's time to vote for your top ten favourite blogs of 2009.

Oh and if you see fit to include my blog in your top ten that would be splendid!

  1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and ranks them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
  2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
  3. You MUST include ten blogs. If you include fewer than ten your vote will not count.
  4. Email your vote to
  5. Only vote once.
  6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents are eligible or based on UK politics are eligible.
  7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name
  8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2009. Any votes received after that date will not count.
As I said before, it would be good to see more Lib Dems in the upper echelons of this poll this year as well. The Lib Dem blogosphere has continued to come on in leaps and bounds this year and there are lots of excellent examples so please also put some other Lib Dems in your top ten.

Thursday 30 July 2009

Gordon Brown should be "Empty Chaired"

There has been lots of comment prompted by Baron Mandelson of Foy in the county of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the county of Durham's comments about him being "open" to the idea of a televised debate between the party leaders.

Since becoming PM, Brown himself has consistently poured cold water on the idea (although he was pretty keen that Thatcher should do one during the 1980s so not that consistent!) and apparently his spokesman has done so again about these latest rumours.

Rather than all this round the houses nonsense which will probably lead to no debate yet again, one of the TV networks should come forward and say they will host a 3-way debate in the run up to the general election. However, if any of the 3 main party leaders decide that they do not wish to participate, then that is up to them. The debate should go ahead anyway. Empty Chair him if he hasn't got the guts to turn up. Labour can't compain that they are not being given equal air time because the offer is there, it's up to Brown if he takes it.

Will any broadcaster have the courage to do this?

How local is local?

Rob Greenland has an interesting post on The Social Business asking whether Sainsbury's should be allowed to call some of its stores "Local" when they are sourcing their produce from all over the world. He contrasts this with the Farmer's market he goes to which is genuinely local.

To be fair to Sainsbury's I suspect that the naming convention originated from the fact that these sorts of stores are smaller than their superstores and more "locally" based. However in a environmentally conscious age I am sure they are quite happy to allow the slightly ambiguous name to remain!

It is worth asking though how local the produce in these shops is. I do think wherever possible shops should source local produce. It serves a number of purposes, reducing embodied energy, helping the local economy of an area, reducing the need for preservatives as the food does not need to travel so far etc. It does seem to me that all too often, the bulk supply nature of the supermarket (both large and small outlets) militate against local produce. You only have to look at some of the labels to see this.

Having said all that, the predictability and convenience of supermarkets is very seductive and I am as guilty as anyone else in this area. I do try and shop locally but time constraints make it difficult for me.

Perhaps Rob's post will help me to redouble my efforts in this (local) area!

PS: Here seems an appropriate place to plug a free software tool and associated website my company (Southfacing Services) has produced called "Ripe About Now" which helps you see what fruit and veg are currently in season.

It's my birthday!

I'm 35 years old you know?

That's right, look impressed.

Wednesday 29 July 2009

Life isn't fair - we should deal with it

Shane Greer wrote a piece yesterday entitled "Life isn't fair - deal with it" in which he explains how from a humble background, he fought against the odds through determination and grit to get to his current position as a barrister and more recently to be involved with politics and publishing.

I have great admiration for anybody who is able to overcome disadvantageous circumstances and to triump over adversity in this way. However, the jist of the rest of Shane's article is that people should not rely on the state for answers and should instead rely on themselves. He says that you cannot "legislate fairness".

Shane's story is very encouraging but unfortunately he is in a very small minority. You will always find shining exceptions but the majority of people from humble backgrounds never manage to escape them. In some cases it may be because they lack the will but the odds are so stacked against success that it is hardly surprising if this is the case. It is a shocking indictment of this government that social mobility has gone into reverse. If Labour stands for anything it is for equality of opportunity.

Some of the commenters to Shane's post make a good point about how Labour's hostility to Grammar schools has contributed to this decline in mobility. They did used to be a way for children from poorer backgrounds to advance their situation. However they were not perfect and often favoured "pushy middle-class parents". They also drew a line under children's ability at the age of 11 which in my opinion is far too young. I do think though that with the loss of most Grammar schools, a powerful tool for social mobility has also been lost.

The thing is though, if we follow Shane's argument to its logical conclusion then we would effectively be saying that the entrenchment of privilege by accident of birth should be accepted with the odd exception like Shane himself managing to break through. As a good supporter of free markets, surely he should accept that by not ensuring that the natural talent of our population is given a fair crack at achieving its potential we are selling ourselves short as a nation?

There are no easy answers here but I feel that an attitude that everyone can make it if they only try hard enough ignores the reality of our very unequal society and to just assent to this without thinking we should at least try and improve this situation is for me accepting the unacceptable.

Tuesday 28 July 2009

Why will the banks pay any attention to Darling this time?

Over the last year or so I have lost count of the number of times that Alistair Darling, Gordon Brown and myriad other government ministers have claimed that they are going to get banks lending to small businesses again at decent rates. Despite their numerous interventions and despite the fact that many of the banks are partially or largely owned by the taxpayer, so far the government has not been able to get them to change their approach. Darling was at it again yesterday.

I run my own small business but we are in the fortunate position of not needing to go to banks for finance. I shudder to think what would have happened to our business in the last 6 months if we had have needed to though. I have read so many stories about what seem like perfectly viable businesses who need temporary financial assistance either to get over a cash-flow bump or even to expand and where the banks just refuse to help or offer ridiculous and clearly profiterering rates of interest that it is now clearly desperate.

True Blue Blood published a guest post yesterday from a contributor "RussRec" whose story about trying and failing to get help with his recruitment business is all too familiar.

The thing is though that the behaviour of the banks is damaging our economy and our recovery. Every time they turn down a viable business for financial assistance or price them out of the market they are consigning more people to the dole queue and in a lot of cases it seems completely unneccessary. It is a self-reinforcing cycle where the more they delay the recovery, the longer it will be before they will feel comfortable lending to businesses at reasonable rates again.

The most annoying this is that it seems to me the pendulum is now swinging too far in the other direction. 2 years ago, banks were falling over themselves to lend to all sorts of individuals and businesses, now they will hardly lend to anyone. In both cases they were not being driven by rational motives but by following the herd, terrified of either not lending enough previously, or now lending too much.

I am not advocating that banks should be lending to unviable businesses. Of course they should not do that but from what I can see they are going way beyond excluding businesses like that with their caution.

I can understand that the government does not want to interfere with the running of the banks on a day-to-day basis but they must surely see that a quiet "gentleman's word" with those running the banks (followed by a load of spin where they pretend they have "got tough with them") has not worked on the occasions they have tried it. I am instinctively against intervention but the banks have proven themselves incapable of doing what we all (including themselves ironically) need them to do. The government has to come up with a way of changing the environment so that banks do start lending. Otherwise, what was the point in pouring the hundreds of billions of our money into the banks? They might as well have kept that money and set up their own bank to do the job for them until the recession is over.

Ministers need to be better prepared for office

A comment by Jacqui Smith in her rather candid interview with Iain Dale in the latest edition of Total Politics chimed with something I have thought for a long time. This is what she said:

If I ever describe the process of becoming a minister - moving from one ministerial job to another - to somebody in almost any other job outside they think it is, frankly, pretty dysfunctional in the way that it works. That's not just this government... To be fair, Gordon had talked to me about whether or not I wanted to do a different job but you have to get to a pretty senior position in government - and you have to be pretty powerful as hell - before you can even express a view, let alone expect to influence where you go. I think we should have been better trained. I think there should be more induction. There's more now than when I started as a minister but it's still not enough. I think there should be more emphasis given to supporting ministers more generally in terms of developing the skills needed to lead big departments, for example. When I became Home Secretary, I'd never run a major organisation. I hope I did a good job but if I did it was more by luck than by any kind of development of those skills.

It seems odd to me that people are put in charge of huge sprawling departments with thousands of people working under them and budgets of billions of pounds often without any experience of running anything except a constituency office. Also, the skills required to be a good minister are in some ways different to those required to become and remain an MP.

It is crazy that we just drop people into these jobs with minimal if any training. Our political system of course makes it almost impossible for it to be any other way. Can you imagine the furore if George Osborne decided to go on a training course on how to be an effective Treasury minister, or Liam Fox openly took a week out to do a course run by Defence Secretarys past? Labour and the media would make their lives hell and it could easily lead to their positions becoming untenable as the cry of them "not being ready for office" reached fever pitch.

I suspect a fair bit of readiment goes on behind closed doors anyway but they would not be able to admit to the extent of it for the reasons given above. For some reason we seem to expect politicians to be ready for the demands of office straight away, almost as if they were born to it.

One of the problems is that we don't have fixed term parliaments. This means that a charge from the Labour party against the opposition right now that they weren't ready for office would be all the more potent because an election could be called at any time. If we knew for definite when the election would be called then the environment would make it easier for opposition politicians to make sure they were fully up to speed before entering office.

Another problem is that it seems to basically be in the gift of the incumbent government how much access a putative incoming administration has to the civil service and hence allows them to play political games with this access in order to try and wrong-foot the opposition and make it harder for them to be ready should they win. This is a crazy situation and is one of the things that should be taken out of the hands of the government. The politicians who are in power don't own the apparatus of government, they are custodians of it and it is simply wrong that they can make life harder than necessary for their potential successors. This can lead to bad government further down the line which will affect all of us.

The other big problem is how quickly the newly elected administration is expected to be up and running. The election is held on a Thursday. The count happens overnight. If a new government is elected then the outgoing PM hot foots it down to the palace part way through the Friday. The new PM then gets the seals of office from Her Maj. an hour or so later and (s)he appoints their cabinet and government over the next day or two. So next year we could have most of the cabinet and most of the government dropped in at very short notice with no previous experience of government and very little if any training. Contrast this with how it works in say the US. There, the incoming administration gets almost 3 months to prepare. They are given full access to everything they need to get up to speed and a "transition team" is in place to make sure the process is smooth.

I doubt anything in the UK will change soon. Cameron said he would "look" at the case for fixed term parliaments. I strongly suspect that this is code for "do nowt" once in office. Also, as I said the political culture mitigates against it. Politicians find it very difficult to admit weakness of any kind when in or seeking office so I think we are destined to suffer poorly trained and prepared ministers for the forseeable future.

Monday 27 July 2009

Quel est l'état de la blogosphère Lib Dem?

Following up on the latest LDV weekend meme, here are my thoughts on the state of the Lib Dem blogosphere:

What are the greatest successes of the Lib Dem blogosphere?

I think that the Lib Dem Blogs aggregator is one of the best things about the Lib Dem blogosphere. It enabled me to get an instant audience for my posts when I first started (and it still does) and I know it has helped many others similarly.

Lib Dem Voice is also an excellent hub for all of us and its existence has been a great anchor for me as I have become more and more involved with blogging.

What are we, collectively as bloggers, failing to achieve?

There are no individual Lib Dem bloggers who are anywhere near as widely read as Iain Dale or Guido Fawkes and a number of other right-leaning bloggers. Maybe some (perhaps many) in the LD sphere aren't so bothered about that but with readership comes influence.

We also collectively don't seem to have a very high media profile. For example, a couple of weeks ago Jonathan Sheppard (Tory Radio) popped up on The World at One to publicise his "Scrap Early Day Motions" campaign even though I suspect the website itself gets a very small amount of traffic (I am basing this on the fact that I wrote an article for it arguing for reform, not scrapping and got almost no referral traffic from it). I know a number of Lib Dem bloggers were opposed to the campaign but as far as I know, none of us got any mainstream media coverage for our views on this. Maybe it's because we are not as well connected as the Dales, Fawkes, Greers, Sheppards etc. but if we want to influence the mainstream debate then we need to be better at doing this.

How does the Lib Dem blogosphere compare with those of the Labour, Tories and other parties’?

I would say this wouldn't I but I genuinely think that the debate within the Lib Dem blogosphere is of a higher quality than that in the other two main parties. We seem to genuinely debate issues and largely respond to criticism constructively and without resorting to ad hominen attacks. I concede we are not always perfect in this way, but we are far, far better than many Tory and Labour examples, some of which are just plain nasty.

How helpful is blogging as a campaigning tool (are there examples of it making a real impact)?

I think it needs to mature. I helped set up a local campainging blog for Lib Dem activists in my area (Bracknell Blog) and there are many other examples of locally based blogs that may be able to make a difference if they can build up a decent local readership. National blogs are naturally going to find it harder to make an impact as the effect is so much more diffuse.

I do think though that eventually, blogs and other online media will make a big contribution to campaigning.

What do you think the next year holds in store for the Lib Dem blogosphere?

I think the run up to the election will be a very interesting time for us. The febrile atmosphere that will inevitably ensue will test our ability to be responsive but also measured in our approach and to properly debate issues. I hope we don't succumb to the lowest common denominator stuff that I see from too many blogs in the other spheres.

It would also be nice to see more Lib Dem bloggers and them being more active. My understanding is that there are already well over 200 on the aggregator but it often seems to be the same 20 or 30 I see posting frequently. Perhaps the galvanising effect of the general election will improve this and I hope the momentum can be maintained after the election.

PS: I started blogging as a Lib Dem blogger last November and I haven't looked back so if any Lib Dems reading this have been considering doing it themselves and you can devote a little bit of time I would suggest you go for it.

EDIT: I was in a bit of a grump earlier on and re-reading this I realise that I have been a bit harsh on the Tory and Labour blogospheres. There are great examples within these and I have had numerous enjoyable debates on here and on their blogs as well as across Twitter. I just feel that at the extremes there are some examples that leave something to be desired but they are to be fair very much a minority.

Sunday 26 July 2009

What would a result like this do for the electoral reform argument?

I have been having a little play with one of my favourite web-based tools, the Electoral Calculus User-defined prediciton where you put in the voting percentages and it gives you the number of seats (based on a complex algorithm).

I put in the following scenario:

Have a look at what happens here. The Tories get 36% of the vote and Labour is 1% lower on 35%. I have put the Lib Dems in at a very low 17% (in order to make my point). Look at the number of seats. Labour would have 326 which is a small majority of 2, i.e. just over 50% of the seats. The Tories get less than 40% of the seats despite have won the popular vote!

Now the way things are looking at the moment this is very unlikely to happen, but let's hypothesise for a moment. Imagine that Brown is forced out late this year or early next year and Alan Johnson becomes PM. Imagine he then calls an election during a honeymoon period. Suddenly the Tory and Labour percentages above start to look less unlikely. I don't think the Lib Dems would do as badly as that but ironically in order for the argument for electoral reform to gain common currency we may need something like this to happen.

Imagine the newly elected Prime Minister Johnson trying to justify how he was going to govern for the next 5 years when he got less votes than the opposition and yet got more than 10 percentage points more seats. I think even some Tories would start to realise that things had to change at this point. That would be the perfect time for electoral reformers to make their case to the public as this scenario would perfectly illustrate the problem with First Past the Post.

It's all very well trying to argue about the difference between 35% of the votes and 55% of the seats (as the current Labour government got in the 2005 election) but because they did better than the Tories in the popular vote the unfairness gets lost. In the above scenario it would be abundantly clear that our electoral system is broken.

Like I say, it is unlikely to happen but you never know...

Saturday 25 July 2009

This week I have been mostly reading... 18th - 24th July 2009

As I mentioned last week I am changing the format of these weekly roundups to include both Lib Dem and non-Lib Dem blog posts I have enjoyed throughout the week (and also some non-blog stuff on occasion).

As before I will try to do at least one for each day:

Saturday 18th July

A rallying cry from Daniel Furr writing on Liberal Democrat Voice for liberals to embrace republicanism. Hear hear!

Costigan Quist said that Labour's so called constitutional reform package is minor tinkering, if that. Hear hear x2!

Sunday 19th July

That Costigan chap again talking immense sense on CRB checks and asking the all too often forgotten question - do they work?

Iain Dale and Tom Harris both had rather different accounts of their first experiences fighting a parliamentary seat. Both are fascinating reads.

Brian Walker on Slugger O'Toole asked why resourcing for the British army was better during the NI troubles than in Afghanistan today.

Monday 20th July

I was bit tied up on Monday so didn't read very much blog-wise. Sorry! Feel free to nominate in the comments.

Tuesday 21st July

Jock's Place gave us a glimpse into the futility of government.

Moments of Clarity suggested that if you give councils an inch they will take a mile when it comes to surveillance.

Wednesday 22nd July

James Graham had a follow up to his complaint about the treatment of Jo Swinson by the BBC with their response, and his response to their response. I think it would be fair to say that he was less than impressed.

Anthony Painter writing on LabourList suggested that electoral reform should be Labour's number one priority although he then suggested AV is the way forward. Quite how a potentially less proportional system could be better is lost on me!

Mike Smithson writing on Political Betting asked if this was the day that Cameron was going to have to sack Andy Coulson.

Thursday 23rd July

Swinton South Lib Dems took Hazel Blears to task regarding her attack on blogs. You blog if you want to...?

Between The Hammer and The Anvil had a corruscating piece which put us bloggers in our place! A particularly memorable phrase from his diatribe is how blogging can be "about as edifying as a flock of half-spazzed, one-legged pigeons pecking each other to death over a pile of sick."

Friday 24th July

Tom Freeman from off of Freemania followed up on my "How low can we go" blog post with an extrapolation of voting trends to see how the relative vote shares and seats could change as pluralism increases, with pie-charts and everything!

Paul on Liberal Burblings celebrated the "Twitterification of the Norfolk Blogger" in a piece similar to one I was planning to write (no need now!) about how great Nich Starling's coverage of the Norwich North by-election has been both in terms of blogging (he has published blog posts on every leaflet he has received) and via Twitter which he used to be disparaging about.

Friday 24 July 2009

Guest post about Portugal's drug decriminalisation experiment on The Wardman Wire

Matt Wardman has very kindly published a guest blog post I have done today on The Wardman Wire about Portugal's 8 year long (and counting) experiment with decriminalisation of all previously illegal drugs.

The results are striking in my opinion and deserve much debate.

Norwich North & Chloe Smith's victory - what is the message?

It is generally a mistake to question the electorate's decision after a by-election or general election. The voters have spoken and congratulations to Chloe Smith who becomes the youngest MP at 27 years old (I wonder if Jo Swinson feel just that little bit older this afternoon ;)).

However I do think that the message from this election is decidedly odd. This is the first by-election triggered as a result of the expenses scandal. Ian Gibson, the former Labour MP had his future political career destroyed by his own party after his expenses came to light and he decided to quit the Commons rather than hang around during the fag-end of this administration.

Because of the circumstances of the by-election, you might imagine that the beneficiaries of it would have been the parties that were least associated with the expenses scandal and/or were associated with being particularly clean.

This has manifestly not happened. Although Chloe Smith herself had nothing to do with the expenses scandal, her party was slap bang in the middle of it with arguably many of the worst examples and offences perpetrated by their members. And yet they are rewarded with a stunning by-election win with a 7,000+ majority.

Now of course the expenses scandal will not have been the only thing people were voting on, there are all sorts of other issues but this does demonstrate to me that it looks like the Conservatives are going to do very well and are not likely to be punished for the actions of some of their members in a way that natural justice might suggest is warranted.

I think strategists in all parties will need to take note of this. Perhaps the expenses scandal will not after all have the huge effect in the upcoming general election that many politicians feared.

Leaving the demographic

Mark Pack's post here has reminded of something. I am going to be 35 next Thursday and this means that on a lot of measures I will shift into a new demographic. You often see groupings of 25 - 34 year olds. So I will be moving into 35 -44 year old territory!

What's it like up there?

Thursday 23 July 2009

How low can we go?

General elections in the UK used to be about two parties. Labour and the Conservatives. They used to get most of the votes between them. A few percent would go to the third party and "others" but the vast majority voted red or blue.

In this sort of situation, where you effectively have a two party system, the First Past the Post electoral system was perceived as working quite well. It often ensured that one of the parties had a majority (even though this was often on a minority of the vote) but it was often only a few percent difference and usually the party that won the election in terms of seats, got the most votes (although not always - February 1974 being a good example of this).

In 1951, 93.1% of voters plumped for red or blue. In 1955 it was 96.1%. The problem is that since the 1950s, the proportion of people who vote for one of the two main parties has declined. Here is a table showing the shares each party got for each election from 1951 - 2005 and the combined total (source - collated from Wikipedia pages on general election results):

As you can see, we have gone from 90 odd percent voting for Labour or Conservative in the 1950s to only around two thirds voting for both of thoise parties in 2005. Here is the data in graph form which makes the decline a bit clearer:

Now, before anyone accuses me of hypocrisy, I am well aware that I have complained before about graphs that don't start from 0 but there is a reason I have done it like this. Frankly, if support for the two main parties combined at a general election ever dropped below 50% then it would be game over for First Past the Post irrespective of whether (or probably even because) one of the two parties could form a majority government. This is a psychological floor to my argument which is why I have made it the bottom of the graph.

As can be seen from this graph, there is a bumpy but steady decline. You could draw a line of best fit through this which if continued would suggest that in another 20 years or so we could well hit that 50% mark.

As if to prove my point, looking at the latest "General Election Prediction" from Electoral Calculus which analyses opinion polls and electoral geography to come up with their best bet of how the votes will go at the next election their current prediction (from 7th July 2009) is:

So a combined predicted total of 62.34%. This would follow the line of best fit from the above graph perfectly showing a continuation of this trend of decline in support for the two major parties.

So what conclusions can we draw from this? I would say that we are becoming increasingly pluralistic as an electorate. We have got used to voting for smaller parties and those often described as "others". I think the vote share of the two main parties will continue to decline and it will get harder and harder for them to justify the present system.

At the moment, those in favour of First Past the Post have the power of incumbency with it being the existing system and inertia will generally militate against a change. However recent opinion polls have shown that people are generally in favour of a more proportional system and as that line of best fit comes down and down over the next few years I think things will flip. Proponents of FPTP will be pressured to justify why such a manifestly unfair system that disproportionately benefits Labour and the Conservatives should be allowed to continue.

UPDATE: Tom Freeman has done an excellent follow-up to my post here where he hypothesises what could happen if the vote shares for Tory and Labour gradually came down and the others gradually went up. He's got pie-charts and everything!

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 23rd July 2009 - #bbcqt

It's that day again (BBC Question Time day) and the Live Chat on this blog will start at 10:30pm.

The panel will include the former Secretary of State for Defence Geoff "Buff" Hoon MP, the Conservative shadow minister for community cohesion Baroness Warsi, the veteran politician and former leader of the Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords Baroness Williams, the writer and broadcaster Clive James (hurrah!) and the Respect MP "Gorgeous" George Galloway.

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

Join us from 10:30pm below.

In the meantime you can review last week's chat here.

Wednesday 22 July 2009

MPs only have themselves to blame if they do nothing

In The Guardian today, Nick Clegg has a good piece criticising MPs for going on holiday before they have rewritten the rules of British politics as many of them were promising a couple of months ago at the height of the expenses scandal.

This section stood out for me:

Take MPs' expenses. Gordon Brown believes the changes already introduced and the recommendations from Sir Christopher Kelly due later in the year will suffice. Yet any political system that gives hundreds of MPs jobs for life, no questions asked, will always risk being abused. Hundreds of Labour and Conservative MPs are entrenched in constituencies where they know they won't be defeated. Jobs for life may be disappearing in other professions but they remain the rule of thumb in politics. Arrogance and secrecy will persist in our politics as long as MPs are not properly held to account. That is why electoral reform remains such a vital issue.

This is 100% bang on. Even if you don't accept that there is a concrete link between the safety of seats and the likelihood of an MP being involved in the scandal, it must surely be right as Nick says that a political system that gives about two thirds of MPs jobs for life must breed complacency. All those Tories who legislated to improve the competetiveness of the jobs market to drag us out of the malaise we found ourselves in in the 1970s don't seem to recognise (or care) that the same rules should apply to them.

As I have blogged about before, David Cameron seems to be congenitally unable to engage with the debate on electoral reform, throwing out canards left, right and centre as it suits him. He has a massive vested interest in First Past the Post and I have realised that we will not get even a modicum of reform from him on this subject.

I did (against my better judgement) hope for better from Gordon Brown but it is now becoming clear that he doesn't have the will to get a referendum on the electoral system on the ballot in time for the general election.

This is all immensely frustrating for electoral reformers like myself. However, ultimately it is MPs and the democratic process itself that will suffer most. There was a programme on Radio 4 yesterday where MPs described how awful the expenses scandal was for them, how some were threatened amongst other nasty experiences and how some came close to resigning. I can understand that, they had done things a certain way for years and suddenly public anger was raining down on them, although they should have recognised it much sooner. They have been forced to change when it comes to expenses.

However there seems to be an implicit pact between the 2 main parties to talk like they want to reform but not do much if anything about it. There will be more scandals like this. There are already murmurings about second jobs and changes afoot in that area. There are probably half a dozen things I can think of in the way MPs conduct themselves that could ignite into another scandal and the way they are elected is one of them.

It is in their hands to reform the entire system. They seem to be choosing not to do very much so they will only have theirselves to blame when the next avoidable scandal erupts, their reputations plummet further and they will appear on another radio programme complaining about how awful it was for them.

Do something about it, change the system now.

My chat with Barbara Tucker - Parliament Square protestor

I had an interesting experience yesterday that probably wouldn't have happened except for my blogging.

I happened to be at the Houses of Parliament around 10:00am. I was actually heading back to the tube but I noticed the anti-war protest encampment on Parliament Square (founded by Brian Haw) and was curious to know what they thought about David Cameron's announcement that he would try and get it cleared if he got into power. I am pretty sure if it wasn't for my blogging and activism I would have left it at that and just wondered but I keep finding myself these days just going for things that I previously would not have done so I strode over the road and started up a conversation with a woman I had seen emerge from one of the tents a minute or so earlier who was now smoking a cigarette.

After an initial bout of suspicion as I explained I was a political blogger and a derisory chuckle when I mentioned I was a Lib Dem ("Not a fan?" I enquired - "No, Lembit Opik tried to have me arrested." was the response) she opened up and was willing to talk to me. Her name is Barbara Tucker and she has been a part of the protest for 3 years. In that time she has been arrested on 33 occasions (so about once a month), each time she insisted that it had been a case of arrest first, find a reason later.

She explained that as far as she is concerned, the entire political system has failed. She thinks that we are led by war criminals and all who support this system are also complicit. She said that parliament does not have legitimacy and that the whipping system is anti-democratic. Eventually she hopes that enough people will decide to opt out of the system and then things will have to change.

For me, some of her arguments and positions are too extreme but I have to admit that some of her points resonated with me. In fact we found common ground on the subject of proportional representation and devolution of more power locally. We also agreed on the subject of how bad things have got with cabinet ministers and other senior politicians often talking in an impenetrable language that most people cannot understand.

I enquired as to whether they shout things at politicians as they walk past and she smiled and said "Of course, with a loudspeaker!". This must be very embarrassing for them and I am sure goes a long way to explaining why Cameron wants rid of the encampment on his watch if he becomes PM. On that subject, Barbara said that she thinks the camp is a reminder that Cameron and his party were complicit in the decisions about the wars we are fighting and he wants rid of it for that reason.

I was very impressed with the resilience and fortitude that I saw. It is a huge undertaking to
live in a tent in a square in the centre of London for years on end and I take my hat off to Barbara and the other protestors. I don't agree with everything that they say but I absolutely agree with their right to say it. David Cameron will be making a big mistake if he tries to clear the encampment because if he does he is sending out a clear signal that he will not tolerate protest.

Protests like this are the pressure valve of democracy and we need them along with the commitment of people like Barbara to remind
our politicians of things they may not want to think too hard about.

Tuesday 21 July 2009

Trying to make technology the engine of recovery

I attended the launch of a new manifesto at the House of Lords today ("Making BrITain Great Again" - The Micro Focus Technology Manifesto) which is aiming to try and make sure that technology is the engine of the economy as we head into recovery.

I sort of had two hats at this event. I had ostensibly been invited as a political blogger but I am also director and co-owner of a technology company (Southfacing Services Ltd) which does consultancy and software for energy efficiency in buildings.

Now with these sort of events, my previous experience is mixed. Sometimes they are very good with clear messages and a well thought out strategy. Sometimes they are merely a talking shop with platitudes flying back and forth. This one for me fell somewhere between the two. There were some good ideas which I will detail below but there was a lot of talking up of UK PLC (in the way that politicians do!) which is fair enough but I felt some of that time could have been better spent in the 60 minutes we had on exploring some of the issues more fully. There were three Lords present (Lords Harris, Young and Razzall) as well as a couple of people from industry (Stephen Kelly from Micro Focus and Richard Holway of TechMarketView). They all did a speech and then it was opened up for questions.

The key points I took from the meeting and the answers to the questions are:
  • There was a very strong feeling that something has to be done to ensure that technology graduates have jobs to go to.
  • There needs to be a favourable tax environment for small companies.
  • If this country is ever going to get anywhere near the level of entrepreneurship of say the USA, then our banks need to be much more accepting of failure and giving second and third (and more) chances.
There was lots of other discussion as well. As this is the launch of the manifesto and they are still shaping it I hope that the feeling of the meeting will feed into this.

This campaign will apparently have a presence at the party conferences and they are hopeful that its key recommendations will be taken up as policies by the parties in their manifestos for the general election.

My overall feeling is that it was a good start and it is encouraging to see the cross-party support. I am interested to see how and if it gains traction with the parties in the run up to the election.

PS: Lord Harris has blogged on his own thoughts about the meeting here.

Sunday 19 July 2009

David Cameron will not keep the promises of David Davis

As I blogged about back in March, David Davis made an impassioned speech during The Convention on Modern Liberty where he pleaded with his own party to "keep my promises". There is an mp3 of his speech available here and a transcript of it here. A key section is:

Please look at every law you pass, every law you pass, and study it so that it gives freedom, privacy, and dignity back to the people even if it is at the price of taking power away from the government from time to time.

I am all in favour of free speech and the right to demonstrate and the right to protest. But I think there are moments when our Parliament Square does look like a pretty poor place, with shanty town tents and the rest of it. I am all for demonstrations, but my argument is `Enough is enough'.

So in principle Mr Cameron is in favour of free speech and protesting but as soon as a protest starts making somewhere look a little bit messy that principle goes out of the window. It seems his commitment to free speech is extremely flaky and arbitrary.

If Mr Davis was still in the shadow cabinet, at least he would be in a position to exert some influence on this sort of authoritarian posturing but of course he isn't. It looks like his plea has fallen on deaf ears and we can look forward to much more of the same in this area as we have had from the current government should the Tories form the next one.

The Conservatives are hypocritical on PR

As Paul reported on Liberal Burblings on Friday, two senior Tories (Andrew Tyrie and Sir George Young) have authored a report where they are advocating a system of proportional representation for a mainly elected second chamber. Here is a snippet:

We favour a system of Proportional Representation for elections to the chamber. We believe that the First past the post system, with its ability to deliver clear party majorities, works well for the Commons and entrenches its role as the source of legitimacy for a government; however, the second chamber requires a demonstrably different system

Elections for the chamber should be on the basis of the regions that are used for European elections, although the electoral system should favour greater voter choice than a pure party list approach.

As you would expect, I completely disagree with what they are saying in the first paragraph but what I wanted to focus on was the fact that they are advocating PR at all, for any chamber. It would seem from what they are saying that they are favouring some sort of Single Transferable Vote system for the second chamber (exactly the system that most electoral reformers including myself think should be used for the House of Commons). But just a few weeks ago at the start of June David Cameron wrote a piece for the Evening Standard which did its best to rubbish any arguments for PR at all. I did a blog post at the time which exposed the 4 main canards that he came up with.

What has happened in the last few weeks to change the Tories mind on this? What about Cameron's 4 main arguments (canards) from the Standard article:

1) PR is a move to faceless politics where all too often you find yourself voting for a party, not a person.
2) It gives smaller parties an unfair and disproportionate boost.
3) It leads to weak and unstable administrations.
4) It inevitably creates coalitions that degenerate into back-room deals.

It seems to me that if the Tories really believe Cameron's arguments then 2, 3 and 4 would still apply here to the upper chamber. Surely they would want FPTP to deliver a strong and stable revising chamber with no chance of small parties getting in and no need for deals in "smoke filled rooms" as they would doubtless characterise it (see my above linked post for my ripostes to these canards by the way).

What is most astonishing though is to discover that the Tories are after all aware that a system of PR exists that does not require party lists (STV). Judging by Cameron's comments where he said:

PR comes in many forms but more often than not you find yourself voting for a party rather than just one person.

I thought they were not aware if its existence.

OK, enough with the sarcasm already. What's happening here is that the Tories favour FPTP for the House of Commons because it suits them and will likely give them a decent sized majority on a minority of the vote when they are on or above 40% (as they are in polls at the moment). They also support proportional systems in the Scotland Parliament (where it has led to a Tory resurgence that would never have happened under FPTP) and the Welsh Assembly. It so happens that in those parliaments PR favours them so they support it.

An FPTP system would probably favour them in the second chamber as well but they know full well that to try and introduce a system that effectively gerrymanders things in their favour would not wash for any reform so they are talking up PR for the second chamber but trying to pretend that the fairness it brings is unneccessary for the House of Commons.

The system used in the House of Commons is an accident of history. If it was being created now, there is no way the system used would be as it is now with all its unfairness and inherent advantages for the major parties. The Tories (and Labour) can only get away with advocating it because it is the incumbent system, and boy do they advocate it.

The thing to remember, and it is starkly underlined here, is the Conservatives will advocate whatever system is most politically expedient for them. So for the House of Commons it is FPTP (they get a decent majority on a minority of the vote in a good year). For Scotland and Wales it is a form of PR (helps them maintain a foothold in those parliaments that they would likely not get under FPTP due to their unpopularity there). For the Second Chamber it is a form of PR (that under other circumstances they pretend does not exist) because they know they will not get away with advocating an antiquated system.

Remember all of this the next time you read an Op Ed piece from David Cameron earnestly trying to persuade us of the merits of the FPTP system for the House of Commons. They only favour it when it suits them and they can get away with it.

There is no principle here, only political expediency of the most cynical and hypocritical kind.

Saturday 18 July 2009

Henry Allingham - Oldest WWI veteran dies aged 113

I have just read the sad news that the oldest surviving veteran of the First World War (and as of last month the world's oldest man) Henry Allingham has died aged 113.

There have been tributes to Mr Allingham from across the world. He represents a generation who truly knew what sacrifice was and it is incredible to me that there are still two other UK veterans alive from a war that happened almost a century ago now (Harry Patch and Claude Choles).

As the sun sets on the living memory of that war, it is important that we make sure future generations are taught what they went through for all of our sakes. One of the great things about modern technology is that there will be a record of interviews etc. with lots of veterans from all the wars of the 20th Century and beyond which will mean that there is a wealth of material to help ensure this happens.

A week in the Lib Dem blogosphere: 11th - 18th July 2009

Saturday 11th July

Norfolk Blogger had an enjoyable tongue-in-cheek piece about Iain Dale's visit to Norwich North.

Sunday 12th July

This is simply one of the best things I have ever seen courtesy of Orange By Name. A Caribbean steel percussion band playing a cover version of Transmission by Joy Division. Utterly sublime.

Monday 13th July

Charlotte Gore continued to fight back against her recent bout of writer's block with a thought provoking piece where she claimed that environmentalism is incompatible with capitalism. It is worth reading through the comments below her piece as it has provoked a strong debate.

Steve Webb MP posted on "The Politics of Pendulums" and articulates something I have thought for a while, that politics tends to overcompensate when trying to address issues of the day.

Tuesday 14th July

Alex Wlicock on Love and Liberty republishes an excellent article first published in 2004 on a Doctor Who fan-site explaining how Doctor Who made him a liberal.

Mark Pack reported on how illegal file-sharing has dropped amongst music fans. So it would seem that despite all their bluster, once the music companies stopped trying to fight the technology and embraced it providing a fairly priced and easy to access alternative to illegal downloads, consumers prefer the legal route.

Wednesday 15th July

Moments of Clarity asked if voters should be willing to vote for disunited parties.

Wit and Wisdom was stuck between "A Rock and a Hard Place" on the issue of Europe now that Tony Blair is being touted as President.

Angela Harbutt writing on Liberal Vision wanted the government to back off and fears that we are all being turned into zombies supposed to expect government to do everything for us. With our own money!

Thursday 16th July

Sara Bedford on Always Win When You're Singing wrote persuasively about the government's wrong-headedness regarding their plans to make occasional visitors to schools have to pay £64 for a background check.

Costigan Quist writing on Liberal Democrat Voice thought that some of the way politics is practised in this country is a throw-back to 3 centuries ago before mass political parties existed and that we need to modernise our system.

Friday 17th July

The Real Blog concurred with Sara Bedford above.

And in what for me is the Lib Dem post of the week, James Graham writing on Quaequam Blog argued that the defection of the Fernandos to the Tories exposes a wider failure within our party.

PS: I think I am going to change the format of this a bit from next week to include non-Lib Dem things I have come across that I have enjoyed during the week too. Hence the name will change. Again...

Friday 17 July 2009

It was different in my day...

If you were a politician and there was something that you had done when you were younger that you now wanted to stop other people from doing through force of law and threat of imprisonment, what would be the best way to go about doing this without looking too hypocritical? I can think of a few:

1) You could claim that you are entitled to have had a private life before coming into politics and refuse to discuss whether you did or didn't do the thing. People will assume you did, and they may even assume you did more of the thing or more extreme forms of the thing than you actually did but if it neutralises it as an issue after a few weeks then job done.

2) You could claim that you didn't enjoy doing the thing and only did it once, or a few times before realising this.

3) You could claim that the modern equivalent of the thing is now much worse than the variant you did many years ago. It probably wouldn't be enough to say perhaps 20% or 30% worse so you would need a big multiple say 10 or 20 times as bad to really draw a distinction between then and now and make it look like what you did was virtually nothing but the law is needed now because of this huge change in circumstances.

What I am referring to of course is politicians and drug use when they were younger. I must admit 10 or 15 years ago I had assumed that as a generation of politicians who would have observed casual drug use of all kinds at university etc. came to power and positions of influence that naturally, the general political environment would start to move in favour of a more progressive approach to drug use. After all, these politicians will have seen many of their contemporaries who used drugs continue in their lives and generally do well. They will probably as they got older have reduced and perhaps even ceased the casual drug use, usually when their jobs become more demanding and/or they start families of their own. They may have seen some have problems with drugs but it is more likely that they will have seen friends who have problems with alcohol and they would not in a million years suggest making alcohol illegal under penatly of imprisonment.

I am not seeing this progressive approach happening amongst the majority of mainstream politicains. They do not seem to recognise that it is only a minority who use drugs who end up with big problems associated with them. It is as if the experiences that many of them must have had (and indeed we know for definite some of them did from their own admissions) never happened. Perhaps they genuninely didn't enjoy their own experiences. Perhaps they genuinely do think that cannabis is 20 times more powerful than it was 30 years ago despite the fact that there is no evidence that it is much stronger now than it ever was. Perhaps they see no contradiction in having done something when they were younger that was illegal then, and when they are now in a position to do something about it insist that what they did was their own private affair and to continue with the failed policies that they themselves were lucky not to have found themselves on the wrong side of.

It just seems to be to be quite convenient that if you were trying to come up with a few textbook ways of trying to deflect this debate in order to not be seen as "SOFT ON DRUGS!" it would likely be one of the 3 forms of defence listed above or variants thereof. It's almost as if many politicians on this issue will say whatever they think will get them off the hook....

Thursday 16 July 2009

Vote for Mark Reckons in the Top Blogs poll 2009!

Validate me!

It's time to vote for your top ten favourite blogs of 2009. The poll is run by Total Politics (backed by Iain Dale) but this year it is also being co-promoted/sponsored by Liberal Democrat Voice and Labour List which may help to give it a little bit more legitimacy.

I am not above grubbing for votes so if you have enjoyed some of my postings this year and/or the BBC Question Time Live Chat that I run every week, or you just like my face (see right) then please vote for me. The nearer to number one the better. You know it makes sense!

  1. You must vote for your ten favourite blogs and ranks them from 1 (your favourite) to 10 (your tenth favourite).
  2. Your votes must be ranked from 1 to 10. Any votes which do not have rankings will not be counted.
  3. You MUST include ten blogs. If you include fewer than ten your vote will not count.
  4. Email your vote to
  5. Only vote once.
  6. Only blogs based in the UK, run by UK residents are eligible or based on UK politics are eligible.
  7. Anonymous votes left in the comments will not count. You must give a name
  8. All votes must be received by midnight on 31 July 2009. Any votes received after that date will not count.
It would be good to see more Lib Dems in the upper echelons of this poll this year as well. the Lib Dem blogosphere has continued to come on in leaps and bounds this year and there are lots of excellent examples so please also put some other Lib Dems in your top ten. Have a look at my "Lib Dem Blogs" blogroll below right for details of the ones I read regularly and an indication of some of the blogs I am likely to be voting for....

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 16th July 2009 - #bbcqt

It's BBC Question Time day again and with no messing around with the scheduling tonight, the Live Chat on this blog will start at 10:30pm.

The panel will include Foreign Office minister Chris Bryant (who?), Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party Margot James (who?), the Liberal Democrat spokesman on housing Lembit Opik MP (Lembit!), the talk show host and campaigner Trisha Goddard (Jesus wept) and the editor of the Financial Times Lionel Barber.

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

Join us from 10:30pm below:

Wednesday 15 July 2009

Jacqui Smith may not get away with it after all...

A few months ago I lamented on here that despite what appeared to me to be the possibility of fraud having been committed by the then Home Secretary Jacqui Smith in relation to her second home claims, that the media and the authorities were basically going to let her get away with it.

Then more recently the police indicated that they were not going to investigate her. I always thought this was very suspect and the anecdotal evidence I have seen from neighbours etc. would suggest to me that her sister's home was not her main residence. Frankly it beggars belief that a box room in her sister's house could ever have been considered her primary residence when she had a proper house in Redditch.

Anyway, Guido announced today that he is donating £5,000 to fund for the Sunlight Centre for Open Politics which is gathering evidence for a private prosecution against Ms Smith. I support this action as I think this particular example needs to be tested in court properly as it seemed so blatant a contravention of the spirit and possibly the letter of the rules. I cannot afford to give anything like £5,000 but I will give a little bit to this and hopefully many others will so that they can get to the £100,000 they think they will need to launch this prosecution.

I am well aware that Guido helped set this centre up. He has been accused in the past of being partisan although he claims he is against all "sleazy" politicians and I therefore hope that it does not just focus on Labour but that they also look closely at some of the Tories who have been implicated in serious wrongdoing. Bill Wiggin for example would seem to be a prime candidate for an investigation of this nature also.

I learned the truth at seventeen

That love was meant for beauty queens, and high school girls with clear skin smiles, who married young and then retired.

Actually that was Janis Ian's experience of being seventeen. But having been tagged by Stephen Glenn (well he said "feel free to have a go yourself" and I read those words and assumed he was speaking directly to me) I thought I would have a crack at this "Politics and me at Seventeen" meme.

I did also sort of learn the truth (about politics in my case) because I studied "British Government and Politics" at A-Level and it opened my eyes to the full wonder of our political system. It was also at the age of seventeen in 1991 that I visited the Houses of Parliament for the first time on a politics class trip guided by our then MP Gordon Oakes. I think he was a bit sozzled and perhaps not the best guide but it was amazing to see inside the place which had only just been opened up to the TV cameras.

Thatcher had just been deposed, a general election was imminent, EMF were in the charts, comedy was about to become the new rock and roll. Times were good for the young political enthusiast.

And yet I never got directly involved. As I have discussed previously on this blog I actually only finally joined a political party last year (2008) at the age of 33. Looking back now I am not really sure why. I think when I was that age I was more interested in socialising (by which I mean going out and getting trolleyed) and the ladies than sitting in rooms debating policy positions with the type of people who were generally considered geeks. It sounds a bit sad to say that now because I probably would have loved doing it given how much I was in awe of politics. I can still vividly remember a hustings that took place in our Widnes Sixth Form College in the run up to the 1992 general election where the candidates from the 3 main parties took questions from the assembled stroppy teenagers. I asked a question about the River Mersey in case you are interested (I am too embarrassed to say exactly what that question was now although I do recall).

I can still remember the names of the candidates. Gordon Oakes for Labour (the incumbent - see above), David Reaper for the Lib Dems and Grant Mercer for the Tories. Mercer was clearly a parachuted in candidate earning his spurs in an unwinnable seat. I can still remember him reeling off central office statistics in a vain bid to convince a fairly partisan crowd that the Tory government was doing some good! Incidentally, if anyone knows what happened to either of the Lib Dem or Tory candidates subsequently I would interested to hear.

Anyway, I suppose that's about all I have to say for this meme. In some ways I regret not having got involved in politics earlier, but on the other hand I have been able to form a clear and strong political identity independent of parties and then choose the one that most closely matches me today.

Tuesday 14 July 2009

The GOATs they went out two by two, hurrah! Hurrah!

The GOATs they went out two by two, hurrah! hurrah!
The GOATs they went out two by two, hurrah! hurrah!
The GOATs they went out two by two, they really mustn't have had much to do,
And they all went into the street, for to get rid of the pain.

The GOATs they went out three by three, hurrah! hurrah!
The GOATs they went out three by three, hurrah! hurrah!
The GOATs they went out three by three, can you really blame poor Lord Darzi?
And they all went into the street, for to get rid of the pain.

The GOATs they went out four by four, hurrah! hurrah!
The GOATs they went out four by four, hurrah! hurrah!
The GOATs they went out four by four, that Lord Malloch Brown he could take no more,
And they all went into the street, for to get rid of the pain.

The GOATs they went out five by five, hurrah! hurrah!
The GOATs they went out five by five, hurrah! hurrah!
The GOATs they went out five by five, Lord Digby Jones he couldn't survive,
And they all went into the street, for to get rid of the pain.

Hattip to Sara Bedford on Twitter for the idea.

Lame Duck Government Syndrome

Recently I have been starting to wonder what the point of this government carrying on is. We are now less than a year away from a general election. An election, which if the opinion polls are to be believed, Labour will lose and lose badly. The Prime Minister, along with every other senior and junior government minister are unlikely to be in post on 14th July 2010.

It is through this prism that I am now starting to view government announcements. The nature of government is such that when measures are announced, that is just the starting point. There will often be reviews and various other activities before the proposals finally get put before the Houses of Parliament and eventually end up on the statute book.

Some, perhaps many of the measures announced now will not see the light of day this side of the next election. If they ever do get implemented it will be because the next government wants them to be. Labour may leave some nasty traps as it seems to be trying to do in some areas (its economic policy seems to be drawn from the Scorched Earth Handbook) but with application, the next government will be able to unpick most of it. Much activity between now and next June will be a waste of time.

I recall a story I heard about Michael Heseltine in the run up to the 1997 election had a meeting with Tony Blair where he urged Blair if (when) he became PM to continue with the Millennium Dome project. There was obviously no point talking to John Major or his cabinet colleagues. The power was shifting inexorably to Blair and the same thing is starting to happen now with Cameron.

There is also a second problem with much of what this government announces and it is a problem with all long serving governments. I remember it happening with John Major’s administration in the 1990s. It is that every measure announced will be met with the question “What have you been doing for the last 12 years?” It actually makes the government very wary of doing anything too radical as it then calls into question their actions over the previous decade which of course they do not want.

Here is an example. Today, Andy Burnham announced a review of how the elderly pay for their care. Irrespective of the whys and wherefores of the particular proposal this quote leapt out at me when I heard it:

For too long politicians have avoided this issue. We have an opportunity to grasp the nettle and confront the debate. If we fail to do that we face the prospect of a diminishing quality of care being provided.

The first thing I thought was, yes but you've been in for 12 years so why has it taken you until now to do anything about it? All policy announcements suffer from this syndrome now.

These issues combine to make it very difficult for the government to achieve anything. If they were governing in the proper interests of the country they would recognise this and do something about it, change the leadership and get rid of the worst PM in my living memory and then call an election so at least there would be a fresh mandate to properly get on with stuff. Of course this won't happen because they aren't governing in the interests of the people. They are a self-interested clique who don't care that their policy pronouncements are just so much hot air.

It is we, the public who suffer most from this Lame Duck Government Syndrome.

Monday 13 July 2009

Democracy Diner

[Scene opens on a restaurant]

WAITER: Yes sir, what can I get you?

CUSTOMER: Right, I would like a prawn salad, erm followed by, what sort of steak do you have?

WAITER: I’m sorry sir.


WAITER: Yes sir, I think you may have misunderstood how it works here at the Democracy Diner.

CUSTOMER: How it works?

WAITER: Yes sir.

CUSTOMER: So how does it work?

WAITER: Well sir we have a number of menus that we ask you to look at. [He pulls out several menus that are each clearly many metres long. Each one is on different coloured paper]

CUSTOMER: [Takes menus and starts to assess what is on them] I have to look through all of these? But there are thousands of items on each one.

WAITER: That’s right sir.

CUSTOMER: And I’m supposed to choose a meal from all of this?

WAITER: No sir.


WAITER: Sir really doesn’t understand does sir?

CUSTOMER: [Starting to get annoyed] Understand what?

WAITER: OK sir. You have to choose every single meal that you would like for the next 5 years. From one of these menus.

CUSTOMER: Every single meal?

WAITER: Yes sir.

CUSTOMER: For the next 5 years?

WAITER: Yes sir.

CUSTOMER: What, even like supper and brunch and stuff?

WAITER: Yes sir. Every meal.

CUSTOMER: That’s crazy!

WAITER: That’s how we do it here at the Democracy Diner sir.

CUSTOMER: Hang on, so I have to choose the meals I want from each of these menus?

WAITER: No sir, you just choose one menu.


WAITER: Yes sir. And then every single meal is predetermined from that menu for the next 5 years.

CUSTOMER: But what if I want some from one menu and some from another.

WAITER: You can’t do that sir I’m afraid.

CUSTOMER: [pause] So I have to go through each of these menus and decide which one I want to be everything that I eat for the next 5 years.

WAITER: Well not quite sir.

CUSTOMER: But you just said...

WAITER: I said you choose the menu but it won’t necessarily be the one that you get.

CUSTOMER: How do you mean?

WAITER: Well sir, everyone else in the Democracy Diner also gets to choose which menu they fancy and once everyone has chosen, we take the one with the most support and everybody gets the food from that menu for the next 5 years.

CUSTOMER: So there might not be any point in me choosing anyway?

WAITER: Well there could be if it was a close vote.

CUSTOMER: Is it likely to be a close vote?

WAITER: No. You are in a safe vegan seat here I am afraid sir.

CUSTOMER: But I like meat.

WAITER: I’m sorry sir. You can choose the carnivore menu if you like sir but I fear it would be a wasted choice. Carnivores can’t win here, have a look at this bar-chart [shows bar-chart with carnivores a poor third place].

CUSTOMER: So is there anything I can do about this.

WAITER: Not really sir. I suppose you could try to get other people to choose your carnivore menu but you would be unlikely to persuade many people. For many generations they have chosen vegan round here like I said.

CUSTOMER: Right, I’m not having this. I’m off! [starts to leave]

WAITER: That’s your choice of course sir but you will still be served the menu that wins the vote whether you like it for not.

CUSTOMER: [Sits back down] Is there no way we can change it so that there is some from one menu and perhaps some from another? Come on, be reasonable!

WAITER: We have thought about that but the thing is at the Democracy Diner, we like there to be a strong, decisive, clear menu so everyone knows what they are getting.

CUSTOMER: Even if lots of people don’t like or want it?

WAITER: Yes sir.

CUSTOMER: Right well I can see that there’s not really anything I can do about this. I suppose I’d better start going through the Vegan menu and get used to what I am going to be eating for the next 5 years.

WAITER: Well you could do that sir... [Pauses]


WAITER: Only, it’s not very likely that the meals will pan out exactly as it says there.

CUSTOMER: Why not?

WAITER: Well, your lunches and dinners will all be as it says there. That’s a commitment from us. But the more minor meals may end up changing. After all, we can't reasonably be expected to know right now what will be appropriate for you to eat in 4 or 5 years time right now. Can we sir?

CUSTOMER: But if things are going to change, why don’t I get a choice over how they change?

WAITER: Because we choose for you. Based on what you chose originally. Subject to changes.

[Customer looks agog]

WAITER: Would sir like a drink whilst he is waiting.

CUSTOMER: Yes, go on then. I’ll have a white wine... [sees Waiter shaking his head] What?

WAITER: No sir, I’m afraid it doesn’t work like that.

CUSTOMER: How does it work then?

WAITER: Well, we source our drinks from “Upper House Beverages”. So a panel of people including some whose ancestors were good at choosing drinks along with some other people who used to create menus have chosen the drinks you are allowed......

[Swannee whistle, Curtain]

Sunday 12 July 2009

Is there a better way than "Collective Responsibility"?

I have written in the past about how frustrating I find it that government ministers (and often shadow ministers) won't answer questions and how they speak in an anodyne sometimes meaningless language that can be almost impenetrable to anyone outside the Westminster village.

Of course what happens eventually is that ministers leave office and then in their post-political careers you often find that they are interesting people with interesting views and opinions about things. Almost the exact opposite of how they seemed when they were in office.

There are various reasons why our system of government causes this state of affairs but the main one is the principle of "Collective Responsibility". This is whereby all members of the government take responsibility for the decisions of that government. It is supposed to give us strong and clear government. It is the system we have used for hundreds of years with only a small number of temporary deviations (e.g. Wilson allowed members of his cabinet to campaign for and against membership of the EEC in the 1970s). It is also used by many governments throughout the world.

From my perspective though, I wonder if this way of doing things is fit for purpose any more. Here are a few negative consequences of collective responsibility:
  • Ministers find it difficult to answer questions put to them. I can understand how hard the strait-jacket of CR must make it for ministers. They are asked questions but sometimes they are not exactly sure what the government line is or exactly what their colleagues may have said so they waffle or give an answer that is non-committal. Or they use well learned tactics to shift the ground onto something they are comfortable answering and answer this instead. It takes considerable intelligence and talent to be able to navigate this sort of minefield but isn't this ultimately a waste of time and energy that could be better spent? We find out eventually what ministers really thought in their memoirs or through other means. It's a facade that we all know exists and they know we know. And we know they know we know. Etc.
  • Interviewers pick at ministers in order to try and provoke a "gaffe". Interviewers often know where the fissure points are in government and which ministers may not be "fully on board" for certain policies so they will try and trap them into saying something that is not 100% consistent with something one or more of their colleagues has said previously. Then this is pounced on as a "gaffe". I can see that sometimes this could serve a purpose if a policy is weak or ill-thought through and the interviewer is trying to expose this but more often than not it is just a game of cat and mouse between interviewed and interviewee. Experienced politicians will not fall into these traps but they do it by again, speaking in an impenetrable language.
  • We don't get to know what our elected representatives really think about things. We voted for them. They are often intelligent people who have risen to the top of their profession. They are supposed to represent us and yet what we get is anodyne waffle because they are forbidden to tell us what they really think.
  • The real decisions get thrashed out behind closed doors and the public don't get a say in any sort of nuance about how those decisions are reached. We simply have the blunt instrument of "keep 'em" or "chuck 'em out" once every four or five years. In the meantime we don't get any sort of a say.
I am sure there are loads more but that will do for starters.

My wife (who is not directly involved with politics herself) will often say to me "Why won't they answer the question?" or "What is she on about?" when I am watching political programmes. She is a very well educated professional person but she is turned off by the sort of display she regularly sees like this and I struggle to answer her (and other non-political friends who ask me the same) questions on this. I try to explain to them why ministers can't really say what they mean or think but the more I do it, the more it just all seems so artificial and yes, silly.

It is this sort of thing that continues the public's disengagement with politics. It makes them think politicians are all liars because they hear them say one thing in government and then later when they have left office, something completely different. It has people shouting at their radios and TVs in frustration that for seventh time Minister X has avoided answering Humphries or Paxman's question.

Now, after all my criticism I am not going to pretend there are any easy answers to this. This culture and way of doing things is deeply embedded in our politics.

There must be things we can do to improve it though, surely? I think that one of the problems is that the people who could do something about it, the politicians themselves are so ensconsed in the current system that they cannot see the wood for the trees and it would almost be like speaking alien to them to get them to engage with doing things differently.

I am not a political scientist or academic but here are a couple of ideas to throw into the mix as to how we could improve this situation. I am sure there will be problems with what I suggest but I offer them as starting points for discussion. Hopefully other people will be able to contribute their thoughts in the comments below too.

Here goes:
  • Allow more votes to be treated as "conscience votes" are now. These are usually reserved for things like votes on the death penatly or stem cell research. But could this not also be extended to other areas?
  • Allow ministers to be honest about their views. I am a director of a company and I run my it with 4 other people who attend management meetings. Of course we do not always agree on everything and we sometimes have quite heated debates but we take the decisions and act upon them accordingly. However, when I am talking to our staff, I don't feel obliged to pretend that I personally agreed with everything that was decided. If asked I feel able to give my honest view about things but can explain that I lost the argument and it has been decided to do something a certain way and we will do our best to make it work. Why can't ministers work on this sort of principle? It would mean they could be more honest about their views and we, the public would know what they were thinking and I would know which ministers were aligned with me on which issues. (I am sure commenters will have views on this one!)
I am also interested to hear whether others have ideas about how to change things in this area. I can't be the first person to have lamented the existing system and its shortcomings.

If I get a decent amount of response I might do another post on this later on.

One final point, I am not politically naive. I know how hard it would be to change the culture we have but to anyone who thinks this is all pie in the sky I would ask what do you propose instead to help re-engage the electorate with politics?