Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Monday 31 August 2009

Bloggers' responsibilities for comments and libel law

Matthew Cain did an interesting post about the responsibility of bloggers recently. He makes some good points and it is worth a read.

My understanding is that bloggers are responsible for what they post on their own blog and are subject to libel laws as anyone publishing articles in the press or other media would be. This seems perfectly fair to me and I am pretty careful about what I say about people, generally using my common sense. I wonder though if a different approach needs to be taken regarding the comments people post in the threads below blogs. I currently do not moderate these (although I could go through and delete any afterwards if necessary I have not yet felt the need to do this). That's not to say I won't at some point and in fact on another blog that I help run I had to do this a few months ago when things got a bit heated during a thread about a contentious issue. I did actually delete a blog post that was advocating violence against someone - it seemed obvious to me that it was going beyond the pail.

However, I am not legally trained and cannot afford to pay for someone who is to go through the comments on my blog and discern if they are libellous or not. I know a bit about this area, just from what I have picked up over the years but I am by no means an expert. I hope I would be able to spot and deal with things that fall into that category but I am far for sure I would, especially around the margins. It's also possible that I could miss posts, especially if I am away for a while as I have been a couple of times this month.

Maybe I need to go and do some more in-depth reading about libel law but is it reasonable to expect every blogger to do this and to be as au fait with this area as a newspaper with all the resources at their disposal?

Older women are treated badly by TV

There was an interesting report in The Guardian recently which highlighted the results of a survey commissioned by age related charities regarding older women in TV. It found that 71% of the respondents were happy to see Arlene Phillips on their screens and 80% agreed that TV favoured younger presenters.

I feel Arlene has had a very rough deal from the BBC. She was one of the judges on their hit Saturday night show "Strictly Come Dancing" but she is being replaced for the upcoming series with former winner and pop star (and much younger) Alesha Dixon. Before we go on I should make clear that I am not keen on the show (I am not a fan of dancing) - I end up half-watching it though as my wife is a big fan. Phillips is 66, Dixon is 30.

The decision to drop Arlene Phillips has caused a fair bit of consternation amongst commentators and it is part of a pattern across TV. There were also questions raised over how newsreaders Anna Ford and Moira Stewart were treated (also both in their late 50s or 60s when they "stepped down"). These are just the most high profile cases though and it seems to be indicative of something endemic within broadcasting. If you're a woman, you will struggle to retain your position as a presenter as you get older.

This is manifestly unfair. It seems that men are not subject to the same standards at all. Bruce Forsyth who is still the main host of "Strictly Come Dancing" recently turned 80. Now Bruce is a legend but it is sometimes a bit cringeworthy watching him on that show. He stumbles over the delivery of his lines and sometimes seems a bit confused about what is going on. If anyone should be considered for retirement on that show I would say it should be him (as much as it pains me to say it).

Also, what about Len Goodman. He is only a year younger than Arlene Phillips at 65 but it seems his position is secure too.

If Phillips has been edged out because of her age to be replaced with a beautiful young woman then this is a disgrace. She has decades of experience as a dancer and choreographer. She has directed West End and Broadway musicals and won multiple Olivier awards for these as well as Tony nominations, she developed her own style of Jazz dancing and she formed, directed and choreographed Hot Gossip! Alesha Dixon is a pop star who won the show a couple of years ago. In other words an amateur. How can the BBC possibly think that she will make a better judge than Arlene?

I hate ageism. I think it costs us both in social, but also economic terms. The way people are edged out of their jobs when they hit their 50s or early 60s is a disgrace and I am glad that as a society we seem to be getting better at recognising this and not doing it as much.

I love going into my local B&Q (who seem to have a very good policy on this) and seeing the older people working there on the tills and in the shop generally. I usually find that they are more helpful and knowledgeable than their teenage colleagues. Aside from anything else they have probably put up shelves, painted and decorated houses themselves many times so will know how to advise on practical things - you know like your mum or grandad can.

But this situation seems to be even worse. There seem to be elements of ageism and sexism combined. If these are behind the decision regarding Phillips then it seems the BBC is behind the curve on the public here.

It would appear from the survey quoted at the start that we are much happier to see older women on TV than they are giving us credit for.

Sunday 30 August 2009

This week I have been mostly reading... 22nd - 28th August 2009

Saturday 22nd August

Mark Pack explained why the Taxpayers' Alliance is wrong to oppose public sector experiments.

Sunday 23rd August

Stephen Glenn asked if LDV readers are headline whores.

Monday 24th August

Liberal Eye asked what the clear target for those not planning to go to university should be.

Tuesday 25th August

My Two Penneth explained how she fell in and then out of love with the Labour Party.

Wednesday 26th August

Jane Watkinson asked how there can possibly be another 12 year delay for Lords reform when Labour have already had 12 years.

Thursday 27th August

Another excellent post from Liberal Eye who traced the seven ages of supermarkets from "good thing" in the 1960s to "bad thing" now.

Mark Wadsworth highlighted misleading statistics around Cannabis related deaths.

The Other Taxpayers' Alliance has issued an excellent tongue in cheek "Media Guidelines" for reporting the Taxpayers' Alliance. There is a serious point behind it though. (This link opens a PDF file).

Friday 28th August

Liberal Burblings pointed out that the current youngsters getting their GCSE results are the first ever to have been fully educated under contiguous Labour governments.

And a special bonus this week. For all you fans of The Smiths, marvel at how many Smiths song title references Chris Packham managed to squeeze into this year's Springwatch programme with this little montage.

Friday 28 August 2009

Gordon Brown's tactics are catching up with him

I knew this would happen.

The consequences of Gordon Brown's pig-headed insistence on trying to draw ridiculous and unbelieveable lines between him and his political opponents (i.e. Labour "investment" vs Tory "cuts") is catching up with him.

It has come out today that there is now a potential backbench rebellion from Labour MPs on Brown's plans to end a policy which allows benefit claimants to keep the difference if they can find a lower rent than the housing allowance level. The government think this will save about £150 million per year. Frankly I think this is misguided as the incentive on claimants to haggle will be removed and much of this "saving" will go into the pockets of landlords.

However, that isn't really my point. What is now starting to happen is that reality is catching up with the government. It is clear that spending needs to be reigned in but because of Brown's TORY CUTZ!!11 narrative they cannot just be straight with us. Instead, Treasury officials have been scrabbling around in the background trying to come up with wheezes to shave a bit off here and bit off there in the hope that it will all add up to enough to make a difference to overall spending but without people noticing.

This strategy is doomed to failure. Those who lose out will notice and will shout loudly. This will be the first of multiple stories like this with MPs threatening to rebell as they desperately try to hold onto their seats.

The other point here is that because there is no clearly defined strategy to this, and it will be mainly focused on what the government thinks it can get away with, the cuts implemented willnot necessarily be just. There may be more deserving targets for cuts which could be more high profile but because Brown is trying to pretend it is not happening they can't be touched.

There doesn't seem to me to be much evidence of his much vaunted "moral compass" in this latest revelation.

Thursday 27 August 2009

Daniel Hannan's opponents are using playground tactics

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Tory MEP Dan Hannan is in trouble again.

In an interview with (an internet TV channel) he cited Enoch Powell as one of his political influences stating that he:

Understood the importance of national democracy, who understood why you need to live in an independent country and what that meant, as well as being a free marketeer and a small government Conservative.

Of course the reason why Mr Hannan's remarks could be construed as contentious is because of what Enoch Powell is so famous for, his "Rivers of blood" speech in 1968 which did much harm to race relations in the UK. It also comes hot on the heels of his comments about the NHS (although the reason interview was actually conducted before he made his NHS remarks - they have only just come out now).

But what he says is true. Powell was all of the things that Hannan claims, and frankly given Powell's visceral opposition to the European Common Market and Hannan's visceral opposition to the EU, it's successor, it's hardly surprising that he considers him an influence. Indeed it would be odd, and he would be pretty obviously lying if he claimed otherwise.

None of this matters to Hannan's political opponents though who have leapt upon this latest revelation with absolute glee. Here's Lord Mandelson:

Yet again, we are seeing the two faces of the Conservative Party. The one they want to present to the public and the one which attacks the NHS and praises Enoch Powell.

I have seen plenty of similar reaction on Twitter and elsewhere from all sorts of levels within the Labour party.

The reason I despair here is because of what episodes like this do to politics in general. People often compain that most politicians are like automatons who rigidly stick to a predefined script and don't say anything interesting. That's because of what happens when they step outside these ridiculously defined bounds that the political class as a whole sets themselves.

Why should Mr Hannan not be allowed to be honest about who his political influences are? He is not saying he agrees with everything that Powell said and did. He has been very specific about what he admires in Powell and there will be many in the Conservative Party (and also some across the political spectrum) who actually agree with him.

In fact, here are some comments from Prime Minister Tony Blair after Powell died in 1998:

He was one of the great figures of 20th-century British politics, gifted with a brilliant mind

Does that demonstrate the two faces of the Labour Party and of Mr Mandelson's protege?

Time and political debate would be better spent by his opponents arguing against what Dan Hannan believes and the reasons for it. Not trying to smear him by association when he is just being honest about the formation of his political views.

Of course that would involve detailed discussion and debate and is more difficult and nuanced than the sort of response Peter Mandelson has put out.

I should probably end by making it clear that I hold no candle for Daniel Hannan. There are things he thinks that I strongly disagree with. However I also think he makes a good contribution to debate in this country and our politics is richer for having people like him involved in it.

The playground tactics being deployed in this latest spat however make me wonder how much longer people like him will bother, and the march of the automatons continues unabated.

Wednesday 26 August 2009

More on Bill Wiggin and his "open to all" meeting

Early in July I posted this about Leominster MP Bill Wiggin and his supposedly open meeting for constituents to question him about his expense claims. The meeting was clearly not open as many constituents who tried to gain access were barred.

As a result of that post, one of Mr Wiggin's constituents, Ray Borge got in touch with me by e-mail. He was prevented from attending the meeting and has provided the following synopsis of what happened from his perspective and some detail about what he and fellow constituents hope to do about it:

Held in the local Conservative Club. An intimidatory tactic & it only holds 150 people, so ensuring many would be locked out, but Tory members would be there in the majority (they were told to come early).

Supposed to have been a public meeting, yet the local press were not informed, but Tory members were, because one let slip they had all been told when he thanked the chairman for e-mailing him about it.

At 4pm when many would still be at work.

3 scruffy bouncers on the door as I walked in, another intimidatory tactic.

Not recognised as a Tory party member so a Tory activist blocked my entrance at the door & asked for my name & address, despite my showing my driving licence ID as proof I lived in the constituency. He then wrote this down on a clipboard (pure dictatorship tactics).

People still trying to get in after meeting had begun but Wiggin shouted to them because of H&S regulations they couldn't let anymore in. But the YouTube clip (see below) clearly shows Tory town councillor, Brig Peter Jones still letting in those who say they are Tory supporters. The guy with the black jacket & satchel is the guy who found the clip & posted it on YouTube.

Result was approx 90% at the meeting were Tory supporters.

Wiggin was asked through a window by people locked out why he hadn't booked the much bigger leisure centre (the venue they used to select him in 2001). He replied with a smirk to his many supporters inside, 'How was I to know so many would turn up, do I have a crystal ball?'

When asked did he think he was morally justified claiming expenses of £1,300 mortgage payments & £400 for food per MONTH when many in the area don't even earn that amount he replied, 'Yes, I am'.

When asked why he did not downsize from his £900,000 London home to ease the burden on the taxpayer he replied, 'Other people can live like that, I can't!'
As a result of all this, along with other like-minded townsfolk we have started a Leominster Independents Group. Totally independent of Independents on the councils or any party our aim is to overturn Wiggin's 13,000 majority at the next election & work towards town council reforms.

I think the best way for constituents to get rid of Bill Wiggin is to vote for Lucy Hurds, our excellent Lib Dem candidate. The Lib Dems were second placed at the last election are are best placed to take the seat from him.

Also, I must make it clear that Mr Wiggin did not need a crystal ball as he so flippantly said. As I mentioned in my previous post, this meeting took place 5 days after Andrew MacKay's meeting in my own constituency where hundreds of people turned up. He should have known 150 places would not be enough and I think there is a very strong case for suspecting he did and that he restricted places deliberately.

The worst thing is that it seems to have worked. Mr Wiggin's position as MP and candidate at the next election seems secure and David Cameron has backed him. But as the comments above and the YouTube video show the meeting was a joke. I think Ray raises some very important issues and I would be interested to hear what other Tory members think about the tactics used here.

I think Mr Wiggin needs to call another meeting where he can be properly held to account.

YouTube video of the meeting referenced above:

"Information sharing orders" are not dead after all

It seems that "Information sharing orders" are back baby. They seem to be like a zombie at the end of a cheap B-movie. You think it's dead but then just as you relax your guard, it's up and shuffling towards you murmuring "uuh-uhh-uhh" or similar and then trying to eat your brains.

Matt Wardman has the full low-down on this via Ian Cuddy. It is coming back in the form of an "Integrated citizen's record" which will "track every interaction of every citizen with government and trigger automatic alerts to other databases on any change." Sound familiar?

Looks like we will need another campaign to try and squash this latest incarnation like last time. I will be interested to hear what Lib Dem (and the supposedly newly liberty clothed Tory) politicians have to say about this.

Tuesday 25 August 2009

Making better use of Prime Ministers after office

In 2006, Tony Blair refused to immediately call for a ceasefire in the 2006 Israel-Lebanon conflict against the feeling of many in his own cabinet. Some think that the unrest this inaction provoked within the Labour party was the catalyst for the so called "Curry Coup" that a few weeks later led to the resignation of a number of junior members of the government and forced Blair to bring forward his retirement announcement.

The reason I am highlighting this point of history is that it is telling that many of Blair's cabinet were urging him to come up with a stronger line on Israel but his response was silent at first and then very muted later.

I wonder if one of the factors here was what Blair was going to do after he left office. Since he has, he has earned lots of money from the US lecture circuit and his close ties with the country have been beneficial to him in other ways including a directorship with US company JP Morgan Chase and a prestigious lecturing position at Yale University. I have to ask myself whether all these opportunities would have been as forthcoming if Blair had taken a much stronger line on Israel and other US related issues whilst in office.

Blair knew that he would be out of office by around 2007 or 2008. He was still our PM and should have been taking decisions and issuing statements in the best interests of the UK. And yet can we be sure this is what he was doing? He is only human and it is only natural for him not to wish to bite the hand that he hoped would eventually feed him - even if only subconsciously.

I should make clear here that I have no direct evidence for any of this, it's all circumstantial. Blair may well have taken exactly the same line even if there had been no financial or other incentive to do so for him later. The point is that we just don't know and a pretty strong potential conflict of interest was present for him to contend with amongst everything else.

This ties in with something that I have thought for a while. We do not make very good use of our ex Prime Ministers. They have been at the pinnacle of political life for in some cases (Thatcher and Blair) over a decade. They know how our political and diplomatic systems work better than almost anybody else. They have unrivalled contacts and networks and in some cases large supporter bases and yet they are effectively left to make their own arrangements post-office and all that experience is lost to the country. The days of ex-PMs serving in the cabinet under future PMs (e.g. Douglas-Home under Heath as Foreign Secretary) seem to be well and truly over.

Why can't we be better at harnessing this expertise though? I was never a fan of Margaret Thatcher when she was PM but after her defenestration she cut a very sad figure. I read an article which explained that an aide would brief her on the news and political events every day and she would give her views which he would diligently note down as if they really mattered any more and were going to have an effect. It was to create the illusion that she was still doing something useful. That seems a waste of her vast experience.

Some ex-PMs like John Major and Harold Wilson have/had a decent hinterland but even they would I am sure have wanted to continue to contribute to the political and diplomatic life of the country had they been given the opportunity instead of finding themselves in the political wilderness.

The US seems to be (a bit) better than us. They tend to find ambassadorial roles for their ex-Presidents and they often head up their own foundations that are taken quite seriously by the US establishment and contribute to the ongoing debates of the day.

I have no doubt that some use is made of former PMs through informal mechanisms, from time-to-time. However surely we can find a better use for our former leaders than largely consigning them to the scrap-heap as far as the public life of the country is concerned when they often have many years (and in some cases decades) of their useful working life still ahead of them at retirement?

Perhaps if that was the case it could be a win-win situation with the potential conflict of interest that Blair and others face in office between what is best for their country and what is best for their own future no longer existing and the country making better use of its most experienced politicians once they leave office.

Monday 24 August 2009

Reducing MPs won't damage government, but it's the wrong reform

Hadleigh Roberts has done an interesting blog post with the alliterative title "Cutting down the Commons will cripple Cameron’s government". In it he argues that if David Cameron got his way and was able to cut the number of MPs by 10% he would cause himself some big problems and that he would end up with more Hannans and less pliable lobby fodder as well as more forced government appointments.

In order to illustrate this, he uses the classic quote from Yes Minister:

There are only 630 MPs and a party with just over 300 MPs forms a government and of these 300, 100 are too old and too silly to be ministers and 100 too young and too callow. Therefore there are about 100 MPs to fill 100 government posts.

I do not really agree with Hadleigh's analysis though:

1) Why would reducing the number of MPs cause Cameron to have more "problematic" MPs as he sees them? I see no reason why having less MPs would favour one faction or another. There would be less of all types of MP.
2) Hadleigh's assumption seems to be that if the number of MPs was cut by 10% that the number of government slots would remain the same, thus reducing the proportion of backbenchers from the governing party and increasing the number of MPs "on the government payroll". That doesn't need to be the case. In fact it is likely that the only way Cameron would get a measure like this through is precisely if he pledged to reduce the number of ministers by a proportionate amount, or perhaps by even more.
3) That line from Yes Minister is a joke. There may be a ring of partial truth to it but the idea that the government is effectively in zugzwang when it comes to choosing its members is not credible. Have a look at the movement of Labour MPs over the last 12 years and you will see that there is clearly scope for promotion and demotion.

Where I do agree with Hadleigh is what Cameron's motivation is for this. He is trying to "even things up" between him and Labour. By reducing the number of seats, the inherent bias that in present within the electoral system as the seats are currently constituted will be lessened and the Tories will be on a more equal footing with Labour in this respect. Of course no other party will get a look in, it's just good for the Tories and all the unfairness of the current system is retained that shuts other parties out of power and in most cases out of the Commons altogether. This is the reform that Cameron has been pushing for ages and, surprise surprise it's the one that gives his party the biggest advantage.

The real reform we need is a roughly proportional system using STV with multi-member constituencies.

Great letter to an MP about Credit Unions #NoCreditUnionLevy

One of my blog readers Judy Jansons has sent a letter to her local MP (former Tory minister Peter Lilley) regarding the injustice of Credit Unions being made to help fund the banking bail-out that I posted about last week.

I think it is an excellent example of how to express your strong feelings on a subject to your MP and she has given me permission to post the letter here. Over to Judy:

Dear Mr Lilley,

I was horrified to hear that the FSCS levy being applied to deposit-takers regulated by the FSA to fund the recent bail-out of the banking system includes the Credit Unions among those FSA member firms who have to pay it. (A letter sent to these firms can be seen here)

What is the government thinking of? It seems ludicrous to me, and to many others, that Credit Unions, which are set up to provide credit access and other services to the neediest people in communities, are being charged for a banking failure that they did not contribute to, when they are built on a quite different structure. We need organisations like Credit Unions which help vulnerable people get reasonable access to credit on affordable terms. We need to encourage the continuation of these bodies to avoid the human disasters created when people in desperate circumstances accept credit on any terms, however unreasonable, offered by local "loan sharks" to solve their short-term problems while creating a far worse situation for themselves in the long term.

I deplore the loss of mutual status of so many of the country's building societies and insurance companies (I used to work for one), and try to support those that remain. It seems totally wrong that another group of our financial institutions which work on the basis of community spirit, sharing and supporting those in need, should be endangered and unfairly charged due to the mismanagement of a much wealthier group.

Please do whatever you can to help reverse this situation for the Credit Unions. They should not be involved in this levy, the first payment of which is due on 1 September 2009, and urgent action is needed.

Yours sincerely,

Judy Jansons (Mrs)

I am interested to hear what Mr Lilley's response to this is.

In case you aren't aware, there is a Facebook group with over 100 members already supporting the campaign here to get this decision reversed by the government (we only have until 1st September before the first payment is due) and the Twitter hashtag for the campaign is #NoCreditUnionLevy.

Sunday 23 August 2009

The trouble with interns

Martin Bright has done a couple of posts recently where he has highlighted Phillip Hammond's use of an intern and also his justification of this by claiming it would be an abuse of taxpayer's money not to use the free labour available.

Over the years I have seen this issue pop up from time to time. The main problem is that when a company to utilises free labour, the intern is effectively subsidising the company for a while. They can only do this if they have independent means and the young people who are able to tend to be from more privileged backgrounds where their parents can afford to subsidise them for a while. This seems unjust and means that people from poorer backgrounds are to an extent being shut out of certain professions (especially in say the media when internships are commonplace).

On the other hand companies I am sure would argue that they are giving a good opportunity to people that would not be available if the intern/unpaid route was not available.

I do think it is odd though that we have a minimum wage law in this country and yet we also have a way for companies to get round this and effectively pay some staff nothing at all. It seems a little inconsistent.

I have to say I do not know what the answer is to this. Banning internships is not a route I would be comfortable going down. At the same time, especially in the current economic conditions I fear that an increase in this sort of unpaid Labour is only going to be bad for social mobility.

I am interested to hear other people's thoughts on this.

Saturday 22 August 2009

This week I have been mostly reading... 15th - 21st August 2009

Saturday 15th August

Charlotte Gore tried to find some common ground in the intense debate regarding the NHS.

Sunday 16th August

In a piece that demonstrates her evident passion for the institution, Caron warned us not to mess with the NHS.

Darrell on Moments of Clarity said that the "Brown" problem won't go away until something is done. He means Michael Brown, not Gordon.

Sharpe's Opinion had an excellent fisk of Gordon Brown's open letter to the #WeLoveTheNHS tweeters.

Monday 17th August

Mark Pack speculated on a radical new business model for The Independent newspaper.

Constantly Furious took Peter Mandelson to task for his Stone Age ideas about how to handle the internet and copyright.

Tuesday 18th August

Letters From a Tory wrote to his readers asking whether Wikio is worth worrying about. There is a good debate in the comments below it also.

Wednesday 19th August

Cicero's Songs in a typically brilliantly written piece felt a sense of forboding upon his return home.

Thursday 20th August

Peter Black AM writing on Freedom Central bemoaned the failure of joined up government and asked why should Credit Unions be forced to bail out the banks to the tune of £8.5 million? It inspired this post from me and this from Ali Goldsworthy - there's still time to join the campaign and for you to act before the 1st of September!

Caron again with a great post on the Megrahi decision and its aftermath.

Friday 21st August

I was busy packing to head off to the V festival this weekend (where I am now) so did not get the chance to read many blog posts for Friday - sorry!

Friday 21 August 2009

Families of crime victims should not influence sentencing

Cardiff Student Lib Dems (who have a very good blog) have posted today about the release of the Megrahi. It is a well thought through piece that urges Lib Dems not to attack the SNP and try to make political capital out of what was a very difficult decision.

However I want to take issue with something that CSLD say in their post:

Don't get me wrong. When it comes to sentencing, I think families of victims or victims themselves should be involved in the process. However, after the process, the decision must be made according to the law. It cannot (and should not) be held to ransom by the families of the victims

I am afraid I don't agree with the sentiment expressed at the start of this excerpt with the reference to families of victims. There have been moves in the last few years to try and take account of the feelings of families of victims (especially murder victims where the victim themselves is no longer around to be involved themselves) in the sentencing of criminals.

The problem I have with this is that it violates the principle that all are treated equally. Let's imagine two identical situations where somebody has been randomly stabbed to death in the street late at night in a dark alleyway. In case A let's say that the victim had a wife, two young children, grieving parents and grandparents as well as lots of brothers, sisters and friends. In case B let's say that the victim was a loner who has no close family or friends. The same crime has been perptrated but victim A would doubtless have lots of people wishing to discuss how the crime had affected them and wishing their feelings to be taken into account during sentencing. Victim B would have nobody to do this.

Would it then be fair to allow this to result in different sentences for the two victims? I do not think so. They are both abhorrent crimes but for me there is no case for treating them any differently. It might sound harsh to say this but this is surely one of the basic tenets of our system of justice. This is why Lady Justice who stands on top of the Old Bailey is blindfolded. She symbolises this very important precept.

It is the sort of thing that gets easy applause when politicians call for the views of the victims of families to be taken into account but I think it is a dangerous road to go down.

Is Gordon Brown afraid to delegate No 10 petition approval?

Kalvis Jansons (the chap who created the Gordon Brown resign petition on the No 10 petitions website which is now at over 70,000 signatures and rising) has e-mailed me this morning with some interesting information.

Apparently no new petitions are being allowed to be launched on the Number 10 website until Gordon Brown returns from his holiday on the 7th September (see below)

In case you can't read it, the text says:

Notice: Submission of new petitions will be closed until 7th September while the Prime Minister is away from Number 10. You can still sign any petition during this time.

That seems very odd to me. Whilst he is away, great decisions of state are being looked after by in turn Harriet Harman, Peter Mandelson, Alistair Darling and Jack Straw (on a sort of week long stand-in PM work experience job timeshare basis as far as I can tell). Yet none of them are deemed capable of giving the nod to petitions for the No 10 site.

I know that since the success of the Brown petition, Kalvis has had problems when enquiring about other petitions he would like to start. It seems like the No 10 operation has tightened the petitions criteria up in recent months.

If I was being mischievous I might suggest that the reason for the restriction above could be that Brown perhaps does not entirely trust his colleagues not to give the nod to even more embarrassing petitions....

Thursday 20 August 2009

The London Paper (thelondonpaper) to close

According to the buzz on Twitter, News International is proposing to close thelondonpaper.

If this is true, I can't say I am surprised and there are likely to be more MSM casualties as blogs and other online media continue to grow in usage and readers. Closures of papers like this are starting to look inevitable, not least after Murdoch's recent shocking financial results.

There are rumours that the Independent is struggling and there were also reports that The Observer might have to fold in the near future.

I wonder which title will be next to fall.

UPDATE: As I hit post, the news was confirmed. There is a 30 day consultations and 60 staff will be affected.

Why are Credit Unions being made to fund the bail-out?

Peter Black AM has a post on Freedom Central this morning entitled "The failure of joined up government" in which he explains a quirk of the financial regulation system that seems to have had unintended consequences. It seems that because Credit Unions (the bodies that exist in communities to help people get access to credit and provide other services to those on low incomes) are now regulated by the Financial Services Authority that they are now liable for part of the cost of bailing out the banks. This is due to the FSA levying a charge on every organisation it controls to help meet the debt. Apparently they are jointly liable for £8.5 million through this mechanism.

These unions are not rich. They are owned by their members and are generally run on a voluntary basis.

This surely cannot be what the government intended. Why should some of the poorest in society be bailing out some of the richest? This goes against natural justice and has echoes of the 10p tax rate debacle. There is little time to lose on this because if the first payment is not made by 1st September then penalty charges start to be applied.

If you feel strongly about this, please write to your MP and/or the FSA to complain about this injustice and demand that Credit Unions be excluded from having to fund the bail-out.

You can also help by tweeting using the hashtag: #NoCreditUnionLevy

UPDATE: Ali Goldsworthy from Freedom Central has now created a Facebook group as well for this campaign called "Credit Unions shouldn't be bailing out failing banks". I have just joined it.

Nick Barlow has posted on this subject too.

Wednesday 19 August 2009

Why is numeracy so undervalued in the UK?

Alison Goldworthy on Twitter has raised an interesting issue this morning. Paul Waugh retweeted something from Ed Richmond where he had tweeted:

At daughter's swim lesson. Why do 7 year olds need to learn butterfly? The swim equivalent of algebra; complex, elegant and utterly useless.

Ali responded:

I love algebra, I use it all the time. Why is being numerate useless and literate useful?!

I am fully in agreement with her on this one.

This little vignette from Ed sums up something I have thought for a long time. Literacy is very highly prized in this country. People generally are not happy to be unable to read or write (or be poor at it) and it is considered to be very important to overcome any problems associated with this.

Contrast this with the general attitude to numeracy and mathematical skills. I have lost count of the number of times I have heard people over the years say with a shrug of the shoulders "I'm no good at maths!" with them seeming almost proud of this fact, or at the very least happy to announce this to the world. There are people close to me who I have heard do this on occasion too.

It seems like once someone gets the idea that maths is not for them, or that they are not a "mathematical person" then they effectively write themselves off and our society tacitly (or in some cases blatantly) assents to this.

Now I am fortunate in that I was pretty good at all 3 Rs so I could be accused of being insensitive here but I don't think so. It would be insensitive if I was having a go at people for not being able to improve their skills at something that they were incapable of but the relative success of other countries (especially in Asia for example) when it comes to maths suggests to me that this is a cultural problem rather than an innate one. Countries like Japan encourage all children to push themselves at maths as the skill is very highly regarded in their society (a bit like literacy is for us) and the result is much higher levels of numeracy than we have.

Here is some evidence to back up what I am talking about. There was an "International Numeracy Study" done in 1996 (available within this document). Here is a summary of the findings:

The International context for Basic Skills within the United Kingdom can be demonstrated from findings of the International Numeracy Survey 1996 (Opinion Research Business). This found that comparing the percentage of respondents who managed to give the correct answer for all the tasks, Japan emerged top. 43% of respondents tested in Japan achieved a full set of correct answers. This was followed by France (40% getting them all correct) and the Netherlands (38%). Respondents in the UK performed least well. Only 1 in 5 people tested (20%) managed to accurately complete all twelve given tasks. Australia was second from bottom (at 33%) but Australians still performed significantly better than the UK.

When the results were reviewed for the proportion of respondents getting most answers right (10 -12 correct across the twelve tasks) the UK respondents do not improve their performance vis a vis other countries. Barely half (47%) were able to give the correct answer for 10 or more of the tasks, which compares very unfavourably with the rest of Europe (76% in the Netherlands, 68% in Denmark and 65% in France and Sweden).

At the other end of the scale almost a quarter of the UK respondents (22%) could only answer up to 5 questions out of the 12. This compares with a lower 14% in Australia, 10% in France, 7% in Sweden, 7% in Denmark, 5% in Japan and 4% in the Netherlands.

The following table provides a summary of the survey results.

Scores achieved across 12 numeracy tasks:

So out of 7 developed nations all of whom we will compete and trade with we came bottom at numeracy.

Like I say, for this to change will take a big cultural shift but it could start by people thinking twice before happily announcing to all and sundry that they are rubbish at maths. After all, would they be so keen to announce that they were virtually illiterate?

MPs should not have outside jobs Mr Parris

Matthew Parris' article in the Times from Saturday this week suggests that MPs should be allowed to have outside jobs, it's just that too many of them have the wrong sort of outside job (by his definition that is things like Company Director, Barrister - i.e. the sort of job that is likely to give them experience of a rarified world that most do not inhabit). On the other hand he claims that MPs doing outside jobs like being a Doctor or participating in charity work are fine.

I am afraid I have to take issue with the redoubtable Mr Parris on this one. As I have mentioned before, I do not think MPs should have any significant outside job. I understand the argument that MPs need to have rounded experience of the outside world of work but I think that should come before they get into parliament, not whilst they are there. I accept that in order to have a decent cross-section in the house there will be younger members who will naturally have less experience but there will be plenty who will have had 10, 20 or even more years of experience in the outside world and doing "proper" jobs. For me, that is the key.

Also, as part of their standard duties MPs are kept in constant contact with their constituents and members of the public and should therefore be in touch with the issues of the day in this way.

MPs are (or should be) busy enough as it is without devoting some of their precious time to outside interests even if they would be worthy pursuits. Representing tens of thousands of people and holding the government to account is more than a full time job and I do not accept that MPs can be giving maximum attention to this if they are off doing other things part of the time.

I should just clarify what I meant above by "significant outside jobs". I understand that some MPs will be directors or owners of companies that they may have started before they became an MP and I would not expect them to completely abandon these. However input should be kept to a minimum and certainly any day-to-day operations stuff should not be their responsibility. But I do not think MPs should take on new directorships after they enter the house.

UPDATE: I thought this post might prove a little controversial and already a couple of other Lib Dem bloggers have voiced their opposition to my comments here. Lady Mark has done so here and Bernard Salmon here.

Tuesday 18 August 2009

Where's this deflation then?

A few months ago there was panic as dire predictions of the CPI falling into negative territory abounded and the spectre of a potential deflationary spiral stalked the land.

I was a bit sceptical of this given the fact that the Bank of England was effectively printing money through their Quantitative Easing programme (OK, they don't actually print money, they just move a few bits around inside a computer but it amounts to the same thing). QE is naturally inflationary so any deflationary pressure which was bound to kick in during a recession was always going to be mitigated to some extent by this. Also, the fiscal stimulus measures that the government took, despite that fact that I thought they were the wrong ones, were also always going to have some inflationary effect. Finally, the huge cuts in interest rates have left lots of lucky homeowners who are on tracker rates (including Mr Reckons here) with money in their pocket that they had not been hitherto expecting.

Given these factors which seemed obvious to a non-economist layman like myself, I must confess to be surprised at the general surprise that deflation has not kicked in. The CPI is at 1.8% for the second month running and it is looking like it might have reached a local minimum as my old maths teacher would have said. I would not be surprised to see it start to rise in the coming months.

Ah, I hear you say (see, I listen quite hard), but what about RPI which is currently at -1.4%. To which I say, you cannot have it both ways. The government has spent years trying to get us to accept CPI as the headline rate (because it excludes mortgage interest which is politically convenient for them) and the BoE is compelled to make its interest rate decisions based on this measure. So why should I consider RPI when considering the rate of inflation when the BoE is not expected to? Anyway I am sure RPI will start to head north soon too. It's only so low because of the massive cuts in interest rates which distort things given how reliant on the housing market our economy is.

All of which economic cogitiation leads to me to the most important question. Should I exercise my option to go for a fixed rate mortgage at 4.09% for 3 years (I have reserved this potential rate for a small fee and have the option to exercise it until December but am yet to fill in the paperwork and submit it) ? I am currently on a tracker at 1.26% above base rate (so 1.76% at the moment) but of course as the CPI starts to rise the BoE will start to raise interest rates.

I discussed this with an economist a couple of months ago and she suggested I wait and see. I think I have waited and seen enough though. Even if I am wrong and the CPI starts to fall again, I am certain that in another year it will be rising and this option would protect me from the effects of subsequent inflation (which could be severe if the BoE do not time the cessation of the QE programme correctly) until the end of 2012.

What do you think I should do, stick or twist?

£1.4 Billion Gurkha figure was Government spin

Do you remember a few months ago when the government were still trying to prevent the Gurkhas from being able to settle in the UK if they wished, you know before they totally caved in the face of opposition from outraged people everywhere led by Joanna Lumley and Nick Clegg? The main justification they used at the time was that it would cost £1.4 billion to allow them to settle.

I always thought this sounded dodgy and very much on the high side. So did fellow blogger Matt Raven, so much so that he submitted a Freedom of Information request via and after much chasing he got his response a couple of weeks ago. He has blogged about it himself here.

It turns out, surprise surprise that the figure was derived from making the most extreme assumptions about how expensive it would be to allow the Gurkhas to settle. As Matt points out:

Their eventual reply was that the figure assumes (among other things) that:
  • All 36,000 who retired between 1948 and 1997 would choose to settle if they were able to do so
  • None of the dependants (including spouse, children under 18, unmarried dependant children 18-30, elderly parents living with the main applicant - and assuming half of children 18-30 are married) work
  • All settling families are on Child Tax Credits maximum award.
And do not take account of any tax or national insurance contributions that former Gurkhas may have made in the past or that they may make in the future

If I was a Gurkha, I would feel rather insulted that the justification the government had used to try and prevent me from settling made all these disparaging assumptions about me and all of my dependents.

As Gurkhaman Swaroop Charmlig (one of the Gurkha campaigners) said in the comments on Matt's post:

The ridiculous figure quoted is just that, totally ridiculous. You are absolutely right, such convoluted assumption does, and should, not apply to any particular group, let alone us, the Gurkhas! It is this mean Government's yet another answer to deny us Gurkhas fair and equal treatment as agreed in the Tripartite agreement in 1947!

I thought it was worth highlighting this myself and also to make the broader point that it calls into question the government's methodology for trying to make decisions like this. I can understand they need to do a "worst case scenario" but that is exactly what this is, worst case. Never in a million years was it actually going to cost £1.4 billion to allow the Gurkhas to settle. In fact if you think about it for more than a few seconds, the idea that ALL eligible Gurkhas would settle here, AND ALL of their dependents would be nothing but a drain on the public purse is just not credible. As Swaroop also pointed out not many of his veteran brothers are likely to go through the difficult and uncertain process of trying to settle here. I would wager that when the sums are finally done on this, the net cost will have been many multiples smaller than the scary headline £1.4 billion figure.

The government needs to stop taking the worst case and then banging on about it in the media as if it was established certain fact. You would think they would have learnt from the whole "45 minutes" debacle that taking extreme scenarios and trying to use them in this way ultimately comes back to bite them.

Monday 17 August 2009

Why are the Taxpayers' Alliance quoted so often?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

What have all these recent stories got in common?

They all include a quote or comment from a spokesperson for the Taxpayers' Alliance.

I have noticed this for quite a while now. It seems like almost any story that involves tax or even the BBC license fee in any way will likely have a "response" to the story from the TPA. It was brought home to me quite acutely when I was on holiday in Ireland and I happened to read a few UK newspaper articles. Every single one of them had a quote from them. I even heard them mentioned on Irish radio!

According to Wikipedia they employ 13 staff and have been around for 5 years or so and have around 18,000 members. They have been accused of being a front organisation for the Conservative Party but they deny this.

Don't get me wrong, I am very impressed with the TPA. They are a campaigning organisation who have positioned themselves very well and clearly know how to get coverage for their views. In some cases I even agree with them!

The problem is that they now clearly have disproportionate influence. They represent one sort of view from a particular political perspective and yet they are called upon for comment on virtually every story that involves tax payers money which is a lot of stories!

I suspect there is a fair bit of "Flat Earth News" going on here too. I am not naive enough not to realise that at least some of the stories will have been fed to the media by the TPA themselves and therefore they are almost bound to get a quote under those circumstances. The point is, why do the media so often run with stories like this along with the obligatory TPA quote which invariably makes it seem like tax payers money is always, always wasted?

There needs to be more balance. If lots of these stories are originated by the TPA then journalists need to come up with their own stories more rather than have them fed to them by an organisation like the TPA who are clearly prolific in this field and will continue to be so. If they are sourcing the stories themselves then they need to look around for more quotes to achieve a bit more balance.

Oh and I am happy to give my tuppence worth on stories if the media are stuck for someone else to quote....

UPDATE: Mick Fealty writing on Slugger O'Toole has also provided his view on this.

Sunday 16 August 2009

LDV Meme - Favourite blog posts

I realise I am a bit late to the party but I have been on holiday so have only just had the chance to do a post in response to last weekend's Lib Dem Voice meme regarding the blog posts from our own site that we wish to self nominate for the imminent Lib Dem BOTY awards.

So here are a few plucked from my blog:

Democracy Diner: I did this satirical sketch last month imagining what it would be like if restaurants treated its customers in the same way as the electoral system treats its voters. It was fairly well received.

If Jeni Barnett's MMR show is within Ofcom rules then the rules are broken: I feel very strongly about evidence based medicine and in this post from June I questioned whether Jeni Barnett's disgraceful LBC show on the subject of MMR from January should have been deemed to be within Ofcom rules.

"Commentariat vs Bloggertariat" event review - #eiblogger: This was a review of the #eiblogger event that Editorial Intelligence kindly invited me to in June and which I posted the next day. It was well received and was reposted on the Wardman Wire. I also posted a follow-up where I listed what myself and other bloggers considered to be "Classic blog posts" in response to Martin Bright's assertion during the event that he had never come across one: Classic blog posts for Martin Bright of The Spectator

How STV would re-enfranchise voters: One of a number of posts I have done about the benefits of STV. In this one which was a direct response to a Tory in Manchester who I had been debating with on Twitter the night before, I highlight how STV could actually be beneficial to someone of his political persuasion in his geographical area.

Cameron will say anything to avoid electoral reform: A response to a piece David Cameron wrote for the Evening Standard where he mustered all the canards he could find against electoral reform. I attempted to rebut them all and this post was well received and linked to.

Fascinating research into public perception of the drugs issue: A post from last month where I highlighted some interesting findings from research done in New England a few years ago about people's attitude to legalising cannabis for medical use. It turns out that although a majority are in favour of it, they erroneously think they are in a minority!

I attended Andrew MacKay's meeting and I think his position is now untenable: On 22nd May this year I attended a meeting called by my local MP Andrew MacKay where he attempted to explain his behaviour regarding him and his wife (fellow Tory MP Julie Kirkbride) claiming two second home allowances between them. The meeting went very badly for Mr MacKay and the next day despite what he had said to the media straight after the meeting he announced he was stepping down. My post includes a synopsis of the meeting from contemporaneous notes I made during it. This is my second most successful blog post ever with over 5,000 page views.

MPs Expenses and safe seats correlation - update: This is my most read blog post ever with over 6,000 page views and was linked to by Polly Toynbee in the Guardian as well as lots of bloggers both inside and outside the Lib Dems. It was a follow up to my post Has our electoral system contributed to the MPs expenses scandal? It explores the apparent correlation I discovered between the likelihood of an MP having been involved in the expenses scandal and the safety of their seat. Thse two posts led to me being invited onto Radio 4's "More or Less" programme to discuss the working behind my findings and the idea that our First Past the Post electoral system that allows these safe seats is at least partly to blame for the scandal has now seeped into the national political consciousness in a way that I still find amazing. I have heard senior politicians including cabinet members referring to the apparent link in arguments for electoral reform which as a keen reformer myself I find most gratifying.

NHS debate - Daniel Hannan has not been clear enough

Well as usual when I go away for a few days there is a big story that I have come back to and have had to properly catch up with. This time it is the whole NHS debate kicked off by Obama's attempts to get healthcare reform proposals on the table in the US and brought into sharp focus in the UK by Daniel Hannan's disparaging comments about the NHS on Sean Hannity's show on Fox News (see below for embedded version) combined with the "#WeLoveTheNHS" Twitter campaign.

Allied to this and coincidentally, as part of my holiday reading I read "The Plan" by Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan, one chapter of which is devoted to the NHS and how it could be reformed so I have detailed insight into Mr Hannan's thoughts in this area.

As far as I can tell there has been much more heat than light in the "debate" on this so far. As Fraser Nelson points out on the Spectator blog today it has largely been mud slinging. It seems like the left is using this as an opportunity to bash the Tories supposed "real views" about the NHS, despite David Cameron's many on the record pledges to the contrary.

I have to say though, having this morning watched Daniel Hannan's appearance on Hannity's Fox News programme he largely has himself to blame. He spends much of the interview decrying the NHS and urging the US not to go down the "socialist" route that the UK has done. He also spends time pointing out (quite legitimately) some of the failings of the NHS. The problem is that at no point during the interview are any of the shortcomings of the US system even discussed. This is partly due to the ridiculous bias of Fox News in general and Hannity in particular who does not frame his questions like this or even play devil's advocate in order to test Hannan's views. But it is also Hannan's own fault for not taking the opportunity in an almost 7 minute interview to spell out what he thinks should happen.

Douglas Carswell has been complaining on his blog about how Hannan's views are not being represented correctly but he did not do so himself!

I will have a crack at briefly outlining the position described in "The Plan" which I presume is what Daniel Hannan thinks in detail is what should happen with the NHS. The chapter explains the shortcomings of the NHS but it also points out some of the failings of the US system, specifically that it is "burdened by too much litigation, regulation and producer capture. We can do better". It then goes on to describe how Singapore's health system works which revolves around a system of health savings accounts. Apparently they have better health outcomes than many European nations but it costs less than half (in GDP terms) what we pay in the UK. There is discussion of how this leads to Singaporeans generally making healthier life choices because it is ultimately their money they have saved that will be spent (or not and hence available for other things or once a threshold is reached no more payments needed). Also, catastrophic health care insurance is used to cover major problems that cannot be covered by the savings. There is then discussion of how a safety net could be applied in the UK to ensure that health care is available to all in a similar way to the NHS currently.

Hannan could have summed this up using his prodigious rhetorical skills in less than a minute on Fox if he had wished. He chose not to instead giving the impression that the US system is the one he favours when he manifestly does not. For the Tories to now complain that the left are misrepresenting him is to miss the point that Hannan has made it very easy for them to do just that and a great opportunity for the interesting ideas in "The Plan" to be more widely debated has been missed.

From my perspective, I think there is merit in "The Plan" idea for health care reform. As Charlotte has pointed out, it does not sound a million miles from what was proposed in the Orange Book a few years back by David Laws where an insurance based system would be used and the patient chooses the provider. That achieves similar ends (proper patient choice) through a slightly different mechanism. I know the contents of that book are the subject of debate within and outside the Lib Dems but my view is that alternatives need to be sensibly considered and I cannot see how the NHS in its current form can continue for the next 60 years. We have to properly debate reform.

Sadly it looks like it aint going to happen this time around. Advocates of reform need however to be much more clear in future to make it harder for their opponents to misrepresent their real views.

Perhaps Mr Hannan could bear this in mind the next time Mr Hannity invites him onto his show as he doubtless will. It may not be exactly what Fox News wants to hear but he should be unafraid to fully state his position.

Saturday 15 August 2009

Right, I'm back off holiday

I have just returned from my nearly 2 weeks of camping in Ireland (beautiful country which I had only really seen when out there on business previously and would highly recommend it as a holiday destination).

Although UK newspapers were readily available I tried my best to steer clear of them as much as possible. So what have I missed?

In no particular order, here are a few random things I need to download from my brain at the moment. I may blog on some of them in more detail later.

  1. Gerry Ryan is a fantastic radio host (he does the 9:00am - 12:00noon show on RTE 2FM) and I will probably still try to listen to him when I can online now I am back. I cannot think of a parallel UK FM radio show that has such time for its callers (some were given 10 minutes or more to talk on air) and the depth and breadth of subjects covered was remarkable. Are any readers familiar with his work?
  2. I read Douglas Carswell and Daniel Hannan's "The Plan" (in a 4 hour session whilst in Connemara) and was taken with some (not all!) of the ideas contained within. I will post a fuller review of this (possibly broken down into parts) soon. It seems all the more relevant now given Mr Hannan's recent comments about the NHS and one of the chapters in the book is devoted to this.
  3. Wimpy have a bizarre policy of not allowing you to specify water as the drink as part of a children's meal.
  4. I have finally found something on prescription called Scopoderm that for me, completely stops the symptoms of travel sickness that have plagued me since childhood (even on a choppy ferry bouncing around) although it is not without its side effects.
  5. I have been contacted by someone from Bill Wiggin's constituency who was very pleased to see my post on him and his behaviour in May and is astonished that no action has been taken against him by the Conservative Party. He also has some interesting details about his meeting that I was not aware of.
  6. The V Festival is on next weekend, not the weekend after as I had originally thought (we have tickets) which has led to all kinds of fun and frolics today trying to rearrange various things!

I will be back to blogging normality imminently!

Wednesday 12 August 2009

Why are Liberal Democrats dismissed so readily?

This blog post was originally published in December last year but my readership figures were low at that time and I thought I would give it another outing:

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

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

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

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

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

This frustrates me hugely for a number of reasons:

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

Sunday 9 August 2009

The Perils of Prime Ministerial Prerogative

This blog post was originally published in January this year but my readership figures were low at that time and I thought I would give it another outing.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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