Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Friday 31 December 2010

My Predictions for 2011

Here are my predictions for the coming year:

  1. Labour will win the Oldham East and Saddleworth by-election but the Lib Dems will be a close second.
  2. All 3 main party leaders (Cameron, Clegg and Miliband_E) will still be in post by the end of the year.
  3. The AV referendum will be (narrowly) won.
  4. Sarah Palin will do something that will effectively end her chances of being a serious candidate for the 2012 US presidential election.
  5. A Lib Dem MP will resign the party whip to either sit as an independent or join another party.
  6. England will win the Rugby World Cup.
  7. For the third year running I predict that Eddie Mair will become the new host of BBC Question Time.
  8. Liam Fox will no longer be a cabinet minister by the end of the year.
  9. Including Old and Sad there will be 3 by-elections during the year.
  10. A petition signed by more than 100,000 people will trigger a debate in parliament about legalising cannabis.

Happy New Year!

Thursday 30 December 2010

5 out of 10 aint bad

Here are my predictions from this time last year about 2010 and how I did:

1) Gordon Brown will push the General Election very late to May or June.

2) There will be a hung parliament after the General Election with the Conservatives as the largest single party.

3) The Lib Dems will lose seats despite the vote share being very similar to last time.

4) David Miliband will become Labour leader after the election.
Got this one wrong but it was bloody close!

5) England will go out of the World Cup in the quarter-finals (sorry to sound unpatriotic but 44 years of hurt and all that...)
Wrong! It was even worse than that with the shocking second round match against Germany which I watched in a community hall in Henley whilst waiting for some friends who were completing a bike race.

6) Like last year, I again predict that Eddie Mair will become the new host of Question Time.
Wrong but he would be so good in the role.

7) Caroline Lucas will become the Green Party's first MP.

8) Nigel Farage will become UKIP's first elected MP.
Got this one very badly wrong.

9) A senior Labour MP will defect to the Lib Dems.
Wrong, and very unlikely to happen any time in the forseeable.

10) One of the major political bloggers will quit blogging altogether after the election.
DING! DING! DING! DING! Although it was actually several of them in the end.

So 5/10 which I think is pretty good all things considered

Wednesday 29 December 2010

"Caroline Flint is against it" is not an argument

So nearly half of Labour MPs are against a change in the voting system for the House of Commons to the Alternative Vote. When this is combined with most Tory MPs it is looking like well over half and perhaps more than two thirds of MPs want to stick with the status quo rather than move to a preferential system.

I'm not sure that this is particularly interesting or important news. What it essentially boils down to is that the majority of people whose jobs depend (to a greater or lesser extent) on the current electoral system want to keep that electoral system. I'd be very surprised if the majority of MPs did back the change. At the same time, that is precisely the reason why their views should hold little sway and it should be the debate in the country that informs the referendum decision. It is the same reason why I am glad that Nick Clegg and other senior Lib Dem MPs are taking a back-seat in the Yes to AV campaign as the opposite charge can be levelled against them too.

By the way, I am sure that many (perhaps most) of the MPs who are against change hold their views as a matter of principle. The problem is that there is such a fundamental conflict of interest that it is impossible to disentangle it. It is the same sort of situation that MPs who lobby for a particular industry and are then discovered to have business interests in that same industry find themselves compromised by. They may be completely innocent but they have all now (largely) realised that they are better off avoiding the conflict of interest in the first place.

Instead of focusing on who backs what we should be looking at the arguments for and against. And I am afraid that "Caroline Flint is against it" is not an argument.

Back to life

I have been largely silent on this blog since mid-August when I announced that I would no longer be blogging. There was one exception earlier this month when I blogged about tuition fees (I felt like I *had* to say something!) and I have done a couple of guest posts for other blogs too in that period. Apart from that though it has been a nice break for me to be able to watch the news and follow politics without always thinking about how I am going to blog the latest story. After almost two years of pretty intense blogging (several times a day at its height) I must admit it was a relief not to feel compelled to do this.

However I have also missed blogging and the ability to be able to get my views about what is happening out there. When I first started it was like a release valve or a conduit (to stop me shouting at the TV!) and there has definitely been a gap left in its absence.

What I am going to try and do is have my cake and eat it. So I am going to start blogging again, on here albeit in a more limited form. I am no longer going to feel compelled to blog about every major political story. I have a life and also a business to run which have nothing really to do with politics and they have to be my priority. But when there are things I want to write about then I will do so here. It may be that sometimes I don't blog for days or even weeks. There may be other times when I have things to say, or have a bit of free time that it will be more frequent.

It will mean that things like the regular BBC Question Time Live Chat I used to do will not be resurrected. That's not to say I may not do the occasional one perhaps when there is a special edition or something, but again it has been nice not to feel compelled to watch that programme every week!

So I am going to see how it goes. If I can't find the right balance then I may need to depart permanently. Hopefully I will be able to though. Watch this space....

Note 1: This post is largely for me and to remind myself why I am getting back into blogging but if anyone presses me on why I am not blogging about particular topics in future they will be directed to this post.

Note 2: I have changed the banner header to just simply be "Mark Thompson's Blog" and that is how I shall refer to it in future rather than "Mark Reckons". The URL will remain the same though.

Tuesday 7 December 2010

In future, Lib Dem candidates should watch what they sign

Well what a bloody mess this is! I stop blogging for a few months and in my absence the party almost tears itself apart over tuition fees.

I just felt that I had to write something about this. It feels like it could be a crisis which it takes the party many years to recover from and which could damage it electorally for years to come too.

Firstly, the party leadership should never have encouraged candidates to sign the NUS pledge against increasing tuition fees before the election. From what I have been able to glean, some PPCs/MPs who were a bit wary of such a commitment were told it was party policy and that they should go ahead and sign it. Frankly, it strikes me that the party and its leadership was incredibly naive in thinking that they could do this and then have a Lib Dem minister introduce the bill to triple the fees in parliament and have any realistic chance of credibly explaining this to the public.

Secondly, given that almost all Lib Dem MPs had signed such a pledge the coalition agreement should have made fees a red line issue. I know that fees were not one of the four key pledges in the manifesto but they should have been made a special case due to the strength of feeling in the party and on a more prosaic political level because there are dozens of pictures of our MPs smiling at cameras holding the pledge cards. These will be potent and potentially toxic ammunition in future election campaigns for our opponents (even Tories - just watch).

Thirdly, having taken the decision to introduce a bill to increase tuition fees, our members of government such as Vince Cable have been extremely ill advised to go around saying that they might abstain. It defies all credibility to try and maintain this position and very much plays into the hands of people who claim that Lib Dems want to have their cake and eat it. Also, comments like "I never would have made the pledge had I known we were going to be in govenment" are frankly pathetic. A hung parliament was odds on favourite well before the election. It did not take a genius to work out that the Lib Dems might actually be involved in legislating on this issue.

Fourthly, the actual reason why we are unable to fulfil our pledge is because we did not win the election outright and therefore have had to compromise. The line that the party has taken that the finances are worse than we thought cuts no ice with me. We were told again and again that the Lib Dem manifesto was fully costed. That's what I kept telling people on the doorstep. The reason why we cannot deliver on this is because we were unable to implement our FULL programme. We have had parts of our programme implemented but unless all the measures including the ones that would have raised the extra needed revenue are included, THEN it becomes unaffordable. It is a political choice necessitated by coalition and because the other two main parties did not back our position leaving us with only 57 MPs out of 650 willing to back that full programme. I do not think I have heard a single Lib Dem minister make this point in the last few days.

Right, that's the worst of the criticism of the party out of the way. This has been far from our finest hour as I think I have made clear. However we are where we are and despite my anger at what has happened so far, I actually think that the tuition fee policy is pretty good. I have previously been tempted by the idea of a graduate tax but have read enough recently to become convinced that there are too many practical problems with it. But the measures to be voted on on Thursday are not that far from a graduate tax. Indeed as the fluffy one blogged about brilliantly recently the proposals are actually more progressive than those proposed by the NUS (one of the reasons I would actually love to see Nick Clegg debate Aaron Porter as the NUS leader apparently requested). Not having to pay anything back until you are earning over £21,000 seems fair to me. Paying back £30,000 over 30 years would mean a graduate would need to be earning around £1,000 per year (OK let's factor in interest and say £1,500 per year) more than someone who did not go. I think that is very likely in many cases but of course for people who never earn very much after graduating they will either never pay back anything or perhaps only a very small amount. I certainly think the principle of those who benefit from higher education ultimately paying for it when they can afford to do so is fair.

To come back to the politics of this though, the only way forward I can see now is for Lib Dem ministers to vote for the measures. We are in government and one of our most senior MPs has piloted the legislation through. It is the best deal we could get under the circumstances and I am sure the presence of Lib Dems in government has ameliorated some of the harsher aspects that could have been there had the Conservatives been governing alone.

I fully expect plenty of Lib Dem backbench MPs to vote against the bill. Some will feel they need to as a matter of conscience given what they signed and of course they are not bound by the strictures of cabinet responsibility. Others will doubtless have one eye on the number of students in their constituencies and will be weighing that in the balance too.

Long term it is impossible to know what the effect of these changes will be in terms of the Lib Dems political position. I suspect that one thing is for sure. Our MPs and candidates are going to be far more careful about what they sign before an election in future and not just take the leadership's word for it that everything will be OK.

Perhaps in the long term that will be the strongest legacy of the debacle of the last few days.

Tuesday 17 August 2010

Bowing Out

I have come to a decision that due to other commitments I am going to stop blogging.

This will be my last blogpost and I will be closing the comment facility at the end of this Thursday on this entry and all old posts. I know that if I leave it open beyond that I will only end up getting sucked into further debates!

I would like to take this opportunity to thank all the people who have visited and those who have commented on my posts over the last two or so years. It has been great fun but I now need to focus my energies in other areas for the foreseeable future.


Mark (Reckons) Thompson.

Monday 9 August 2010

The opportunity cost of drug law enforcement

One of the things that sometimes gets lost in all the talk about drug laws, harm reduction, classification etc. is the sheer amount of time that the police spend on activity relating to the existing drug laws.

They spend millions of man hours every year, a good chunk of it on arresting and processing people for possession of drugs that were only going to be used by that person. In other words they were not going to harm anyone else. It also includes time spent chasing small time dealers who are supplying drugs like cannabis and ecstasy (the ones that Professor David Nutt says are less harmful than alcohol) to friends and acquaintances.

If drugs were legalised none of this time would need to be spent. That would mean that those millions of hours would be freed up for police to investigate other crimes like burglary, muggings, assaults etc. The sort of crimes that the vast majority want to remain crimes. Unlike for example cannabis possession which 70% of people in a recent survey said they wanted to see legalised in some form.

We have to recognise that if we have these laws, then the police will spend time enforcing them. As any economics student would tell you there is therefore an opportunity cost whereby they cannot spend that time investigating other crimes.

I strongly suspect that if drugs were legalised in this country then crimes such as burglary and mugging would drop dramatically anyway as there would be much less need for problem drug users to fund their habit in this way. However it would likely be a win-win because of the remaining burglary and mugging (and all other crime) the police would have more time and resource to devote to investigating and solving them.

And if 70% of people think that cannabis should be legalised then in what way is the police spending the public's money arresting cannabis users serving all of our interests?

I for one would much rather they spent their time investigating crimes that affect other people such as burglary and muggings and that pretty much 100% of people think should remain illegal.

Sunday 8 August 2010

Police officers who do things like this need to be sacked

I cannot believe what I have just witnessed in a video taken by police during a pursuit of a disabled pensioner motorist who they suspected of not wearing a seatbelt last September in South Wales. You can watch it below:

Here are some of the details from the Telegraph article in which I read the story:

Footage captured on a police dashboard camera shows one officer striking the driver’s seat window with a baton up to 15 times and another officer jumping on the bonnet of the car and kicking the windscreen in an apparent attempt to crack it.

Police pulled over Robert Whatley, 70, for not wearing a seat belt as he drove through country lanes in South Wales. The 8-mile chase started after officers tried to give Mr Whatley a fixed penalty notice but he drove off.

The retired businessman, who is recovering from a stroke, was covered in glass when officers from Gwent police surrounded his Range Rover on a country lane following a 17-minute chase.

Mr Whatley, who was expecting officers to gently knock on the window of his £60,000 car, said: “I couldn’t believe what was happening. The police went completely over the top – you would have thought I had robbed a bank.

“I was terrified when they started smashing in the window and trying to kick in the windscreen. I tried to shield myself but I was showered with glass which could easily have gone into my eyes. “It’s something you might expect in America but not in the quiet of the British countryside.”

I wouldn't even expect it in America. I would not expect it from law officers in any civilised country.

Mr Whatley, who never broke the speed limit during the chase, said he had become confused during the pursuit.

He said he thought that the blue lights and siren of the pursuing car meant the officer was giving him a police escort home.

But he finally pulled over when he was confronted by a police “stinger” device on the road into Usk.

Mr Whatley, who has a heart condition, was later charged with several motoring offences.

The Police officers involved have been suspended pending an investigation but frankly I am not sure what needs investigating. They terrified a confused pensioner with as far as I can tell no justification, acting like utter thugs. The man has a heart condition. We could easily have been looking at something much more serious here. Next time maybe we will. That's why we need to try and make sure there is not a next time.

The officers involved should not just get a dressing down or get moved to office duties. They should be sacked.

That way their colleagues will appreciate what is and is not acceptable behaviour during the execution of their duties.

Should the government be selling its Lloyds TSB shares now?

Lloyds TSB announced an unexpected profit of £1.6 billion for the first half of 2010 this week.

Given that the government owns a substantial chunk of the bank this is very good news for taxpayers. In fact the current stock price is over 73p per share which is way above the 63p per share break even price for the government. If they were to sell their stake now they would make a handsome profit.

Although this should be caveated by the fact that if they were to try and unload all their shares right now that could have a distorting effect on the market and they may not do as well. I expect when they do eventually unload them they will do it in phases.

The question is, when should they do so? After all it is not their money but the taxpayers. It is an important question to ask now that selling the shares would net a profit. The reason they were purchased in the first place was to prevent the bank from collapsing. It is now pretty clear that that is not going to happen. Things have stabilised.

So why are we still holding onto the shares? I imagine it is tempting for the government to wait and hopefully get an even greater profit. We have a huge deficit and a few more billion would be welcome. But of course share prices can go down as well as up. Although for example Robert Peston's analysis this week would suggest that further profit is quite likely it is no guarantee.

I am interested as to exactly what criteria the government will use to decide how and when to sell. Of course the problem is that if they were to announce this strategy then that in itself could affect the share price. However I very much hope there is a plan to sell and quite soon, now Lloyds TSB is profitable and the government would also make a profit.

After all, we do not elect governments to speculate with our money in the banking market.

Saturday 7 August 2010

Google AdWords free trial - not so free

In my copy of PC Pro this month a leaflet dropped out offering a free £50 trial of Google AdWords. Although I had never really considered advertising for this blog before I thought if it's free I could give it a go, mainly as a test to see how effective £50 worth of advertising this way could be. I am a bit sceptical as to its value for something like this and certainly would not pay anything without evidence that it was worth it.

In the small print at the bottom of the flyer it states:

A £5 account activation fee or equivalent credit deduction required, depending on your preferred billing options.

Fair enough I thought. Seeing as I do not intend to actually spend any money and just want to do the "FREE" trial (you know, the one that is mentioned four times in capital letters on the leaflet) then I will just choose the billing method that avoids the £5 charge.

Oh, no apparently.

All four of the billing options (postpay direct debit, postpay credit/debit card, prepay direct debit, prepay credit/debit card) that I went through had this little snippet at the bottom:

Your account will be charged a non-refundable GBP £5.00 activation fee upon continuing.

along with this description:

Google charges a one-time activation fee to ensure that our advertisers are committed to creating well-targeted advertisements. The fee also helps cover the costs associated with creating, maintaining, and, if applicable, cancelling an account. The activation fee is non-refundable, even if an account is open only for a short time.

So it isn't really a FREE trial. It's a trial that costs you £5 no matter which payment method you use. And the small print in the leaflet is totally misleading in this respect. They should be clear about this in their advertising.

When companies try to sucker me in by pretending things are free when they are not then they really annoy me and make me unlikely on a point of principle ever to use the service.

I think that rule will apply here.

William Hague will not address #ldconf - but maybe he should

The Daily Mail today has a story that William Hague is to address the Lib Dem conference next month:

The Foreign Secretary, widely seen as one of the best orators in the Commons, is expected to lead a Conservative charm offensive at the gathering in Liverpool in the hope of winning over disaffected LibDem activists.

Tory sources suggest Mr Hague will give a 'witty' address, rather than focusing heavily on policy.

However according to a Cowley Street source that has got in touch it aint true:

William Hague is not part of the conference agenda and I can confirm that he has not been asked to speak at the Liberal Democrat conference. No Conservative ministers have ever been approached to speak at our conference.
Fringe events are still being finalised, and it is of course possible that an independent group may have invited Mr Hague to speak at their Fringe event. But this is no different to any other year and it is common for MPs of all parties to attend these events.

But maybe Hague should be invited to address the main conference. It would not be as high profile as getting David Cameron to address it which may be a good thing and if anyone can leaven the situation with genuine humour (rather than what often passes for politician's humour) whilst still making a good speech it would be Hague. He is by common consensus one of the best communicators of his political generation.

I guess after the rebuttal it is unlikely that any Conservative will address the main conference and that any blue presence will be confined to the fringes.

Friday 6 August 2010

You have been reading...

These are the 5 most read posts on this blog from the last 7 days:

Have a good weekend...

Jeff Randall and meaningless percentages

Jeff Randall has a piece in the Telegraph today entitled "Hypocrites, lightweights and clones – can't Labour do better?" where he rips into the Labour leadership contenders. I am not going to comment on the entire piece and indeed he does make some interesting points. However the details in the fifth paragraph are not among them:

At the last election, David Miliband's share of his constituency vote fell by 8.8 per cent, Andy Burnham's was down by 6.5 per cent, and Ed Miliband's by 3.8 per cent. Even in seats where Labour could put up mannequins with red rosettes and still win, these would-be champions managed to go backwards. Ed Balls, whose constituency had its boundaries redrawn, suffered a fall of 8.4 per cent and just scraped in. Only Diane Abbott, defending Hackney North, was able to increase her share of the vote (by 6 per cent).

So the strong implication being that those contenders whose percentage share of the vote dropped in their own seats are not worthy of the leadership of their party.

Perhaps Jeff should have checked his historical facts though. In 1970 when the Conservatives won the general election, in the Finchley constituency Margaret Thatcher managed to get 53.8% of the vote. But by the first election in 1974 when the Conservatives lost power, her share of the vote had dropped to 43.7%. So by Randall's own yardstick, the most electorally successful Conservative Prime Minister of the 20th century lost over 10% of the vote in her seat just a year before she became leader (in the election where her party lost power) and then went on to win the general election in 1979. That's a bigger drop than any of the current Labour leadership contenders.

In other words, use of these percentages is utterly meaningless as a predictor of how successful a putative leader will be.

PS: Thanks to Greg Stone and David Boothroyd for helping me find the Finchley data.

David Cameron needs a break

David Cameron made a mistake yesterday when he claimed that Iran has a nuclear weapon. This comes after a period in which he has done other things that some think are questionable, notably some remarks he made about Pakistan "exporting terror to India" whilst in Pakistan. Indeed he is holding talks with Pakistan's President Zadari today to try and patch up relations with him later today.

I think Cameron is just exhausted. If he was not, I expect he would not have "misspoken" as he did yesterday and that he would have found a more diplomatic way to make his Pakistan point. He has been on the go for many months without a break. There was the intense build up to the election directly after the New Year followed by the actual election campaign (where he deliberately had no sleep in the 48 hours before polls opened), then the 5 days of negotiation regarding the coalition and since then he has been Prime Minister without, as far as I can tell, a day off.

It's August. It's the silly season. Now is the time to take a proper break. He is likely to go on paternity leave in September too but that won't be a holiday!

Gordon Brown famously worked stupidly long hours and was very reluctant to take holidays. I hope that David Cameron learns from his mistakes. The last thing we need is another PM who refuses to get the rest that any human being needs.

He should take the rest of the month off and come back fully refreshed in September.

Thursday 5 August 2010

Other Reckonings - 5th August 2010

  • Millennium tears Wedgie a new one.
  • Anthony Barnett on the difference between "Fair votes" and "Fairer votes".
  • Luke Akehurst cautions Labour that the pendulum will not swing back towards them on its own.
  • Nick Lane writing on Lib Dem Voice suggests a cheeky idea for how Labour could cause real problems for the coalition on the electoral reform referendum.
  • Emma Burnell writes an open letter to the Labour leadership candidates.

"Banning" things often does not have the desired effect

Ambush Predator drew my attention today to a story in a local paper about a dog having bitten a child in a play area:

Steven Evans is calling for action after his 13-year-old son, Dean, was attacked by a Staff at Holy Cross Recreation Ground, in Church Road.


Mr Evans believes dogs should be banned from anywhere children play.

He added: “I have dogs myself, and I always muzzle them when I take them out.

I am sorry for the injuries and distress caused to Mr Evans and his son but I just wonder what he thinks the result of such a ban would be. He already makes it clear that he has dogs and he muzzles them. I expect most law abiding and responsible dog owners already do this anyway.

So what we would be left with are the people who do not give a flying toss about the law or responsibility still letting their dogs off in the play areas. In my experience* these people will just ignore any rules so the result is likely to be that the responsible dog owners find one more place they cannot take their dogs. I also wonder how you would define "where children play".

"Banning" things does not stop them from happening. It does however mean more money being spent on trying to enforce the rules and various other side effects. People should think more carefully before calling for bans.

* I remember a few years ago someone I know tackled a woman who had allowed her dog to defecate in the middle of a park and then started walking off. The woman physically threatened the person, threatened to set her dog on them and then started screaming at them how their mother was a "whore" until they beat a hasty retreat. You cannot tell me that someone like this is interested in any rules that might be imposed for situations like that described above.

Reviewing council tenancies - why not?

David Cameron set the cat amongst the pigeons yesterday by seemingly off-the-cuff suggesting that the current situation where people can stay in council houses effectively for life may be reviewed during a Q&A session.

He particularly focused on the sort of situation where a family living in for example a four bedroomed house where the children have left home but the parents are then allowed to remain in the house could be questioned.

I have to say I agree. If people's circumstances change, then surely it is right for the housing situation to also be reviewed? This is not least because for every empty room in a council house there will be someone on a waiting list who needs a home of their own. A system that allows a more fair and equitable (and efficient) division of the available housing resource is surely something that is desirable?

Of course we do not want to end up in a situation where people are being kicked out of their homes with nowhere else to go. Apparently Labour looked at something like this before the election but backed off "when they saw the pitfalls". I have no doubt there are some. There always are when reforming a complex system. I cannot imagine it is beyond the wit of man to reasonably work around them though.

With private renting or home owning people move all the time as their circumstances change. I always rented privately until I purchased my own home in 2004 and I lived in 11 different houses/flats between 1992 and then. That was almost one move per year. In two cases it was forced upon me by fickle landlords who decided they wanted to do something different with the house/flat (nothing to do with my behaviour I should be clear). In the other cases it was that my circumstances had changed either in terms of my job or in terms of geographical considerations. Towards the end I would have loved security of tenure in my privately rented accommodation but that is not how it works. I blogged about it at length last year here.

One other point on this. On Iain Dale's show last night, Denis MacShane suggested that it was not a good idea for this reform to be led by an "Eton Toff". This sort of rhetoric is extremely unhelpful. If MacShane does not like the proposal then he should argue against it (although he actually seemed to think it had some merit) rather than go in for ad hominen attacks based on class. We all saw how they backfired in the Crewe by-election in 2008.

So in summary, the idea that council tenants could need to be a bit more flexible given their circumstances seems like a good principle to me. Simon Hughes has already protested that this was not in the coalition agreement. Fair point, so it will require some internal debate within the coalition to make sure concerns of both parties are taken into account. That should not stop something though if it can be shown to be a good reform.

Wednesday 4 August 2010

Aspiring politicians and controversial views

Towards the end of the House of Comments podcast that we recorded yesterday, we discussed aspiring politicians who have controversial views on issues and the potential consequences of them being completely open about this.

We all agreed it is true that some people who aspire to political office, whether it is local or national play their cards close to their chest on controversial issues. After all, it is easy for political opponents to put screaming headlines on a leaflet such as "SOFT ON DRUGS" or similar and this can cause real damage.

I must admit that towards the end of the discussion I did get a bit passionate on this subject. I did run for council office earlier this year and intend to again. I also at some point in the future may run for higher political office. My views on drugs policy (that I think they should all be legalised and that I have consistently backed up with what I feel is compelling evidence) are well recorded on this blog and elsewhere. So if/when those days come any opponents of mine will have access to my thoughts on this subject and may decide to try and use them against me.

One of the reasons I got involved with politics a few years back is because I want to make a difference and drugs policy is an area in which I am particularly passionate. I very much feel that we are going down the wrong road and that the evidence shows in order to reduce harm, crime and all sorts of other pernicious effects that we need to have a complete rethink. I could have taken a decision early on to not talk about this subject for fear of it damaging my future prospects but I chose to do so instead. My view is that the only way we are ever going to see change is if enough people step forward and air their views until eventually it becomes clear that far from being an extreme, minority view it is instead a widely held opinion. It will also help all the issues around the subject be aired.

Am I being naive in thinking that I can be as outspoken as I have been and still have a potential political career? Maybe. I guess I will find out. But from my perspective there is no point in embarking upon one if I cannot be honest about my views on something that is of critical importance to this country. I have been advised on occasion that it is a "fight that I cannot win" and I would better off focusing my energies on other issues. I completely disagree. People are dying every day as a direct result of current policies. There is untold illness and misery that could be eased and harm reduced if we took a different approach. I fervently believe that in 50 years time we will look back on our current "war on drugs" approach as pretty barbaric or at the very least totally ineffective. It will be viewed as the 1920s prohibition era in the USA is viewed now.

But to get there people have to step forward. If that means I damage my own political aspirations then so be it. But hopefully there will eventually be so many of us (and I know people from all parties who agree with me) that we will no longer be able to be dismissed as extreme.

Only time will tell.

Liam Rhodes and Duncan Stott on House of Comments - Episode 36

The latest "House of Comments" podcast with myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion blog is now live. The 36th episode which we recorded on Tuesday 3rd August is now available to download, raw mp3 file here or you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here. Failing that you can listen to it right now below:

The format is to invite political bloggers on each week to discuss a few of the stories that are making waves in the blogosphere.

This week we were joined by Liam Rhodes of the One Nation Tory blog and Lib Dem blogger Duncan Stott of Split Horizons.

We discussed the BBC "5 Days that Changed Britain" programme last week about the formation of the coalition, drugs policy following a Channel 4 programme on the subject on Monday and whether aspiring politicians can always honest about their views on controversial issues.

Until the end of August we will be doing these fortnightly instead of the usual weekly recordings so the next 2 episodes will be recorded around August 17th and August 31st (and in each case released shortly afterwards).

If you are a political blogger and would like to participate in the future, please drop me an e-mail here.

Tuesday 3 August 2010

What media panics can lead to

Do you remember a few months ago, the dreadful case of the two babies who were mauled by the urban fox in London?

Do you also remember that despite the fact that these cases are extremely rare, the press went into panic mode about urban foxes with TV specials about them and far more press coverage than this "problem" actually warranted, making it seem like a huge and widespread issue.

Well, there is another horrible story today in the Evening Standard. Apparently a bunch of men have taken it upon themselves to lure an urban fox into a trap using drugged bait and then beaten it to death. They have filmed themselves doing this and posted it on Facebook. They claim they are doing this to rid their neighbourhood of this "pest".

I suspect there is a link between the actions of these thugs and the disproportionate media coverage that the original case garnered. OK, people like this are probably just looking for an excuse and they may have found another pretext for this sort of behaviour but I still think the media need to be more responsible and not blow situations like the fox attack out of all proportion.

It's a nasty example of what whipped up hysteria can contribute to.

H/T to James Graham on Twitter for alerting me to the story.

UPDATE 07/08/2010: It turns out that the story was an elaborate hoax by professional film-makers.

Why the war on drugs can never be won

There was a great programme on Channel 4 last night "Our Drugs War", the first of a three part series by Angus Macqueen on why the war on drugs can never be won. Angus used to think that banning drugs was the best way but after having looked at the evidence he now says he was completely wrong.

In the first episode "Everyone's at it", he spoke to people in Edinburgh, cited recently by the UN as the drugs capital of the world and to other people including dealers, drug users and those involved in law enforcement. An astonishing statistic that was discussed is that only 1% of all the heroin that enters Scotland is seized by the authorities. The UN estimates that if the supply-side approach to tackling drugs is ever to work then that figure needs to be between 60% and 70%. A senior police officer interviewed baldly stated that they will never get anywhere near this figure. Angus pointed out that we would not accept this level of failure in any other part of law enforcement so why is it acceptable when it comes to drugs? It is surely the clearest indication that this "war" can never be won?

The programme also showed how the scale of the billions of pounds involved in the drugs trade allows corruption to take place within the drugs enforcement regime itself.

It was also heartening to see relatives of people who have died from drug related problems who fully understand that "banning" the substances does not make things better and indeed can actually make them worse. Some of these people who have had terrible tragedy afflict their lives and those of their loved ones are actively campaigning for the legalisation of drugs. It was very telling when the mother of a man who had died as a result of abuse of GBL/GHB said that when she wrote an article for a newspaper she had to fight very hard to prevent them from headlining the piece "Mother of drugs victim calls for ban" which was not what she was saying at all. But of course the media has pigeon-holes in which they like to put people and the mother of a drug addict who has died would be expected by them to instinctively be in favour of a ban. It is to her credit that she has not gone down this route but instead analysed the situation and come to a different decision that accords with the wider evidence. And it was great to see this being aired on a TV programme in prime time.

I am looking forward to the next two instalments next Monday 9th at 8pm and then on Monday 16th on Channel 4. You can watch yesterday's episode for now via 4od here.

You can also read an article in this week's Observer that Angus Macqueen wrote entitled "Why do we so wilfully cover up the failure of the war on drugs?".

Tom Harris hearts AV (but only for the political classes)

That's right. Tom Harris, that stalwart of First Past the Post has a blogpost this morning which makes the case for the Alternative Vote. You should read the whole post as I have only included snippets below. He specifies the circumstances in which he thinks it can work well:

AV is a good system for filling a single position. If Britain had an elected president, for example, he or she would probably be elected by AV, or at least in a run-off ballot. That would make sense.

Similarly, if a local party is choosing a parliamentary candidate, AV is the best system to secure the maximum amount of support for the victorious candidate from party members. And, yes, when electing the leader of a party, AV’s the system to use.

That's quite a few situations where he thinks it is a good thing. Of course there's a but coming:

But when you’re electing 650 people from across the country, you’re not just electing 650 individual MPs – you’re electing a government.


And that’s why FPTP remains the best system for the Commons and AV is the better system for electing party leaders. Horses for courses, see?

I'm afraid I don't see. Surely a general election consists of 650 individual races where the voters are choosing their individual MP. If AV is good enough for all the other situations that Tom lists then why is it not good for people in a constituency choosing who represents them? Proponents of FPTP often talk about how that system maintains a "strong" link between the MP and the constituency. The arguments mainly revolve around this link and how bad it would be to lose or "weaken" this through a more proportional system (of which just to be clear AV is not one). There is a case to make that AV actually increases the strength of the link between the MP and their constituents, after all it means that they have to get over a certain threshold within the seat (50%) rather than as at the moment some MPs getting elected with a lot less than that often through the votes of their opponents splitting the opposition to them. There are some pretty unpopular MPs out there even in their own constituencies.

Ironically, for someone who is so opposed to proportional systems, Tom actually ends up making quite a strong case for using something more like STV with multi-member constituencies for the Commons. If what we are really doing is voting for a party nationally in a general election (which is essentially Tom's argument) then what justification is there for parties that get 24% of the vote to get less than 10% of the seats? Or parties that get 35% of the vote getting 55% of the seats? He can't have it both ways. In mustering arguments against using AV for the Commons he ends up arguing against FPTP as well.

I think the sort of arguments we see above could become a real problem during the campaign. there are lots of situations where the political classes already use AV for themselves as Tom describes. Trying to then simultaneously argue that voters in constituencies should not have that same system whilst avoiding the trap of inadvertently exposing the big problems with FPTP is quite a tall order. I don't think Tom has managed it here.

For such an advocate of the existing system to be finding these sort of problems gives me confidence that those of us who want to see change can win this argument.

Monday 2 August 2010

Another photographer has their rights abused by police

I am getting tired of having to highlight these cases but they keep on happening, despite the statements from senior police and politicians. This one happened at the weekend and is reported in full on the NUJ website:

Carmen Valino had images deleted from her camera by police and was threatened with arrest whilst photographing the scene of a shooting in Hackney, East London.

The incident happened on Saturday 31 July as Valino photographed a crime scene from outside the police cordon whilst on assignment from the Hackney Gazette.

She had identified herself as a journalist and showed her UK Press Card to the police.

A police Sergeant approached Valino telling her that she was disrupting a police investigation and to hand over her camera. After protesting to the Sergeant that she was in a public place, outside the cordon he had no right to take her camera, he grabbed her wrist and pulled out his handcuffs. Before he could put the cuffs on she handed him her camera. He then left for five minutes before coming back, bringing Valino inside the cordon and asking her to show him the images and deleting them. Valino was told that she could come back in a few hours to photograph the scene.

This incident highlights how police are not following the law or the agreed ACPO Media Guidelines which state:

Members of the media have a duty to take photographs and film incidents and we have no legal power or moral responsibility to prevent or restrict what they record. It is a matter for their editors to control what is published or broadcast, not the police. Once images are recorded, we have no power to delete or confiscate them without a court order, even if we think they contain damaging or useful evidence.

How many more times? This has to stop. See here for some previous examples I have covered recently.

I am starting to think that the only way this will ever stop is if members of the public to whom this happens launch private prosecutions against the police officers involved, perhaps with the support of an organisation like Liberty. The officers who do these things are clearly breaking the law by acting in this way and I suspect they would not have a leg to stand on.

It is clear that all the edicts from on high are having little effect on the actions of officers on the ground.

Could Labour's new leader credibly oppose AV?

Following on from my post yesterday where I suggested that the Lib Dems should separate out the AV part of the constitutional reform bill in order to help Labour support a "yes" vote in the ensuing referendum I would like to expand a little on one of the points I made.

I highlighted how whoever wins the Labour leadership election will just have been elected using AV. This is not a trivial point. It actually goes to the heart of the mandate that they will have.

It would be incredible if, having just been elected using that method they then went on to oppose exactly that reform for the election of MPs. I expect the public would find it very hard to understand how it can be good enough for the election of political elites but not good enough for the rest of us. This is a particularly acute issue at the moment in the wake of the expenses scandal when one of the things that infuriated people was how there was one rule for MPs and another for everyone else.

So, frankly I cannot see how the new Labour leader would want to put themselves in that position. They would have enough of a job explaining why they were campaigning for a "no" vote in a referendum that was in their own manifesto, let alone the absolute hypocrisy of the election of their own position would expose.

And so if the new leader is not going to credibly be able to oppose the referendum, it would be far better for them to throw their full weight behind a "yes" vote rather than do it in a half-hearted way (which might be tempting). Otherwise, if the vote fails then it would reflect badly on them too.

After all, this will be the first big test of national opinion on an issue since the general election. Won't the new leader want to be on the winning side and to be seen to have visibly contributed towards this positive vote?

50 reasons to legalise cannabis/keep it illegal

The Radiology Degree blog today has a list of 25 reasons to legalise cannabis and 25 reasons to keep it illegal.

Whilst I would argue quite strongly against many of the reasons given in the latter half of the list to keep it illegal, e.g. "Smoking pot doesn't cure brain cancer" (by that logic we would ban every substance on earth!) it is an interesting read which also includes links for every single point made to the source information.

Sunday 1 August 2010

To win the AV referendum we may need to accommodate Labour concerns

I am just back from a long weekend away and one of the things that I have been mulling over is how we can win the AV referendum next May. I expect my thoughts on this might prove a bit controversial but hey ho.

Although initial polls suggested that there was a majority in favour of changing the electoral system, in recent weeks these numbers have slipped to the point where the "yes" and "no" support seems to be roughly equal. Polling wisdom suggests that unless a referendum starts with the camp that is looking for change with a decent lead then they are fighting an uphill struggle. It is always difficult to defeat the status quo. Pollsters at the moment are muttering that as things stand the referendum will not be won.

At the same time, Labour have kicked up a huge fuss about some of the measures attached to the bill that includes the AV referendum. Their concerns are largely related to voter registration in individual constituencies when the number of MPs are reduced as well as some other things.

I already blogged last week about how I feel that some of the concerns being expressed in this area appear to be opposition for opposition's sake. I have found myself increasingly frustrated with the attitude of some in Labour's ranks.

However, in politics you have to be a hard-headed realist if you want to get things done. So let me go through a quick run-down of where we are, where we want to get to and how we might get there:

1) We want to win the referendum on AV. I know it is not the STV that we really wanted but it is a step in the right direction. It will reduce negative campaigning and ensure voters can vote for smaller parties without their vote being wasted. Also, if we do not win the referendum then it will be a significant blow to the Lib Dems and could cause problems for the government.

2) The indications are at the moment that winning the referendum will be an uphill struggle and even with an almighty effort on the part of the Lib Dems, if the rest of the political establishment largely falls behind the "no" camp we may simply have no chance. I don't mean to sound defeatist here and whatever other parties do I will fight tooth and nail to win but as I said I am trying to be realistic and pragmatic here.

3) As the bill currently stands, Labour will likely vote against it. This will then ensure that the "no on AV" camp within Labour will be in the ascendency, after all they will have just voted against the bill that contains the referendum. Even though it will be largely because of the non-AV stuff within it there will still be momentum.

4) This could then lead to Labour being split on this, or even largely against a "yes" vote in the referendum campaign.

In order to avoid this sort of scenario, we could box clever. The bill could be split as Labour have suggested into the AV referendum bill on the one hand and the constituency resizing and other measures that they have problems with in another bill on the other. That would then back Labour into a corner. A referendum on AV was in their manifesto. They have said time and again that they are not against it in principle, it is the detail of the resizing etc. that they are against.

This solution would mean that they would have little justification in opposing the AV referendum bill. It is possible they might still kick up a fuss about the date but if the government had magnanimously acquiesced to their demands for splitting the bill then further quibbling like this would likely go down pretty badly and I would expect they would back it. It would leave them free to argue against the measures they have the real problems with. The AV "yes" Labour element would be back in the ascendancy again with momentum on their side internally. It would give the newly elected Labour leader something to throw their weight behind with legitimacy from their own ranks. And let's not forget that the new leader will have just been elected using AV! It will be easier for them to argue for a "yes" vote than a "no" vote under those circumstances.

One final point I would like to make here is one that Peter Mandelson made very eloquently in the TV programme that was broadcast on the BBC on Friday about the formation of the coalition. Amongst a number of very impressive contributions, he said towards the end that the future of politics may now be pluralistic and based around coalitions. He advised that his party should bear this in mind if it ever wanted to get back into power. I believe that he is onto something with this and that it is ultimately in Labour's own interests to back a "yes" vote. What better way is there for them to signal that they would be willing to compromise with the Lib Dems in the future than for them to help them win the referendum?

But in order for them to help us, we need to help them first.

Thursday 29 July 2010

Just two days left to VOTE FOR ME!

Click here to vote in the Total Politics Best Blogs Poll 2010

Just a quick reminder that there are two days left to vote for your favourite blogs of 2010. The poll is run by Total Politics (backed by Iain Dale) and for the second year running it is also being co-promoted/sponsored by Liberal Democrat Voice and LabourList.

Rules recap:

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 at least FIVE blogs in your list, but please list ten if you can. If you include fewer than five, 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 or based on UK politics are eligible. No blog will be excluded from voting.
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 2010. Any votes received after that date will not count.

And if you feel able to vote for me, well that would be just spiffing!

Wednesday 28 July 2010

Left Fisk Forward

Will Straw has written a piece for Left Foot Forward today entitled "Electoral reformers should oppose the coalition’s gerrymandering" where he highlights four reasons why electoral reformers should oppose the proposed government bill to change the boundaries and put the AV to a referendum.

I won't reproduce the entire post here for the purposes of fisking but I will take each of the points that Will raises along with a synopsis and address them here:

1) The Bill prevents equal representation

While everyone accepts the principled case for equal-sized seats, time must be taken to ensure that the equalisation is of those entitled to vote rather than those already registered to vote.

This has been the mantra of Labour regarding the resizing of constituencies since Harriet Harman first raised it at PMQs a few weeks back. The redrawing of the boundaries cannot be completed until everyone who is entitled to vote is taken into account, or at least many more of them. The thing is though that all the other times that the boundaries have been redrawn, including the most recent occasions in England Scotland and Wales between 2006 and 2008 this did not happen. And that was under Labour. I agree that we should do our best to maximise voter registration but not at the expense of these other reforms. I see no reason why this issue is suddenly of such critical importance after 13 years of government when they could have done something about it. It is almost as if they are just looking for a reason to oppose the bill.

2) The Bill gives the Liberal Democrats a partisan advantage

Two parliamentary seats – the Western Isles (SNP) and Orkney and Shetland Islands (Lib Dem) – have been exempted from the need to meet new quotas because of their low population density.

Will also goes on to list a few other Lib Dem seats that will be spared from being broken up, all of which are very sparsely populated.

I'm sorry but is he having a laugh!? In 2005 Labour got 35% of the vote and 55% of the seats. the Lib Dems got 22% of the vote and less than 10% of the seats. In 2010 we got over 23% of the vote and got even fewer seats still than 2005. The current system gives a massive partisan advantage to Labour and is hugely tilted against the Lib Dems. I know from conversations with Will that he is not happy about this and wants to see it changed. Even with these changes (including AV), the Lib Dems will likely get nowhere near their proportional share of seats. And Labour will still very likely get far more than theirs.

There are good reasons to exempt the constituencies he lists from the process as they have very low population density and increasing the size of these constituencies still further (without increasing the number of MPs for the seat) would cause real problems.

We are not trying to gerrymander anything.

3) The Bill does not correct distortions in the electoral system

In essence his point is that fiddling with First Past the Post will not help with proportionality.

I agree, it won't. As Will very well knows what the Lib Dems wanted was STV with multi-member constituencies. We were never going to be able to get that. The Conservatives will not go for it (at the moment) and Labour could not have delivered it. There are too many Labour MPs who would not allow even a referendum on this through. So the Lib Dems have got the best deal they could. An agreement to a referendum on a change to AV which is at the very least preferential and ensures that the ridiculous situation at the moment where MPs can be elected on around a third of their vote (or less) in a constituency will be over. It will also reduce negative campaigning as candidates try to appeal for second (and third) preferences from their opponents.

In short it is not perfect and is certainly not proportional but it in some key respects it is better than what we have now and can be used as a springboard to STV later. After all we would already have the preferential voting. We would just need multi-member constituencies.

So I agree with Will on this one but my question to him is, where is the alternative proportional system proposal that can win enough support in the house to get a referendum? He is making the best the enemy of the good. AV is politically possible at the moment. Further change is not.

4) A smaller House of Commons will be be less representative

As Sunder Katwala has outlined on Next Left, “a smaller Commons will almost certainly delay and slow down progress towards gender equality in the House of Commons.”

There are all sorts of measures that can be taken to ensure better representation. The parties themselves have a particular responsibility to ensure they are picking a diverse range of candidates in winnable seats. More encouragement needs to be given to those from under-represented groups to stand. I also firmly believe that if we were to get STV then we would see more diversity anyway as the parties would find it in their own best interests to offer a diverse set of people in each constituency (and as I have said AV is a stepping-stone along that path).

By Will's logic here we should see even more MPs in order to increase the granularity and improve representation. I do not think that is the right way. We have too many MPs and both parties now in government wanted to see them reduced.

I think the thing that disappoints me the most about the attitude of many in Labour, including Will who I very much respect is that on this issue they seem to have approached it from the start-point of "what can we do to scupper this?". If it wasn't these four arguments, they would have found some others to object to it and vote against it.

Although he is in a minority within his own party, I was pleased to see a post from Labour blogger Anthony Painter today entitled "Labour’s tactics driven opposition continues. Disappointingly." who thinks his party are being wrong-headed about this:

“...from Labour’s point of view, that element [cut in number of constituencies] of the legislative package will, in all likelihood pass whatever I’m afraid. It is AV that is up for grabs. Labour has the opportunity to show that it can embrace reform and pluralistic politics. It can show that it is not stuck in the past; a defensive party unable to confront the future. And it is the right thing to do from the perspective of democratic accountability.”

Spot on. I only wish more in his party felt the same way.

Will claims at the start of his post that a "yes" vote on AV should be supported, but the truth is as Anthony points out that the tactics being engaged in now could wreck the whole thing.

As I said in a brief Twitter conversation with Will on this subject earlier today, every time there is a chance for electoral reform, Labour do something to prevent it. We saw it in 1998 when Jenkins was kicked into the long grass. The pattern is continuing. This is one of the reasons why I could never have considered joining Labour. As a party their heart is not in any change to the electoral system.

Even non-police are hassling photographers

I read this post yesterday on the You've Been Cromwelled site in which the author recounts how they were pursued and questioned by a couple of Rail Enforcement Officers (who are charged with looking after people on the railways and checking their tickets) for taking photographs. They do not have any police-like powers, they are just civilians.

The story follows a familiar pattern. First the officers asked why they were taking photographs (of them). Then they asked to see the pictures. Then they asked the photographer to delete the pictures. The photographer refused to comply with any of their requests. One of the officers claimed that the photographer needed their permission to take photographs of them. One of them claimed that they did have the right to see the pictures because of "the terrorism act".

They then insisted that the photographer and girlfriend who was also on the train got off the train at the next stop to meet the British Transport Police who would deal with the situation. At first the photographer refused (the REOs had no right to demand this) but in the end relented as the girlfriend was getting drawn into it now and the photographer wanted a resolution.

Once the Transport Police got involved at the next stop they backed up what the photographer had been saying that indeed no permission was needed to take the photographs and they could not demand for them to be deleted. Then the two were allowed on the next train to go their way. It is heartening at least to hear that the police on this occasion were clear about what the law is.

I have blogged on numerous occasions about how police have exceeded their powers in this area. It is disturbing to hear that even civilians are getting in on the act now.

The author of the post is now planning to pursue South Eastern Trains for £300 compensation for the loss of his time that evening and I hope the claim is successful. I suspect it is only when they are hit in the pocket that they will start to take these situations seriously and prevent their staff from spurious citing laws in order to get people to comply with what they want them to do when they have no right.

Oh, and a bit of adverse publicity such as on the various blogs that are covering this might help a bit too.

Tuesday 27 July 2010

Do I have as much at stake as some other Lib Dems?

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Something has been preying on my mind in the the last few weeks/months and I thought it was about time I shared it.

I will be 36 years old this Friday (no it's not an incipient mid-life crisis!) and I have been pretty much obsessed with politics since I was a teenager. However I only joined the Lib Dems a little over two years ago. I had helped them out a bit before and had also got involved with some electoral reform stuff but I have only been a fully paid up member of the party since June 2008.

I spent many years reading political articles, opinion pieces, memoirs etc. and watching all the TV programmes but always convincing myself that I was better off as an observer/bystander rather than an active participant. As time went on and I got more and more interested in the processes and policies as well as the debates that position became less and less tenable for me and eventually I succumbed to the charms of the Lib Dems. For a number of years it had been becoming more and more clear to me that it was the party that most closely matched my political instincts. I have not been disappointed since I joined. I now know many like minded people and although I don't always agree with everything that every other Lib Dem says, to use the old cliche, I really do feel that there is more that unites us than divides us.

Bully for me you might think. I finally found a political home and I have been making the most of it, blogging furiously for the last couple of years, popping up on the radio (latterly quite frequently) to give my views as well as co-hosting a political podcast where I do the same. I get linked to from across the blogosphere and have also written numerous posts for other blogs too. I have had things I have written on my blog quoted by Lib Dem MPs in the House of Commons, by a Labour government minister on BBC's Question Time and regularly linked to by the mainstream media.

In short I have been getting about a bit and my views on various issues have had a fair bit of coverage.

On 11th May I wrote a blogpost entitled "Lib Dems should take the Tory Deal" in which I suggested that going into coalition with the Conservatives was for various reasons really the only game left in town. This was widely linked to and garnered nearly 10,000 hits on that day making it my most read blogpost ever. It was held up on the BBC News Channel by Rory Cellan-Jones (who was running the channel's digital election coverage) as an example of what the grass-roots of the party were thinking. When I published the post in the morning it still looked possible that the party leadership might do a deal with Labour. By that evening, the coalition had been formed.

I am not for one minute suggesting that my blogpost affected the coalition negotiations. Indeed from what I can tell, by the previous evening the Lib Dem negotiating team had pretty much decided that a deal with Labour would never work.

What I am suggesting though is that my views got very widespread coverage on that day.

Since the election I have been pretty supportive of the coalition. I have not agreed with everything it does but both on this blog and in other media I have generally argued the positive case for what the party is doing in government and why it is doing it. I very much believe that the party had no choice and is doing the right thing.

And this brings me to the crux of this particular blogpost. I have my views and they do (sometimes) get fairly wide coverage. But I have only been a member of the party for two years. There are others blogging who have been members for far, far longer than me. In many cases their service to the cause can be marked in decades rather than years.

We are in an unprecedented political situation at the moment. Nobody knows for sure how things are gong to pan out for the new government and particularly the Lib Dems within it. As members and activists we all have our views but the thing that has been concerning me is whether I have the right to be as outspoken as I have been about my view that the party is doing the right thing.

If this all goes horribly wrong for the party and in a few years time our parliamentary numbers are hugely reduced as the electorate takes revenge for a perceived betrayal, and/or if horror upon horrors the party sinks into oblivion following that I will be devastated. But for me I will only have been involved for a few years. Those who have dedicated the majority of their lives to the cause will surely feel the loss more keenly than I? Those who have knocked on more doors and delivered more leaflets than I will ever be able to surely have a greater stake in this than me?

I should point out that not a single person in the party has ever suggested to me that my views should not count as much as anyone else's in the party. Indeed it would be considered pretty illiberal of anyone to do so I expect! This is just something that has been gnawing away at me deep inside.

I am not really sure how to end this blogpost as I am not sure there is an answer. I certainly intend to carry on the way I have been going and over the years as I have more time in the party under my belt, perhaps this feeling will subside.

Until then I will just have to suppress that inner voice that niggles away telling me that I have no right to be commentating on any of this.

Unless anyone wants to step forward and agree with the voice of course....

How much things have changed for the Lib Dems...

Just a few months ago, no Lib Dem MPs had any real political power outside of the party. Despite this they did manage sometimes to make a difference (notably for example with the Gurkhas) but largely they would discuss the party policies, attempt to influence a domestic audience and that was that.

Contrast that with this statement that I noticed whilst registering on the autumn conference web page yesterday:

Please note, in a change from previous years, the Leader's Speech will now take place on the afternoon of Monday 20 September. Nick Clegg, as Deputy Prime Minister, will be representing the country at a session of the United Nations in New York discussing the Millennium Development Goals on the Wednesday 22 September.

With the polls and all the difficult decisions, it's easy to forget just how far we have come in such a short time. Our leader is representing our country at the highest national level in issues of crucial importance.

Things have changed very, very quickly and I suspect the dynamics at play at conference will be quite different from anything any of us there will have seen before.

Monday 26 July 2010

Medical cannabis - the law as it stands is an ass

A chap named Jason got in touch with me recently to draw my attention to an article that he had written where he explains how he has suffered for the majority of his life from Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (ME) and that how the only drug he has found that allows him to live a relatively normal life without dreadful side-effects is cannabis.

Of course cannabis is a controlled substance under the law and there is no legal way to get hold of it so therefore he has had to regularly break the law in order to get the only medicine that he feels is of any real use for his condition.

It is well worth reading Jason's article in full to get an idea of just how pernicious our drugs laws are that somebody who has suffered with an awful condition for most of his life is forced to break the law to treat it and the intermittency of supply is such that he cannot always get access to it.

Amidst all the headlines of the "War on Drugs" and politicians trying to sound tough we need to remember that there are people like Jason caught in the crossfire. He is just trying to live his life the best way he can. The law is an ass when it comes to cases like his and the government has no business preventing him from getting the treatment he needs for his condition.

It needs to be reformed, now.

Why would either Miliband want Balls on their coattails?

There have been all sorts of rumours flying around in the last few days that Ed Balls was about to pull out of the Labour leadership contest and throw his weight behind one of the two front runners (one of the Miliband brothers). He has denied this and insisted that he is fighting on.

He has the support of fewer unions and CLPs than his two main rivals and it certainly looks like he cannot now win. There have even been suggestions that when it comes to the vote in September that he could end up being eliminated first. This would be an utter humiliation for Balls. So you can understand why the stories about him planning to drop out and swing behind one of the front runners had a ring of plausibility. It would be real damage limitation for Balls and would likely secure him a senior shadow cabinet role if the one he chose was to win. Perhaps even his long coveted chancellorship portfolio (albeit in opposition).

But what would be in it for whichever Miliband he swung behind? OK, so it would give them a few more first preferences although of course not all those who would have voted for Balls will slavishly vote for whoever he decides to grease up to. And because this election is AV, and given that Balls is likely to be eliminated then many of these votes will ultimately transfer that way anyway.

I do concede than in an extremely tightly fought race between the top two, Balls' support could, in extremis make the difference. However look at the price the winner would be paying. They would have Balls in a very senior position and essentially unsackable. Gordon Brown's protege, the man above all others he was politically closest to would probably end up with the treasury role with the leader beholden to them and also perhaps with a simmering resentment from Balls that he did not win himself. Does any of this sound familiar?

Some of the more sensible comments from the candidates during the campaign so far have been to acknowledge that the psychodramas of the past and the nonsense that went with the TB-GBs (that is now being confirmed by very senior members of the former administration such as Peter Mandelson) was very damaging for the party and that they need to move on from that way of operating. The last thing the winning candidate needs to do is set the party up for another decade of dysfunctional internecine fighting at the very top. Far better for whoever does win to do so on their own with their own mandate for leading the party away from its discredited past.

So it would be very wise for both Milibands to resist any overtures from Balls. It would take real courage to reject what could seem on the surface like a way of boosting their chances but they should resist nonetheless.

In fact were they to do this, I would expect Balls to deny that he had ever entertained the notion and to claim that he was going to fight on.

Perhaps the Milibands are made of sterner stuff than it may initially appear....

Sunday 25 July 2010

"So you want to be a politician" - book review

I recently read Shane Greer's book "So you want to be a politician" (published by Biteback). It claims to be a must-read for any first time political candidate and attempts to cover everything that somebody in that position would need to know. From personal presentation and speech writing through to fundraising, online campaigning and handling the media. It has contributions from various people involved with politics

The first thing I would say is that I found it very useful. The advice generally seems to be of a good quality and the contributors (people such as Shane himself, Sarah MacKinlay, Tom Harris, Jessica Asato, Mark Pack, Stephen Twigg and Hopi Sen to name but a few) are of a high calibre.

As somebody who has already run for a council seat once (and intends to keep trying), I noticed that in the subject areas where I already have some knowledge I could see that the contributions often chimed with my own experiences which gives me confidence that the book overall is likely to be useful in the areas where I need the most help!

The style of the chapters are fairly different from each other. I guess that is to be expected with a book that has so many different contributors but it has the effect of making it more suited to dipping in and out of rather than reading from cover to cover. There is some duplication of advice but more frustratingly there are also areas where I spotted some of the advice from different people contradicting each other which was a bit unhelpful. The most jarring example of this is that the book claims in one chapter that you should always assume that everything you say to a journalist is on-the-record and in a different one advises that it is wise to make the distinction with journalists between on and off-the-record.

The chapters that stuck with me most were Politics 2.0 by Mark Pack, Online fundraising by Jag Singh and Surviving in the Studio by Shane Greer. That last one was a mildly surreal experience as I have come up against Shane in various radio studios over the last few months on probably approaching a dozen occasions so to see him laying bare the tactics I have seen him deploy first hand was particularly interesting for me. Although he did not mention one of the most irritating skills he has (for an opponent) which is to structure his sentences in such a way as to make it almost impossible to interject without talking over him! I expect he wants to keep that one to himself or maybe he isn't even aware he does it so I thought I'd just pop that one on the record too!

I was also intrigued by the chapter Direct mail fundraising. I knew virtually nothing about this area and it certainly gives a comprehensive strategy for approaching it. So detailed in fact that it even describes the different fonts you should use for targeting different demographics! I'll leave you to read the book in order to find out which ones are recommended for whom.

I won't give the book a score as I think that is a bit invidious but I do think it fulfills its aim. Perhaps if there is a second edition it could be tightened up a bit further to eliminate the few areas of duplication and contradiction.

I think the acid test for this book is whether I put its suggestions into practise. I already have in a couple of areas and I fully expect as I progress down my own political path that I will be dipping in and out of this as a handy reference.

Going off on a Tangent - AKA The Streisand Effect

Here we go again.

Luke Bozier, a Labour blogger yesterday wrote a blogpost where he questioned the standard of websites provided by a company called Tangent PLC to The Labour Party. They apparently provide the "WebCreator" platform upon which lots of Labour sites are based. He singled out Gordon Brown's site particularly suggesting its design did not befit a former Prime Minister and included this information in a tweet. You can read his full comments on the blogpost linked to above.

You know what's coming next. Yes, the legal chill kicked in. In an update to the post, Luke informs us:

I just received an email from Tangent PLC’s executive director threatening potential legal action for my Tweet earlier suggesting that Gordon’s Brown website wasn’t very well designed:

I respectfully suggest you delete that tweet, issue no more similar ones and generally try to sell your products in a more professional way. I really don’t like the prospect of either a public slanting match or legal action, but if I need to protect my company’s business and reputation, I will.

As an aside, Luke himself (along with many bloggers and tweeters) runs a very small start-up business himself in this field although it is clear to me that he was just writing in a personal capacity bringing his professional experience to bear whilst doing so rather than trying to tout his own products.

Then it started. The blogging and tweeting community do not react well to these sort of threats. Almost straight away the hashtag #OffTangent started trending with many people chipping in their views about the design of Tangent's websites. There were hundreds of tweets about this yesterday from all across the twittersphere. Lots of people who would never have heard of Tangent or even considered the quality of their website design are now very aware of them and have expressed their feelings at the tactics being deployed.

Tangent are learning the hard way that responding in the way they have done can be very counter-productive. It is known as The Streisand Effect following an incident in 2003 when Barbara Streisand's attempts to censor use of a picture of the Californian coastline which included a picture of her mansion (citing security concerns and launching an unsuccessful legal action) resulted in hundreds of thousands of people viewing the image online, most of whom would never have known of its existence were it not for Streisand herself. We see a similar effect here with Tangent.

As a demonstration of this, Luke himself tweeted this morning:

My blog received over 5,000 unique visitors today. Completely mesmerised.

Also, Jack of Kent, the legal blogger (and friend to many bloggers) has been involved from very early on yesterday in this situation. Indeed it was he who started the #OffTangent hashtag. His involvement is very heartening as it shows that Luke already has heavyweight support from people who know the law very well indeed.

Tangent would be well advised to quietly walk away from this. Luke was just expressing his view about the design of websites used by his own party. He is surely within his rights to do this?

If they don't they should be prepared for #OffTangent to continue to heavily trend for quite some time to come.