Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

Wednesday 30 June 2010

Ken Clarke shows how Labour's Lib Dem "betrayal" narrative is nonsense

Every opportunity that Labour spokespeople get these days they attack the Lib Dems. Not usually for any specific Lib Dem policy but for the fact that they were willing to go into coalition with the Conservatives. It often seems like Labour MPs feel like jilted lovers whose rightful and "natural" partners the Lib Dems have inexplicably spurned them for an ill-suited lover and that they will surely soon live to regret this folly.

What this ridiculously simplistic narrative fails to take into account is that there are not just areas of commonality with Labour (of course there are some) but there are and always have been areas of commonality with the Conservatives. It is nowhere near clear cut that a partnership with Labour (irrespective of the fact that the parliamentary arithmetic made it unworkable) would have fitted like a glove and a partnership with the Conservatives is utterly doomed.

Yes there are some of the Conservative policies that I and many of my Lib Dem colleagues would rather not have seen enacted (not least in the budget last week) but we have been able to get plenty of our own policies as part of the deal and ameliorate what our party sees as the worst excesses of the Tories.

One of the areas where the previous government were woeful was civil liberties and justice. Labour was authoritarian from the start of its tenure in office and these tendencies got worse and worse as time went on. The prison population shot up from around 50,000 in 1997 to well over 80,000 by the time they left office. Little time was given to the idea that alternative approaches may work. No, they were all dismissed as "soft on crime" as the numbers of people banged up were forced inexorably up.

A good liberal principle is to only imprison people when there is no alternative and to examine the ways in which such a drastic sanction (which is often the direct cause of further crime later) can be avoided. So I am delighted to see that Ken Clarke has started off in his post as Justice Secretary by making it clear that just continually banging people up is not always the right approach and that we need a more constructive way of approaching this issue. He is strongly signalling that there will be more use of community service and attempts to rehabilitate offenders.

Now I am not naive enough to think that this problem can be solved overnight (or indeed ever fully) but the fact that the government has laid down a marker that their approach will not be dictated by the "bang 'em up" brigade is very welcome and dare I say it, liberal. In fact it is probably no exaggeration to say that Clarke's speech today is the most liberal from the cabinet minister responsible for justice in a political generation at least.

And how has Clarke's predecessor Jack Straw responded to this? With a scaremongering article in The Daily Mail (the Mothership of the "bang 'em up" mob) which makes it clear that he is proud of the fact that the prison population is now pushing 85,000. He basically accuses the coalition government of being soft on crime and makes it clear that as far as he is concerned there is no alternative to an ever rising prison population even though it costs an absolute fortune, recidivism rates are through the roof, prisons are massively overcrowded and many times his government was forced to ensure some inmates were released early (which demonstrates that despite all the rhetoric by its own terms their policy was failing).

So we come back to my initial point. I have fairly strong liberal instincts and if I had not been a member of any political party I would have been very pleased with what Ken Clarke had to say today and the clear direction of travel upon which he intends to embark. I would also have been distinctly unimpressed with the behaviour of Straw and his colleagues trying to poo-poo the idea that a more constructive approach is "soft on crime". In other words what this government with its many Tory MPs is planning is very closely aligned with my own politics and almost diametrically opposite to that of the Labour Party.

As it happens I am a member of the Lib Dems but on this issue that is irrelevant. I would support the government on this anyway. And it is a stark example of why the narrative about the Lib Dems having done the dirty on them that Labour keeps pushing is nonsense. Our party is not the "natural" partner of Labour on lots of issues. Their reaction today is a stark reminder of that.

They should bear this in mind next time they hurl accusations of "betrayal" at us.

Tuesday 29 June 2010

Why Cameron would be smart to follow Fink's advice on AV

Danny Finkelstein wrote a Times piece this morning where he suggested that David Cameron could use a change in the electoral system to AV to his advantage. Because of the paywall, there's little point in me linking to The Fink's piece directly but James Forsyth on the Spectator blog has summarised his idea:

So Danny Finkelstein’s blog this morning suggesting that ‘AV might provide the answer to the otherwise impossible question - if the parties stay together, how can they fight the election apart?’ has caused quite a stir.

The argument is that the Tories would urge their voters to put the Lib Dems as second choice and vice-versa. If this ploy worked — and the Australian evidence Danny cites suggests it would — then AV would hurt Labour not the Tories.

I wondered how the most recent election might have played out had this sort of game been in play. Obviously some serious academic analysis would be needed in order to do this properly but I thought I'd have a stab at a crude way of discerning what could have happened if all voters for each of the coalition partners had gone along with this under an AV system.

I took a spreadsheet that I received a few weeks ago which contains the voting figures for every party in every seat from the general election last month. I then went through it and created a new "Coalition" column which contained the total combined figures for Conservative and Lib Dem votes in every seat. I then made the assumption that whichever of the two coalition parties was in the lead out of the two of them in the seat would receive the other's votes to get a total hypothetical figure for the "leading" coalition partner after transfers.

Before I reveal the figures, some caveats. Firstly in reality all voters are not going to go along with this plan even if both parties in the coalition try really hard to persuade them to do so (which in itself is questionable). Secondly under different electoral systems people vote differently so if 2010 had been run under AV the numbers would have been different anyway. Also, my analysis does not take into account how other transfers from e.g. nationalists, Greens, UKIP etc. to other parties may have worked out. It simply focuses on the coalition partners.

Effectively what this method is doing is taking The Fink's idea to its extreme assuming a perfect set of transfers for the coalition partners from each other in 2010.

In the actual election the figures were:

Conservative: 306
Labour: 258
Lib Dem: 57

In my reworked extreme AV scenario the figures would be:

Conservative: 394
Labour: 141
Lib Dem: 91

So the Conservatives would have a thumping majority. The Lib Dems would have done much better but ironically ended up with much less influence. Labour would be the big losers with just over half of the number of seats they actually got.

Despite all the problems with this analysis I think it was worth doing because it demonstrates that it would be possible for the Conservatives to benefit from AV. In an actual AV election I would not expect it to end up anything like what we see above but I think a good case can be made that a fair number of voters would be willing to put the partner of the coalition party that they put in first place in second assuming that the coalition is reasonably popular in 5 years time. It is certainly true to say that all those certainties that so many on all sides once thought about how the Lib Dems and Labour would be likely to be the automatic beneficiaries of an AV system are not necessarily true any more in the new political reality.

If Cameron could get even just a slice of the sort of action we see in play above then it could make a change to the electoral system a much easier sell for his party. Who knows, out of self interest some of them may even feel able to campaign for it, or at the very least not campaign against it!

This is another example of how everything changed on May 6th.

Police still harassing photographers

I have just read this post by Jules Mattsson, a student who is a freelance photographer in his spare time. In it he describes how he was detained and questioned by police officers when he was trying to take photographs of an Armed Forces Day parade in Romford on Saturday.

There is a YouTube here which contains some of the pictures taken and an audio recording of much of the incident:

The officers appear to try a number of different tacks to argue that he should not be taking photographs. They begin by insisting that he needs parental permission to take photographs of minors. Jules repeatedy rebuts this claim by explaining that it is a public place and no such restrictions in law apply. They then insist that he needs to give them his details although when repeatedly pressed as to which law he is required to do this under, at first there is no response and eventually an officer says they do not need a law. Finally the tack shifts to claims of "breach of the peace" which again is vigorously denied by Jules.

Particularly disturbing are the claims from Jules which can be heard on the recording that he was taken away from the parade and then thrown down some stairs (he claims he is still suffering from back pain caused by this) at virtually the same time that an officer is claiming he is being taken away "for his own safety". It should be pointed out though that on the recording an officer denies that this is what has happened.

What is striking throughout is the police officers' apparent lack of understanding of the law and how they appear to be thrashing around for a reason to stop him. They also appear to get more and more irritated and annoyed as it becomes apparent that Jules is very well versed in the law and what he can and cannot legally do.

I have covered various other cases like this on this blog previously (e.g. here and here). In more recent times, new guidelines have been issued which were supposed to make sure that innocent photographers were not harassed and prevented from taking pictures on spurious grounds. Clearly that guidance is not getting all the way through to the front line if this case is anything to go by.

This story has now been picked up by the national media so hopefully it will get much wider coverage.

UPDATE: Young Mr Brown on the Libertarian Party Members' Blog has transcribed the exchanges in the audio track of the encounter here.

What is the point of holding cabinet meetings outside of London?

The cabinet have decamped today to Bradford to hold the cabinet meeting. This is the sort of thing that started to happen under the previous government. I thought it was a gimmicky waste of time and money then and I think the same now. Indeed many Tory MPs used to think so too (as does Iain Dale today). Apparently once the cost of security etc. is added in, previous trips like this have cost up to £200,000 a time. This won't even factor in the loss of productivity in having ministers unneccessarily travelling for several hours (apparently most of them arrived by coach).

I suspect the counter arguments will be that they get the chance to see what is happening in other parts of the country but ministers already travel all over the place as part of their duties. Having them all descend on one particular place like this is surely not necessary for this purpose? Indeed this particular trip seems to be in response to a difficult question Cameron was asked during the election campaign in Bradford and to get out of it he promised to bring the cabinet up to the city. This is surely overkill.

I am sympathetic to the idea of moving government departments out of London and perhaps even parliament, e.g. to Birmingham or Manchester. Moves like this would help reduce the London-centric focus we so often see and could actually save money given how expensive London is. But the fact is our parliament is in London and sending the entire cabinet on awaydays like this seems pretty hard to justify, particularly in our current financial circumstances.

David Cameron should make this the last day trip like this for him and his colleagues.

Lib Dem polls - keep calm and carry on

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

There have been a number of polls out recently that have shown Lib Dem support starting to slide. We were on 18% with ComRes yesterday and ICM and YouGov have both had us as low as 16% in recent days. This on the surface looks like a drop of between a quarter and a third of the support we had on election day (24%).

I suppose the first thing to say is that these polls always have a margin of error so it is possible that the real figures are not quite as bad as indicated. But more importantly this is exactly what I expected to see happen. We are only a few weeks into the coalition government and this is the point at which the difficult decisions are being announced. The party has had to compromise in order to get what it wanted in the agreement and a number of the measures announced recently will of course not be to the liking of some Lib Dem supporters and voters. This is one of the reasons why it was vital for the coalition agreement to include fixing the length of the parliament to a reasonable length in order to make sure there is enough time for the Lib Dem measures to be implemented properly and for the electorate to see how we have influenced things for the good.

It is also worth bearing in mind that this is often what happens to the Lib Dems after elections. After the 2005 election we were down as low as 12%.

I do not think there is anything to panic about. I of course would prefer us to be higher in the polls but I would expect the early weeks and months of this government to be the time when we are at our lowest. There is plenty of time to increase our support levels once we are in a position to show people how we have positively affected their lives.

Monday 28 June 2010

Other Reckonings - 28th June 2010

Just one tonight:

  • If you played games on a ZX Spectrum in the 1980s then you almost certainly played at least one written by Jonathan "Joffa" Smith. His titles included Cobra, Green Beret and one of my all time favourites Hyper Sports. He frequented an online forum where I am also a regular and I got to know him a little through that in the last few years. Sadly Jonathan died a couple of days ago. Matty on Games has a fitting tribute to him here.

I am on LBC's political panel again this evening from 8pm

I will be on LBC again from 8pm this evening as part of Petrie Hoskin's political panel along with a couple of other politicos.

You can listen to it on 97.3 if you're in or near London or via this link online if you aren't. You can even call in to join in the debate on 0845 60 60 973 from 8pm.

FIFA need to bring in goal-line technology

England got thrashed 4-1 by Germany in the World Cup second round yesterday. We deserved it too. We were by far the weaker side on the day. The defensive problems that had been apparent throughout the group stage were present in abundance. The final German goal tally of 4 could easily have been more like 6 or 7.

So Germany certainly deserved to win and are looking like they might be contenders for the title. Even if we had somehow managed to scrape through by luck yesterday do we honestly think we could have beaten for example Argentina given their masterful performance yesterday?

However despite all of this there is something that happened yesterday that was a travesty. Towards the end of the first half when England were 2-1, Lampard scored a goal for England. It bounced down off the crossbar and clearly landed about two feet over the line:

However the referee and linesman (and fourth official) did not spot this and the goal was not given.

Now just to reiterate, in the end I think that even if this goal had been given it would have been tough for England to win and the best team won on the day. Although it is fair to say that going into the break at 2-2 could have changed the dynamics of the game and it may have been closer than it ultimately turned out to be.

But the biggest issue here is that FIFA are a laughing stock and they are bringing the game into disrepute. Technology has now reached the point where within a couple of minutes everyone in the stadium would have known what everyone at home knew within a few seconds, that it was clearly a goal and that the referee had got it totally wrong.

It's not just this incident. There have been other dodgy goal decisions throughout this tournament. FIFA seem to have an institutional blind-spot when it comes to this. Rugby uses technology. Tennis has hawkeye which I think has been a huge success and ensures that the top matches are much more fair. Why can't football?

Gary Lineker yesterday suggested that a system of "challenges" like they have in Tennis could be used in football and frankly I think the arguments against it are now pretty threadbare. Yes, there would be a disparity between how the top matches and the ones lower down are refereed and yes, it is possible that more calls for further use of technology could follow but we surely cannot carry on applying the rules in a way that worked fine 50 years ago relying on the eyesight of two or three people who may not even be facing the correct way and may be dozens of yards away when the technology to definitively settle the question in a few seconds is readily available.

FIFA need to make sure this is the last World Cup where this can happen.

Friday 25 June 2010

You have been reading...

Here are the five most popular posts on this blog from the last week in case you missed them:

And you should have been reading this: Transform reveal the real reason why the Home Office held up an FOI request for information about research for the government's drugs policy.

Government accidentally admits real reason for withholding drug policy info

There's a fascinating blogpost on the BBC website today from Martin Rosenbaum.

It describes how the Home Office postponed the release of research from a Freedom of Information request from Transform Drugs Policy Foundation and then when they did finally release it, some annotations that were clearly never meant for external eyes had accidentally been left in that showed the real reason for the delay.

Here are the snippets:


It's worth reading the full blogpost for the background details but what this demonstrates to me is that firstly, government departments sometimes withhold FOI requests for political reasons which is utterly against the way they are supposed to be used.

But secondly and most importantly they fear that the research that underpins their drugs policy will not stand up to scrutiny and could actually be used to make the counter argument.

So much for evidence based policy eh?

Labour is increasingly resembling the Tories in the late 1990s

The polling reaction to the new government and the budget has been fairly positive (link opens PDF) with the previous government being blamed by half of all people surveyed for the difficult measures in the budget and a majority saying that they think the cuts are good for the economy.

At the same time Labour is vigorously attacking the government for what it is doing and also repeatedly accusing the Lib Dems of "betrayal". It feels slightly odd for the opposition to be so strongly railing against the measures being taken when the public appear to be largely behind them. The public do not like being told that they have made a huge mistake just a few weeks after they have voted.

I know that some will argue that they never voted for the coalition but they certainly did not vote for Labour to remain in power and again, look at the polling. The public is broadly in favour of the coalition.

Labour's approach reminds of the position the Tories were in after the 1997 election. They still stood up at the dispatch box and argued against what Labour were doing in government but they had been in for 18 years and had been clearly rejected by the electorate at the election. Nobody (outside of the Westminster bubble) was really listening to what they were saying and they were making the same mistakes as Labour are now, attacking a broadly popular government that the public were behind. It did them few favours in the following election where they made almost no headway.

I hope that whoever wins the Labour leadership finds a more moderate and humble tone. I get the sense that the public are starting to feel a bit exasperated with the way that the party that was in government for 13 years is attacking the new government who are clearing up the mess left behind by them. Some recognition by Labour that they did contribute to the problems rather than continuing to pretend that it was solely down to international factors beyond their control would help them and I think that then the public would be more willing to give them a fair hearing.

It took the Tories many years to accept their failings from the 1980s and 1990s and properly draw a line under them. It was only when Cameron became leader that they properly addressed them with the "detoxification" strategy. Now to be fair I do not think that Labour's brand now is as damaged as the Tory one was in 1997 but it is certainly damaged and they need to repair it.

Screeching from the opposition benches about "betrayal" is not the way to achieve that.

Thursday 24 June 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 24th June 2010 - #bbcqt

It's #bbcqt day again and the Live Chat starts on this blog from 10:30pm as normal. Matt Raven will be in the hosting chair.

David Dimbleby will be joined by the Business Secretary and Liberal Democrat MP Vince Cable, the shadow education secretary Ed Balls, the leader of the Green Party Caroline Lucas MP, Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens, and the founder of and Brent Hoberman.

Join us below from 10:30pm:

John Redwood's comments are being taken totally out of context

Tory MP John Redwood wrote a blogpost earlier this week where he drew a parallel between how a middle class family who finds their income cut by 10% can make adjustments and used the analogy to describe how the UK state could also make adjustments.

Here is main part of what he wrote:

Tomorrow’s budget will probably be proposing cuts of less than 10% over the lifetime of this Parliament. Sensibly managed, this need not entail cutting anything that really matters.

The UK state has been living a middle class lifestyle. If you are living on a low income then of course cutting spending is difficult or impossible. If you are living a middle class lifestyle and your income goes down by 10% you have plenty of options. You can holiday nearer at home and cut out the foreign trip. You can eat in more than in the local restaurants. You can trade down for a cheaper car. You can draw some money out of the savings account to tide you over until your income goes up again. You can buy more of the value items at the supermarket, and put more vegetarian dishes into the home menus. You can discover home entertainment to keep the leisure bills down. You can turn down the thermostat a little and put on a jumper.

The UK state finds itself in that position today. It has plenty of assets. Some can be sold to help out. It has been dining out on consultants and temporary labour. It needs to do more in house. It has been appointing all too many to exotic job titles which we could manage without, and sending many of them on expensive overseas fact finding trips and seminars. It has indulged in a mind blowing array of politically correct regulations which often fail to tackle the underlying problem they wanted to address. It has been a master at buying the “nice to have” or the “why do we need this?” instead of concentrating on doing the basics well.

Seems like a reasonable post to me. Perhaps I might quibble with making a direct comparison between the UK state level and a household level as it is a bit simplistic but it allows him to make his broader point in an accessible way which I am sure was his aim.

However the Daily Mail has picked up on this and in a story entitled: "Cold and hungry? Wear a jumper and eat vegetables: Tory MP sparks outrage with advice on how to survive 'Bloodbath Budget'" it proceeds to take Redwood's comment totally out of context and treat them as if he is giving direct advice to people as to how they should handle the budget cuts which he is not.

Sunny Hundal on Liberal Conspiracy has taken only the section highlighted above in red and hence shorn it of all its context and then posted this entitled: "Redwood asks poor to ‘put on a jumper!’" even though Redwood explicitly states that if you are on a low income then cutting is "difficult or impossible". And just to repeat it is an analogy, not direct advice.

I tire of saying this but no wonder politicians are terrified of saying or doing anything outside of bland pre-prepared and vetted statements. All Redwood is trying to do here is point out a way that the public spending cuts could be viewed.

The reaction from The Mail, Lib Con and doubtless others is just deliberately taking his comments and twisting them in order to make it look like he is saying something that he is not.

UPDATE: The Mail article I linked to has now changed so that the Redwood stuff is not in the main article but instead in a side box where they show that Redwood denies what they originally claimed and they give him the right of reply.

James Forsyth's contorted logic

There's some rather specious reasoning going on over on the Spectator blog today. Fraser Nelson has posted a piece where he refers to an article by James Forsyth in the paper version of the magazine entitled "The true meaning of Osborne's budget".

Some of the points from James that Fraser highlights are quite incisive but this one is not:

"During the election campaign, nearly every Tory candidate despaired at how so many families on £50,000 a year were voting Labour to protect their £545 child tax credit — despite the overall cost of a Labour government to them being far higher than that. Osborne’s Budget dealt with this directly. Within two years, no family earning £30,000 a year or more and with one child will receive tax credits. That class of wavering Labour voters, so irritatingly prevalent in marginal seats, will be no more."

According to James this is part of the process of reversing dependency on the state and trying to ensure that the Tories win outright next time. But just look at what he is saying. Some families in marginal constituencies who were on around £50K per year were worried that if the Tories got into power then they would lose their child tax credit. That is exactly what has now happened so by those terms they were right to be worried and if enough of them had voted Labour then they would perhaps not have lost it (although of course we cannot be sure Labour would not also have made this move).

Don't get me wrong, I absolutely think that in the current economic circumstances this adjustment was the right thing to do. But to then make the leap to suggest that because the benefit is not there any more then the Tories will benefit electorally from exactly those people is contorted logic to say the least. Unless everyone just forgets that they used to get those tax credits. If anything it's likely to be the other way round, after all Labour will surely bang on about this at every opportunity they get.

Is there something I am not spotting here?

Benny Austwick and Arnie Craven on House of Comments - Episode 31

The latest "House of Comments" podcast with myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion blog is now live. The 31st episode which we recorded on Tuesday 22nd June is available to download raw mp3 file here or you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

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 Benny Austwick (Cardiff Blogger) and Arnie Craven of the Ben and Arnie Podcasts.

We discussed the coalition’s first budget, Charles Kennedy's attitude to David Cameron and the coalition, drink driving limits and whether they should be reduced as well as whether England footballers are paid too much.

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

The pension age has to rise

There are reports this morning that the government is looking to move the age at which state pensions are paid to 70. There were previously plans in place that would have made the age at which this happens 68 by 2046 but the government wants to go further sooner than this.

It is about time. When the state pension in its current form was introduced in 1946 (with its 65 age threshold for men and 60 age threshold for women) life expectancy rates for men were 64 and for women they were 69. Also, many fewer women worked in those days and hence qualified through NI payments for the pension anyway. It meant that on average men did not actually end up claiming the pension and women only for a few years. Now life expectancy rates are around 77 for men and 81 for women. There are also many more women in employment nowadays and also changes in the NI rules mean many more qualify (and rightly so). So on average we are now looking at around 12 years on pension payments for men and 21 for women. The life expectancy rates are also going to keep rising. The pensions system was never designed to cope with these sort of lengths of average retirement.

So I welcome the reforms announced and I just hope that this government has the political will to carry them through. It is politically very difficult because the demographics that the changes affect most are those who are most likely to vote. However I would hope that they will recognise that we cannot carry on the way we have been going.

One thing I would say though is that we do need to be careful about which jobs we expect people to carry on doing. It's all very well to ask someone who works in an office or other sedentary vocation to continue for a few years. But it would not be fair to expect for example a coal-miner or people who work in other extremely physically intensive labour to do the same thing, and indeed other professions where there are other reasons why it typically is not practical to continue into your late sixties. It is sometimes possible for people who have worked in professions like these to switch to other careers but that is not easy and I will be interested to see what provision is made for these sort of situations.

I also wonder if the retirement age needs to be linked somehow to life expectancy in the future so that we do not find ourselves having these sort of reforms every few years. This might also be a difficult political sell because people like to know where they stand. However they don't really know where they stand at the moment because it has been increasingly obvious in the last few years that the system will have to change fairly fundamentally, it's just that politicians have tried to sugar-coat it.

I was born in 1974 so any change to the retirement age for men to 70 assuming it kicks in before 2044 (and looking at the outline of the proposals it almost certainly will) will affect me. I am fine with not receiving a state pension until I am 70 though. To be honest having been familiar with the figures for a number of years I was expecting this to happen. If anything the age may be even higher than 70 by the time we get to 2044 after all 34 years is a long time in terms of medical advancements.

One final point. I am very pleased to see Steve Webb as one of the ministers involved in this policy area and the announcements. He is an expert in this and if anyone can negotiate their way through the minefield of pensions policy it is him!

Wednesday 23 June 2010

Campaign in majoritarian, govern in coalition

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Something keeps happening regarding the political discourse in this country since the election. Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems keep being accused of having "broken" their pledges.

We saw it again yesterday. The compromises that were reached by both sides regarding the budget in the coalition government are described as "U-turns" or abandonment of pre-election pledges etc.

I saw Bob Russell, the Lib Dem MP being interviewed talking about how he had been elected on a platform that was in some ways quite different from what had been announced yesterday. I also heard a Tory MP on the radio bemoaning the fact that he had campaigned promising not to raise Capital Gains Tax.

The problem is that the way all the parties campaigned before the election was under the assumption that they would have an overall majority after the election. Yes, even the Lib Dems. The political dynamics that have evolved around the First Past the Post system essentially require each party to talk as if they will have all the power. In the last few decades that has actually not been an unreasonable position for either of the two main parties to take. However this year has of course now proved them wrong.

Perhaps we will see a change in the dynamics of the way the next general election campaign is fought. Perhaps the parties will talk more about what they will fight for and their specific priorities on these fronts than talking as if they will be able to decide everything without having to compromise. Then again maybe we won't. Old campaigning will likely die hard.

I have always been in favour of a more proportional system and therefore I actively welcome the sort of politics where compromise needs to be reached on issues as we are seeing now. Yesterday's budget would not have been the same if the Conservatives had had an overall majority. I do not think the income tax starting point would have been raised by anything like £1,000 nor do I think that Capital Gains Tax would have increased to 28% for higher earners. There are other areas too which have a distinctly Lib Dem flavour. However there is no denying that there are things in the budget that we would not have had were there a Lib Dem majority. That is not a "betrayal". It is a simple reflection of the fact that we did not get enough votes/seats to form that majority.

Also, those opposition politicians screaming "betrayal" at the Lib Dems should reflect on how unwilling their leadership was to engage in meaningful coalition talks and also how the electorate had dealt a hand that made such a route fragile at best.

There will have to be more compromise over the coming years. That's how coalition government works. Everyone needs to recognise this new reality.

Tuesday 22 June 2010

Budget 2010 - painful but necessary

So we now know following George Osborne's first budget today what measures are going to be taken over the next few years to get the deficit under control.

I have picked out some of the main points along with my thoughts below:

  • VAT up to 20%. As I have repeatedly stated on here I would have preferred income tax to go up rather than VAT as at least that is clear and based on ability to pay. VAT is a stealth tax and by some measures is regressive. But governments hate putting up income tax (because the public hates it whatever they might say to pollsters, punishes politicians that do it and we do live in a democracy). The £13 billion it raises is necessary unless the cuts were to go even deeper which would surely have been politically impossible and caused even greater howls from the opposition.
  • Income tax allowance threshold to increase by £1,000. I am very much in favour of this and it moves us towards the Lib Dem policy of having everyone who earns under £10,000 taken out of income tax altogether. I have had arguments with numerous left wingers on Twitter about this who keep saying that it does nothing to help the poorest in society. I know. It's not designed to. It's an income tax measure and the poorest in society do not pay income tax. What it does do it allow the lowest earners to keep more of their own money which I see as a very good thing.
  • Capital Gains tax threshold up to 28% for higher rate tax payers, kept at 18% for lower rate tax payers. I would have preferred to see this go closer to 40% to completely close the gap with the higher rate of tax but I understand that this is a compromise.
  • Corporation tax for large companies to come down from 28% to 24% in 1% decrements over the next 4 years. Corporation tax for small companies to come down from 21% to 20% next year with no further reductions scheduled. First, declaration of interest, I own and run a small business. Whilst I am pleased to see corporation tax coming down (this will encourage growth which will help us get out of the fiscal problems faster) I think the balance should have been reversed with the small companies rate coming down more quickly. This is not from a self-motivated perspective but because small companies are the engine of the economy and the less tax they pay, the more likely they are to grow and ultimately also become the large companies that pay the higher tax ultimately anyway.
  • Levy of £2 billion on banks. I would have liked this to be higher.
  • Accelerating the change in retirement age to 66. A necessary move. The sooner politicians are honest about this the better. We cannot continue to subsidise retirements of 20 or more years as the norm. Pensions were never intended to do this and the next generation cannot afford to do it.
  • Child benefit frozen for 3 years. I would much rather have seen it means tested although some say it would have been expensive to administer this. I am not convinced this would make it unworkable though. I expect Labour to go for the government's throat on this and it is harder to justify than means testing.
  • Tax credits reduced for families earning over £40K per year. I have no problem with this. The money needs to come from somewhere and this is one example of where those earning a bit more have to contribute.

There are lots of other measures but I think these are the main ones. Overall it is not a nice budget and there is lots of pain. However I totally agree with Osborne's comments that the government has been forced into this position. I think Harriet Harman actually made a good impassioned contribution from the dispatch box in response in terms of performance but there is no narrative from Labour about what they would have cut differently. They just seem to oppose everything and as a result lack credibility. They should also display more humility about why we are in this situation in the first place.

At the end of his statement, Osborne claimed that the Treasury has analysed the changes and calculated that the poorest are least affected and the richest most affected. I expect to see lots of alternative analysis from left wing blogs in the next few days telling us why they think this is wrong.

I think however that particular argument goes, the pain is necessary to get our finances back on track. Hopefully as the economy grows in the next few years some of the pain can be mitgated.

Budget day Live Chat

From 12:00 noon today I am participating in a Budget Live Chat coordinated by Left Foot Forward across a number of other blogs.

You can join us from 12:00 noon below, budget itself starts at 12:30pm:

Raising the income tax threshold - great news!

According to reports, George Osborne is likely to raise the threshold at which people start to pay income by £1000 to £7,475. This is apparently to be paid for by clawing it back from top-rate taxpayers. I am am not clear on exactly how this second part will work but if this is correct then I think it is excellent news.

Firstly it is the beginning of an implementation of the Lib Dem policy to take everyone earning less than £10,000 per year out of income tax. It gets us over a quarter of the way to realising this aim. It is also something I think we can genuinely point at at say that it is unlikely to have happened had we not been in the government.

Secondly it will offset the likely rise in VAT to 20% for the poorest earning families. If a 2.5% hike in VAT is going to cost the average family £389 ((c) 2010 Lib Dem election campaign) then surely it will cost the average lower earning families proportionally less. I do not have the exact figures but I would expect it will be a net gain to those earning the lowest amounts.

Don't get me wrong, I still don't think raising VAT is the right move but at least its effect will be mitigated for some of the most vulnerable.

Of course we hit the problem of what happens to those who do not earn anything at all but I await to see what is in the budget overall before passing comment on that.

Monday 21 June 2010

Minister warns about inevitable consequences of his own drugs policy

The Minister for Crime Prevention, James Brokenshire has asked organisers of music festivals this year to warn people about legal highs:

Mr Brokenshire said: "During the festival season we know that people may be tempted to try potentially dangerous new drugs, particularly when they are advertised as 'legal' or 'herbal'.

"That is why we are asking festival organisers and police to work with us to send out the message that these substances may not be safe..."

He also talks about how they could be cut with illegal drugs.

However I wanted to focus on one aspect of this that is an inevitable consequence of drug prohibition. One of the factors that adds to the risks of taking legal highs is that they are often fairly new substances which have been formulated to ensure they are not chemically identical to substances that are banned but that have the same or similar effects. But of course if what you have is a new substance then the short and long-term side-effects of it is going to be either unknown or at the very least there will be little data on it.

Of course most of these legal highs are just trying to emulate existing drugs that have been around and used for dozens, hundreds or even thousands of years (such as cannabis, ecstasy, cocaine etc.). The short and long term effects of many of these drugs are well known. Oh, but of course they are illegal.

So a predictable response to government drug policy, the production of alternative chemical highs could actually expose those taking them to more danger than there would have been had they instead just taken the drug that the legal chemical was trying to emulate.

There is also this in the statement from the minister:

He also said drug laws would be changed so temporary bans could be introduced on "emerging substances" while scientific advice is sought.

That sounds like a recipe for legislative and administrative disaster. Are they going to ban any newly designed chemical that might possibly get people high in some way, even if they may have other useful benefits? What about alternatives that may be synthesised to existing solvents for example? Inhaled, these may get people high. Will they be banned too? I can see this whole area rapidly degenerating into an absolute mess.

Instead of fiddling around issuing pointless "advice" about the inevitable consequences of their own policy and trying to legislate to allow them to potentially ban all unknown chemicals, the government would be better off with a fundamental review of their entire drugs policy. They are on the record as saying they will look at evidence in relation to policy. They should follow through on this rhetoric and do so in the area of drugs where evidence has been so lacking in the last few decades.

PS: Apologies for all the postings about drugs policy recently but in my defence there is a lot of muddled thinking out there!

Sunday 20 June 2010

Where will technology have taken us by 2037?

Sometimes, when I think about technology I feel like I have lived through more than one lifetime. Let me see if I can explain what I mean.

I am 35 years old and computers entered my life when I was 9 years old. I was given a ZX Spectrum by my parents for Christmas in 1983 nearly 27 years ago. I loved that computer and cut my gaming and programming teeth on it. I still look back on those days with a smile. I also now struggle to remember a time when computers were not an integral part of my life in one way or another as that computer followed by the subsequent ones (in parallel with a PC my parents got around 1987) ultimately led me to pursue a career in software development.

But the nature of the technology has changed beyond all recognition in those intervening 27 or so years.

My first computer had 48K of (random access) memory. It took 4 or 5 minutes to load a piece of software from a tape drive. You could only have one program in memory at any one time (well occasionally clever programmers got round this but with so little memory there was little point). I then moved through various other 8 bit machines and then through a 16 bit Atari ST in 1990 until eventually working with PCs during college and university.

Now I have a laptop for work and a pretty powerful PC at home both of which have many multiples of the processing power and storage space of that ZX Spectrum back in 1983.

When I was a kid I probably would have predicted that computers would get faster and would allow more storage space as well as give us much higher resolution displays. They were always the obvious limiting factors. Perhaps however the most surprising thing now though is that I carry around in my pocket a device in the form of a 16GB iPhone 3GS that:

  • Is around 170 times faster and has almost 350,000 times the storage space than my ZX Spectrum did (indeed there are games available for the iPhone that would have been amazing as arcade games just 20 years ago) whilst being less than a tenth of the volume and a quarter of the weight.
  • That I can use as a much better version of a Sony Walkman which can store hundreds of hours of audio.
  • On which I can watch many hours of video either downloaded or even streamed from e.g. the iPlayer.
  • That I can use to take photographs.
  • That I can store digital photographs taken on this and other devices for viewing any time I want.
  • That I can use to take live film including audio.
  • That I can use as a dictaphone.
  • That has GPS built in and a mapping application that will show me precisely where I am at any time just by tapping the screen a couple of times.
  • That has a built in compass.
  • That I can use to keep track of multiple electronic correspondence through e-mail, contact details for everyone I know and that I can use as a calendar/diary. All of these automatically sync up with accounts that are on my home and work PCs too.
  • That is always connected to the internet and that can rapidly look up any of hundreds of millions of pages including almost all print publications instantaneously.
  • That I can run applications on to do almost anything that you can think of including games, TV Guides, "What is near me" type apps, train timetable search apps, weather apps, etc. etc. etc. with thousands of new ones appearing every day.
  • Oh, and of course I nearly forgot that it can be used as a telephone!

When you start to write down the list of what a modern device like an iPhone can do you start to realise just how far we have come. Frankly if I had taken the 9 year old me to one side and shown him an iPhone and what it was capable of it would have blown his mind. Yet these devices and other similar ones are commonplace in 2010. Millions of people in this country have them.

What it makes me wonder though is where the technology will be in another 27 years. In 1983, my father was the age that I am now. So when I am 62, (the age he is now) where will the technology have taken us?

I risk looking a bit foolish trying to predict and looking like those old Tomorrow's World episodes that predicted hovering cars and pill meals on the moon but I will have a stab:

  • I think by then we will have devices that are augmented with the human body. Perhaps even linked into the brain. At the very least I expect them to link in with our vision system somehow to allow a fully immersive augmented reality experience to be readily available. AR is already here in some forms.
  • Communication technology will have advanced so far that Gigabytes or even Terabytes worth of data will be transmitted over the air in seconds. This will mean that massively high resolution images and videos will be able to be sent to these devices remotely in effectively real time on demand. How this will affect the structure of our media provider companies is unclear but the landscape will surely be utterly different to what it is now.
  • The technology to allow whole life recorders will be widely available within the next few years. That would put an end to arguments about who said what when but of course would have huge implications for civil liberties which might make their adoption problematic.
  • I expect within 27 years for the problem of Artificial Intelligence to either have been cracked or for the power of the processors and storage available to allow a close enough approximation of AI to be widely available.
  • I also expect voice recognition and synthesis to have evolved to the point where input devices such as keyboards are largely obsolete. I would still expect mice and touchscreens to be used though as there are some things that voice recognition will not be able to replace. However linked in with an earlier point, depending on how far the devices can be augmented with the human body they may be able to be controlled with the power of the mind alone. Scary but also very exciting.
  • We will have hover cars, pill meals and will all be living on the moon. In spangly jump suits.

OK that last bullet-point was a joke. Of course they could all turn out to be jokes. That is what is so exciting about technological advancement. And I have just really focused on one small area of portable computer equipment. There are many other areas including biology and chemistry for example that I haven't even touched upon here.

Whatever happens between now and 2037 I am certain that were the 62 year old me to appear today and show me it would blow my mind even more than I would blow the mind of the 9 year old me back in 1983.

The early 21st Century is a great time to be alive.

The hypocrisy of Simon Heffer

Simon Heffer had a thought provoking column in The Telegraph yesterday entitled "Beer should be the lifeblood of any village". In it he argues that the drink driving limits should not be reduced any further and that the smoking ban has damaged local pubs especially in rural communities.

He clearly feels strongly that people should be free to imbibe one and half pints of beer and then drive as they generally can currently. He also clearly thinks that the state stepping in to ban people from smoking anywhere on private commercial premises is over the top and a bit more reason, perhaps allowing well ventilated specific rooms for smokers to go to if the proprietor so wished would have been a more sensible compromise. I agree with both of his main points and it is a well written piece in my view. I wish more people shared this sort of liberal view on these two points.

It is interesting therefore to note that on 13th December 2006 in the midst of the Ipswich prostitute murders case he wrote about a chat he had had with a professor of ethics about drugs previously:

We fell, in one of the recesses, to discussing the drugs problem. "You know," he said, "a few years ago they had a serious drugs problem in China. So they rounded up 6,000 drugs dealers and shot them in the back of the head. Result: they don't have a drugs problem." He said this without a trace of humour, and without a trace of disapproval. It is a remark on which, in the intervening years, I have often pondered.

That same article concludes:

Drugs use is against the law because of its appalling social consequences. The law should be enforced in an exemplary way. If that means nice middle-class people – possibly like some of those in the shadow cabinet – going to jail, so much the better. It was scandalous, but typical, that Kate Moss was not punished for her recent promiscuous cocaine use, because it indicated that the trade is acceptable too, with heaven knows what results for those who idolise her. If drugs use is made more difficult, there will be fewer pushers. If there are fewer pushers then life will become harder for those further up the food chain.

Punishing drugs users would also be likely to give the police more information about their suppliers. The prisons cannot be too full for such people, who are the most destructive in society. Can we not see this blindingly obvious truth? Of course, even if drugs use were eliminated, there would still be tarts, and there would still be people who kill tarts. There would probably, though, be gratifyingly fewer of both.

Quite aside from the fact that his logic is severely flawed (we have had crack-down after crack-down on drugs for the last 40 years and use has risen hugely), where is the liberal Simon Heffer who wants the government to back off from people's freedoms to drink beer and smoke tobacco? Both of these drugs harm and kill far more people each year than all illegal drugs combined. Why is there such a clear difference in his mind between the two groups of drugs, those that are legal and those that the government (sometimes seemingly arbitrarily) deem illegal?

If drugs use really is against the law because of its appalling social consequences then why is alcohol still legal? And why is Heffer defending everyone's right to use alcohol freely? That drug leads to utterly dreadful social consequences. The hospitals are brimming over every Friday and Saturday night with victims of the abuse of alcohol, both directly and indirectly.

In another article from just a couple of years ago entitled: "Make junkies pay for hospital treatment" he wrote:

I make no apology for being so uncharitable towards the drugs culture, or for hectoring a government that refuses to deal seriously with it. It causes, on a conservative estimate, 70 per cent of the crime in our country. Mugging, burglary, prostitution and most other forms of vice are linked to it. It provokes violence and murder. Poverty, misery and broken families are its result. So, too, as this report shows, are numerous health problems, notably mental illness. The drain this puts on our public resources, whether in the NHS or the social security bill, runs into billions of pounds that could be spent on useful causes - education, care of the elderly, or more police and better hospitals. That toll of money and human misery is what our rulers choose to pay for the drugs menace in this country: or, rather, they choose to have us pay it.

No recognition in the slightest that the fact that these drugs are illegal massively exacerbates their negative effects. Much of the mugging, burglary and prostitution occur as a result of the illegality of the drugs and their corresponding hugely inflated price. Also, there are many more broken homes in this country as a result of alcohol abuse than that of any illegal drug.

In this third article our old friend drug executions rears its head again, although this time Heffer is more definitive having had a couple of years to ponder:

The evil that drug dealers do cannot be adequately punished under our present law; I would take a leaf out of China's book, and have them taken out and shot in the back of the head.


Bizarrely, Heffer waxes lyrical in the first article I linked to about how wonderful a pub landlord he worked for when he was young was with a "charismatic personality". At the same time he is advocating the idea of shooting those who supply other forms of recreational drugs in the back of the head.

He is happy to defend the right to use nice middle-class drugs that he and his friends probably indulge in perhaps even occasionally to excess whilst wishing the death penalty and denial of health-care to those involved with other drugs with mind-altering (and in some cases less harmful) effects.

Simon Heffer is a hypocrite of the highest order

Saturday 19 June 2010

I am a guest on Ken Livingstone's LBC show today from 11am

I will be on LBC again from 11am today with Ken Livingstone reviewing the papers and talking about politics.

You can listen to it on 97.3fm if you're in or near London or via this link online if you aren't.

Friday 18 June 2010

You have been watching...

Here are the five most popular posts on this blog from the last week in case you missed them:

And you should have been watching this. A special that aired on the Fox network in the US from John Stossel who spends the whole show demolishing the idea that the "War on drugs" is working. On US network TV too. On a station owned by Rupert Murdoch! Kudos. Highly recommended viewing.

Motion for drugs impact assessment at Lib Dem Autumn Conference

My friend Ewan, the founder and head of Liberal Democrats for Drug Policy Reform has put together a motion for Autumn conference in which he calls for an impact assessment of current drug policy including all alternatives.

Both parties in our coalition government are on record as saying they are always keen to assess the evidence relating to policy. An impact assessment is the best way to be able to impartially assess the evidence relating to drugs policy, therefore I hope that this move will be welcomed by the Lib Dem party leadership and at large. There is also a section about heroin maintenance programmes for which there is already ample evidence of efficacy.

Ewan is looking for voting reps to support this motion at conference and more generally for support from across the party. I think it is vital that although we are in government we still retain the dynamic policy debate that attracted so many to the party in the first place.

If you are a Lib Dem and want to support the motion please contact me via e-mail. The deadline for the motion is 30th June so please get in touch before then.

The wording of the motion is below:

Conference notes:

A) The state of Britain's finances requires urgent consideration of policies which might significantly reduce state spending but which at the same time could help create a healthier society.
B) Despite many billions of pounds of drug-related spending each year nationally and internationally, there has been a clear long term pattern of increasing drug availability, increasing use of drugs that cause the most harm, increasing health harms, and increasing levels of crime.
C) Illicit drug profits are fuelling crime, corruption and conflict across the globe and undermining security and development in a growing number of producer and transit countries, with the gravest impacts falling on the poor and marginalised. Up to 50% of Taleban income comes from the opium trade.

D) Prior to coming before Parliament all new legislation is now required to have an Impact Assessment completed comparing the costs and benefits of the proposed approach with all the main alternatives to ensure the best option is being taken. This was not the case in 1971, and no Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) has been carried out.

E) A comprehensive survey by the World Health Organisation has demonstrated that there is no association between more stringent prohibition and lower levels of drug use. Heroin maintenance treatment trials have yielded consistently positive results. Wider adoption of this practice in Switzerland has extended these excellent results and has broad public support. Decriminalisation of personal possession and use of drugs in Portugal has also yielded many benefits and is now supported by all the main political parties in the country.

Conference believes:
i) We have a duty to assess all possible approaches to drugs to ascertain the best way to:
a. Minimise deaths, injuries and illness brought about by overdose, contaminants, blood-borne infection, and the mental health implications of drug use.
b. Ensure dependent drug users are not compelled to harm themselves or others by funding their drug use through street prostitution, acquisitive crime or drug dealing
c. Increase respect for and co-operation with the police, ensure drug dealing is no longer an attractive career path for young people, minimise gang violence and prevent prison overcrowding.
d. Spare the Treasury billions of pounds in criminal justice costs, raise tax income, and reduce the costs of drug-related crime to businesses and individuals.
e. Ensure producer and transit countries are not being destabilised and constrained in their development potential by the activity of drug cartels and the resulting resource expenditure required to combat them.
f. Reduce the exposure of children to drugs and promote safe and stable family and social environments for their healthy development.
ii) The Liberal Democrats are a party committed to evidence-based policy formation. A drugs policy impact assessment can allow Britain to lead the world in subjecting this politically controversial subject to the kind of independent, expert scrutiny that could finally break the taboo on public political engagement with drugs policy issues.
Conference therefore calls for the Government to:
1) Recognise the extensive evidence supporting heroin maintenance treatment as an effective treatment option for dependent users, make funds available for the setting up of heroin maintenance treatment programmes throughout the UK, and set ambitious targets for the reduction of indicators such as street prostitution, acquisitive crime and drug-related death to encourage provision of effective health and social services for dependent drug users.
2) i) Immediately initiate an Impact Assessment of the Misuse of Drugs Act (1971) and related legislation and policy comparing the current approach to drugs with all the alternatives including stepping up prohibition, Portuguese-style decriminalisation of personal possession and use and strict legal regulation of drug production and supply by the government. This process must be developed in cooperation with key stakeholders and be open to rigorous independent scrutiny.

ii) Call on the EC and UN to undertake an Impact Assessment internationally to incorporate impacts on producer and transit countries, and ensure drug policy reflects the “three pillars of the UN” in supporting development, human rights, and peace and security across the globe.

Please, no more reduction in the drink-drive limit

There are rumblings afoot that indicate the government may reduce the alcohol drink-drive limit from 80mg to 50mg per 100ml of blood. A review by Peter North has just reported and has recommended the change.

John Leech the Lib Dem MP (amongst various other politicians) has come out in favour of the move saying the following on his blog:

In the last Parliament I seemed to be fighting a losing battle with Labour ministers and Select Committee members seemingly happy with the status quo. In the end the review by Peter North was set up and I am delighted that it recommends that we reduce the drink drive limit from 80 to 50mg.
A reduction in the limit is estimated to save more than 150 lives each year on our roads and will bring us in line with most of Western Europe.

I am afraid in this instance I am very much in agreement with the former Labour ministers and Transport Select Committee members.

The drink-drive limit already means that realistically an average size man cannot drink more than 1.5 pints of typical beer without seriously risking being over the limit. A change to 50mg would edge us into the dangerous territory of many people risking being over the new limit having had just one pint of something like Stella Artois or Kronenbourg which are typical of the strength of lagers available in many pubs these days. The situation will be slightly different for a woman due to standard body sizes and the rate at which typically men and women absorb and process alcohol differing slightly but the same principles apply for both genders.

When considering policy changes, legislators have to take into account how the new law will work in practise. Setting the limit at a point where ordinary people drinking a pint (which is our standard measure for beer in this country) of typical strength lager could put you over the limit and hence risking automatically losing your driving license risks losing public support (by being seen as excessive) which is vital for measures like this. In fact the public could be forgiven for thinking that a measure like this is effectively saying that you are not allowed to drink any alcohol at all. I wonder how many people would support that.

As John points out, this measure could save 150 lives per year. I won't quibble with the figures but I will say that I bet reducing the limit to 25mg would save even more lives and reducing it to 0 would do so even further. So would fitting speed inhibitors on cars to reduce their speeds to a maximum of 25 miles per hour.

My point is that you have to balance out how many lives any measure is estimated to save by the negative consequences of such a move. I think moving to 50mg is not justified. Think about how much more resource and police time enforcing the new limit will take as it is likely that more people will be caught up in the new limit.

Now imagine that instead of focusing that resource on arresting and prosecuting people all those people who will be between the 50mg and 80mg points, they instead focused it more on tackling the hardcore of motorists who totally ignore the existing limits and regularly drive whilst drunk (and for whom the new limit will not make any difference). Has any commensurate study been done to work out how many lives this alternative approach would save?

I realise that arguing against a measure that has been determined will save lives is not an easy position to be in but we have to look at these things in a more rounded way. Otherwise the legislative ratchet will continue to tighten in all areas until we will by default in a few years find that many of the civil liberties that we took for granted a few years ago will eventually have gone.

Thursday 17 June 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 17th June 2010 - #bbcqt

It's #bbcqt day again and the Live Chat starts on this blog from 10:30pm as normal.

David Dimbleby will be joined by the Energy Secretary and Liberal Democrat MP Chris Huhne, the shadow Welsh secretary Peter Hain and the DUP's Jeffrey Donaldson.

The panel will also include William Hague's former press chief Amanda Platell and the Labour peer Baroness Helena Kennedy.

Join us below from 10:30pm:

The Sheffield Forgemasters "cut" is no such thing

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

Listening to the news tonight on Radio 4, I heard the report about the cuts announced by the Danny Alexander on behalf of the government today that total about £2 billion of spending. There are various things included in the mix but I want to focus on the one that seems to have yielded the strongest political reaction. That is the withdrawal of the loan for Sheffield Forgemasters.

The coverage on the news included Labour politicians strongly denouncing the move and claiming Nick Clegg (a Sheffield MP) would not be able to show his face in Sheffield again as well as an interview with the landlord of a local pub who was devastated about the loss of jobs he said this would cause and how he thinks workers at the plant with mortgages today would end up losing their homes.

However this is not true. The measure that was pledged (but crucially not funded) by the previous government in March was for a loan to expand the business. There are also suspicions that it was pledged to win electoral support for Labour in Sheffield just ahead of the election. Irrespective of whether this is true or not what has been "cut" today was a loan to fund expansion. Current jobs at the plant should not be affected by this. Indeed at the end of the news report after all the hyperbole this was made clear by the reporter. Anyone who had tuned out before the end of the report however would have been left with a very different impression.

Let's be clear about this, what was announced today for the Sheffield plant is not a cut. It is a withdrawal of a loan for expansion of a private company.

Also, as Chris Huhne has pointed out, the expansion plan seemed like a good one to him and he sees no reason why it could not be funded from the capital market. I absolutely agree. It is not the job of government to be stepping in to support this expansion of a private firm at a time when we have such a huge deficit, despite the outrage expressed by Labour politicians.

Labour lack credibility on public spending cuts

One of the things that I keep coming back to when I hear Labour politicians talking about cuts is the fact that Labour very deliberately did not have a public spending review earlier this year. This meant that they did not have to spell out exactly what spending cuts they would implement over the next few years.

Whilst this may have been good for short term political reasons it is surely bad in the longer term. It means that a party that until 6 weeks ago was in government now already looks like an opportunistic opposition howling about the cuts being implemented by the government whilst simultaneously not offering a credible alternative to what they would have done. They can claim that they would not have cut at all at first but that only applies for the next few months. Beyond that time-frame they need to have a coherent message and I am not seeing it at the moment. Meanwhile the government is making all the running.

Of course they are hobbled by the fact that they are in the middle of an increasingly bitter (but absolutely necessary) leadership contest and hence there is not one clear line that they should be pursuing. But if they had had the public spending review that they should have had earlier this year then at least they would be able to say with some authority what they would (and wouldn't) have done. Even some of the leadership candidates are now saying they should have had the review. Too late now I'm afraid.

As it is it is starting to look like the coalition is taking the necessary decisions to get things back on track whilst Labour politicians carp from the sidelines.

Yet again, short term political tactics from Gordon Brown have had longer term consequences that are very damaging for his party.

Sarah Palin visit would not be good for the Tories

Some Tory and right-wing bloggers are getting very excited about the possibility that Sarah Palin, the former GOP VP candidate may visit the UK later this year. Apparently she is keen to meet Margaret Thatcher who is one of her political heroines.

There is even talk that she might address the Tory conference. At the very least it is likely were she to come that David Cameron would have to meet her.

I think a visit from Palin would not be good for the Tories though. Of course she would bring with her the glamour and excitement that she has built up in the last couple of years. But she would also bring with her, her complete lack of understanding of many issues as well as pretty extreme views.

The Conservatives who relish the thought of a Palin visit should bear in mind that many people in this country do not see her as a maverick hero with right on her side but a strange woman with some very suspect views on lots of issues. An association with her risks looking like the party is aligning itself with very right-wing elements, not really what I suspect Team Cameron want to see.

They should also bear in mind that even if she gets the GOP nomination for 2012 (and it is surely pretty likely that someone who is actually good comes through before then) she would be exposed and ridiculed during the election she would then certainly lose. I expect Tina Fey is honing her fantastic impression right now.

Do they really want to associate themselves so closely with an extremist who is likely to be such a big loser in a couple of years' time?

Wednesday 16 June 2010

Other Reckonings - 16th June 2010

  • The Fink singles out Dawn Primarolo as a candidate for Labour's worst minister. I can think of a few contenders for that title. Maybe we should have a vote...
  • Alex Massie on how Obama's pragmatism is his strength and also his weakness.
  • Emma Burnell writes about what socialism means to her.
  • John Stossell suggests that despite claims to the contrary, "The War on Drugs" is far from over. In fact if anything the latest "crackdowns" by the Obama administration show the "War" is very much alive and kicking.

Wednesday bonus is coverage of how senior BP management dealt with a recent coffee spill in the boardroom:

Vetting and Barring scheme scaled down - will it be scrapped?

Fair play to Theresa May. I had my doubts when she was initially appointed as Home Secretary but she has wasted little time in starting to address one of the most egregious pieces of legislation brought in by the previous government, that of the Vetting and Barring scheme.

I have blogged at length about the scheme previously (see here, here and here for examples) and I am not going to go over old ground too much. Suffice to say it's horribly authoritarian and in its current form is likely to massively undermine community cohesion and foster suspicion and fear as well as cost a fortune and reduce the number of people willing to help their neighbours' children.

The announcement claims that the government will "fundamentally" change the system and that any checks should be "proportionate and sensible".

Despite my enthusiasm for the fact that there is movement on the scheme, I am dubious that any changes to this scheme will result in "proportionate and sensible" checks. The whole idea is so ill-conceived that I cannot really see it working at all no matter how it is revised.

So I wait with interest to see what the changes will result in and if the government can defy my expectations. However if as I suspect it is not possible to do what May suggests then the entire thing should be scrapped.

Tory Rascal and Matt Wardman on House of Comments - Episode 30

The latest "House of Comments" podcast with myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion political blog is now live. The 30th episode which we recorded on Tuesday 15th June is available to download raw mp3 file here or you can subscribe to the podcast via iTunes here.

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 Tory Rascal and Matt Wardman of The Wardman Wire.

We discussed the Saville report into Bloody Sunday and the political reaction, the Labour leadership contest (can Diane Abbott really win it?), how badly are newspapers really faring at the moment (sparked by this post on Left Foot Forward) and also talked a little bit about whether blogs could ever fill the role that the mass and local media have traditionally had.

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