Thoughts on politics and life from a liberal perspective

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.

Saturday 24 July 2010

In praise of Hayes

Back in the early 1990s I used to regularly watch a discussion show on late night ITV called "Whale On" hosted by James Whale. A regular guest was a Tory MP Jerry Hayes. That is the first time I came across him and he regularly commentated about issues on the programme from a political perspective.

I hadn't really heard of him again (he lost his seat in 1997) until I noticed him popping up on Twitter recently as @JerryHayes1. He seems like a nice chap with some views I agree with. He is clearly on the moderate wing of the Conservative Party.

The thing I have most noticed about him though are his generally very good pieces on the "Think Politics" blog which he tweets links to. They are often thought-provoking, very well written and he is not afraid to criticise elements within his own party which I am always pleased to see.

I would recommend checking them out if you get the chance.

Ian Tomlinson Fighting Fund

Following on from the news this week that the CPS will not be pursuing any charges against the police with respect to the death of Ian Tomlinson who died after being struck by a policeman during the G20 protests, his family has launched a campaign and are raising funds to help support their fight for justice. I blogged about this utter travesty here.

The blogpost from the Tomlinson family site is here.

Here are the details:

Many have asked if there is anything more they can do and today, we are launching a Campaign Fighting Fund. There is still long road ahead in the fight for justice and the Fund will help the Tomlinson family to make decisions about the direction of the campaign without always having to worry about the financial costs, especially when the emotional ones are tough enough already.

Donations by PayPal won't be up and running until next week, so check back then. But if you personally or your organisation (union branch, community or campaign group, for instance) can help by making a donation, please make cheques payable to 'Ian Tomlinson Family Campaign' and send to:

Ian Tomlinson Family Campaign
c/o Newham Monitoring Project
170 Harold Rd
London E13 0SE

I hope the family can raise enough money to help them get justice. I will certainly be donating something myself.

Friday 23 July 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: Police wrongly seize photographer's camera after crash. Despite the many times politicians and senior police officers have publicly stated this must stop it is still happening. This one was just up the road from where I live.

GDP 1.1% up - good sign but let's not read too much into it

So the figures are now out for growth in Q2 2010 and it is looking like it is almost double what was predicted by economists. They thought it would be 0.6% and it is actually 1.1%

Predictably both Labour and the government are trying to claim that the better than expected figures vindicate their policies. Alistair Darling claims that they prove the previous government's "measured and balanced" approach is working. Meanwhile George Osborne claims that they show the current government's plan to cut the public sector is the right approach (only 0.1% of the growth came from the public sector, the remaining 1% is from the private sector).

I think it is too early to say what these figures show with any certainty. Also, they cover April, May and June which is almost perfectly bisected by the two administrations. April and the first half of May had Labour at the helm whilst for the second half of May and June the coalition was in place. But the idea that the decisions taken by the coalition in recent weeks would already have percolated through to the growth figures is I think a little far-fetched. If anything I would say Labour have the stronger claim as it is their policies in the last year or two that will still be having their effect. But even then, there was a strong expectation that Labour would not be in power after May and so market sentiment for what it thought would happen may also need to be priced in.

So I don't think either side should get carried away and make overblown claims at this stage. not least because these are only preliminary figures which could end up revised down in a few weeks time.

I would suggest that the growth figures in the next few quarters will be more instructive as to whether we are on the right track now rather than what we have seen today.

George Osborne's lips betray concentration not conspiracy

I noticed on a couple of blogposts yesterday (Lib Con and Hadleigh Roberts) that they were drawing attention to the fact that when Nick Clegg made his now infamous statement about how Jack Straw had supported "the illegal invasion of Iraq", George Osborne appeared to know what he was saying before he said it as he was lip-syncing along with him.

Here is the relevant clip so you can judge for yourself:

Having watched it several times now I have come to a different conclusion. I think Osborne is engaging in a form of unconscious mimicry. I have noticed this amongst some people I know. It seems to often manifest itself in repeating the last word of somebody's sentence just after they have said it but I have also seen it where someone appears to be half-heartedly lip-syncing with the speaker too. This is what appears to be happening here. Osborne is sort of making the same mouth movements as Clegg but if you watch closely it is a split second after he has said each word. He is also nodding along with the rhythm of Clegg's speech pattern. The look on his face is one of intense concentration, I suspect as he is taking in what Clegg is saying rather than knowing what it will be before he has said it.

This actually makes more sense than Clegg and Osborne having colluded on this. Osborne voted for the Iraq war and also does not consider it illegal. Why would he want Clegg to say that? It just puts him and his colleagues in an embarrassing position. And if there was collusion you would expect Osborne to do everything in his power to suppress any urge to mouth the words as Clegg said them. As for the pointing at Straw and laughing as soon as Clegg sat down, well that's what happens at PMQs. I do not think we need read anything much into it.

So in this case I think that all Osborne's lips betrayed were intense concentration and a slight nervous tic rather than some conspiracy.

Thursday 22 July 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 22nd July 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 although I will hopefully be around for most of it too (I am on taxi duty so may have to duck out).

There will likely be an end of term feel to proceedings tonight with parliament breaking up and this being the last #bbcqt until September so bring your games in with you. Bagsy Slinky.

David Dimbleby will be joined by the Immigration Minister Damian Green, the shadow transport secretary Sadiq Khan, UKIP's Nigel Farage, the RMT leader Bob Crow and the economist Ruth Lea.

Join us below from 10:30pm:

The Ian Tomlinson decision is a travesty of justice

The CPS have announced today that there will be no prosecution of the police officer caught on film striking Ian Tomlinson in connection with his death during the G20 protests last April. Mr Tomlinson was walking away from the police with his hands in his pockets when the assault took place. I blogged about this incident at the time.

There are various reasons given for there not being any prosecution. Firstly, they claim that because there were two post-mortems performed on Mr Tomlinson that prosecutors would not be able to prove beyond reasonable doubt that there was a connection between the assault and his death. The first post-mortem found it was a heart attack, the second one found internal bleeding was a cause. The CPS also ruled out a prosecution for assault because too much time has elapsed. Charges need to be brought within six months. They also ruled out charges of ABH and misconduct in public office.

So the result of a 15 month long investigation into the death of a man who was just moments before caught on camera being assaulted by a police officer, where until the filmed evidence was produced the police appeared to close ranks and deny even that had happened is that nobody will be prosecuted.

To say that this is outrageous it an understatement. The pathologist used in the first post-mortem has been removed from the Home Office register of accredited pathologists and is under two separate investigations regarding his conduct. Surely given this, the CPS could have a reasonable chance of discrediting the initial post-mortem and hence enhancing the credibility of the second one and therefore a chance at least of establishing in law if there is a link between the assault and the death?

Also, the reason it is more than 6 months regarding the assault charge is because the CPS have taken 15 months. This is an utter travesty for Mr Tomlinson's family. They have been denied justice by a system that is surely now utterly discredited when it comes to investigating suspicious deaths where police are suspected of being involved.

We cannot go on like this. The public have to have faith in the police and faith that if those wearing the uniforms transgress, that they will face the same consequences as everybody else would.

If you think that I am being unfair, ask yourself this. If this had been the other way round and on that day Mr Tomlinson had assaulted a police officer from behind who had died a few minutes later, do you honestly think that 15 months later he would have discovered there would be no charges at all against him?

No, neither do I.

Don't panic!

So in the latest Sun/YouGov poll the Lib Dems are down to 13% (not far off half of what they got in the general election just two and a half months ago) with the Tories on 44% and Labour on 35%. On a uniform national swing this would see the Conservatives with a majority of 36 and, demonstrating yet again the iniquity of the electoral system - the Lib Dems almost wiped out on 15 seats (down 42 on the GE).

I still do not think there is any need to fret about this. Our party has just entered a coalition with a party whom some observers (and indeed party members) think was not its natural choice. The government has ensured it has got a grip of the finances and started to put into effect some of the "difficult decisions" that we so often heard referred to in the abstract prior to the election but which now have to be implemented.

The bad news has come early on, and indeed will likely continue to come for some time and of course the Lib Dems are fully involved in taking these decisions.

I am also unsurprised to see the Conservatives increasing in the polls. There is usually a honeymoon period for a new government and Prime Minister. We even saw this with Gordon Brown in 2007. We have an odd effect at play here though in that one of the coalition partners has gone up whilst the other has gone down. I suspect that this is a reflection of the fact that Conservative minded voters are more inclined towards the cuts that have been announced whereas the Lib Dem base is (understandably) a bit more nervous. I think it is also likely that the public is still adjusting to the facts of life under a coalition.

Now I am of course not ecstatic about the polls. I would prefer it if we were doing much better but this parliament is likely to run for 4 or 5 years. Between elections in previous cycles we have been as low as 11%. Those low points have not been translated into woeful electoral results previously and I am optimistic that it will not happen this time either.

By the time of the next election, either the economy will be back on track and both parties within the government will get credit for this or (less likely I think) things will not have improved much and Labour will have a much stronger claim that they would have done it better. Either way I think that the two parties of government will take their share of the credit or blame. I cannot see this divergence in party fortunes persisting for several years when they are both taking the decisions.

The important thing is for the Lib Dems to talk up their achievements. There were some good things in the budget for example (£1,000 tax threshold rise, capital gains tax rise etc.) that would simply not have been there under a Conservative government. There are plenty of other examples too. We need to make sure that at every opportunity we rebut the "betrayal" narrative that we see from Labour and others and ensure we point out just how much of a positive difference our influence within government has made.

Now is not the time to panic.

Wednesday 21 July 2010

Other Reckonings - 21st July 2010

  • Jonathan Kay writing for The National Post thinks that conservatives global-warming sceptics are a liability to their cause.
  • Eaten by Missionaries asks if Labour is having a reverse Clause 4 moment. Is that in the Karma-Sutra?
  • Tom Harris reckons that David Miliband poses the biggest threat to the coalition. I'd say he poses a bigger threat to Labour.
  • On an historic day blog guru Mark Pack ((c) Channel 4) gives us the history of PMQs.
  • Caron Lindsay on two tales of law enforcement activity.

Can Clegg answer some PMQs "in a personal capacity"?

I am seeing reports on Twitter (e.g. here) that a Number 10 spokesperson has claimed that Nick Clegg was speaking "in a personal capacity" during PMQs today, I think regarding the legality of the Iraq war.

Here is exactly what he said taken from Hansard:

The Deputy Prime Minister: The right hon. Gentleman may bellow as much as he likes. I am happy to account for everything that we are doing in this coalition Government—a coalition Government who have brought together two parties, working in the national interest, to sort out the mess that he left behind. We may have to wait for his memoirs, but perhaps one day he will account for his role in the most disastrous decision of all: the illegal invasion of Iraq.

He makes reference to various things that the government is doing using the term "we". He then concludes by accusing Jack Straw of having been involved in the "illegal invasion of Iraq".

Some people on the Live Chat I was running at the time commented that it was amusing to see Hague and Osborne sitting alongside Clegg as he said those words knowing that they had both voted for the invasion.

Is it feasible though to have a government minister standing at the dispatch box, answering questions on behalf of the Prime Minister/government and then a few hours later have those words "clarified" as a personal statement?

Perhaps we are coming up against a problem of having a coalition government formed of two parties which in some areas have very different views about issues, Iraq being one of them. Clegg's parliamentary colleagues of the party he leads would overwhelmingly have supported this statement but of course the massed Tory ranks behind him will not have done. In fact I think it is more accurate to say that Clegg was speaking in a "Lib Dem capacity".

Perhaps it is OK for ministers to say things that are not directly aligned with government policy. Maybe that is something that will have to be accommodated as part of the "new politics". It would certainly be a novel approach but would appear to sit uncomfortably with our existing procedures and structures. However, as I have argued before collective responsibility can be ridiculously constraining sometimes even when the government is formed of only one party.

Of course this is now being interpreted as a "gaffe" and Labour activists are having a field day with it. I do think the government needs to be clearer about what it is doing with respect to this.

It has unfortunately overshadowed what was otherwise a very good performance by Nick Clegg.

Claire Spencer and Alex Massie on House of Comments - Episode 35

The latest "House of Comments" podcast with myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion blog is now live. The 35th episode which we recorded on Tuesday 20th July 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 Claire Spencer of the Labour "Noonday Thoughts" blog and Alex Massie of The Spectator.

We discussed David Cameron's "Big Society" idea and whether it can really make a difference, potential cuts to the BBC license fee and the political furore in the USA regarding the Lockerbie bomber Abdelbaset Ali al-Megrahi.

From now until the end of August we will be doing these fortnightly instead of the usual weekly recordings so the next 3 episodes will be recorded on August 3rd, 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.

Nick Clegg's first PMQs Live Chat - 21st July 2010 - #PMQs

To mark Nick Clegg's first PMQs I thought I would host a Live Chat on here whilst it is in progress.

PMQs starts at 12:00noon with coverage on BBC Two and the chat will start a few minutes before. Join us below:

Lib Dem ministers and MPs become more high profile

The results of a nationwide survey were reported yesterday on Politics Home. The main headlines were that Nick Clegg is apparently more popular than David Cameron and that Vince Cable topped the chart.

These results are both good news for the Lib Dems (although we need to bear in mind our very low voting intention figures at the moment which might just check any enthusiam) but I do not think it is the most significant finding from the research.

The poll also tests the profile of politicians and this is where it gets interesting.

David Cameron is top of the profile ratings with 67%. However Nick Clegg is not very far behind on 61%. There are a few Labour figures better recognised than Clegg (Harman and Mandelson are slightly higher and Balls is tied with him) but of course they were in government for 13 years. I expect their recognition will fade as time goes on especially if none of them have significant roles in the opposition after September.

Clegg is actually better recognised than any other Conservative in the survey apart from Cameron and Hague. We should bear in mind that Cameron has had nearly 5 years as leader of the opposition and Hague was leader himself from 1997-2001 and a major figure since. I think this is quite a remarkable turnaround for someone like Clegg who many (non political) people would have struggled to place earlier this year. He is better recognised than the Chancellor of the Exchequer!

Vince Cable has a 55% profile which is very high as well. In terms of the Cabinet it is only Cameron, Hague, Clegg and Osborne who are better known than him.

Even further down the ranks people like Simon Hughes and Chris Huhne are both on 33% which is higher than Conservatives like Andrew Lansley and Philip Hammond. They even pip Andy Burnham currently running for the Labour leadership who is only on 28%.

The reason I think this is significant is because it shows that the Lib Dems are having an impact. I am pleased that the approval ratings for Clegg and Cable are high but in the longer terms the fact that people are really starting to know who our senior politicians are shows that they are paying attention to what our party is saying. It demonstrates that we can really have an impact on the national conversation and make a difference.

I also expect overall the recognition ratings for our MPs to rise as time goes on. For example Clegg is taking PMQs later today which will raise his profile further (and will do so whenever Cameron is not available) and with the AV referendum campaign starting soon, the first national referendum for 35 years, building towards a climax next May with Lib Dems at the forefront of a yes vote that can surely only further contribute to this rise in recognition.

Of course it's all very well being recognised, the broader task is capitalising upon that and ultimately translating it into voting intentions.

But given how difficult it has been historically for our politicians to even be heard I think an important first hurdle has been vaulted. It's up to us as a party and especially our leaders with the national platform they have now got to capitalise upon that opportunity.

PS: Speaking of Nick Clegg's first PMQs, I will be running a Live Chat on this blog to mark the occasion from 12:00noon today.

Tuesday 20 July 2010

Nick Clegg has a great opportunity when he takes PMQs tomorrow

If Nick Clegg is a bit nervous tonight he can be forgiven. Tomorrow he will stand in for David Cameron for Prime Minister's Questions for the first time.

If someone had suggested 4 months ago that by July Nick Clegg would be taking PMQs you would probably have thought they had gone a bit peculiar, but here we are. One of the duties of the Deputy Prime Minister is to answer the questions when the PM is away as he currently is in the USA.

What I am particularly interested in is how he handles the inevitable mischievous questions. You know, the ones that will deliberately pick a part of the government's programme that the Lib Dems are known to be uncomfortable with and effectively try and embarrass the DPM by showing up "splits". I hope he deals with them in a mature fashion explaining that that is how coalitions work. He should not feel compelled to pretend that he and the Lib Dems agree with every dotted i and crossed t of the government's programme.

I also hope that he does his best to answer the questions fully. David Cameron impressed me on this in his first week but seems to have slipped a bit recently. Clegg would do well to demonstrate that he can properly answer questions and not try to use every question as an opportunity to score points off his political opponents. The more statesmanlike he can appear, the better the prospects in the longer terms for the Lib Dems. Our party has often been accused of not being serious about power. What could be more serious than our leader being held to account in the House of Commons by fellow parliamentarians on the key political issues of the day?

Nick Clegg widely impressed in the first leaders debate during the election campaign. The public knows him a little better now but tomorrow is still a great opportunity to further cement his reputation as a substantial political figure.

I fully expect him to rise to the challenge.

Why Windows reports my 2TB drive as 1.81TB

Before you read on, I should warn you that this blogpost is about ways of measuring computer storage and it gets a bit mathematical.

I got a new hard drive for my computer today. It is advertised as 2TB (or terabytes) of storage space. However when I installed it and had a look in Windows Explorer to check the capacity it is reading as 1.81TB. This is before I have copied anything to it.

I expect many other people have had similar experiences like this. There is an explanation for it. the storage space has not gone anywhere. It is because there are two ways of measuring what a terabyte is.

Back in the day when I first started using computers in the early 1980s the units for measuring computer storage space were usually bytes, kilobytes or at a push megabytes. A byte is a unit of storage that contains 8 bits (a bit is either a 1 or a 0, the lowest level of storage in the computer). So a byte can hold a value anywhere from 0 to 255. This is the building block upon which the much larger storage amounts are built upon.

Because of the way computers work using binary or base 2, it is convenient for them to have things expressed in powers of 2. In the example above regarding the number of bits in a byte, the number of different configurations that a byte can hold is 256 or 2 to the power 8 (2^8). When I first started using them, a kilobyte was 1024 bytes. Again, this is a power of 2, 2^10 bytes. A megabyte was 1024 kilobytes. As computers started to need more and more space the larger units we regularly see today such as gigabyte and terabyte started to be used. A gigabyte was 1024 megabytes and a terabyte was 1024 gigabytes.

The problem is that using 1024 as a multiplier is not a very accessible way for humans to think about these levels of data storage. It's much easier for us with our ten fingers and thumbs to think about things in base 10 or decimal as we usually refer to it. So people started rounding them down. Instead of a kilobyte being 1024 bytes it became acceptable for it to denote 1000 bytes. The same went for all the other units of computer measurement so a megabyte became 1000 kilobytes (or 1,000,000 bytes) etc.

In the year 2000 it became clear that there was too much confusion so a new system was brought in whereby what used to be referred to as a kilobyte was renamed a kibibyte. So officially 1000 bytes became a kilobyte and 1024 bytes are a kibibyte. 1024 kibibytes are a mebibyte. 1024 mebibytes are a gibibyte etc. etc. This enabled people to refer to the standard units using their more easily accessible multiples of 1000.

So why is Windows reporting my storage space on my hard drive incorrectly?

Because for various reasons computers are still using the kibibyte, mebibyte etc. way of denoting storage space. So when a hard drive turns up that has what the manufacturers and the marketeers all claim is 2TB, the computer takes one look at it and says, OK, so there are 2,000,000,000,000 bytes here. It then divides this amount by 1024 4 times to work out the number of tebibytes which in this case is approximately 1.81.

This might seem like a very arcane discussion but I see this as a big problem. Most people do not understand what I have just outlined above. Therefore they buy a drive that says 2TB on the box but when they install it it says 1.81TB in Windows and there is no explanation as to why this should be.

The difference between a kilobyte and a kibibyte is about 2.35%. It's not very much. The difference between a megabyte and a mebibyte is still less than 5%. But by the time we get up to the difference between a terabyte and a tebibyte the difference is nearly 10%. And as storage space increases in the coming years this difference is only going to get worse as we scale up and all those 1024s get mulitplied together. the next two levels up, petabytes and exabytes lead to a disparity of over 11% and 13% respectively. And if you think storage will never reach those sorts of levels in domestic devices, gigabytes and terabytes seemed impossibly large to us twenty or so years ago.

I am very happy with my new drive and I knew I was only going to get about 1.8 tebibytes out of it. There will be others however who will feel ripped off by this disparity. At the very least, computer manufacturers should be a bit clearer what they actually mean and perhaps the software and operating systems should also do a better job of defining exactly what they mean by MB, GB and TB.

That way, by the time we get to PB and EB the disparity will be understood and accepted rather than being the bane of technical support lines as customers try to work out where their "missing" storage space has gone.

You can read more about this subject here if you are interested.

Are the Lib Dems too London-centric organisationally?

I have recently been made aware that there is a potential problem with the way the Lib Dems organise their Federal Policy Committee. Apparently the meetings of this group are largely held in London.

I know that there are some people who live far outside London who would like to put themselves forward for election to the body but because of the travelling involved would struggle to travel the distance regularly for various reasons.

I can understand the logic behind holding the meetings in London. There are facilities available in the form of Cowley Street. It is near parliament which makes it easier for the parliamentarians to be involved. Also, if you live in the South East, the most populated part of the country then it is fairly central.

But what about all those members who do not live in the South East and although able to spare the time for the meetings could not spare the time to travel for several hours there and back to London?

I think there is a real risk here of excluding people who would be very good on the FPC purely for geographical reasons. I also think that as a party we are risking our policy making process being too dominated by people from London and the South East and hence there being a London-centric bias in the way decisions are taken.

I should make it clear that this is just based on concerns of mine. I do not have direct evidence of what I have outlined above in terms of bias and unbalance. It just seems like ensuring that the focus is so London based is taking a bit of a risk. Especially for a party that is so committed to devolving power.

I don't have a specific solution to this but here are a few suggestions:

1) The meetings could sometimes be held in different places. Perhaps every other meeting could be held somewhere else, e.g. Birmingham, Manchester, Glasgow etc. That way it would be easier for people outside of London to attend some of them and hence make it more likely that they would feel able to run in the first place. It would also mean those living the the South East would have to do more of the leg-work.

2) Use technology to help ease the problem. Skype can be used to do video-conferences nowadays. We use it in our business and it works very well. It can only be used for free between two locations but that could potentially mean that say some of the meeting participants could be say in Newcastle and some in London. If there were big enough screens being used on a decent fast connection then this could actually work well. It is also possible to pay for better technological solutions which would allow more than two locations to be used in this way although I can understand that cost issues may militate against these

3) This one will be controversial but an option might be to base the FPC in another place altogether which is more central. Perhaps somewhere in Derbyshire would fit this sort of bill as I think the "most central place in the UK" is in that county. The BBC has moved a good chunk of its production to Manchester, perhaps we could be in the vanguard of doing this for a political party?

It could also be a combination of all three of these things.

I expect there will be objections to all of these suggestions, some of them will be fair ones no doubt. But I think we need to ask ourselves what sort of party we want to be. I am uncomfortable with the idea that we may be excluding people from our policy making process who would be very good but cannot do so because they live too far away from London.

I think we should at least be trying to make it easier for people to get involved to ensure that the process has the best chance of reflecting the diversity of people within our party.

Monday 19 July 2010

BBC News iPad app not available in the UK - unjustifiable

Recently I have been trying to find a good general news app for my shiny new iPad. There are a few out there but what I really wanted was something that provides content of the quality of the BBC News website in an iPad friendly form. Unfortunately I could not find a BBC News iPad app when I looked.

Imagine my bemusement then when I discovered today that there actually is such an app and it has been (unsurprisingly) downloaded over a million times globally but that it is not available in the UK. Apparently the BBC Trust is worried that it might hurt the domestic commercial media market.

This is surely unjustifiable. It is the BBC. That first B stands for British. How can it be right that the rest of the world has a nice application to get BBC news content on the premier tablet computer platform and yet in the country where the license fee is levied that pays for the gathering of this content we are denied it?

Why does this same rule not apply to the BBC website for example? Surely that competes with things like subscriptions for The Times online and the Financial Times' paid for digital offering?

In my view, either the BBC releases this app in the UK, or it withdraws it altogether. It is totally unacceptable for the rest of the world to have access to this whilst we in Britain do not.

Coalition survival sweepstake

I had a bet with someone yesterday about how long the coalition government will last. They were convinced that it would not go beyond the end of May 2011. I on the other hand expect it to go the full distance and to end on 7th May 2015 as the government has indicated.

It made me think however that it might be fun to have a sweepstake type thing (albeit you don't need to pay any money in). Just pop the date upon which you think the coalition government will end in the comments below, along with your reason(s) why it will not last beyond that date. The winner will be the one who gets closest to the actual date. They will be lauded as predicting King/Queen of the internets and I will also provide a prize.

Because the date the government has already stipulated is 7th May 2015, you are not allowed to pick it and if it does go the full distance then this sweepstake is off. It is only for dates that fall outside the official timetable.

You should also note that there does not need to be a general election for the government to end. It is possible that the Queen will not grant a dissolution in the event of government collapse. We are just looking for the date that this particular government in its current form (i.e. combination of Conservatives and Lib Dems) ceases to be. If the PM and/or Deputy PM change but remain from the current parties (Tory for PM, LD for DPM) then this will not be considered the end of the coalition.

I will close the comments after a week as I do not want "predictions" popping in there in a year or two's time perhaps when it has become obvious that things have changed quite radically!

Good luck.

Sunday 18 July 2010

I am a guest on David Mellor's LBC show today from 12noon

I will be on LBC from 12noon today with former Conservative cabinet minister David Mellor 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.

Saturday 17 July 2010

Zac Goldsmith needs to handle the media better than this

The blogs and Twitter were ablaze last night with talk of Zac Goldsmith's interview with Jon Snow on Channel 4 News last night.

He had been invited on to discuss allegations about his election expenses in Richmond Park. However the encounter turned into a bit of a car crash for Goldsmith when he spent the first six and a half minutes of the interview repeatedly accusing Channel 4 of having lied about arrangements for previous interviews.

Here is the encounter:

I am not an expert on electoral law but having read a number of posts about this it looks like Goldsmith might have some questions to answer about expenditure on jackets, posters and use of vehicles.

But of course that is not what was so bad about the interview. It was the way he tried to focus it on the apparent behaviour of Channel 4.

I am sure that Goldsmith felt wronged by the channel. They deny his allegations but he clearly wanted to try and put his side of the story about when he was and wasn't available for interview. The mistake he made was in repeatedly pursuing this for several minutes. The viewer is not really interested in that, they want to know about the allegations regarding his election expenses. If he had spent 30 seconds or a minute on his gripe I expect most people would have thought it was fair enough. Instead he ended up spending well over half the interview on it and it is clear that Snow had to extend the time allotted to accommodate this as well.

The problem is that the performance makes Goldsmith look arrogant in my eyes and of many others who watched it. In the end I was cringing, willing him to move on to the substance and stop arguing about the minutiae of how an interview was or was not agreed previously. It allows his opponents to claim he was trying to obfuscate about the substantive allegations against him. It also looks like he is more concerned about a personal slight regarding the timing of an interview than his election expenses.

I know from personal experience that Zac Goldsmith can be very charming and a good communicator. It is a shame that on this occasion he misjudged the situation and has left himself open to these charges. Far from clearing things up it has made them even worse for him.

I suspect he will be mortified about this and will have to rethink how he handles the media in future.

Friday 16 July 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 Boing Boing piece which explains how renowned poo expert Gillian McKeith got herself into a spot of bother with Bad Science author Ben Goldacre on Twitter.

Everyone is a liar apart from Ed Balls apparently

Ed Balls was the Labour leadership contender guest last night on BBC's This Week programme (viewable here for the next week or so - see 24:45 onwards for 5 minutes).

Andrew Neil gave him a grilling about his behaviour as referenced in various memoirs and political books including those by Alastair Campbell, Andrew Rawnsley and Anthony Seldon. In each case it tended to be related to how badly behaved Balls had been and also how rude and disrespectful he was alleged to have been to Tony Blair. It was also about how he was supposed to have been involved in the plot to oust Blair in 2006.

Balls' response was to flatly deny every one of the several allegations put to him by Neil and alleged by the various authors. When pressed as to whether those writing these books were lying he even said yes a few times. So effectively what Ed Balls is saying that within a number of recent memoirs/books from a number of different (in some cases very widely respected) authors allegations about him are complete lies.

When things are denied by active politicians from memoirs, I always find it funny how many of them turn out to eventually be true when the record is written by their contemporaries and even their friends. The dysfunctional relationship between Blair and Brown was always poo-poohed by the protagonists themselves and spinners like Campbell and Mandelson and yet, lo and behold when their books come out they are jam packed with examples of how the rumours were largely true. We have even seen recently that some of the allegations in Rawnsley's book "The End of the Party" that only a few months ago Mandelson was being deployed to silkily deny are now confirmed by his own tome.

I am afraid that I find Ed Balls' contention that he is telling the truth and everyone else is a liar difficult to swallow. And the more books that come out claiming these things, the less and less credible his position will be.

No wonder so many of Labour's opponents want Balls to win the contest to succeed Brown.

Thursday 15 July 2010

BBC Question Time Live Chat - 15th July 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 Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude, shadow health secretary Andy Burnham, former Respect MP George Galloway, Labour activist Sally Bercow, and the broadcaster Nick Ferrari.

Join us below from 10:30pm:

Sara Bedford and Paul Evans on House of Comments - Episode 34

The latest "House of Comments" podcast with myself and Stuart Sharpe of the Sharpe's Opinion blog is now live. The 34th episode which we recorded on Tuesday 13th July 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 Sara Bedford of the Lib Dem “Always win when you’re singing” blog and Labour blogger Paul Evans from “Never trust a hippy“.

We discussed the Labour party and how it needs to position itself in relation to the coalition as well as raking over its history in office. We also discussed Paul’s new “Political Innovation” initiative which seeks to bring together political bloggers from all parties under a common purpose.

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

Three reasons why Dave will not cut and run

Featured on Liberal Democrat Voice

There has been some speculation that given recent polls, David Cameron might consider ditching the coalition and going to the country again to try and get a mandate of his own. The Sun triggered more of this yesterday by explicitly asking in a tweet whether the highest poll ratings all year for the Tories (43%) with the Lib Dems languishing on 15% could persuade them to call a snap election to ditch the yellows.

Here are three reasons why this just will not happen in increasing order of importance:

1) It's not just the Tories who are up. Labour is also up to 34%, 5 or so percentage points above its election day level of 29%. Although on a uniform national swing this would give the Tories a majority of around 26, that is hardly resounding and it would only take the polls to deviate a little from these levels for even that slender majority to be at risk. In fact within the margin of error, if Labour went up to 37% and the Tories dropped to 40% Labour would be the largest single party. Prime Ministers just do not go to the country and risk it all so soon in a parliament in these sort of circumstances.
2) Cameron has gone very far out of his way to say time and again that he actively wants the coalition for the good of the country. Although it was a surprise to some straight after the election that he started talking like this he has gained many plaudits and is seen as a much more consensual and pragmatic politician. This has led to huge rises in his personal approval rating. How would he explain another sudden change, this time without the pragmatic necessity of dumping the coalition and going for electoral broke?
3) Most importantly, these polling figures would likely turn out to be will-o'-the-wisp. Yes the Tories are on 43% but that is with David Cameron as perceived through the filter of all the things I mentioned in point 2. If he was to ditch the coalition then suddenly, far from being a sensible leader putting the needs of the country first he would appear to be just another politician doing the dirty on his coalition partners for no apparent reason in order to capitalise on a poll bounce. I would fully expect the Tory ratings to fall in those circumstances, perhaps quite a long way. One corollary is that the Lib Dems may benefit from this and gain some percentage points out of sympathy as the "wronged" partner. Labour would almost certainly benefit though.

David Cameron is far too smart and canny a politician to fall into this trap. I fully expect the coalition to continue for a good while longer irrespective of where the polls go.

Wednesday 14 July 2010

My iBooks hell!

I got my shiny new iPad a few weeks ago and one of the applications on it that I thought I would try and use properly in the next few weeks is iBooks. It allows you to purchase copies of books that you can then read in a fairly stylish interface in either portrait or landscape mode. It certainly seemed like something that could be very useful when I go away on holiday. After all I will be taking the iPad anyway so if I could take my holiday reading away with me in digital form then it would take up no space.

I was disappointed however to discover that the book I really wanted to read on holiday this year was not available at all on iBooks. It is "Prelude to Power" by Alastair Campbell.

Another one I wanted to take away with me was "The End of the Party" by Andrew Rawnsley. I noted that I could purchase it from for £12.50. I then looked on iBooks and discovered that I could get a digital copy for the grand total of £15.99! That's right, a digital copy with virtually non-existent physical production, shipping and distribution costs is £3.49 more expensive than a physical copy. You know, that I can then pass onto a friend when I have finished with if I wish unlike with a digital copy. Oh and that won't become useless in a few years time when the standards all change (again). Bizarre. In the end I just bought a hardback copy from Amazon, being unable to justify paying substantially more for a digital copy.

I was even more surprised to discover something else this week. I was in Tesco and noticed a new paperback from Stephen King called "Under the Dome" on special offer. I have not read any Stephen King books for years however the premise sounded quite interesting and I thought for a change I might get a copy to take away with me. I stopped short of buying it though as I felt sure that such a hugely popular author with a book that is already out in paperback would have a copy on iBooks. Not so. When I checked it is not on there. I also checked the publication date - November 2009, so that is 8 months they have had to get it on the portal.

I expect there are licensing problems with authors and publishing companies. That may well be why two of the three books I wanted are not available on iBooks. It may be that this is not Apple's fault at all and that they would really like to have them available but are being thwarted.
I also do not know the rationale behind pricing a digital copy of a book even higher than the price you pay for a paper-based copy but perhaps there is a good explanation for that too (although I very much doubt it).

But irrespective of all of this the net result is that of the three books I thought I might get for my iPad for holiday reading the total number I actually got is zero.

Something tells me that the end of paper based books is a very long way away.

Tuesday 13 July 2010

Political blogging and the 10,000 hour rule

Last year I read a book called "Outliers" by the sociological writer Malcolm Gladwell. The book examines the factors that contribute to extraordinary levels of success. It is a fascinating read (as other Gladwell books generally are too) and one of the factors that he keeps returning to is what he calls the "10,000 hour rule". This says that in order to truly master a particular field you need to have 10,000 hours of experience in it.

He gives numerous examples. The two that stick in my mind are Bill Gates and The Beatles.

In the case of Gates because of his specific family connections he was able to get programming time on a computer overnight in the early 1970s which he did for a number of years. Of course he needed the drive and commitment to take advantage of this opportunity that virtually no other teenagers in the world at that time would have had. It meant that by the time he dropped out of college to set up Microsoft he had at least 10,000 hours of programming time under his belt, far more than pretty much all of his contemporaries. So far from Gates being particularly extraordinary it was more a combination of drive, natural talent and a great opportunity.

In the case of The Beatles, when they broke through in 1963 they had been playing together since 1956 as first The Quarrymen and then from 1960 The Beatles. They had tonnes of experience not least from repeated residencies at a club in Hamburg where they would play for hours on end. All this experience ultimately led to them honing their skills to the point where they were one of the best bands in the world just at the point when they hit the big time. Like Gates they were very talented but it was a combination of that and all that experience peaking at the right time that really helped push them into the big time.

Anyway, I was thinking about how this 10,000 hour rule might apply to my political blogging. Before I continue I should make it clear that I am not saying I am the Bill Gates or John Lennon of political blogging (that's for others to say ;))! There is just something about Gladwell's rule that seems to chime a little with my experiences.

I first got interested in politics in 1990 around the age of 16. My family were always interested in political events when I was growing up (from the left of the spectrum) and I then studied British Government and Politics at A-Level. Since then I have been a fairly avid follower of politics in the media and through things like reading political biographies etc. It has varied over the years. For example when I was at university I didn't usually get a newspaper but I did regularly watch the political TV programmes and listen to some of the radio programmes. Once I graduated in 1995 and then got into the world of work I did more regularly read newspapers and continued to follow politics without getting directly involved myself. By 2000 with the advent of the internet I was able to start reading more political coverage and opinion online which I generally did at lunchtime and in the evenings. Once blogging really got going a few years back I also started reading them.

So by the time I started political blogging myself in 2008 I had 18 years experience of reading about and (closely observing) politics, especially political opinion pieces of varying sorts in my spare time. I reckon if you added all of that time up it is probably not far off 10,000 hours. Admittedly most of it was just absorbing the information rather than getting actively involved or even writing anything myself but for example I must have read thousands of political opinion pieces from across the political spectrum over the years.

And what I have found is that once I actually started trying to write opinion pieces myself it seemed to come fairly naturally. I appeared to understand how to structure pieces of varying lengths with little tricks like making references to analogies or similar situations to the thrust of the piece and then back referencing this at the end to round it off. Nobody has ever taught me this, I have just picked it up by osmosis (of course some will say this is a lazy hack way of doing things but hey ho). I have also closely followed political events for the last 20 years. It means that often I can draw parallels or make comparisons between things that I actually remember happening.

I should clarify that I am really not trying to blow my own trumpet here. I am certainly not the best political blogger out there by any stretch. There are plenty who I consider far better than me and to whom I aspire to get anywhere near! I am merely trying to highlight how something that appeared at first to come naturally to me, in the end is far more likely to have been a result of many years of study and exposure to the world of politics and opinion. Throughout those years I had no idea that I was on a path that would lead to me becoming a political blogger. Indeed there was no such thing until a few years ago! Instead it was just something I was/am passionate about and slowly but surely I have built up a wealth of experience and knowledge that I regularly find myself drawing on.

I do think there is something in Gladwell's rule. I have also noticed in my professional career as a software engineer that there was a point about 8 years in when I really hit my stride and was finding that the software development challenges I faced were being solved more quickly. If you look at the amount of time I had spent programming professionally in my career it would have been hitting around 10,000 hours at roughly that point.

I am sceptical enough to know that this rule will not always apply. I also expect there are people who are just naturally gifted and talented at certain things and although putting in a good amount of effort will help they will already have a head start.

It's nice for the rest of us to know however that dividends can be reaped by putting in the effort, even if we don't always know that is what we are doing.